THE CENTRAL HEARTLAND

An unmistakable Yucatecan identity and sense of their own culture distinguishes towns such as Valladolid or Tizimín, with Spanish colonial churches and squares, Mayan women selling luscious fruit and colorful flowers, and a gently paced street life. The ancestors of the modern Maya built some of their greatest creations here, at Ek-Balam and the city of Chichén Itzá. Giant underground caverns and magical cenote pools lie beneath the landscape.

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Brown pelican

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1. Balankanché Caves

prac_info Open 8am–5pm daily • Adm

This great labyrinthine complex of caves extends for miles under the Yucatán forest. Caves were sacred for the ancient Maya and, in one spectacular chamber, the sanctuary, remains were found of over 100 ritual incense burners. The compulsory tour ends in a magical chamber with a perfectly still pool, in which the cave bottom seen through the water is a mirror image of the roof.

2. San Felipe

To the west of Río Lagartos, this village (see Río Lagartos and San Felipe) is smaller and has a superb, usually near-empty beach on the sandbar across the lagoon, facing the opal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Village boatmen will ferry you to and from the beach, and also offer flamingo tours. You can see fabulous sunsets from the village.

3. Dzitnup and Samula Cenote

prac_info Dzitnup village • Open 8am–5pm daily • Adm

Easily accessible from Valladolid, these two spectacular swimmable cenotes are among some of the greatest sights of the Yucatán. Dzitnup can be entered through a cramped tunnel, which emerges into a vast, cathedral-like cavern, pierced by a shaft of sunlight and filled with tower-shaped rocks. Only a five-minute walk away, Samula is a large, shallow pool of crystal-clear water, into which the roots of an aged tree dangle through a crack in the rocky ceiling.

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The huge cavern of Dzitnup Cenote

4. Aké

prac_info Open 8am–5pm daily • Adm • www.inah.gob.mx

This city west of Izamal is a mystery, as its drum-shaped columns and ramp-like stairways are quite other Mayan buildings. The local church was built on an ancient Mayan pyramid (see Aké). Alongside the site is a 19th-century henequén hacienda, San Lorenzo de Aké, filled with vintage machinery.

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Aké’s mysterious columns

5. Ek-Balam

prac_info Open 8am–5pm daily • Adm • www.inah.gob.mx

In 1998, excavations revealed some of the finest examples of Mayan sculpture here (see Ek-Balam), on the giant temple-mound known as the Acropolis. Most spectacular is El Trono (The Throne), a temple entrance believed to be the tomb of Ukit-Kan-Lek-Tok, who ruled around AD 800. Nearby is an intricate mass of finely carved figures. The rest of the Acropolis is a multilevel palace.

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Visitor exploring the magnificent Mayan site of Ek-Balam

6. Río Lagartos

This quiet village on the remote north coast is at the head of over 12 miles (20 km) of mangrove lagoon (see Río Lagartos) and mud flats, with the Yucatán’s largest colonies of flamingos and a dazzling variety of other birds. Local boatmen offer good-value tours.

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Young eagle, Río Lagartos

7. Chichén Itzá

This is the most famous and awe-inspiring of the great ancient Mayan cities, and the one with the most spine-tingling images of war and sacrifice. The great pyramid of El Castillo, the giant Ball Court, the Sacred Cenote, and the Temple of the Warriors are all must-sees.

8. Valladolid

prac_info San Bernardino: Parque de San Bernardino; open 9am–8pm Wed–Mon

The Spanish capital of the eastern Yucatán, founded in 1545, has one of the most charming of the region’s colonial plazas, overlooked by the tall white cathedral. Valladolid is famed for embroidery, and the square is a good place to buy traditional white, flower-patterned huípil blouses and tablecloths. Around town are many fine old Spanish churches and houses, including the beautifully renovated 17th-century townhouse, Casa de los Venados, housing a collection of contemporary Mexican folk art. Four blocks from the plaza you can look down into the pit of Cenote Zací, once Valladolid’s main water source. Close by is the San Bernardino de Siena. Begun in 1552, it (see San Bernardino Sisal, Valladolid) is the oldest permanent church in the Yucatán, with a shady gallery of graceful arches along the facade and a cloister of giant, squat stone columns set around a garden. Inside are some rare 18th-century Baroque altars and altarpieces.

9. Telchac and Uaymitún

Far west of San Felipe, a road runs along the coast through quiet fishing villages. Seaward, there are endless, often empty, beaches; on the landward side is a lagoon full of birds. Telchac is a fishing harbor with fine beaches and a few cheap hotels and low-key restaurants. At Uaymitún there is a free observation tower for bird-watching in the lagoon.

10. Izamal

The most unaltered Spanish colonial city (see Izamal) in the Yucatán, known as ciudad dorada or “Golden City” for the color of its buildings, is centered on the huge San Antonio monastery, begun in 1549 and the shrine of Our Lady of Izamal, the region’s patron. A short walk away are the remains of three pyramids, traces of a much older Mayan city.

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Golden-colored building, Izamal

THE SALT OF CHICHÉN

Salt was one of the greatest sources of wealth in ancient America. In the lagoons near Río Lagartos there are huge salt flats, still exploited today. Around AD 800, Chichén Itzá won control of them and built its own port at El Cerritos, east of Río Lagartos, to trade in salt. The wealth this gave Chichén was a major reason why it could dominate the Yucatán.

A TWO-DAY TOUR

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DAY ONE

Stay the night in Valladolid, or the little town of Pisté (close to Chichén Itzá), or better still one of the hotels just outside the sites such as Hacienda Chichén. Get to the site as soon as possible to beat the crowds. You’ll need at least three hours for exploring the site, before lunch at the charming Las Mestizas in Pisté.

In the afternoon, make a choice: if you’re interested in the ancient Maya, go up to Ek-Balam, or head into Valladolid for a wander around its plaza, San Bernardino monastery, and the dramatic town cenote. Before the day ends, head north to Río Lagartos (65 miles/105 km) to reserve a flamingo tour for the next morning. Stay at the Hotel San Felipe in San Felipe.

DAY TWO

The flamingos are best seen early, so you’ll be off around 7am. A two- or four-hour tour takes you into an exuberant, rare natural world, through broad lagoons and narrow creeks. Afterward, for lunch, have a ceviche at Isla Contoy on the waterfront, or head to Tizimín for steaks at the Tres Reyes on its colonial square. From Tizimín, turn westward through miles and miles of cattle ranches to reach Izamal. Here you can look out on the town from the monastery’s arcaded courtyard. The town’s golden colors are especially lovely in the warm, early evening light.

The Best of the Rest

1. Ik Kil Cenote

prac_info Highway 180, 2 miles (3 km) E of Chichén Itzá • Open 8am–5pm daily • Adm

A huge, circular pit filled with a beautiful underground pool – now the center of a private nature park. You can swim in the cenote pool and dine in the restaurant up above it.

2. Yaxcabá

This ultra sleepy little town in the woods surprises with its imposing 18th-century church, which features a unique three-tower facade and a beautifully carved wooden altarpiece.

3. Calotmul

Between Valladolid and Tizimín, this is another country town that has a fine church (1749) with a magnificently ornate Baroque altarpiece.

4. Tizimín

The hub of Yucatán’s “cattle country” is a non-touristy market town (see Tizimín). At its center are two spacious squares, divided by the massive walls of two Spanish monasteries.

5. Tihosuco

prac_info Museum: open 10am–6pm Tue–Sun • Adm

This remote village 30 miles (48 km) south of Valladolid was where the great Mayan revolt of the Caste War began; it still bears the battle scars. A small museum tells visitors the whole story.

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Fortified church, Tihosuco

6. El Cuyo

At the end of a lonely road through savanna, forest, and sand flats, this tiny fishing village (see El Cuyo) is a place to enjoy miles of Gulf coast beaches.

7. Bocas de Dzilam

This vast area of mangroves west of San Felipe is remote and wild. There are no regular tours, but boatmen in San Felipe or Dzilam may offer a trip.

8. El Bajo and Santa Clara

Alongside the north coast road is a long, narrow sand-spit island, El Bajo, with deserted, coconut-palm shaded beaches. In the tiny village of Santa Clara you can find boatmen offering trips to the island.

9. Xcambó

prac_info Open 8am–5pm daily • Adm

The atmospheric site of a coastal Mayan town, probably an outlying Dzibilchaltún settlement, with great views from the top of its pyramid.

10. Cenote Yokdzonot

prac_info Yokdzonot village, 9 miles (14 km) west of Pisté • Open 9am–6pm daily • Adm

The little-visited village of Yokdzonot, a short drive from Pisté and Chichén Itzá, is home to a delightful, creeper-clad cenote, perfect for an afternoon dip. Life jackets and snorkeling gear are available.

Shops, Markets, and Tours

1. Main Plaza, Valladolid

Mayan women from the surrounding villages display their beautifully bright huípiles (traditional blouses) and other embroidery on the railings of the Parque Principal.

2. MexiGo Tours, Valladolid

prac_info Calle 43, by Calle 40 and Calle 42 • (985) 856 0777 • www.mexigotours.com

Owned and managed by locals, this outfitter offers guided tours for archaeological and historical sites in and around Valladolid. Bike rental is also available.

3. Handicrafts Market, Chichén Itzá

Around the Chichén Itzá visitor center there is something approaching a mall of handicrafts stalls, some of which are run by Maya selling their own embroidery, woven hammocks, and wood carvings.

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Chichén Itzá

4. Flamingo Tours, Río Lagartos

prac_info (986) 862 0542

The best local boatmen’s cooperative has a kiosk on the waterfront (see Río Lagartos), just left of where the Tizimín road runs out. They work alongside the nature reserve and have good boats and experienced guides.

5. San Felipe Tours

prac_info (986) 100 8390

The boatmen’s cooperative here is a bit less organized but also has a waterfront hut, in San Felipe village. Rates are similar to those in Río Lagartos, but boatmen here will be more ready to take you to the Bocas de Dzilam and Río Lagartos lagoon.

6. Valladolid Crafts Market and Bazaar

prac_info Mercado de Artesanías Calle 39, corner of Calle 44

Valladolid’s semi-official handicrafts market has some fine embroidery, as well as more mass-produced goods. The nearby bazaar is a quirky set of shops around a food court (see Cocinas Económicas, Valladolid).

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Handicrafts at Valladolid Market

7. Market, Tizimín

prac_info Open 8am–5pm daily

Not a place for souvenirs but a real, bustling country town market, with great fruit and produce and household goods.

8. Yalat, Valladolid

prac_info Corner of Calle 39 and Calle 40

Set on Valladolid’s central plaza, Yalat offers jewelry, embroidered clothes, Mexican chocolate, and sisal-fiber bath scrubs.

9. Hecho a Mano, Izamal

prac_info Calle 31, No. 308, by the Town Hall

A pretty little shop with a more carefully selected display of handmade folk art than in the markets, as well as striking photographs of Yucatecan scenes.

10. Market, Izamal

prac_info Calle 31/Calle 32

Izamal’s market, just below the monastery, has a mix of souvenirs, handicrafts, and busy little cafés.

Drinking and Entertainment Spots

1. Taberna de los Frailes, Valladolid

prac_info Calle 49 • (985) 856 0689 • Open 1–11pm daily • www.tabernadelosfrailes.com • $

The drinks menu predominately consists of Mexican beers and spirits. There’s also a good selection of wine.

2. Restaurante Zaci, Valladolid

prac_info Calle 37 • (985) 856 0721 • $

Generous portions of local specialities are served here under a palapa, all in sight of the Zaci cenote. You can even take a dip before or after your meal.

3. Hacienda Chichén

prac_info Hotel Zone, Chichén Itzá • $$$

This historic ranch-hotel, on the fringes of the Chichén Itzá site, has a terrace restaurant-bar perfect for a cocktail after a day of exploration.

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Guests at Hacienda Chichén

4. Hotel María de la Luz, Valladolid

prac_info Calle 42 • $$

This hotel has a big, well-shaded terrace on the Parque Principal, with very comfortable seats – ideal for lazy lounging while keeping an eye on all the movement in the square.

5. Squimz Bistro Café, Valladolid

prac_info Calle 39, No. 219, between Calle 44 and Calle 46 • $

Located in an old colonial house, this bistro serves an interesting mix of Yucatecan and international cuisine. Their trademark dessert, Squimz’s Flan Napolitano, is a must-have.

6. Pueblo Maya, Pisté

prac_info Calle 15, No. 48B, Manzana No. 13 • $

Enjoy real Mexican food at Pueblo Maya, which is also a craft market. It has a lovely pool, and hammocks on which to lounge after your meal.

7. Miramar, El Cuyo

prac_info Calle 40, No. 3A • Open 7am–8pm daily • $

Part of Hotel Aida Luz in the tranquil fishing village of El Cuyo, Miramar serves Yucatecan dishes made with locally caught fish.

8. Ria Maya, Río Lagartos

prac_info (986) 862 0045 • Calle 19, by Calle 13 and Calle 14 • $$

Popular for its seafood, the menu at this family-friendly restaurant is complemented not only by its settings but also fine sunset views.

9. Market Bars, Izamal

prac_info Calle 31, by Calle 32 • $

Several cafés and loncherías here share an outside terrace, a fine vantage point on the monastery and town life. Some serve beer; some only soft drinks with their snacks.

10. Sunday Concerts, Valladolid

prac_info Parque Principal • Open from 7:30pm Sun

Valladolid puts on entertainment for free – the town band gives a concert every Sunday night in the square, with a wide-ranging musical menu.

Places to Eat

1. Restaurante El Toro, Izamal

prac_info Plazuela 2 de Abril • (998) 954 1169 • No credit cards • $

Set on a square near the monastery is this friendly little restaurant, with tasty Yucatecan dishes and tacos.

2. Cocinas Económicas, Valladolid

prac_info Calle 39, on Parque Principal • No credit cards • $

Around the bazaar on the square (see Valladolid Crafts Market and Bazaar) there’s a line of self-service food counters. Noisy, with lots of atmosphere, this is a great place for a good breakfast, and to try out local snacks.

3. Casa Italia, Valladolid

prac_info Calle 35, No. 202 • $

Overlooking a quaint plaza a short walk from the city center, this family-run restaurant serves the best Italian food in Valladolid, drawing a loyal crowd of locals and visitors. The thin-crust pizzas and pasta dishes are authentic and good value.

4. Chaya’s Natural Café, Ek-Balam

prac_info Off the northeast corner of the town plaza • $$

The restaurant at Genesis Retreat is open to non-guests only in the afternoon, but the crêpes and chocolate-chili cookies make it well worth a visit.

5. Las Mestizas, Pisté

prac_info (985) 851 0069 • No credit cards • $$

The prettiest of the restaurants along the main road in Pisté, with charming service. It dishes up a delicious sopa de lima.

6. Hostería del Marqués, Valladolid

prac_info Calle 39, on Parque Principal • (985) 856 3042 • $$

Valladolid’s best hotel also has its most eminent restaurant, with tables around a plant-filled patio. Its versions of local specialties like lomitos de Valladolid are definitive.

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Patio dining at Hostería del Marqués

7. Tres Reyes, Tizimín

prac_info Calle 52, corner of Calle 53 • (986) 863 2106 • No credit cards • $$

The specialty of the Yucatán cattle capital’s best restaurant is steak, often cooked in thin strips (arracheras).

8. Yerba Buena del Sisal, Valladolid

prac_info Calle 54A No. 217 • (985) 856 1406 • $

This charming restaurant is decorated with papel picado banners and is a great option for vegetarians.

9. Restaurante Vaselina, San Felipe

prac_info (986) 862 2083 • $$

A big, unfussy, place on the seafront where you can try wonderfully fresh, fat shrimp, octopus, and conch.

10. Kinich, Izamal

prac_info Calle 27, No. 299, between Calle 28 and Calle 30 • (988) 954 0489 • Closed D • $$

Set in a lush garden, this place has a high reputation for classic Yucatecan food, such as poc-chuc.

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