Read the previous part here.
While there was much more that could be done in Tulum, we left the town after a few days of relaxation, wandering around and drinking good tequila. We took a bus and headed inland to a city that had come recommended by our friend Gabriela, who was a traveller herself.
A Happy Place
We reached the town later in the afternoon and the bus dropped us at the ADO station in the middle of the town. Most of the shops seemed closed, giving the small town a somewhat smaller feeling. As we hunted for the AirBnB we had booked, we walked the pastel streets and I was starting to enjoy the small town feeling that emanated from it.
We eventually reached our AirBnB which was right next to a historical convent - Convento de San Bernardino. The quiet neighbourhood, with the church and it’s garden was so beautiful that I immediately fell in love with it.
Our AirBnB was a cosy room with a small kitchenette. Our host, Guadalupe, was another of the good ones. There was a huge language barrier this time because she did not speak English and my Spanish had improved a tad bit during the last month or so we had spent in the country, but not enough to have a full fledged conversation. She was one of the most patient women I have ever met! She slowly and gently kept repeating what she was saying or asking till I understood it and if it all failed, there was the translation app of course 😄
Once we dumped our luggage, Parul went to take a bath and I decided to go read a book in the garden of the convent. It was something I had pictured myself doing while we were walking to our stay. This would become a regular activity during our stay here. I would either sit in the garden and read a book; or go for a jog, lapping the huge convent complex; or we would come sit here at night after a post dinner walk. Peaceful complexes like these make a place very ‘livable’ for me.
Once Parul was done with her bath, she joined me in the garden and then we went to a nearby restaurant which came recommended by our host. This was a fancy one but it served a nice plate of dal chawal that Parul eagerly ordered 😄
Then we went walking around. We were staying at the south-western side of the town, a kilometer or so from the centro. We soon realised that the town was not very big. A couple of kilometers in any direction from the centro would bring you to the outskirts of the town. Since the centro had little to offer other than tour shops and markets which were in the process of shutting down (it was evening by now), we walked north and explored some pretty alleys and lanes.
While returning to our AirBnB, we passed through the park in the centro again. There were performers putting up a show for the tourists so we stopped to take a look and left some tips at the end of the show for the amazingly skilled performers! 💃
The shows being performed in the public areas are definitely worth a tip (however small) if it grabs your attention.
At night we returned to the convent by 9:00 PM to catch the light and sound show that was heavily recommended by Guadalupe, our host. And rightly so! It was a spectacular show that we attended to every night that we were in town. The light bounced off the convent building and, together with the narration, told the story of Valladolid - a Mayan city that was colonised by the Spanish and is now a thriving Yucatan town.
There are two shows of the Light & Sound show every night at Convento de San Bernardino; the first one in Spanish starts at 9:00 PM and is followed by an English narration. It is a definite must-do in Valladolid. All the tourists in town are there so I recommend going a little early to grab a good spot to see the show from :)
The next morning, as I walked to the nearby cafe for my morning fix and to get some work done, I realised that I had a stupid smile stuck to my face. This place was just making me unrealistically happy 😃 It was probably the strange sensation of discovering that a place like this, which was my ideal for living in, actually exists.
Yellow Brick Town
After the coffee and a Rakhi call with siblings, we decided to go to Izamal, a town that I had shortlisted in this region and one that out host had also suggested. We started easy and went to ask around in the ADO bus stand first. Then we headed around the block to Autobuses del Centro which is a second class service. Their timing suited us better so we booked our tickets which were considerably cheaper than ADO. The bus picked us up in an hour and it was not half as bad as the name “second class” implies! We are used to much much worse 😛
A couple of hours and a few stops later, the bus dropped us in the town of Izamal. The town has a fair bit of history to it and the yellow colour is attributed to the visit of the Pope in 1993. Why they chose the colour yellow is 😕 Anyhow, we asked about the timings for the return bus and then headed out to see the convent in the town.
Convento de San Antonio has the largest atrium outside of the Vatican. We clicked some photos and then walked into the convent. We wandered around the large building with it’s open and closed gates. Then we came back out to the atrium and sat admiring the small town from the slight vantage point.
Then we walked around the centro where the stalls were mostly closed, decided to skip the museums (which were probably also closed) and then slowly made our way through the pretty roads to Kinich Kakmo.
While the town of Izamal is famous for it’s yellow walls and convent, it is also the oldest town in the Yucatan. The pyramids all around the town (and under the convent) are reminiscent of the ancient history.
There is not much to Kinich Kakmo in terms of tourism though. You can walk in without a ticket and enjoy the view from the top.
We took a round-about route to return to the mercado next to the centro and the bus station, thus exploring more of the yellow town and clicking a whole lot of pictures.
We ate a late lunch at the mercado in one of the few restaurants that were open at this hour. This was our first taste of the Yucatan food. I enjoyed some pollo mechado which is a chicken stew served with tortillas (of course). Parul had some vegetarian salbute which I can best describe as fried pooris with rajma 😂
After the lunch we headed to the bus stand and took the bus back to Valladolid. We had more Yucatan food for dinner at a cheap and no-frills place, La Terraza de Dona Fini, that Guadalupe had recommended.
The next morning we rented two bicycles from our AirBnB and headed out of town to the nearby cenotes Samula and Xkeken. The sun was out but the road was shaded in parts. The route was long enough to tire us out though.
We parked our bikes at the ticket counter and went in to buy the tickets. There are various packages being sold in almost all of these cenotes. Packages for one cenote or two; packages with food or without. On top of that you can hire a guide the merits of which is beyond me. Maybe they tell you the history of the nearby villages and the cenotes. Anyway, I had very different interest in the cenote so we passed on the guide. We bought the ticket for both the cenotes and headed to the first one - Samula. There were life jackets available on rent so we picked up one for Parul. The route went through a complex with shops selling beautiful clothes and other souvenirs and we enquired the prices to get an idea. Turned out to be reasonable on hindsight but we left the shopping for later.
A flight of stairs took us underground into the cave and we could see a ray of light hit the clear beautiful water underneath. It was breathtaking.
We climbed down all the stairs and fortunately, we had the entire place to ourselves for the initial few minutes. We changed into our swimming costumes and got into the refreshing but slightly nippy water.
There were lines drawn across the water and it was only slightly deep in some parts. We swam to the island but it was off limits so we stood stood near it and enjoyed some time in the water.
People streamed in and there were some who were swimming in the darker and deeper parts of the cenote. Not yet comfortable with the cenotes as yet, I stuck to the brighter and shallower regions.
We even tried some underwater photography 😛
I was happy, to understate, by the time we left Samula.
Xkeken was similarly situated in another underground cave nearby. This was a smaller cave and a more widespread water body. There were impressive stalactite formations that hung from the roof and a single column of light that shone into the dark cave.
There were slightly more people here as compared to Samula and the low roof probably amplified the effect. But we soon realised that a cenote is not really about the crowd. We got into the water after some deliberation. Parul had not rented a life jacket for this one but she swam considerable distances between rocks in deeper parts as well. She was definitely gaining confidence and getting better at swimming! I got more comfortable with the deeper parts of the cenotes and stopped thinking about unknown creatures lurking in the darker regions 😛
We walked out happy, tired and hungry. We considered having something to eat but then decided to reach the town first. The cenotes are not national properties like the Mayan ruins. There are so many of them all around the Yucatan and surrounding states. Most of them are either privately of communally owned. The price of tourism is (hopefully) shared in the community and the commercialization of the natural wealth brings material wealth to the natives. I, for one, was happy to pay for such a unique experience.
We had our lunch at La Tia. I had their speciality - Poc Chuch, which was another Yucatan speciality - charcoal grilled meat served with vegetables and tortillas. Parul had some nachos which were heavily loaded with frijoles and cheese. Both of us were happy as we could be 😄
That evening, we went to the Sisal park once again to admire the beautiful church and spend some time in the beautiful park. There were more shops and cafes open on the Calzada de Los Frailes, the street connecting our BnB to the centro. We finally figured out the mystery of the seemingly shut down town - it woke up on the weekends, when the tourists flocked in and the economy was boosted 😑
We attended another session of the Light and Sound show. The tourist population had increased considerably.
The night was painful because our room was right behind Los Frappes, a local cafe that played Latin dance music till the wee hours of the night. At one point I was considering going to the cafe since the music wasn’t letting me sleep anyway 😬
The next morning, sleep deprived but enthusiastic enough, we decided to go to another well recommended place and one that had turned up on our research as well - Las Coloradas. This was much farther and the region probably deserved a few days of it’s own. But we were comfortable enough in Valladolid to stay put and make a day trip out of it.
The first bus dropped us in Tizimin, a considerably bigger town due north of Valladolid. Here we changed to another bus that was heading to Rio Lagartos and Las Coloradas. The journey was uneventful and we took short naps en route. Slowly the towns faded into the countryside wilderness and we could feel the approach of the coast.
As we entered Las Coloradas, we could see the salt factory and the famous pink lake to our right. We took a drop nearby and walked the short distance to what seemed like the entrance. The pink lake was really PINK! It stood out with the light brown sand flanking it’s sides and the blue of the sky up above.
Near the entrance we were told that a guide was required to enter the premises. The guide fee was nominal and we thought it was a good way to give back to the community so we hired one. Not that we were dying to go in; the pink lake looked pink enough from this side 😬 The young woman who guided us took us inside and started telling us trivia about the lake. But my attention had been diverted by the flamingos to our left. There were so many of them! But they were all at a distance and despite my modest zoom lens, I could not get a close up of these beautiful birds.
The pink “lake” was essentially a reservoir for the salt factory. It was extremely salty and the pink colour was due to a certain micro-organism that grow in it (they require hypersaline environment to survive). Our guide told us that flamingos are pink for the same reason. They are born grey and change to pink as they feed on these micro-organisms. I never knew that!
We walked till the end of the small path (around 5 minutes from the gate) and stopped at a photo spot. This being private property, this was as far as we were allowed. Of course there was no swimming in the lake (even if you were dumb enough to want to get into water that salty, the people of Yucatan did not want your dirt in their salt 😑) but you could get some pictures clicked.
The guides were quite well trained when it came to taking pictures. Perhaps it was because of the predominant demographics of the tourists who came to the pink lake. Asians really know their photo points and angles 😂
There were quite a few tourists and I had definitely not seen these many Asian tourists anywhere in Mexico. The power of social media was on display right before us.
We thanked our guide and exited the premises of the salt factory. We also asked her for a recommendation for a place to have lunch. She gave us directions and we started walking. Not before clicking the pictures of a few more flamingos though 😛
The unpaved roads led us to a restaurant that was serving fresh seafood for lunch. We ordered some michelada to go with our food. The day’s heat definitely called for it.
After lunch, we decided to stroll till the beach. We still had a lot of time till the bus was due and Guadalupe had emphasised on how much she loved the beach in Las Coloradas.
It did not take long to realise why she was so in love with this beach. I fell in love with it the moment I saw it. The white sand and the lovely ocean beyond was soothing to the eyes.
There were a number of fishing boats docked there and a lot of sea gulls.
And then there were pelicans lazing nonchalantly.
Rio Lagartos, the town closest to Las Coloradas, hosts a biosphere that is famous for it’s birds. The place definitely deserved time of it’s own. Perhaps the next time we are in Yucatan 😄 We sat in a shed like area that overlooked the ocean. I think we had forgotten to pack our swimming costumes since we were not expecting to find something so beautiful (we had been swimming a lot of late). After so many times, I still make the silliest of mistakes 😑
Never forget to keep your swimming costume. NEVER.
But all the same, we enjoyed sitting and watching the gulls go crazy as the fishing boats arrived. It was too hot and the slow breeze under the shed’s canopy provided a relaxing respite.
An hour or so later, we went to the village’s “bus-stand” and a little while later the bus came around to pick us up. We broke the journey at Tizimin again and then caught a bus to Valladolid.
After a nap and dinner at Dona Fini, we called it a night and went to sleep amid the loud dance music being played in Los Frappes (we had found our ear-plugs 😆).
Small Town Charms
The next day started early as usual. We had a tour planned for the day and rented the bicycles from our AirBnB again. The tour was the Mayan Bees Tour which was being organised at the Xkopek Parque Apicola, a beekeeping park that produced local honey and also had some rooms to stay in. The tour included a free breakfast so we pedalled our way across town on empty stomachs and by the time we reached Xkopek, I was ready to eat!
As luck would have it, we were the only two who had signed up for this time slot so we got something of a private tour. The guide took us to the dry cenote on the premise to show us the various kind of Yucatan bees and their various hives. Some of these hardly looked like bees and the hives were made in cracks of rocks or logs of wood! Turned out that our definition of a bee is very European. We were also told about the difference in the amount of honey that all these bees produce, which resulted in the difference of the prices of their honey.
The tour ended with some honey tasting and we got a few things from the shop.
The rest of the day was wide open for us and we decided to do something relaxing with it. So we set out on the bikes and headed to Hacienda Oxman, another cenote near the city. This one too was recommended by Guadalupe and we had come to the realization after Samula and Xkeken that cenotes should be a full day activity rather than a rush-rush checklist.
We pedalled through the town and headed to the outskirts, crossing a barren railway station that was being used for wedding photo shoots. Google Maps, as usual, led us to an impassable road and we had to walk on the railway track for a bit in order to avoid a bigger detour. Good thing that Mexico does not have passenger train service and just a goods train that we had seen just once in our entire stay. Still, Parul was not very happy about the detour 😬
We reached the hacienda and bought two tickets with the food deal included.
Then we changed into our swimming costumes, showered off our sweat and took the flight of stairs that led us to the cenote.
This cenote was akin to a well rather than a cave. Actually, there are four kinds of cenotes that you can read about here. Cenote Oxman had turquoise blue water, tree roots hanging from above, a swing rope for some adventure, life-jackets for the non-swimmers and lines drawn for those were uncertain. You could definitely not go wrong with this one 😆
The next hour, perhaps more, were spent in gaiety. I must have jumped into the water a handful of times. I was still getting comfortable with the concept of jumping and these were big steps ever since the blue lagoon in Vang Vieng. I was also getting comfortable with the absence of training wheels (life-jackets or ropes). All this made me fall in love with cenotes in general and this one in particular.
Even Parul swung from the rope and jumped into the water. Although she was not too happy with the lifejacket pulling her (and her swimsuit) up 😂
We swam around for a while and explored the corners of the cenote. The water was clear enough and the depth beyond perception. It was an amazing experience!
After tiring ourselves out till we could not any more, we headed back up and grabbed a table by the pool side. We were served some food and drinks by our waiter as we sat hearing the kids scream in the pool and splash water with their adults. Parul read a book and I wrote pending logs. This was a nice way to spend the day. Perhaps we could have come earlier and left later but this was a better way to do cenotes. They should be a part of the day rather than the agenda of it.
For those wondering which are the “best cenotes” to go it, there is no such thing. Pick one that appeals to you and fits in your budget and go for it. They are all beautiful and exciting in their own way.
We returned to town once the sun was less of a hassle and returned the bikes. For dinner, we went to Yerbabuena once again and treated ourselves to some good food.
Today being Sunday, the tourism in the city was waning and Los Frappes turned off it’s music earlier than the previous two nights. The town was going back to it’s charming and relaxing self.
Is it any Wonder?
The next day had been decided for the big one - Chichen Itza. There was a bit of debate that had gone into this one. It was going to be touristy for sure and overpriced as compared to everything we had seen in Mexico so far. But still, it was a UNESCO World Heritage Site and contained a New World Wonder. It merited a visit on those accounts. We chose the Monday intentionally, thinking that the weekday would slightly alter the crowd.
We had asked for the timings at ADO the day before and were at the bus stand in time to go to Chichen Itza. The bus took just an hour to get there and we got off the bus and walked to the ticket counter. There were quite a few people there but we lucked out as the line for cash payment was much smaller than the card payment. We bought the tickets and walked in. As I examined the tickets, I understood that the price for the archaeological site was the same as the other sites - 75 pesos. There was approximately 400 pesos charged by the Yucatan state government 😑 Made sense since most of the tourists stayed in Quintana Roo (Cancun, Playa del Carmen and the Carribean coast) but it sucked all the same.
Anyhow, once we were in, we were greeted straightaway by the most iconic structure of the site, and the New World Wonder - El Castillo.
El Castillo, or the Castle, is also known as the Temple of Kukulkan who is a Mayan god similar to the Aztec Quetzalcoatl. There was much less crowd than we had imagined and we got some decent shots of the building. Perhaps it paid off coming on a Monday and coming from the close by Valladolid rather than the farther off Cancun and Merida. We walked around the structure which was beautifully restored, looking for some piece of information that talked about its history. There was a small factual description and nothing else.
We went further, to the other structures - Gran Juego de Pelota, Templo de los Guerreros, Casa Colorada, El Caracol. It was the same everywhere. Beautifully restored structures lacking in narrative and cordoned off by ropes. It was quite frustrating. What is the point of restoration if you do not allow people to experience it? I mean, imagine if they put a rope around Taj Mahal and said it was only to be seen from a distance 😑 It definitely looked good and I’m sure it made for pretty instagram pictures. But in terms of history and the experience, it fell way short of Palenque (even Teotihuacan, in my humble opinion).
So we contended ourselves by walking around, trying to figure out what was what and what happened where. A guide would have helped of course but they always do. For the amount of money they charge they could at least have maintained the maps and description boards better.
We walked all the way to the Cenote Sagrado and back, looking at the souvenirs being sold and the way the vendors attracted tourists. There was definitely some good stuff there but most of it was inferior quality as compared to what we had seen so far.
We went up to El Caracol on the other side and found that everything was off limits indeed. We sat down on the grass and relaxed, happy in the knowledge that at least now, we knew that it was not worth it 😛 We saw groups of tourists walk around with guides and in clothes that could offer little help in walking long distances on a hot day. Perhaps that is what this place was all about, or at least had become all about. In a world that seeks superficial, it was selling shallow experiences. At least you posted a good looking picture at the end of it 😶
We were hopeful that the museum would tell us something about the place but it turned out to be a small room with printed boards. It was under renovation as per the authorities. Such 💩
But by this time we were both beyond frustration. We just laughed out loud helplessly and headed to the bus stop. When the bus took a long time a-coming, we had some pulque and then waited some more. In time, the bus picked us up and dropped us back in Valladolid. We headed straight to La Tia to comfort ourselves with some good food. The day had offered little else to us. Parul had her nachos and I tried the Longanizas de Valladolid - elongated sausages that were a speciality of this town.
We rested through the rest of the day and I went for a jog in the evening. We decided to have a fancy dinner that night and headed to the centro. We went into a nice place and had some decent food. The margaritas were epic in presentation (they required two hands to lift!) but did little else to our strengthened composition 💪
The next day was our last in Valladolid and spent mostly relaxing in the room, working in the cafe or reading in the park. We soaked up the beautiful town which was in it’s weekly detoxification from tourism. We had definitely not spent enough time here but we had a plan. We would come back if time permitted.
Meanwhile, Guadalupe was being a sweetheart as always. She had arranged for some Yucatanese (is that a word?) liqueur for us and cooked a lunch of homemade Longanizas for me. How could we not come back to this place! 😄
Read the next in our Mexican adventures here.