You can also find the natural splendor of the Yucatan, which not only surrounds the city, but also permeates it. The flat, porous limestone shelf of the peninsula is penetrated by thousands of sinkholes, or cenotes, filled with fresh water. I found one of them, the Cenote Zaci, about three blocks east of the central square. Though it’s not exactly remote, the stone steps leading down to the sinkhole, which lies within a cavelike formation surrounded by jungle foliage, delivered me to another world. Lizards and birds were perched in the nooks and crannies of the limestone walls that rose up around the sinkhole; the cool, blue water, about 280 feet deep, was perfect for diving. (Less confident divers like me can do cannonballs off the cenote’s 23-foot-high walls.) A thatched-roof cafe beside the cave mouth is a great place to unwind with a cerveza and a taco.
I was often reminded that the Yucatan jungles lay just beyond Valladolid’s spired horizons. From my room at the Meson del Marques at sunrise, I could hear birds hidden in the laurel trees of the central square screech and whistle — at once beautiful and primordial in a way that reminded me that Mayans once practiced human sacrifice atop the pyramids of nearby Chichen Itza.
When the birds fall silent, Valladolid buzzes with the hum of scooters weaving among brightly colored taxis and vintage Volkswagen bugs. Occasionally, a man on horseback pokes out of an alley and clip-clops down the street.
“You see what it’s like here all the time,” said Francesca Bonato on the Calzada de los Frailes (another name for Calle 41-A), a long, narrow street lined with colorfully painted, single-story haciendas, many of which have been recently restored or converted into boutiques. Bonato, an Italian accessory line owner, and her husband, Nicolas Malleville, an Argentine fashion model, are attracting a trickle of friends and well-heeled creative types into Valladolid, just as they did nearly a decade ago in Tulum, when they opened the first of four Coqui Coqui residences there (its first guest, Bonato told me, was Jade Jagger).
Bonato and I sipped coffee amid the gardens blooming with frangipanis, gardenias and lime trees behind the couple’s Valladolid perfumery. Their various projects on the Yucatan began, she said, when Malleville fell in love with Tulum and bought his “little piece of sand” there in 2002, the year before the couple met. Around that time, he began researching perfume formulas developed by Franciscan monks who colonized the Yucatan in the 16th century; he attempted to blend those formulas with ingredients prized in ancient Mayan medicine, the fruits of which led to the founding of Coqui Coqui perfumes.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of their property at Tulum (which has since been restored) and the couple moved to Valladolid, where they turned a run-down old colonial house on the Calzada de los Frailes into the gorgeous new perfumery, showroom, spa and guest suite. All the fragrances are mixed, and bottled and sold on site ($49 for bottles of eau de perfume with scents like “lavender and camomile,” or “mint and lime”). Bonato also is an owner of Hacienda Montaecristo (Calle 41-A No. 224; montaecristo.com), a line of accessories featuring hand-stitched leather wares made locally and sold in a rustic showroom a few doors down.