Beguiled by Valladolid

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22 Jan – 3 Feb 2017. It is not an auspicious beginning in Valladolid. We’d looked repeatedly online for accommodation and all we came up with was a choice between a hotel for $1000 per night, or the guesthouse we ended up booking for $30 per night.

We know the guesthouse is only two or three blocks from the bus station so we push our cases along the rough crowded narrow sidewalks. Every second store it seems has a large speaker sitting in the doorway facing the street. “Music” rages forth from each one, distorted and thunderous. It both bewilders and annoys me. What’s it for? I keep asking, incredulous.

The sign for the guesthouse is so high up and insignificant we walk right past it, but soon catch our mistake. We find the owner in the shop next door. He takes us through a door that opens directly onto the street, up a steep flight of stairs, and into our accommodation. The shared “kitchen” has no sink, no water of any kind. No pot for heating water. A single electric burner. Styrofoam plates and plastic utensils. A small bar fridge. It is a very sad excuse for a kitchen.

Our room is stifling with an inadequate fan. There’s no screen on the window so we’d have to keep it closed to keep out the mosquitoes. There are great gaps between the window frame and the window in the bathroom so the mosquitoes are going to get in anyway. I think that I can probably patch it up with duct tape. We always carry duct tape.

We are booked for twelve days but there is nowhere to unpack our things – nowhere to put them except for one small dust covered shelf and the equally dusty window ledge.

There is no seat on the toilet.

We have stayed in some pretty basic places before but this is dire. There must be something better.

In a haze of resignation we begin to unpack. Don suddenly decides we’re going to look for something better: it’s the lack of a toilet seat that is the kicker for him. The Tourist Information Centre is in the town square a short walk away and they give us a list of nearby hotels. The first doesn’t have our dates. The second does. The room is cool, comfortable, clean, and quiet. There’s a café across the street. There’s a fabulous restaurant half a block away. There’s a taxi stand half a block away. There are coat hangers in the cupboard and drawers for our clothes. There is a seat on the toilet.

Such civilization! We retrieve our things from the desperate desolate guesthouse. The owner immediately refunds our money. He asks why, but I do not think he is surprised.

In Valladolid, unlike in Merida, we are right in the very busy centre of town. It makes all the difference. The streets are crowded with people and the town feels alive.

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The newly restored Parque Principal, or town square, is a few steps away.

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Valladolid is in the north end of the Yucatan Peninsula, about half way between the state capital of Merida and the tourist resort town of Cancun. We’ve chosen twelve days here for its proximity to places we want to visit: Inca ruins, Rio Lagartos, and various different cenotes. At the same time it’s lovely to be in a city that is vibrant with life. Initially Valladolid’s beauty is not obvious. There’s too much traffic on both the streets and sidewalks to see it at first but slowly the town speaks to us. Buildings in the softest candy colours line the streets. I spy them through the crowds and one day set out early, before the town is awake, to capture the beauty of this Spanish colonial town founded in 1543.

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The Franciscan Cathedral of San Gervacio dominates one side of the town square.

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Just past the cathedral, half a block from home is our favourite restaurant. We eat in a leafy courtyard where the grackles screech and whistle in the treetops. For dinner we might have melt-in-the-mouth grilled fish or the local Mayan dish of chicken pibil, and for breakfast red chilaquiles with eggs.

Down the road a bit, just past our favourite café, these two ladies graciously welcome customers into a store filled with colourful Mayan artefacts.

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For all its beauty Valladolid is unpretentious, and laid-back despite its fractious history. In 1847, having been suppressed by the descendants of the Spanish Conquistadors for about three hundred years, and outnumbering them by up to as many as five to one, the indigenous Mayan population rioted. They killed eighty people of the ruling class, those of European descent. After a Mayan nobleman was shot by firing squad the riot escalated into a general uprising, and the city and surrounding area became the centre of the intense battles of Yucatan’s Caste Wars. The Spanish leaders had been reluctant to join the Mexican Union in the north but in exchange for agreeing to do that they received the armed help needed to finally put down the rebellion.

The entire story of Valladolid’s history, including the Caste Wars, is told in a brilliant fifteen-minute movie projected onto the walls of the Convent of San Bernardino de Siena, which saw plenty of the action.

We first explore the convent and it’s adjacent church, during daylight. The stately building, in understated Franciscan style, was completed in 1560.

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We return on New Year’s Eve hoping to see the film that is projected onto the entire front wall of the building but instead find we’re attending a Catholic mass to bring in the new year.

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We walk slowly home, getting some sweet glimpses into ordinary life along the way. People leave their doors open for the cool of the evening, sometimes moving their chairs out onto the sidewalk.

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We return a couple of nights later. Don finds a seat on the stone wall that fences the lawn, and I find a huge concrete bunker that I can climb up and stand on. The film is shown twice, first with Spanish narration and then with English. It’s worth staying for both showings. It astonishes and delights us the way the film fits the façade of the building. How did they do that? They show Mayan life before the arrival of the Spanish.

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The arrival of the Conquistadors.

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The arrival of Christianity.

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The first mechanized weaving factory bringing prosperity to the area.

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It is constantly moving and changing. Trains arrive and travel the entire width of the building, hawks fly across, wagon wheels move from one side to the other, one scene morphs into the next, never static, and all the while the narration tells the story.

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The final scene is a celebration of Mayan culture and arts.

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With Valladolid as our base we visited four cenotes, two of the more prominent Mayan ruins, and an extraordinary private collection of Mexican folk art. All to come in the next couple of posts.





All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2016.