A new wonder of the world. That sounded promising. I had visited quite a few archaeological sites since I had arrived in Mexico but Chichen Itza seemed on another league, especially from a tourist point of a view. It might not have been the most beautiful ancient site in the country. Yet, it was the one which drew the most massive crowds, about 2 million visitors a year. Long story short, it was an essential visit.
Most of those visitors seemed to come from one of the numerous seaside resorts located along the Riviera Maya, stretching from Cancun to Tulum. To me, it didn’t sound like a smart choice. Cancun, for example, was located 2 hours away from the site. It was therefore impossible to arrive on site early and enjoy it without the crowds. Luckily, there was another way.
Staying in Chichen Itza was not really an option since it required a car. Besides, there was nothing to do there, except visiting the site. A name on the map had caught my attention though. Valladolid was a small colonial city located 45 minutes away from Chichen by local transport. On top of this advantageous location, the town had become part of the Pueblo Magico initiative, a programme designed by the Mexican tourism department to reward towns that offered magical experiences. That sounded promising too.
My friends and I had decided to spend a few nights in Valladolid, unsure whether that was the right decision. Apart from a trip to nearby Chichen Itza, where did this pueblo magico stand in terms of experiences ? There was only one way to find out and we started exploring the town right away. Our first impressions were rather positive. Valladolid was small enough to be easy to navigate and big enough to provide enough places to discover, even though the town was more about walking around to soak in the atmosphere than about visiting remarkable landmarks.
We did stop at a small chocolate museum to sip a genuine Yucatan cocoa though, which was a bit too bitter for my liking. We also visited the inside of a church, displaying local works of art and ancient artifacts. There was no missing the Cathedral of San Servacio o Gervasio either, looming over the lively zocalo, or the former Convent of San Bernardino de Siena, a bit further away from the city centre in the neighborhood of Sisal.
What confirmed our impressions the most was the general mood of the city. Valladolid was a sleepy town and even if there were signs of a tourist awakening, as shown by a number of slightly overpriced handicraft stores, mass tourism was still miles away. The customers queuing at the stalls of the Mercado Municipal were mostly locals. The pollo en escabeche I was served there was simple comfort food, cheap and tasty. So were the tamales we got to taste on the terrace of an unassuming restaurant in a quiet street and so was the ceviche, deliciously fresh and good value for money, we ate at a restaurant where only a handful of tables had been dressed.
The streets of Valladolid added to that mood, with their houses whose façades were painted in bright colors and the multi-colored flags called papel picado that hanged everywhere. They were all camera-ready, even the humblest looking. The distant humming of traditional music played on the zocalo also uplifted the spirit, even though it was sometimes replaced by less local music like kpop, as the East met the West.
After a lovely evening in Valladolid, we were all set for an early wake-up the following morning. The bus terminal was only a few minutes away on foot and we arrived just in time to catch our ADO bus heading to Chichen Itza. At around 8 :45AM, we were in front of the gates. Other eager visitors were already queuing, gathering the 232 pesos necessary to enter. Undoubtedly, that was a small price to pay to visit a world wonder.
The site was far from empty when we finally got in. We would soon realize our luck though, the moment we crossed path with the literal waves of people coming in at 11AM, pouring in from tourist coaches from Cancun and Playa del Carmen. For now, we stood in awe at the sight of the Temple of Kukulcan, also known as the Castillo. I personally had seen it on paper-glass before but that was no match to seeing it for real. It stood at the center of the site, dramatic and imposing. In comparison, every surrounding seemed to play supporting roles.
We first walked around the Temple, admiring it from every side, until the weird behavior of a guide attracted our attention. Slightly intrigued, we started walking towards him and stopped at a reasonable enough distance not to appear like we were eavesdropping, even though that’s exactly what we were doing. Catching us off-guard, he clapped his hands. The clapping reverberated on the structure and came back to us echoing the sound of birds singing. Of course, we followed suit and the miracle birdsong happened again. Right there and then, we witnessed one of the numerous mysteries of Chichen Itza.
The city was believed to have been built between AD 900 and 800 by the Maya people. Yet, this enormous city at the time had been a diverse dwelling place for different tribes and peoples, which explained its composite style of architecture. Chichen was one of the largest Maya cities ever recorded in history but it also showed some similarity with other pre columbian cities like Tula, a Toltec site, a fact still debated by historians.
Putting historical controversy aside, Chichen Itza was a true wonder anyhow. Its level of preservation was astonishing, from the details of the carved bas-reliefs on the skull platform to the typical Puuc-style architecture of the great ball court, which seemed to be particularly fancied by local iguanas. The city itself was divided into different parts and there was much more to discover than the main Kukulcan temple.
The structures of the central group were in that regard particularly impressive, dominated by the circular shape of the Caracol building, meaning the Snail. The complex of Las Monjas, the Nuns, also stood out in the area for its hieroglyphic texts. Chichen Itza was vast and it took a lot of walking around to truly grasp its magnitude but the diversity of its buildings deserved some exploring. Eventually, our visit came to an end as we reached the side of the sacred cenote.
On our way back, the alleys we had walked in looked different and so did the site itself, which had turned into a massive playground for all kinds of vendors. They were all right of course, we could tell by the herds coming in from the main gate.
We had made the most of Chichen Itza and left the site pretty content, only too excited to jump in another cenote near Valladolid in the afternoon to fight the growing heat. This one cenote was empty though, which was yet another perk of staying in Valladolid.