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.
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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.
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.
Also on the Calzada de los Frailes, the Cacao organic chocolate collective produces handmade chocolates, drawing from a tradition that goes back to the ancient Mayans. Farther down the street is the Convento de San Bernardino de Siena, built in the 16th century. Here, I wandered within its stone walls at sunset, exploring the dark stairways as the fading light streamed in through small windows, imagining the hermetic life of the Spanish monks who resided there centuries ago.
One thing I quickly learned in Valladolid: To properly enjoy the local cuisine, keep some antacids handy. This should be little surprise on the Yucatan, which is home to one of the world’s hottest chili peppers, the habanero. Add to that the local reliance on black beans, melted cheese and deep-fried tortillas.
For fine Yucatecan food in the peaceful garden setting of a hacienda courtyard, there’s nowhere better than Taberna de los Frailes (Calle 49 No. 235; tabernadelosfrailes.com), across the street from the monastery. Try the pook chuuk — grilled pork fillets marinated in Mayan white spices and sour orange, or the tikin xic, snapper grilled in annatto sauce. At Las Campanas on the square, I was treated to traditional songs accompanied by two marimbas as I feasted on queso relleno, a chunk of hard aged cheese stuffed with pork, swimming in a white cream-based soup. After that meal, my ambitions for the next few hours were thwarted.
It’s possible to spend the equivalent of a few dollars for a filling meal, as I discovered at the covered market on the central square’s northeast corner. I loved the panuchos — deep-fried bean-stuffed tortillas. And if you’re hankering for pizza, try the Casa Italia (Calle 35, lote 202-J; casaitaliamexico.com), a pizzeria on the Parque de La Candelaria, a park anchored by the Iglesia de Candelaria, with its high arches in the Moorish style and bright, salmon-colored stucco.
The architecture, the quiet evenings spent strolling down narrow streets, and the endless rounds of feasting are among the charms that led my friend Guillaume and his wife, Olivia Villanti, who live in Brooklyn, to bring their wedding party to Valladolid after Tulum. “In Valladolid, you’re in the middle of the city and you can take a walk down the street and you’ll end up somewhere beautiful,” Olivia said.
An occasional walk is certainly not the worst idea after all that eating. Neither was the running regimen I vowed to revive as soon as I got back to New York.