For the Yucatan peninsula’s third largest city, Valladolid feels beautifully quiet and tranquil. Like a mini-Merida but more low-key. The tour buses sometimes stop here en route from Cancun to Chichen Itza and for around an hour in the afternoon the main plaza becomes a frenzy of tourist activity before quickly returning to the peaceful Valladolid that we were familiar with.
Valladolid is a brilliant base for exploring nearby attractions and we stayed there for two main reasons, firstly to be close to the ruins at Chichen Itza and, secondly, to explore some of the cenotes that the Yucatan is so famous for. Exciting!
Just like Merida, something tended to be going on in the main square each night. We were particularly amazed by a dance we had seen several times which involved balancing bottles and cups of water on your head while doing vigorous dancing.
When we looked up the origins of the dance the only thing I could find was that it originated from the time of the Spanish invasion where the Spaniards forced the Mayan people to dance for them – balancing bottles of beer and alcohol on their heads. Very sad. After knowing this the dance sort of lost its charm for us….(we really hope there is another explanation).
No trip to a a new place is complete for us without a trip to the municipal market…
…and the local food court….!
We also found a little chocolate factory ‘CACAO’ where they gave us a variety of tasters of their chocolate and we even managed to have a couple of hot chocolates in their cafe (drunk out of half a dried gourd of course!) This seemed fitting as the history of chocolate started in Mesoamerica, often drunk with fermented beverages, from as early as 1900 BC. Chocolate was so important it was also often used as currency!
To try and escape the heat we spent one day exploring some local cenotes. Cenotes are natural swimming holes formed by the collapse of limestone bedrock, these cenotes are often connected by immense underwater caverns and maze-like waterways. Interestingly the Yucatan only has subterranean waterways, no above ground rivers or streams. The water in the cenotes are generally cool, clear and mineral rich – and if you are lucky you might find a few fish who will nibble your toes!
The Mayans worshipped cenotes because they were a water source in dry times – the name ‘cenote’ means ‘sacred well’. Settlements were often built around the cenotes and they took on a spiritual significance – as portals to speak with the gods and the remains of sacrifices (bones, jewellery and pottery) were often found in their depths.
After a visiting a few it was easy to see their draw – huge, awe inspiring places with a real other-worldly feel.
We explored 3 different cenotes, Cenote Zaci, in the centre of Valladolid and two a few miles out of town called Cenotes Xkeken and Samula. Each involved climbing down underground but each with a very different feel…
However, our original main purpose for coming to Valladolid was to be close to Chichen Itza so that we could be there nice and early to beat the crowds and the heat. This was to be Ryan’s first Mayan ruins and I was very excited to be visiting with him.
Chichen Itza’s name means ‘the well at the mouth of Itza’ supposedly referring to the revered Cenote Sagrado onsite. It is a UNESCO heritage site and the second most visited Mayan ruin site in Mexico (after Teotihuacan near Mexico City).
Amongst many other smaller temples and sacrificial platforms, Chichen Itza is also home to the largest Mayan ballcourt (168×70 meters), where ‘Pok A Tok’ was played. This game was very dangerous – most notably because the captain of the losing team would be decapitated post-match. This was considered to be a great honor because of the games importance and spiritual significance. However, winning was not easy as the ‘goals’ – tiny stone rings high up on the court walls – were almost impossible to achieve and games could last days with no clear winner!
We loved walking around the Chichen Itza site and was grateful with the relative cool of the early morning. We fortunately left just as the crowds started to pour in.
After a few days it was time to leave Valladolid and head back to the coast for a final few days of beach time before heading back up to Cancun…. and finally…. home!