About 3 hours from Cancun, and a couple of hours from Tulum is the charming town of Valladolid – the perfect gateway to exploring the Yucatan! The main attraction here, of course, is Chichen Itza – and the numerous cenotes that dot the landscape. There are several tour groups that offer day trips to these attractions from Cancun or Playa del Carmen – we chose to drive to Valladolid instead. Of course, Valladolid is also hugely touristy – still, it felt a step closer to the ‘real’ Mexico compared to the rarified atmospheres of the all-inclusive resorts! Besides, if you’ve paid a fortune to be at one of these resorts, why would you spend an entire day away – and a pretty hectic day at that!! So, Valladolid!
Our hotel in Valladolid was right in the ‘downtown’ – a few blocks away from the central town square and the Cathedral de San Gervasio. It had a quaint bed-and-breakfast feel, probably an older home converted to a hotel, and the little courtyard in the middle was simply delightful! We arrived to a street jam-packed with cars, crawling along at snail’s pace – of all the places to get caught in traffic!! The square itself was no better – huge tourist buses belching out clouds of exhaust were parked everywhere, totally destroying any tranquility the square might have offered! The cathedral dominates the square, and there were several activities happening in the park as well – a local dance troupe performing traditional dances, food stalls, street vendors – definitely a fun place to spend the evening!!
On to the main attraction – Chichen Itza!! So Chichen Itza was one of the largest cities of the Mayan empire – there are several ruins now at the archaeological site. It was given the ‘Seventh Wonder’ tag in 2007, and since then tourism has sky-rocketed!! Restoration work still continues at the site – scaffolding can be seen on two sides of the famous pyramid and in other places. Several blogs that I read suggested that the best place to visit was at sunrise – I’m not sure how they managed that, since the site only opens at 8am! We still got there plenty early – an advantage of staying in nearby Valladolid – and we were able to park in the tiny official parking lot, right next to the entrance. Arrive late, and you’re looking at a good mile hike just to reach the entrance! The entrance fee is quite pricey – almost 500 pesos per person – extra if you go with a guide. I highly recommend going with a guide – just like in Tulum, there are no explanatory signs – and the guide really helped us set the context with his anecdotes and historical facts!
The central pyramid – the Kukulcan pyramid – has a throne room right at the top. Climbing up the pyramid is no longer allowed – but the guide showed us several pictures. Surprisingly, during excavations, they found a temple located inside the pyramid as well! The levels of the pyramid and the number of the steps all come together in a somewhat complicated fashion to describe the Mayan calendar. Kukulcan himself, is the God of Fertility, with his open mouth at the base of the pyramid, and his feathered body running up the pyramid. A very special time of the year is the Spring and Fall Equinoxes, when the position of the sun creates a series of triangular shadows that look like the scales of the Kukulcan as he descends to the Earth! These Equinoxes still draw a huge crowd to Chichen Itza!! The absolute coolest thing – there were several people clapping near the pyramid – and our guide explained that the acoustics of the pyramid were designed so that clapping at the base would be echoed back as the cry of the quetzal bird. Again, this is where having the guide helped – he took us to a precise location, and then showed us how to clap – and sure enough, the melodious trills of a bird call floated back to us!!
Other structures here include a ‘Temple of Warriors’ – where human sacrifice was carried out long ago, and a courtyard of a thousand pillars, which must have been a market place of sorts. The remains of the base of the Temple of Venus – I kept hearing Temple of ‘Beans’, and for a while I was truly mystified by this love of beans! There is also a huge arena or the ‘Great Ball Court’ – again the wonderful acoustics where the king seated in his royal pavilion could hear whispers from everywhere in the audience – those conspiring nobles better watch out! The game itself – like so many games through the centuries – involved getting a ball though a stone hoop. Not quite as simple as it sounds – the ‘hoop’ had an incredibly narrow opening and was set high and perpendicular on a wall. Hard enough to get a ball through it even if you aim directly at it – much, much harder if you cannot use your hands at all! And although there are teams, they don’t directly play with each other – one team goes first and if they drop the ball, the second team gets a turn. Whoever makes the first ‘goal’ wins – again, the victory comes with a twist – the captain of the winning team was ceremonially sacrificed – his death an honor to his team. Yikes!
We spent several hours at Chichen Itza – there’s a lot of terrain to cover, so good walking shoes are a must. And although we were happy to see the sun after 2 days of drizzles and clouds, it got very hot very fast. There’s a lot of souvenir shopping too – quite different from the ones we had seen in Cancun. The funnest was the whistles – shaped like the head of jaguars, brightly decorated – and when blown the correct way, actually making the roar of a jaguar – had to get those for the nephews!! With this one, our tally of the New Seven Wonders goes up to four – Taj Mahal, Great Wall of China and the Giza Pyramid being our other 3. Time to plan that Machu Picchu trip now!
Over the course of 4 days, we also had the chance to view several cenotes. These are basically sinkholes, the limestone rock collapses revealing a pool of water underneath. Mayan consider these to be portholes to the underworld, most of them look mystical enough to believe this! There are tours exclusively devoted to the cenotes – over 60 total in the Yucatan alone. They come in all different sizes and shapes – some of them the ceiling is completely gone, looks just like an ordinary pond, then there are others which are in pretty much an underground cave. Chichen Itza has 4 cenotes in the 4 cardinal directions from the Kukulcan pyramid – and these were used for ceremonial offerings – animal and human bones, and precious objects made from gold and jade were recovered during excavation of the cenote closest to the pyramid. This Sacred Cenote is within walking distance of the Kukulcan pyramid – and can be seen only from the top of a cliff.
Close to Chichen Itzá, is the famous Cenote Ik Kil. In hindsight, we should have eaten lunch at the several restaurants at Chichen Itza – the only option at Ik Kil was a buffet – which was probably the worst meal we had on our entire trip! The cenote though – absolutely gorgeous!! It is quite a steep walk down to the water, and with the ceiling open to the sky, all the trailing vines reaching down to the water – totally worth the mediocre lunch! Manasi and Ajey decided to take a dip in the water – Manasi even venturing to jump from a cliff. The only drawback? – it’s so, so crowded! Again, the bloggers said to get here early – but if you have to do Chichen Itza and Ik Kil in one day, well, you can only get early to one place!
The next on my list was the ‘Most Instagrammable’ cenote in the Yucatan – Cenote Suytun! This cenote has almost the entire ceiling intact with a natural skylight at the top – the light shines down on an incredible stone walkway right in the middle of the water. Again, the way down is steep and slippery, and there was a line to walk out to the platform to take pictures – but this is the one time I truly regretted not bringing my SLR camera with me. We weren’t really adventurous with our photos – but the poses people think of! – good entertainment as we waited in line! Couple of things here – we were not planning to swim, but we were still required to wash our legs. Sneakers made it kind of awkward – and the road from the showers to the cenote is all gravel – so we had to put sneakers back on top of our wet feet. So, flip-flops, or even better, water shoes!! There’s second cenote included in the price, so don’t forget to visit that one as you head out!!
Hands down, this was one of the best vacations we have taken! A little bit of everything – luxury resorts, historical sites, adrenaline-rush adventure, beautiful white-sand beaches, the turquoise ocean – and the food, oh the food!! My new favorite for breakfast now is chilaquiles – tortilla chips doused in salsa verde with beans and Mexican crema – the first day, I balked at eating chips for breakfast – but once I started, I was hooked! Manasi devoured shrimp tacos everywhere we went – and the guacamole was nothing like I’ve ever tasted!! Te amo, Mexico!!
On a different note, this is my 50th post on this blog – kind of a milestone! I started blogging mainly to document our travels – and it it always takes me by surprise to find that I have readers beyond my immediate family! So I would like to take a moment to thank you, dear reader, for sticking with me, for traveling with the Coolkarnis, for all the love and support and for the encouragement to keep writing!! Btw, we came back from Mexico and Ajey has booked us on what I suspect is going to be our biggest adventure ever – any guesses on where the Coolkarnis are headed next?!!