Yucatán state’s second city, VALLADOLID is around 40km east of Chichén Itzá, still close enough to beat the crowds to the site on an early bus, and of interest in its own right. Although it took a severe bashing in the nineteenth-century Caste Wars, it has retained a strong colonial feel and exudes the unpretentious attitude of a rural capital, catering to the farmers and ranchers who live nearby, and the village women who come here to sell their hand-embroidered huipiles and other crafts. It’s also an excellent place to eat, with traditional Yucatecan food still flourishing.
The heart of the city is the parque principal, the main plaza at the intersection of calles 39 and 40, where the two white towers of the eighteenth-century Catedral de San Gervasio rise gracefully over the south side. It’s the place to be at dusk, when the curving love seats are filled with chatting couples and the bubbling fountain, topped with a statue of a woman in a traditional Yucatecan huipil, is lit from below. During the day, you can walk upstairs in the city hall (ayuntamiento; on the southeast corner) to see murals and photos of Valladolid’s history, including a wall of portraits of city leaders.
This village 100km north of Valladolid is set on a small spit, surrounded on three sides by water and protected from the open sea by a barrier island. The resulting shallow inlet is inhabited much of the year by tens of thousands of pink flamingos, among nearly four hundred bird species in the Río Lagartos Biosphere Reserve. Though there’s not much in the town itself, the flamingos alone make a visit worthwhile; the best time of year to see them is the spring nesting season, from April to July.
Perhaps the most photogenic swimming hole in the Yucatán, the remarkable Cenote X’keken is also called Dzitnup like the nearby village. Visitors descend through a tunnel into a huge vaulted cave, where a nearly circular pool of crystal-clear turquoise water glows under a shaft of light from an opening in the ceiling. A swim in the ice-cold water is an invigorating experience. A short walk away, in the same complex, at the even more impressive (thanks to spooky natural lighting) Cenote Samula, the roots of a huge tree stretch down towards the pool. Facilities include changing rooms, souvenir stalls, life jackets (to rent) and a restaurant. Not to be missed.