My third day in Mexico, Ben and I split up for good; I was moving onward to solo travel on the Peninsula, and he was heading to Cancun for a flight back to the U.K. I caught an early bus for the inland colonial town of Valladolid, where I would be spending the night before my early morning pilgrimage to Chichen Itza.
Valladolid was positively adorable. The downtown is full of pastel-colored colonial buildings in traditional Spanish style, centered around a grand central plaza featuring a gorgeous cathedral.
The town (and Mexico in general) was dotted with retro VW beetles, leading me to my newest travel photo collection: vintage bugs in quaint places.
I went to a really great “museum” featuring Mexican folk art. I use quotation marks because it was actually just an American couple’s house; they are both collectors of Mexican folk art and open their house to tours of their impressive collection in exchange for donations to local charities.
Afterwards, I grabbed a cheap lunch of panuchos, salbutes, and fresh fruit at the local market. In Mexican markets, fresh fruit vendors will often sell enormous bags of cut fruit accompanied by lime juice and chili salt. This combination of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy is so perfect that I have to wonder why other countries haven’t caught on yet. Just about every day that I was in Mexico, I bought a mixed bag of grapefruit, orange, jicama, and mango with chili salt to munch on while I explored—all for about 75 U.S. cents.
I also visited Cenote Zaci, a cenote located in downtown Valladolid. Though significantly more crowded than the two I visited outside Tulum, Zaci was also lovely. At nearly 150 feet across and 260 feet deep (according to Atlas Obscura), it’s an enormous and shocking sight to see in the middle of a city.
The next morning, I caught an early bus to Chichen Itza. For those of you that don’t recognize the name, Chichen Itza is one of the most famous Mayan ruins. It has been declared one of the new seven wonders of the world and as such has become one of Mexico’s main tourist attractions. Partially because of this, visiting Chichen Itza was a strange experience.
It certainly has some impressive ruins; as you walk towards the site from the ticket office, the main pyramid appearing out of the forest is staggering.
The Mayan ball court is the largest in Mesoamerica, and features some amazing acoustics that allow you to hear a person talking normally hundreds of feet away on the opposite side of the court. Some of the other ruins on the site had impressively maintained carvings and depictions of the Mayan Calendar.
Although the ruins are amazing, the sheer commercialization of Chichen Itza is very distracting. I arrived fifteen minutes after the site opened and there were probably about fifty people inside already; by the time I left two hours later, there were thousands of tourists accompanied by hundreds of personal guides speaking dozens of different languages. What’s worse, by 10 A.M. every walkway in the site was lined by vendors, harassing everyone within earshot to buy their mass-produced souvenirs. Especially annoying were the little wooden toys that the vendors were particularly fond of demonstrating – when you blow through the toy, it sounds like a jaguar’s roar. The children who managed to convince their parents to buy this toy never seemed to muster the lung capacity of the vendors, though, so instead of a roar I spent all day being startled by convincing impressions of a jaguar wheeze.
This combination of ancient relics and modern tackiness makes for some interesting thinking as you walk around. I spent a good twenty minutes gazing at the main pyramid and considering the rise and fall of civilizations, religion and its intrinsic relation to the human condition, and whether I should offer my inhaler to that poor, asthmatic jaguar.
After I was done pondering the big and small, I immediately hopped on a bus to my most-anticipated destination of the trip: the colonial city of Merida!