Somewhere between the grilled watermelon with panela cheese and my second taco de cochinita — a Yucatecan taco stuffed with pork, black beans and pickled onions — I put down my fork. I couldn’t eat another bite.
“Maybe you didn’t notice how heavy the food is here?” said my friend Guillaume Guevara. We were sitting in the Taberna de los Frailes in Valladolid, a colonial city of Spanish arcades and 16th-century spires on the Yucatan Peninsula. Guillaume was right: The food was filling. The two days I spent there in March were punctuated with rich, sleep-inducing meals: deep-fried tortillas, cream-based soups and enough beans, pork and nopal cactus to keep me teetering on the edge of a constant food coma.
A few days earlier, we had celebrated Guillaume’s wedding in the eco-chic beach resort town of Tulum, an hour’s drive to the southeast; several of us in the wedding party had come to Valladolid to recover from 72 hours of tireless partying. The city, often overlooked by travelers making a beeline to the Yucatan’s flashier hot spots, provided just the right antidote to the fashion-conscious whirlwind in Tulum. Here we found artists and artisans peddling their wares in mom-and-pop shops, friendly residents and a refreshingly unpretentious night life.
Of course, cool, undiscovered places rarely stay cool and undiscovered, and one might expect Valladolid to become the next Tulum or even Cancun, which isn’t that far away. But its distance from the beach means that Valladolid promises to remain a sophisticated refuge.
There is a budding cosmopolitan spirit these days, as some expatriate tastemakers restore old haciendas and start businesses. Ariane Dutzi, for instance, a former correspondent from Germany who now runs her own line of locally handmade bags, Dutzi Design, just opened her first boutique in Valladolid. Tulum had become “overrun” with tourists, she said, but in Valladolid, she has found “something more authentic.”
Authentic: It’s a word that is frequently used when describing Valladolid. Culturally speaking, it’s a layered authenticity. The city is deeply Mayan, from the cuisine — sweet and spicy, heavy on the beans and slow-roasted pork — to the guttural consonants of the Mayan language heard on its streets. Many women wear the traditional Mayan huipil — white cotton blouses or dresses adorned with bright, flowered embroidery and sold in places like the Mercado de Artesanias, a block from the city’s beautiful, newly refurbished Parque Principal, or central square.
It is also distinctly Spanish: Founded by invading Spaniards in 1543, Valladolid has an Iberian feel with its colonnades, pastel stucco and paving-stone streets. The central cathedral, a fortress of ascetic Franciscan architecture, is standing room only on Sunday evenings. As in Spain, shops are often shuttered each afternoon for siesta.
“This is a nice place because you can have everything without all the noise,” said Alejandra Rivero Flores, who works at her family’s business, Tequileria Poncho Villa, a little liquor store that I stumbled upon on bustling Calle 41 (No. 216), drawn in by the life-size, colorfully dressed skeleton doll propped out front. Inside, surrounded by countless varieties of tequilas, Flores ticked off Valladolid’s attributes: great shopping and food, a close-knit community for raising children and an urbanity that has developed in tandem with the city’s recent efforts to restore its buildings and byways.