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 Yucatán Peninsula. Guillaume was right: The food was filling. The two days I spent there 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 Cancún, 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.
“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, an essence of Valladolid’s charms.