Valladolid, Mexico: Two nights in a charming Spanish colonial city in the jungle of the Yucatan Peninsula in 2016. An artsy eco-hotel, lots of history, and a day trip to Rio Lagartos and Ek Balam
Valladolid is an often overlooked Spanish Colonial town in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Most tourists spend their time in the beach towns of Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, and Tulum. While Valladolid isn’t on the beach, it has a lot to offer. In addition to it’s Spanish colonial history and architecture, it is a prime location for touring Mayan ruins in the area. If Mayan Ruins and history are of interest to you, you might consider a few nights in Valladolid. Tours to the ruins from the coast involve hours on a bus with lots of other tourists. Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, and Coba are all very close to Valladolid and make for easy day trips. In addition to ruins, the flamingos and wildlife of Rio Lagartos are also an easy day tour away.
When we reflected on our last trip to the Yucatan, we wished that we had made more time for Valladolid. We will absolutely be back again.
We left Isla Holbox in the early morning and had pre-arranged a private taxi from the Isla Holbox ferry to Valladolid through our hotel on Isla Holbox. Buses are possible, but would take the whole day. (It is easy to get a bus from Cancun to Valladolid, however if that is where you are coming from). The drive to Valladolid with our driver Pedro was smooth. He spoke about as much English as I spoke Spanish (un poco), but we were able to make small talk during the 2.5 hour drive. We drove through his hometown and by his family farm on the way, and he told us about the crocodiles and jaguars in the area. It sounds like farmers may not want to leave livestock out at night.
Finally, we arrived in Valladolid, which is a tangled mess of streets all with numbers as names. Our hotel was on Calle 30, of which there were two on the map. With the help of Google Maps and my map from the hotel, Pedro and I navigated us through the busy Spanish colonial town to Hotel Zentik Project.
Hotel Zentik Project isn’t the cheapest place to stay in Valladolid (rooms are about $110/night USD), but from what I saw in my research, it is one of the most unique.
We were greeted by Guillermo, a young hipster wearing a stylish scarf in the 85 degree heat. Guillermo provided outstanding hospitality during our stay. We were told to sit and offered a complimentary beverage (we opted for coffee and water, but tequila was also offered). Guillermo showed us around the property, which is only 8 months old. The hotel is designed to be an on-going art project, with murals going up by artists from all over the world at any given time.
There was a very inviting outdoor pool, but the prize gem of the Hotel is their underground heated saltwater cave pool.
Guillermo showed us two rooms, an upstairs one with a gorgeous bed with mosquito netting that was suspended from the ceiling by four ropes, making the bed into a swing. The other room looked similar, but with a traditional platform bed on the ground floor. While the swing bed was very pretty and unique, we weren’t so into the idea of the bed moving around, so we opted for the ground floor room.
The room was large with a separate sitting area and a large, firm bed. I had come down with a mild cold the night before, and wanted to crawl right in.
We were pretty hungry and I was feeling a bit drained from my cold, so we decided to head into town for lunch and then come back and get some massages and relax. Guillermo was happy to book some massages for us at 4:00 PM at very reasonable prices–$30 USD for an hour massage and $25 USD for an hour foot massage.
We walked the mile into town and checked in with MexiGo Tours for our tour that we had booked for the next day, and then went in search of lunch and an ATM. We located a bank right in the central square, and then decided to check out Guillermo’s recommendation of the Meson del Marques hotel restaurant in the square. When we arrived at the front entrance Meson del Marques was full of tour groups and not looking very enticing. We walked back across the square and went to the El Atrio del Mayab. Guillermo said he did not recommend this restaurant but Tripadvisor’s reviews were good, so we went for it.
We were seated in a nice shady courtyard, and service was very attentive. We ordered some “Mayan margaritas” which had cucumber and chili and were very refreshing. I was in the mood for a clear brothy soup because of my cold, and the sopa de lima (lime soup–a very typical Yucatecan dish) really hit the spot. Paddy’s pork dish ended up being one of his favorite meals on our entire trip.
After lunch we admired the old Spanish colonial era cathedral in the town square, and I was able to buy some vitamin C tablets and Halls cough drops from the little farmacia in the square before heading back to the hotel. The town is very interesting and I had really wanted to spend more time exploring it and all its history, but I just wasn’t feeling so great. We had an 11 hour tour booked for the next day and I wanted to rest up. A taxi back to the hotel from town was 30 pesos, just under $2.00 USD.
When we got back to the hotel, we took a dip in the pool and then in the cave before our massages. Both our massages were over an hour long, and were in the spa palapa hut above the pool.
For dinner, we didn’t feel like going anywhere, and the hotel restaurant (Naino) had good reviews, so we ate there. We were told there was a band that evening as well. The menu was international, Paddy had a steak and I had the octopus fried rice. We shared the ceviche verde for an appetizer, which was very good. It was a unique take on ceviche, with tomatillos, jalepenos, and olive oil. The octopus in my fried rice was cooked nicely, but the dish was too salty. Paddy really enjoyed his steak, but said the salt was a little heavy-handed as well.
The “band” that was playing turned out to be a lone gentleman with a keyboard playing lounge hits. We enjoyed a couple glasses of wine, but didn’t really feel like we were missing out on much when we turned in early for the night.
MexiGo Tours picked us up for our full-day “Go Flamingos” tour at 6:30 AM. After gathering the other members of our tour group, we made a quick stop at the MexiGo tours office for coffee and pastries. We then drove an hour and a half to the tiny town of Rio Lagartos on the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula.
If you want to see flamingos in the Yucatan, Rio Lagartos is the best place to do it. The flamingos are there year round, eating and nesting. They are often seen during a part of the year in Celestun, where they go to mate. Large tour groups go to see the Celestun flamingos from Merida, as it is closer than Rio Lagartos. Not only do you avoid the big tour groups at Rio Lagartos, but the flamingos are there year round, mostly in the mornings.
Our guide Hilberto was very friendly and extremely knowledgeable. Upon arrival in Rio Lagartos we got into a small wooden boat and embarked out on the lagoon.
We saw flamingos almost immediately. They were a group of pink specks on the water not far from the harbor, and our driver maneuvered the boat as slowly as possible towards them so as not to disturb them. They were truly magnificent. Hilberto told us the older ones have the brightest color, and that babies are completely white when they hatch. They gain their pink color from the beta carotene in the brine shrimp that they eat.
The flamingos were truly amazing and the highlight of the tour, but we continued on in search of other wildlife. Rio Lagartos means “Alligator River,” but there are actually no alligators. There are however a lot of crocodiles. Crocodiles are usually active at night, but we were hoping to find one hiding in the mangroves.
After touring peacefully through the mangroves, we finally spotted a crocodile lazily sunning himself upon a log.
He didn’t pay us much mind, and after admiring him for a few minutes our guide tried to toss him a fish. It smacked him right in the eyes, making him blink and then open his mouth. It was hard to tell if he was inviting another fish toss, or showing us his teeth as a warning. Hilberto handed another fish to one of our fellow tour mates, and unfortunately the second fish missed his mouth and hit him smack in the eyes again. He blinked the fish scales out of his eyes and opened his mouth a little wider. He made no attempt to get the fish floating in front of him, and it seemed that he was making it pretty clear that we were a nuisance and should leave him be.
We left the poor crocodile be, and continued our tour spotting various birds such as herons and black hawks and pelicans. The pelicans took quick notice of the small bucket of fish our guide had in the boat for the crocodiles, and eagerly followed us along until our guide began tossing the fish to them. They would fly alongside the boat until they were almost ahead of us, then sit in the water and open their mouths hoping for fish, and then repeat. They were pretty entertaining. Their diligence paid off, and a fish lunch was had.
We came to a land bank of white clay, where we were invited to take a “Mayan bath,” rubbing the clay on our skin. The clay reportedly absorbs out impurities and leaves you looking younger. The young Scottish couple decided to partake, but all I could think of was how much sunscreen I would have to reapply afterwards, and we opted out. If this was the last stop of the day, we may have went for it, but the day was only part way over.
After our Scottish friends finished their Mayan bath, we bid the flamingos, pelicans, and crocodiles adieu and went back to the harbor to have lunch before heading on to the second half of our tour, the Mayan ruins of Ek Balam.
Ek Balam means “Black Jaguar” in Mayan, and the ancient Mayan city is one of the more recent excavations in the area by archeologists. It is also one of the lesser visited ruins, but I would recommend not missing Ek Balam. There are more excavations in the works, and there is a lot of the city that has not yet been uncovered. Of what has been uncovered, the most stunning attraction here are the intricate carvings on the main pyramid that are still mostly intact. It is mind blowing how intact they are after thousands of years.
Our guide Hilberto was very knowledgeable about the ruins, and gave us a rough tour of the site and the main pyramid before setting us free to explore on our own. I wanted to climb to the top of the main pyramid, but it was hot and windy, there are no hand rails and the steps are narrow. Both of us were a bit too freaked out just going halfway up to look at the carvings and statues, and we decided to play it safe and descend back to the ground. I just had too many visions of a gust of wind knocking my hot, lightheaded self backwards down the pyramid. I’m sure it’s a great view though.
Hilberto told us a lot about what is known about ancient Mayan society: The hierarchy of the royals, how they learned to predict weather and their obsession with time (hence the infamous Mayan calendar), their worship of numerous gods and the sporting games where the winners are sacrificed to the gods in hopes of bountiful crops. Every Mayan city did things a little differently, and it was all extremely fascinating.
It was really hot and Paddy and I were losing steam. We walked around some of the structures we hadn’t seen yet and then went back to the main entrance to get some bottled water and wait for the rest of the group.
The last stop on our tour was the Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery outside Valladolid on the way back. For a small fee, we were able to go in and see the production area where they smoke and juice the blue agave “pineapples” (the heart and root of the blue agave plant with the leaves hacked off—it looks like a giant pineapple) to make the tequila. We were given a taste of the various types of tequila: Blanco (or silver—not aged), reposado (“rested” tequila, aged in oak barrels two months to a year, giving it a more complex flavor and a darker color from the oak), Añejo (aged 1-3 years), and extra añejo (aged over three years).
Of the Mayapan tequila, we liked the reposado the best. I didn’t really like the extra añejo, it was really oaky. The blanco tequila is the cheapest, and the kind you use for margaritas, while the older ones are more for sipping. We like the extra flavor or the reposados in margaritas, but it’s a matter of personal taste.
We concluded our long day and thanked Hilberto for a great tour. I would highly recommend MexiGo Tours in Valladolid. Their small group tours are a great way of seeing the sites if you don’t have a car, and the guides are very knowledgeable.
When we got back to the hotel, I was so hot from walking around the ruins that I jumped right into the pool. It was so refreshing.
For dinner we wanted to go to a restaurant we read about on Tripadvisor called Canato, which Guillermo also recommended but when we told him where we were going he told us that Tuesdays are the days they are closed. Bummer. We asked for his recommendation for good local place with typical Mexican food from the region. He said that most Mexicans get tortas, tacos, etc from loncherias and trucks during the day for lunch, but at night they cook at home. If they do decide to go out, they want something different like pasta (which explains the plethora of Italian restaurants we saw in Mexico). He recommended a touristy place with good traditional dishes called La Taberna de Los Frailes.
La Taberna de los Frailes (the tavern of the friars) is a touristy restaurant near the Convento de San Bernardino de Siena, an old Spanish colonial monastery and convent built in 1560. The prices were reasonable and the food was very regional. We started with some empanadas, and then I had the Pavo en Relleno Negro, which was turkey breast stuffed with a hard-boiled egg in a spicy black sauce. Paddy had the Longaniza Sisal, which was local sausage and beans with a tomato sauce. For dessert we had the flan. Everything was great, and a style of Mexican food we hadn’t had before.
There was a light show going on at the old Convent at 8:00, but we missed it. It was still pretty all illuminated for the evening.
We were pretty exhausted from our long day at Rio Lagartos and Ek Balam, so we grabbed a taxi back to the hotel and called it a night. I took a relaxing dip in the cave pool before bed.
In the morning we were able to enjoy the complimentary breakfast at Hotel Zentik Project, which included a variety of made-to-order options such as enchiladas, chilaquiles, and huevos rancheros. The Mexican coffee with a cinnamon infusion was delicious.
Valladolid was one of the highlights of our trip to Mexico, and in retrospect we wished we would have done one more night in Valladolid and one less night in Tulum to give us more time to explore the city. If you are interested in Mayan history and a more authentic Yucatecan experience, don’t miss Valladolid.