It’s already been established numerous times on this blog that I am a nerd. But did you know that long before I was a technology nerd I was a history nerd? That’s right, I am one of those guys that reads nonfiction for fun (sorry ladies, I am a happily married man). That love of history is one of the key factors that made me decide that someday I wanted to explore southern Mexico. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the beaches, the diving, the food and the excitement of the Riviera Maya. Just those things alone make it a special place to visit, but the coastal area only scratches the surface of this magical place. The interior of the Yucatan is riddled with ancient Maya temples and Spanish colonial cities set amid stunning natural beauty. The best part? The people that built those temples and cities still live here! Enter the Pueblos Magicos or Magic Towns of the Yucatan.
Beginning in 2001 Mexico’s Secretariat of Tourism began to designate towns and cities as Pueblos Magicos based on their natural beauty, cultural riches and historical relevance. The blending of Maya and Spanish cultures, architecture, food and language have created something that is uniquely Mexican and the Pueblos Magicos exemplify this rich cultural diversity perfectly. These are not places that are being restored for tourists, they are places that are being preserved as a snapshot of exactly how they are so that future generations may enjoy them. Given that I’m a history nerd and Deidre likes to travel and see new things it was only a matter of time before we left the coast and headed inland to see some of these storied spots.
One of the oldest cities in the Yucatan, Izamal is a small town of about 15,000 people located 2.5 hours west of Cancun. Although it’s small in size, it literally towers over the competition in terms of cultural and historical impact. The centerpiece of this Pueblo Magico is the Conventa de San Antonio de Padua or The Convent of St. Anthony of Padua, built in 1546. That’s right, I said 1546 – almost 500 years ago. Now here’s the kicker, when the Spanish arrived there was already a giant pyramid in Izamal, a massive temple to the Maya god Itzam Na. So as the Spanish were wont to do at the time, they destroyed the temple and built their own church on top of it. The only problem? The pyramid was so darn big that they couldn’t actually destroy it. They tore it about halfway down and then built the convent on top of it so now the convent towers several stories above the town and hence, the competition.
Okay so enough of the history nerd talk, let’s talk about what Izamal is like to visit. One of the first things that you’ll notice is that the town is painted yellow, and I mean EVERYTHING is yellow.
We learned that the area is rich in corn production – hence the yellow homage of all the buildings. Like many Mexican towns, Izamal’s center is the town square. Located just below the convent this lovely square offers horse drawn carriage rides, cafes, a park and the Centro Cultural, a collective of artists engaged in preserving Maya artistic tradition.
Though only a few hours away this little town is the antithesis of the hustle, bustle and crowds of the Riviera Maya. If you’d like to see a slower, more traditional side of Mexico then Izamal is definitely a place you should visit.
Located at the major East/West and North/South highway junction in the central Yucatan, Valladolid is a perfect jumping off point for day trips. Ruins such as Chichen-Itza, Ek Balam, and Coba, multiple cenotes and something like 50 colonial era churches are within driving or bus-taking distance. Rather than bore you with another history lesson let’s just say that Valladolid is a gorgeous 500 year old city full of lovely parks, stunning cathedrals and beautiful colonial architecture. Now let’s see some pictures.
The people of Valladolid are proud of their cuisine, art, history, culture and much, much more. They should be. The city exudes an age old air of quiet charm and sophistication. While it’s basically an unknown outside of the area right now, that won’t last long. I’m sure it’s destined to become a tourism center in the near future so book your travel plans now to beat the rush.
The tiny town of Uayma actually isn’t on the official Pueblos Magicos list but it’s a great example of just what can be found in the interior of the Yucatan. While in Valladolid we met a man named John in his wonderful home/art gallery Casa de los Venados. When he found out how much we loved the architecture of the area he said, “You’ve got to see the church in Uayma, it’s stunning.” Though we were on our way home and Uayma was the total opposite direction from the way we were traveling we immediately altered course. This tiny town we’d never heard of (and still can’t pronounce) boasts one of the coolest and craziest churches I’ve ever seen.
We absolutely adored our time in the Pueblos Magicos of Izamal and Valladolid but a trip into the interior of the Yucatan isn’t necessarily the right trip for everyone. A car, patience, a decent grasp of Spanish and some knowledge of the area are all things I’d highly recommend you have before entering this area. That being said, if you are able and willing – go there. Do it now. I’m not a big fan of trite marketing ploys or cheesy slogans but given the history and beauty involved calling these places magical is fitting and the only way to describe them. If anything, it’s an understatement.