Magic in Mexico, in a Yucatan State of Mind
By Shelley Rotner
I feel so privileged every time I get to go to Mexico. It never ceases to amaze me whatever part or state I visit. The magic is immediate. It’s time travel back to the past. The preservation of this culture is a gift to my soul.
It’s a transformation that filters through a special lens. It’s a multi-sensory experience at its best– visual, savory, scented, musical, tactile and magical.
Yucatan state is the northern tip of the Yucatan peninsula. It’s a treasured travel destination because the Yucatecos or Mayas have kept their culture alive. It would be remiss to write a travel piece without looking at their history that contributes to making this place so special. Their deep connection to nature is apparent.
Cyclical Nature of Life
The Mayas believed deeply in the cyclical nature of life – nothing was ever born and nothing ever died. This belief inspired their view of the gods and the cosmos.
They built pyramids to their gods that towered hundreds of feet high above the jungle that we visit today in awe. They left many mysteries unanswered.
The Maya were the only American civilization to develop an advanced written language. At the height of their civilization, their golden age– the Classic Period from 250AD to 900AD they excelled in mathematics, medicine, art, architecture, and astronomy. They perfected the calendar representing the cyclical nature of human existence.
And then the Spanish arrived in 1519 and destroyed what was. They built convents, even on top of pyramids and started converting the Mayas. These two cultures still co-exist today but the Mayas carry on the traditions of their ancestors.
They still farm the same land, use the same rivers and underground water systems, eat the same foods and pray to their gods.
And so, keeping all this in mind, my travel journey begins…
Our first destination was Valladolid, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in the middle of the Yucatan state on the Yucatan peninsula. Valladolid was a perfect landing after a long travel day into the magic it claims – “a magic city.” These Pueblos Magicos are recognized because of historical, cultural and aesthetic qualities.
A 15th-century cathedral dominates the skyline. Pastel-colored colonial buildings line the streets. It feels like stepping into a stage set but it’s real life. Restaurants and cantinas surround the perimeter of the central plaza that especially comes to life in the late afternoon. Chairs in the park swivel for conversation. People are friendly and know how to take time and enjoy life.
We arrived at our hotel El Meson del Marques in time for lunch at the Hosteria de Marques housed in a beautifully restored 15th century home. Mexican paintings and folk art decorate the space that feels much like a museum from that time period.
A woman wearing a Huichol, a colorful embroidered shirt was making corn tortillas over a small fire that we would soon eat.
Bright green drinks made from Chaya leaves, the Mayan super green food, quenched our thirst and made daily appearances in the cuisine every day.
A Breezy Courtyard
Even on a hot summer day, the courtyard was breezy and the aromas of Mexican cuisine drifted by. Tall, old trees growing straight up to the sky shaded the outdoor dining. We started with guacamole made tableside.
We shared a platter of Pibil pork, salbutes and panuchos, papadzules, Lima soup- all variations of pork, chicken and egg, with salsas and hot sauces- our introduction to Yucatan food, both artful and tasteful at the same time.
The municipal palace down the street has four large murals depicting the history and struggles of the Mayas with the Spanish Conquistadors. Valladolid was one of the first Spanish strongholds during the War of the Castes.
We then took a short ride to the 16th-century Convent of San Bernardino de Siena. The interior arches were different shades of rose cast by beams of light. One could only imagine what it was like at the time of the Spanish conquest.
Las Coloradas Biosphere Reserve
Valladolid is a perfect base for a day trip to the Lagaratos River and Las Coloradas Biosphere Reserve, which we visited on day two of traveling. Las Coloradas is on the northern coast of the Yucatan peninsula where a strip of land separates the Gulf of Mexico from the lagoon to the River Lagaratos.
It’s other world-like. The lagoon is hot pink and flows into a pink salt pond. Microorganisms create the color. These are salt evaporation ponds for sea salt extraction.
This is the real color. There is no photoshop here.
Nearby a road ends at the gulf where a small motorboat was waiting to take us on a 3-hour tour upriver through the Biosphere Reserve to observe wildlife. We saw many species of birds– Tiger Herons, Cormorants and black hawks to name a few.
This is home to thousands of Flamingos although most were off nesting and out of sight. There were crocodiles hiding in the mangroves. Three different kinds of mangroves grow here that provides four times more oxygen than an average tree.
A Mayan Bath
Heading back we had a beachside spa called a Mayan bath. Our boat captain Jose dug up and covered us in clay-like mud that is supposedly detoxing and remineralizing and if nothing else a lot of fun.
Every day was packed with beautiful mixes of architecture, nature, and culture. Day three we traveled to Uxmal, an ancient city designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered to be one of the most important archaeological sites of Mayan culture. Uxmal is known as the “pyramid of Magicians” because it’s the only pyramid in the New or Old World that has an elliptical base and rounded corners.
The western staircase was built to face the sun during the Summer solstice. Climbing to the top you can see the surrounding jungle. Legend has it that a magical dwarf named Itzama built this tallest monument in the city, 115 foot high and extremely steep, in one night to please the city’s first king.
Breakfast in a Mayan Kitchen
Another highlight was a typical breakfast in a Mayan kitchen. We had to bow under a low thatched roof to enter as a reminder of prayer. Tortillas were cooked on a small fire and served with eggs and chaya. A sisal basket was filled with exotic fruit – Mamey, dragon fruit, papaya, dragon fruit, kiwi, pineapple, mangosteen, rambutans, star fruit, mangoes and more appeared.
This was a reminder of the rich diversity of the Yucatan. Every meal was a gastronomic feast of authentic Mayan cuisine that seemed to be what the Maya grandmothers have passed down generation to generation.
Later in the day, Mayaland Adventures took us by jeep through the farm and grounds of the hotel to explore an abandoned hacienda with trees hundreds of years old that were living sculptures.
Choco-Story Chocolate Museum
An added bonus was the nearby Choco-story– a chocolate museum. Chocolate was important to the Mayans who used it as currency and to barter. It was their god of fertility. They still believed that it’s good for the heart and feeds the soul. The museum had Cacao trees, in-depth history of chocolate, artifacts and a demonstration of roasting, grinding and then tasting unsweetened hot chocolate. It was up to us to add chili, honey, cinnamon or vanilla. Yum!
We got to visit yet another heritage-based “magic town”, Izamal on day four of travel, also known as “The Yellow City” and “The City of Hills.” This old colonial town is caste under a golden spell. The buildings are all painted an egg yolk shade of yellow -an homage to the sun god Zamna. Pyramids dot the town and surrounding hills.
It’s a town made to walk although the sun is strong. Another option to explore is by horse-drawn carriages. I chose to walk. I found the old stone staircase that led me up to the unrestored Kinich Kak Mo Pyramid that was built and dedicated to the Mayan God of Sun.
Steamy in the Summer
The Yucatan in summer is steamy. I started my days early to beat the heat and for photo ops. Late afternoon nearly every day brought torrential ran after booming thunder. It didn’t stop anyone from going out and avoiding puddles. I marveled at the beautiful yellow butterflies that appeared every afternoon only to learn that they were a harbinger for the coming rain.
We did a lot in a short time. Pyramids, convents and cathedrals, cuisine, colorful casas, plazas, palaces all added up to a rich cultural experience. A mixture of ancient Maya, Spanish colonial and some modern times created a fusion of past and present.
Let your imagination run wild. Travel back in time. And how can one not, marvel at the magic of what continues from the past to the present.
Adios Mexico, until the next time.
If you go and getting around:
There are direct flights to Cancun. Getting to Merida is trickier and usually, you have to fly to Mexico City first which could add many hours to a long day of travel.
The Yucatan state has long straight, good roads connecting cities and towns. There are tours and buses but renting a car seems the best way to go and gives you the opportunity to explore small, less touristy towns.
Useful Websites for Valladolid and Yucatan, Mexico
HOTEL MESON DEL MARQUES EN VALLADOLID http://www.mesondelmarques.com/ /
RIO LAGARTOS AVENTURAS POR DIEGO NUÑEZ Y FAMILIA http://www.riolagartosnaturetours.com/
GRUPO MAYA LAND EN UXMAL / MAYA LAND ADVENTURES / https://www.mayalandadventures.com/
LOS 7 CENOTES https://www.los7cenotes.com/
HOTEL VICTORIA EN MERIDA https://hotelvictoriamerida.com/
RESTAURANTE ZAMNÁ EN IZAMAL https://www.facebook.com/RestauranteZAMNAIZAMAL
HOTEL EN IZAMAL https://www.facebook.com/Hotelrinconadadelconvento/
This trip was sponsored by Yucatan tourism, but the opinions are the author’s own.
Shelley Rotner is the author of more than 50 children’s books, and every day she has another idea for a new one. She is a regular contributor to GoNOMAD and lives in Northampton MA and New York City.