Story and photos by Susanna Starr
For no more reason than just curiosity to see what kind of jewelry was being offered in Valladolid, we decided to make a day trip from our home in Bacalar, Quintana Roo, in Mexico’s southernmost part of the Yucatan Peninsula. We drove on the north-south highway from Chetumal to Cancun (or vice versa, naturally, if you’re leaving from Cancun) and drove as far as Tulum before turning off on the road to Coba. We left early enough to arrive in Valladolid by lunchtime.
I first started exploring this area of the Yucatan in 1973 when it was still relatively undiscovered. Although I probably had passed through the town once or twice during the intervening years, my memories were of the first time that I was there and I was now interested in seeing not only the jewelry, but what the town was like. I had heard that tourist buses now came to the zocolo, and I wasn’t sure of what I would find in the way of development, since so many of the areas that were so well known to me had undergone some pretty major changes.
What I remembered most about Valladolid was the market. It was here that we bought the traditional huraches (sandals) with hand made leather straps and soles crafted from used tires. We bought the girls colorful huipiles (blouses), called ropa tipica (traditional clothing) and for me, a longer one that I wore, as all the women in the area did and still do, as their everyday dress. They’re usually trimmed out with an embroidered petticoat that falls just below the hem, but I decided to westernize mine a little by just wearing it as a dress. We also bought some kind of nicely embroidered shirt for our small son. This clothing is still to be found in the market today, along with beautiful rebozos (shawls) and hand made Yucatecan hammocks, just to mention a few things.
Speaking of my son, there was an incident that took place on that visit. The early evening hour found many locals strolling around the zocolo which featured a beautiful statue of a woman in traditional huipil, holding her pots. Although she was memorable, the thing that really stood out in my mind was the incident involving Roy, who apparently was swinging on an iron gate and fell. Since we weren’t hard to identify, someone soon came running to find us to let us know what had happened to our four-year old, who he held in his arms. We were not viewed only as the rare tourist, but as a family with children that they could identify with. Tourists are a lot more common now, but everyone still strolls around the Zocolo, stopping off to visit with the “lady of the pots.” Although local children are more than familiar with her, they still like to hang out in her presence
This time we went back as partial Quintanaroenses (people from the state of Quintana Roo, pronounced kintana row). We had a lovely traditional lunch at the large restaurant on the zocolo that we remembered from so many years ago, at the Hotel Meson del Marques. Although none of us ordered Valladolid’s claim to fame, the famous sausage called chorizo, we enjoyed the escabeche (chicken stewed with onions and tomatoes). Then we checked out the jewelry stores, walked briefly around the zocolo and found, much to my delight, that we were the only tourists there. It’s possible that buses arrive from Merida from time to time, but we found no evidence of them while we were there, although I know they do arrive periodically.
Instead, what we did find was a charming Mexican town where people leisurely stroll the streets as well as gather in the zocolo. We stopped off to visit the various newly opened up-scale shops. One of them was the new organic chocolate shop called the Mayan Chocolate Factory that sold their own hand made chocolates. There you can view the Maya women making the chocolate from centuries-old recipes as they work behind a glass wall. The chocolates are highly creative in their flavors and the people connected with the business are beyond gracious in their enthusiasm to show you around and let you sample the chocolates.
There’s also Dutzi Design that features local hand-made bags and Coqui Coqui Perfumes with their extravagant array of boutique scents from the Yucatan. A lovely garden in the back houses their day spa. All three of these new shops are located in the same neighborhood, one of the many around the city. Just walking around is a delight for the senses, passing old colonial architecture with cobble stoned streets in one area and small private homes in other areas. There are still thatched roof huts set back from the street while lovely old mansions are shielded by walls draped in outrageously brilliant bougainvillea.
If it’s architecture you’re interested in, you’ll love all the examples of 18th, 19th and early 20th century buildings and the seven churches and many museums will require several hours to really appreciate what they have to offer. Many of the buildings are centuries old and reflect the fine colonial architecture of their time. The San Bernadino Convent and the Government Palace Murals need to be included on the “must see” list.
And, if it’s food that figures uppermost on your mind, Valladolid is a center of some of the most wonderful dishes of the region, featuring longaniza (sausage) often served with scrambled eggs), cochinita pibil (barbecued pork, originally cooked in banana leaves overnight in a deep pit) or lomitos de Valladolid (pork in fresh tomato sauce).
Another highlight of any visit to this charming city with its blend of traditional Maya and Spanish colonial, is the relatively new Casa de los Venados. When John Venator and his wife were looking for place to house their fine and extensive folk art collection that they had acquired throughout their many trips throughout Mexico, they settled on an old hacienda in Valladolid, just a block off the central Zocolo (center of town). Taking years of restoration, they now have a home and museum that is truly noteworthy, and their reputation is deservedly known throughout the world, thanks to visitors and residents of the Yucatan Peninsula who sing their praises and bring their friends. Their collection is truly astounding and virtually every wall is covered with a remarkable treasure of folk art. In their courtyards are fine sculptures, both old and new and in the various rooms, paintings, wood carvings and fabulous furniture complement each other, although each piece deserves individual attention. It is an obvious labor of love both in the acquisition and in their showcasing some of Mexico’s richest folk art heritage.
Known as the setting for the Caste War in 1847 and the spark for the Mexican Revolution in 1910, Valladolid has a rich and interesting history. For that it has become designated a “Pueblo Magico” – an historical city of great importance to the country and one to be preserved as such. Just half an hour from the well known archeological sites of Chichen Itza and Ek Balam and two hours away from both Merida and Cancun, it is also just an hour from the beautiful beach town of Tulum on the Caribbean coast, making it accessible from just about anywhere in the Yucatan Peninsula.
It’s now easy to stay in Valladolid with lodging ranging from very affordable to somewhat luxurious. It deserves a few days to explore the city, but its outlying attractions of cenotes and archeological sites should definitely be included in the visit. If you’re familiar only with Cancun and Merida as the premier destinations in the Yucatan Peninsula, a visit to Valladolid is sure to give you a different appreciation and a completely different view of the real Yucatan.
If You Go:
La Selva Mariposa a small B and B about an hour away