As much as we enjoyed pretty Tulum, we couldn’t wait to hit the road to inland Yucatan and see a more genuine, less tourist-oriented Mexico. Our first stop was Valladolid – a charming, unpretentious and serene little colonial town. While it isn’t exactly a tourist-free backwater, the city feels lived-in – its raison d’etre not being simply to cater to foreigners. Valladolid looks exactly how you would imagine a typical Mexican town to look – stucco, sherbet-colour colonial houses line wide and dusty cobbled streets that feature the occasional and elaborately painted horse-drawn carriage. Though the architecture is Spanish, a large part of the population is actually made up of Mayans, and a lot of them still speak the strange and beautiful ancient language and wear the traditional embroidered clothes.
What struck us most about this area of Mexico was how unconsciously ‘trendy’ it is; as we strolled under sun-bleached arcades we came across artisanal stores and trendy niche boutiques selling what at home would be sold as over-priced, pink crepe-paper-wrapped cult objects. Tiny artisanal shops sell Mayan chocolate made using ancient recipes, while others provide tastings of their home-made, organic Tequila and Mezcal. Coqui Coqui, a Yucatan perfumery decorated with elaborate coloured tiles and minimalistic black laquer display cabinets, uses recipes inspired by Franciscan monks who worked closely with Mayan alchemists to produce their floral-scented potions.
Then of course there’s the traditional Mexican food – inevitably trendy after having undergone a seemingly international, instagram-fuelled revival. Predominantly vegatarian restaurant Yerabuena del Sisal serves up chia lemonade and whole-wheat Tortugas with fresh avocado. After our inevitable over-consumption of every possible variety of taco and avocado in Tulum we were happy to try something simple. Wandering around Avenida de los Frailes we noticed a long line of locals heading out of an inauspicious-looking backyard patio that was cooking up whole fresh fish from the market in nothing but olive oil and salt. We chose a big red fish that was cooked right in front of us, grabbed a double-sized Pacifico beer and ate in the Parque Francisco Canton in front of the imposing San Gervasio Cathedral.
The cultural highlight of the Yucatan is without a doubt the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, though it seems almost inappropriate to call them ruins when they are so amazingly well-preserved for 1400 year-old structures. The most well-preserved and spectacular is El Castillo, temple of Kukulcan God of the wind (and Josh’s new nickname). It’s sometimes difficult when travelling, at least it is for me, to fully realise the significance of certain cultural landmarks, and get that immediate sense of wonder that you want and expect. I especially find this with certain religious icons and especially ruins. As spectacular as El Castillo is, I was disappointed to find that this anticlimax is exactly what I felt when I first walked into the Mayan site. I can only put this down to the heat, the ridiculous number of people and the jaguar whistle-wielding peddlers (they make a loud jaguar roaring noise, kind of cool at first, really annoying thirty seconds later).
I soon realised however that while the atmosphere may not have been the same as the Tulum ruins (that boasted stunning sea views and were virtually empty thanks to good timing), the temples themselves were far more beautiful and dramatic at Chichen Itza. Rather than stroll lazily through the site, it made me think about the beauty and significance of the buildings themselves. Each individual structure was testament to the amazing ingenuity and artistry of the Mayans. During the spring and autumn equinoxes, the late-afternoon sunlight hits El Castillo’s principal facade to create the illusion of snake slithering down the steps. El Caracol, dubbed ‘the observatory,’ seems carefully aligned with the movements of Venus – which was of tremendous spiritual significance to the Mayans. One of the observation points on El Caracol marks an appearance of Venus at a particular point on the horizon that takes place exactly once every eight years.
Of course you don’t have to visit Mayan or Aztec sites to experience Mexican culture. One of the things I loved about the Yucatan was how art seemingly permeated every aspect of life – whether this be the unrelenting aesthetic conciousness of Tulum or a beautifully embroidered and kaleidoscopically coloured hammock swinging from the ceiling in a bare and otherwise furniture-less thatched hut in the most remote of towns.
A lot of Mexican art seems laced with subtle irony. From the oxymoronic, cheerfully coloured skulls which reflect what Octavio La Paz would surely describe as a Catholic nation’s baroque fascination with the macabre, to a tiny bamboo hair salon we came across in a remote rural town that was painted red, white and blue in the traditional barber shop colours – a symbol not only associated with the service of bloodletting (originally the image denoted bloody bandages around a pole) but also reminiscent of the patriotic colours of the US flag and fifties consumer culture when this style of barber-shop predominated.
IK-kil and Yokdzonot Cenotes
IK Kil cenote, a limestone sinkhole not far from Chichen Itza, is one of those surreally magical places that will demand a permanent and happy place in your memory. Lush, tropical vegetation suddenly gives way to a Lewis Carollesque hole of climbing ivy and seemingly endless vines that caress the clear blue water 90 feet below. Eager to swim with the hundreds of cute, mini catfish that inhabit the cenote, me and Josh climbed down and dove from the highest platform into the cool water below. Lying on my back and staring at the blue sky while ivy leaves fluttered down and dappled sunlight streamed through the vines forming tiny rainbows is an experience that I will remember forever. I felt like Alice in her dream.
I was so eager to get to IK-Kil early that we actually had to return to the hotel as the ticket office hadn’t even opened, but even when it did we had the cenote to ourselves for at least half an hour. It did busy up later though so if you want to have a more tranquil cenote experience, nearby Yokdzonot is beautiful. Though not as precipitous and immediately striking, it gets more sunlight, which makes the water warmer as well as a beautiful turquoise colour. Yokdzonot is more frequented by locals, and is actually owned by the community as part of a cooperative. We had lunch at the restaurant above the cenote where local women cook traditional Yucatan dishes like lime soup and flaky cochinita Pibil, washed down with with a local berry drink that I haven’t been able to find since. It was our last and without doubt best meal of the entire trip.