Mexico'ssofter side

The highway from Cancun to Chichen Itza is forced decompression: three hours on a straight, modern road through the wilds of Quintana Roo. Behind the motorcoach is the neon glitz of the resort coast; ahead lies the ancient Mayan city unearthed from the jungle. Chichen Itza is a popular bus trip, and for many the only stop on the way is this market town, roughly 40 minutes shy of the famous ruins. The bus eases off the toll road and into the past.

The driver makes a slow circuit of Valladolid's large plaza, past the many prosperous storefronts, and stops across from city hall. Like everything on the zocalo – the Mexican term for town plaza – you are under the 18th-century gaze of San Servacio church.

The stop in Valladolid is brief – 15 minutes or so – but long enough to realize this is a picturesque slice of Mexico, a colonial downtown brushed sparingly by modern ways. You see crowds of vendors, shoppers and strollers on this square and notice that the few gringos sitting on the tree-shaded park benches appear to be European backpackers.

And when your bus pulls out, you wonder why you're aboard.

This reaction is common. It happened to me seven years ago. And when I returned to Valladolid last fall, I remembered how to say it: “VAYA-doe-Leed.” And I knew just what to do.

Get off the bus. Quest for winter quarters

Tom and Kathie Jones know all about this: November through April, they're part of the small American colony here. They like the “small” aspect because they have to abide U.S. tourists the rest of the year in Asheville.

Tom, 73, is a retired school psychologist; Kathie's field is occupational therapy. What brought them here was a quest for winter quarters – “a place convenient to the Gulf of Mexico, with colonial and Mayan culture and which was affordable,” he says.

They bought a wreck of a late-1700s house in the southern end of the historic district that had been a roosting spot for bums. They restored and expanded it.

He easily provides background on Valladolid and at the right venue – where the town began.

Three blocks east of the square is an open-air restaurant where Jones ordered up a Yucatan sampler and pointed over the railing to the park-like Cenote Zaci below. The region is flat, slightly above sea level and courses with underground rivers. In roughly 3,000 locations, erosion-hollowed openings create subterranean ponds with skylights. They're called “cenotes,” and the one here was the site of the pre-Spanish settlement of Zaci.

It's a gated attraction, but costs only 15 pesos ($1.42 U.S.) to visit.

Stairways lead about six stories down to a pool the size of a three-bedroom ranch house. Light comes in from the 538-square-foot hole high above; it reflects off the rippling black waters to illuminate the stalactites and stalagmites. Every sound bounces off the walls. The wall-hugging path circles the pond. Birds soar down and make their own loops.

The vibe is calming yet eerie. Ancient Mayans thought cenotes were an entrance to the afterlife. They were also a source of fresh water and home to an eyeless black fish called a lub.

Swimming is allowed but not encouraged. “But the water's just fine – I've been in there a bunch of times,” Jones says.

Explore on foot

Roughly 65,000 people live here, and the historic district is compact – about 50 blocks. The whole town, Jones says, is two miles from one end to the other. No need for a car or taxi.

Mayan is spoken by about 40 percent of townspeople, and by about 80 percent of those living in outlying villages. Valladolid is historically a market town, but it also holds three universities and now has several “maquiladoras” – foreign-owned assembly plants.

Crime is low; Jones and his wife feel safe here.

Numbered streets are laid out in a grid, a legacy from early Spanish times when outposts needed to be built in a fast and orderly way.

Even-numbered streets run north-south; the odd ones are east-west. The one diagonal exception in the historic district is Calzada de los Frailes – “Path of the Friars” – a four-block street that was restored a couple years back to its colonial look. That is where we head next.

Old brick and stucco-sheathed buildings press close to the street, and heavy wooden doors mask residences and closed stores. Classic wrought-iron gates and window bars offer teasing glimpses. Walls narrow the horizon and point you down the cobblestone time tunnel to a dark and sprawling hulk that touches on Valladolid's troubled past: San Bernardino de Siena. The Franciscan mission, built in 1552, is still an active church and one of the oldest buildings in town.

The Spaniards arrived at Zaci in 1533, were pushed out, and succeeded in starting Valladolid a decade later. Jones points out the fortress-like appearance of San Bernardino and its narrow windows. It was built for security.

The Spanish, Mayans and Mexicans all took turns warring on each other; the solidly built mission was where to go when your side was in trouble.

In 1847, a full-scale Mayan revolt started in Valladolid and spread across the Yucatan as the Caste War. The conflicts persisted as localized flare-ups as recently as the 1930s.

Aside from some new and large houses for wealthy locals on the north end of town, near the highway, classes tend to be mixed in neighborhoods of close-together homes.

About four blocks south of the Jones house is the old train depot and the abandoned 1830s Aurora Cotton Factory that jump-started the modern age here and earned Valladolid the nickname “La Sultana de Oriente,” or “Queen of the East.” Jones thinks some kind of attraction could be made of it.

We drop in on Miguel Tun, an older Mayan whose extended family lives across the street from the Joneses. In line with Mayan hospitality, Tun offers xtabentun (SHTA-bin-toon), the Yucatan liqueur thickened by honey and licorice-flavored with anise.

Through Jones, Tun asks if I've come to see the ruins, particularly Chichen Itza. There's native pride as well as the business of tourism, which many here see as the inevitable and welcomed next wave of prosperity.

It's not well-known in the United States, but Chichen Itza is perhaps the only Wonder of the World that is private property. The Mexican government may own the ruins, but they sit on land owned by the Barbachano family, which has been a power in the Yucatan since the early 1800s. This family also has the Hacienda Chichen and Mayaland Hotel & Bungalows complex that, like the Club Med, adjoins Chichen Itza.

Members of the Barbachano clan own two noteworthy places on Valladolid's square, on either side of the Palacio (mayor's office).

The must-see is Yalat Boutique, which specializes in fine jewelry and crafts from Yucatan and other parts of Mexico. It has quality stuff, good prices and a staff that speaks English.

The other is Maruja's, an upscale women's clothier that also serves espresso. Get a cup and park yourself on one of the cafe chairs, in the shade and across from the passing parade at the square.

Time to eat

Jones had tipped me off to the cheap, clean and quasi-quaint Hotel Zaci, offered a thumbnail of Valladolid and given me a quick drive-around. Now he turned me loose with a list of places to eat.

Want upscale? Meson del Marques, right on the square, is a mansion from the 1600s that has been refitted as a hotel with a restaurant that has Yucatan fare.

There's a formal dining room, but if the weather cooperates, opt for the smallish but classic courtyard. Also on the square as a combination hotel/eatery is Maria de la Luz. It's not swanky, but has plenty of seating and regional dishes for roughly $5.22-$6.16 U.S.

Yucatan food?

We're looking at poc chuc (charcoal-broiled chopped pork), and pig or chicken roasted in banana leaves. Fish and seafood is often flavored with tropical fruits.

A room at either place starts at about $50 (at the Marques, rates go up to around $160 for a master suite).

East of the plaza, close by the cenote, try Sirenita for cervice; or the small Yapez for a menu loaded with tortilla dishes. A favorite was Oasis, just southeast of the historic district in a neighborhood of machine shops. Go for a plate of shredded-meat soft tacos, each shell the size of a tea saucer (with Mexican sausage, called chorizo, 50 pesos – $4.74 U.S.; with brisket, 70 pesos – $6.64).

There's no need to know more than a few words in Spanish. Point-and-nod works just fine.

You can buy beer and wine at eateries, but there are no actual bars or saloons on the square. Another nice, un-Cancun touch: The square has only one chain eatery – a little-patronized Domino's.

Another thing you won't find much of are Americans. They pour out from the Chichen Itza motorcoach during the brief leg-stretch, but that's about it. Most with pale skin were young Europeans; ones from Poland, the Netherlands and Britain were surprised (and pleased) at the absence of Yankees.

The Europeans fade into the crowds at the plaza.

At the plaza

Go native and pass time at the plaza. Soak up the sun and local color. The expanse is tidier than most urban parks in the United States. Lovers and families fill the park benches; vendors of frozen treats come through with bike-powered carts, rapping individualized clangs on their handlebars with pencil-length metal rods.

I wish I had been at the plaza on a Sunday night, when there's live music. But on the Saturday morning I was there, a local holiday was in progress, and the sidewalks were filled with parent-pulling boys and girls.

The kids wore large straw sombreros and white Yucatan linen clothing. Pretend ammo belts hung crossed from their shoulders; they toted pop guns and had large handlebar moustaches painted below their noses.

Later in the day, while a children's book sale was under way on the sidewalk in front of the Palacio, the sound of a Chopin étude wafted over the square. Inside and up the stairs, in a civic assembly room with a beautiful view of the square, a guy at a grand piano was playing for his family (front row) and a handful of curious passers-by.

For two days in Valladolid, one visual vignette followed another – a low-cost or no-cost slideshow in a part of the tropics where time edges to a stop and you can live like a 1940s movie star for a couple hundred bucks.

Just pass the wide-lapel jacket and paint me in black-and-white.

Saturday morning at the Las Campanas coffee shop, with San Servacio across one corner and the plaza across another, I'm wolfing breakfast. It's longadiza asado – narrow and spicy Yucatan sausages, fried until the casing is crisp.

The two long links, both folded in half, are served with dollops of rice, potato salad and a small salad of lettuce and tomatoes; alongside it is a covered tub filled with soft, hot flour tortillas. Add a cup of strong coffee, and we're looking at a total investment of 65 pesos, about $6.25 U.S.

At the next table over, a husband and wife trade whispers over coffee as their four girls – the oldest about 10 – each in native dress, quietly wait beside them. It is a market day, and they are clearly in from the country.

The mom finally reaches into a large cloth bag, pulls out a stack of tiny hand-stitched hankies and doles them out to her daughters. She points them toward the door – but they jump the gun and instead head to the only other customer in the place for the first sale of the day.

Out comes a handful of change; each girl pulls a few Mexican coins and puts one cloth on the table before scampering away.

A quartet of easy smiles for a total of ... about one U.S. dollar.

What a bargain.