A great alternative to and short road trip from Riviera Maya (where Cancun and Tulum are located), Yucatán offers historic sights, off-the-beaten-path natural wonders, and colorful colonial cities perfect for afternoons spent wandering. One of the cities that’s ideal for a weekend getaway: Valladolid, located smack dab in the middle of the Yucatán peninsula.
Valladolid is known as a Pueblo Magico, a name given by the Mexican government to towns that are beautiful and culturally important. And the first thing that I thought when I arrived was that it was indeed quite a pretty city!
There aren’t a ton of tourists in Valladolid given its proximity to the larger city of Merida and the tourist mecca of Cancun. But it’s definitely worth the trip, especially since it offers easy access to a lot of the nearby Mayan ruins and cenotes. It also has more affordable options for eating and staying in town. Plus, it’s a great chance to practice your Spanish!
Here are some things to do during a weekend getaway to Valladolid, Yucatán:
People Watching in the Main Plaza
Like most traditional Spanish cities, Valladolid’s life happens in the main plaza. El Parque Francisco Canton Rosado is really pretty and a great place to relax and do some people watching. There’s a nice cathedral there, and at night you’ll find a busy food market, plus a few bars and restaurants.
Swim in a Cenote… Steps from Downtown
One of the coolest things about Valladolid is that it has a cenote literally blocks from the main plaza. A cenote is a naturally formed sinkhole and there are tons of them located in this part of Mexico. Today they are used for swimming, but historically they were for Mayan sacrificial purposes. Yep, there may or may not be some ancient bones underneath you as you take a dip. But don’t worry about stepping on any skeletons, as this water is deep – the one in Valladolid is 260 feet!
Cenote Zaci is named for the Mayan town Zaci, which Valladolid was built on top of. It’s not quite as stunning as some of the more remote cenotes that you can drive to, but the fact that it’s so easily accessible and not at all crowded still makes it worth checking out. The only other people there were some local kids.
Wander Down Calzada de los Frailes
One of the prettiest spots I’ve ever been, Calzada de los Frailes is a historic street in Valladolid known for its colorful colonial homes and photo-worthy architecture. Many of the properties have been converted into upscale boutiques and restaurants owned by expats, and at the end you’ll find the 15th century Ex-Convent San Bernardino de Siena.
Where to Stay & Eat in Valladolid
During our weekend getaway in Valladolid, we stayed at El Meson del Marques. The hotel is located by the park, directly across from the cathedral. One of the benefits of staying here was its fantastic on-site restaurant, Hosteria del Marques. The open-air spot served traditional Yucatán food in a beautiful courtyard, and the tables were packed with a mix of guests and locals. I tried the cochinita pibil, aka the traditional slow roasted pork dish that I ate every single day during this trip, and it was one of the best I’d tasted in Yucatán!
Valladolid doesn’t have too many hotels and El Meson del Marques seemed to be the best local choice. The service was great (what’s better than a bellman arriving to help you with your bags after a long day of traveling?) and the location perfect. The property has an interesting history, too: it’s inside one of the oldest colonial buildings in Valladolid and was passed down through several generations before opening as a hotel in 1967 with just 6 rooms (today it has 90!).
One of the highlights of our short weekend getaway to Valladolid was lunch in the garden at Yerbabuena del Sisal, located across the street from the convent. The food is healthy and the menu is filled with fresh veggies, including smoothies and juices. After days of eating nothing but meat and tortillas, it was a very welcome change.
Day Trip from Valladolid: Chichen Itza and Izamal
One of the best things about staying in Valladolid is that it’s only a 45-minute drive from the famed Chichen Itza, the biggest tourist attraction in Yucatán and one of the seven new wonders of the world. That gives you a serious head start in the morning on tourists traveling from Cancun and Merida – and trust me, you’ll need it! The lines at Chichen Itza can get out of control, so go early and be prepared to wait.
My #1 piece of advice for Chichen Itza is to hire a guide. Without their insight, you’re just looking at a pile of rocks — pretty anticlimactic after hours in line!
But don’t bother booking a tour in advance for $75 USD a person, especially if you’re in a group. Instead, just show up and pay the $19 per person entrance fee and then share a guide amongst your group for $60. You can hire official guides at the entrance.
Back to the Mayans, who are pretty much superior in intelligence to anyone in today’s modern civilization. That “pile of rocks” is actually a work of pure genius. In addition to serving as a ceremonial site, the Kukulkan pyramid is perfectly symmetrical and was built to serve as a calendar and indicator of the seasons based off of the solar system. On the equinox, the rising and setting of the sun casts the shape of a serpent along the side of one of the staircases. The architecture is so perfectly thought out that when one claps in front of it, the echo sounds eerily like the chirp of a Quetzal, a bird very sacred to the Mayans.
No one knows how they figured all of this out, and how they possibly knew so much about the solar system. And remember that time in 2012 when everyone was talking about how the Mayan Calendar was coming to an end and the apocalypse was imminent? We completely messed that up. If the Mayans were still around, they simply would have built another pyramid on top of Kukulnan and begun the cycle again.
While the Mayans might have been very smart, their customs were a little… strange. Their biggest form of entertainment was a ball game where teams played against each other in a seemingly impossible attempt to knock a ball through a hoop without touching it with their hands or feet. And best of all? The winner of this game got his head chopped off by the loser at the end. And he wanted that to happen because he thought he was becoming a god. Imagine being disappointed and ashamed that you’re the one who has to keep on living? Sorry Mayans, you may have gotten that calendar right but I just can’t comprehend your passion for human sacrifice.
If you visited Chichen Itza without a guide, you would have a hard time understanding any of the above because there are almost no signs explaining what each building represents. The Mayan culture is fascinating and there are so many little things you’d miss out on without a knowledgeable companion.
Many of the people who live in Yucatán are descended from the Mayans, and while today most of them have converted to Christianity and done away with that crazy ball game, they still hold onto some of their ancient civilization’s culture and superstitions. Almost every restaurant we ate at in Yucatán had Mayan-inspired or influenced dishes on the menu, and many people we met were quick to tout their Mayan heritage. I thought it was cool that people were so proud of the region’s history, and hey – if I was descended from geniuses, I’d want everyone to know it too!
Now if you were smart, got up early and wrapped up your two-hour tour of Chichen Itza by afternoon, that means you have time to visit one of the other coolest places in the Yucatán: Izamal.
The minute I heard there was an entirely yellow city in Yucatán, I knew I had to check it out. Although “city” is a strong word to describe Izamal, which is even quieter than Valladolid.
It’s easy to see why this is another place designated as a Pueblo Magico. All of its buildings are painted a uniform hue of yellow, and it has a strong history as a religious center for both the ancient Mayans and the Spanish.
Izamal is on the itinerary of Chichen Itza day trips for several cruise and tour companies, but when we pulled into the main plaza we were clearly the only foreign tourists in town. In fact, a local police officer got so excited when he saw us that he ran over to usher us into a parking spot, moving a bike to make room. After we stepped out of the car, he stopped traffic (keep in mind there were two cars on the street) so we could cross and waved us along enthusiastically. He was so friendly and made us feel immediately welcome.
This small town vibe was echoed throughout Izamal, as locals watched us with friendly amusement as we wandered through the plaza and began to explore our surroundings. Fortunately we had parked directly across the street from Izamal’s main attraction, the Franciscan convent that was built over a Mayan pyramid and made famous by a visit from Pope John Paul II in 1993.
Izamal is actually one of the oldest cities in Yucatan, and it was also one of the most powerful Mayan cities before the rise of Chichen Itza. Once the Spanish conquered the region, they began converting the natives to Catholicism and eventually erected the convent.
After exploring the convent and Izamal’s center, we were beyond starving and ready for some food. I hesitated to eat at Kinich El Sabor, the top rated restaurant on TripAdvisor, because reviews mentioned that it was extremely touristy. But honestly I had no idea where else we would go. There didn’t appear to be many restaurants in town aside from a couple pizzerias and food stands. So Kinich El Sabor it was!
The restaurant was definitely a tourist haven, as its elaborate interior and fancy menu were clearly not geared toward Izamal locals. But it was, nonetheless, delicious and served an assortment of authentic Mayan dishes, including my favorite, cochinita pibil.
After dinner we walked back to our car, which the friendly police officer was still standing by. He greeted us and assisted us in pulling out of the space, again stopping traffic. We waved goodbye to our new friend as we drove off, en route to Valladolid.