Why Were We Going to Valladolid Again?
Have you ever reached that point on a longer trip where it doesn’t seem like fun anymore? You’re mildly irritated, tired and just want to sleep in your own bed. That’s how we felt coming into Valladolid. (We didn’t yet know about Casa de los Venados or Ek Balam.)
By then, we had been travelling for three weeks. In general, everything was going well, Marlene had recovered from the effects of the sand flea bites, and the weather for each day was a spectacular, sunny and 30C.
More than once we had contemplated extending our trip. “It only costs $50 to change our flights,” became a leitmotif.
But as we were driving to Valladolid, Marlene asked why we were going there. Oh sure, another Spanish-built Yucatan city, but what was so special? I couldn’t remember. I just know when we were planning, I had read about Valladolid, put it on the list and we had hotel reservations there.
Driving in Through the Ragged Part of Valladolid
Our route into Valladolid took us through very scruffy suburbs. We were getting less and less enchanted, but I had to remind myself that the suburbs of many cities, take Paris for example, weren’t very inspiring either.
Then came the challenge of figuring out where our hotel was. Like many Yucatan cities, the streets were all numbers, which should make it easy, but most of them were one-way so we ended driving around blocks to find a street going in the right direction.
Once in central part of the city, we were getting exasperated. Finally, we decided we must be close to the hotel. We parked the car, and set out on foot to first locate the hotel and then figure out how to get there.
The Joys of a Wonderful Hotel in Valladolid
We were a few blocks away, and within five minutes were standing at the reception desk.
That’s when the hotel saved us, changing our moods instantly. The elegant El Mesón del Marqués hotel is a classic, right on the main square, across from the cathedral. It’s built around two courtyards – the one in the back surrounds the swimming pool, while the central courtyard serves as the indoor / outdoor restaurant with a triple-decker fountain in the middle.
The pool was under a canopy of trees that had orange blossoms which occasionally fell into the water. Usually you want to get leaves and debris out of the pool, but this felt like some kind of spa treatment.
Rooms are accessed via outdoor corridors and ours was right at the end on the second floor overlooking the pool. That meant we could leave our door and windows open, with no one walking by. It was the perfect place to relax and enjoy the spring heat.
We loved the courtyard restaurant, and judging from people coming in from the street, it was obviously a favorite of locals as well as hotel guests. We had all of our breakfasts there since they were included, and found ourselves coming back for other meals too. Valladolid prides itself on local specialties which were highlighted on the extensive menu. The beer was cold and once again we were in heaven.
Light Show on the Convent Walls
When we checked in, reception gave us a map and highlighted “things to do”. One of them was to walk down Calle 41-A out of the main square to the convent. The street is where some of Valladolid’s nicer shops and restaurants are located. At the end, is the Convent of San Bernardino de Siena next to the church, Iglesia de San Bernardino de Siena.
Both were open for touring and have a history that goes back to 1552. In fact, these were Yucatan’s first ecclesiastical buildings. Over the years, through the uprisings and revolutions that swept through Mexico, they’ve seen many uses and were close to being demolished at one time.
Now the convent is essentially a museum, while the church is still operational.
It was suggested that we return the following night for a light show on the convent walls. It was spectacular, across hundreds of feet of wall with dazzling animations. It told the story of the region from earliest times, through Mayan centuries, the arrival of the Spanish up to modern times. Valladolid, thinking of the tourists, even had one with English-language voice over after the Spanish version.
It was obviously written by someone from the Chamber of Commerce extolling the area, but none-the-less, extremely entertaining.
Valladolid’s #1 Attraction? Casa de los Venados – A Private Home
Just off the square is a private home that you could easily walk by 100 times without noticing. It’s the typical “plain on the outside, showboat on the inside” style of Yucatan houses.
Known as Casa de los Venados (House of the Deer), it is an expansive home built around a large open courtyard that leads to a breathtaking swimming pool and then further living accommodation. Only after standing across the street and really looking at the home from a ¾ angle do you realize how big it really is.
Casa de los Venados exhibits the largest private collection of museum-quality Mexican folk art. With over 3,000 pieces, the entire house is an ever-changing work of art.
Everything including furniture, sculptures, paintings, lighting, piñatas is made by Mexican artisans.
The home is owned and occupied by a retired American couple who renovated it from when it was basically abandoned and in very poor condition. When we toured, the owners were there, but were busy so we didn’t have a chance to say hello. I wondered how they got used to the notion of people going through their home, but it seems to work for them.
Casa de los Venados is open most days between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. for guided tours, with a donation requested to help local charities.
The guide knew the collection well, pointing out the towns or regions of origin for many pieces and naming the artists.
The collection was magnificent. My only wish was that we could have spent more time, to ask more questions and take more photos.
Ek Balam, A Most Unusual Mayan Ruin
Just 20 minutes north of Valladolid, lies the Mayan ruin of Ek Balam, “the black jaguar”, once one of the most powerful Mayan cities.
This is an interesting Mayan site for many reasons. Although it was rediscovered in the late 1800s, it was mapped out a hundred years later, and has only been open to the public since 1997. Work at the site is ongoing. Like many Mayan sites, much of it has yet to be excavated.
Secondly, the decoration of Ek Balam’s facades are distinctive – they’re not carved stone, like Uxmal or Chichen Itza, but rather, applied with stucco and limestone mortar. There are also unique statues unlike other sites. You can clearly see hair braids, loin cloth patterns and skulls carved into the belts of warriors.
Also, Ek Balam is the largest site that has walls built around it, which seem to have been for defensive purposes. Although Mayans didn’t wage all-out wars, they did go on raiding parties, conquering other cities. But, looking at the walls, they’re only a few feet high, so we wondered how effective they would have been.
Climb the El Torre Pyramid and Face the Monster
To see the best of decorations, statues and sculptures, you have to climb El Torre, the tower. The Tower houses the tomb of Ek Balam’s powerful ruler Ukil-Kan-Lek-Tok, the highest official during the city’s peak in 800 A.D.
From the top of El Torre, you get a panoramic view over the site and the jungle surroundings.
Ek Balam Highlights:
- Ek Balam is just 51 kilometers from Chichen Itza and may have been conquered by them.
- Only the center square mile of Ek Balam has been excavated. Like many other Mayan sites, there is still much to uncover.
- 45 structures have been mapped, but not all have been excavated.
- Ek Balam was active for about 1,000 years and at its peak from 770 to 840.
- There is a cenote at Ek Balam, so if you want to cool down, bring your bathing suit.
Is Valladolid for You?
You’ll like Valladolid if you’re looking for:
- A traditional Spanish city in the Yucatan built around a central square with the cathedral on one side
- A good jumping off point for Mayan sites Chichen Itza to the south and Ek Balam to the north
- A choice of sophisticated restaurants and shops, once you find them
- A superlative collection of Mexican folk art
Back Where We Started in Puerto Morelos
Our Mexican road trip was coming to an end. From Valladolid, it was an easy drive to Puerto Morelos for three days of beach time, before heading for the airport in Cancun.
But that gave me enough time to knock one more item off the bucket list.
For years, ever since we’ve had Caribbean vacations, I’ve wanted to go scuba diving, but for some reason, never did. With a well-reviewed dive shop right in the hotel, I was determined this time would be it.
I signed up, and the next day I was watching the introductory scuba video. Then it was time to get fitted for a wet suit along with weights, vest, tank, fins and mask. Since I was the only one on this trip, I had one-on-one training with my Australian dive instructor. First, we spent about a half hour in the swimming pool. After getting comfortable breathing only through my mouth (not as easy as you might think), learning the hand signals, we got into the dive boat heading for the wall of the reef.
It was like swimming in a big aquarium. I’d been snorkeling before, but never down among the colorful fish, lobsters, coral and waves of sea grasses. Learning the proper breathing technique was interesting (if your lungs are full of air you start rising to the surface; exhale and you start sinking). After about 40 minutes we headed for the surface. A great experience. I’ll do that again!
On our last night in Mexico, we ate upstairs on the square at Punta Corcho – a little more expensive than most other places in town, but wonderful food, much of it done in their wood-fired oven. A great way to wrap it up.
If you’re in Puerto Morelos on a Sunday night, be sure to head down to the square for free live entertainment. We caught a very hip big jazz band, followed by drummers accompanied by fire jugglers. The square was full of craft vendors and snack food stalls. The crepe stand had a constant line-up.
The next morning, it was just enough time for breakfast, drop off the car at the airport and back to reality. A great month in the Yucatan. We’ll be back!
Mexico Road Trip Stories, Parts 1, 2, 3 and a Special Post on Izamal
Here’s the first part of our Mexico road trip which took us from Puerto Morelos, to Izamal and Mérida.
In part two of our Mexico road trip, we head for the flamingos at the dusty town beach of Celestún and then south to the walled city of Campeche.
In part three, walk among the Maya with us as we explore Uxmal and the four surrounding Mayan ruins.
Here’s a special post just on Izamal. Why did they paint much of Izamal bright yellow? Find out. You’ll never guess.
Planning your Mexican Road Trip?
With all of the information on the Internet, we still like to have a guide book as reference. Our favorites are the Lonely Planet books. Have a look at the Lonely Planet Mexico books here. They’re available both hardcover and digital.
If you’re planning on staying Airbnb for the first time, click here to take advantage of our special discount which gives you the equivalent of $50 CDN off your first visit.
If you’re planning to stay in a hotel, look here for up to date best prices for hotels in Valladolid.
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