Setting aside three nights for a longer road trip was a good decision as it gave Tom and I a chance to explore more of the Yucatan and the neighbouring state of Campeche. The first night we spent in the colonial town of Valladolid, which is half way between Merida and Cancun. On the way we stopped to visit Sotuta de Peon, a henequen plantation, about an hour and a half from Progreso via Merida. It is a “working” hacienda that goes into production twice a day for the tourists who want to see how the yucca cactus becomes the henequen rope. The hacienda tour is in English and starts in the casa de la hacienda. Beautiful tiled walls and floors are everywhere including on the veranda. High ceilings keep the haciendas cool. According to the animated tour guide these houses were rarely used by the wealthy owners who chose instead to stay in their mansions in Merida. Nevertheless they were beautifully furnished, well stocked
Managed by an overseer, haciendas were really little fiefdoms unto themselves. They had their own currency, laws, stores etc. and even a jail. Local Maya did the hard work of planting, tending and processing the cactus, living out their lives on the hacienda and in the surrounding pueblo. The machinery used in the production of henequen rope is still functional and was invented specifically for the haciendas and of course ramped up production from the earlier times when everything was done by hand.
The first step in making the rope is to remove the skin of the cactus, revealing the fiber which when dried in the sun is separated by a machine and finally it is spun into rope of varying thickness and crated for shipping. The tour at Sotuta de Peon finishes with a burro pulled train ride through the cactus fields to a typical home of a Maya worker. At the home an elder who worked at the hacienda, gave some of its history and impressed us all buy saying goodbye in about a dozen language. The grand finale of the tour is a swim in a covered cenote complete with an air/light shaft, stalagmites and stalagtites. The water is clear and cool and the limestone walls and rock formations are fun to explore.
Back in the car and on the road we reached our next destination just before dark. Valladolid is a beautiful colonial city located midway between Cancun and Merida and it has a cenote right in the heart of town and several in the surrounding areas. This is a great place to stay if you are visiting Chichan Itza or just touring the area south of Merida. It is not necessary to take the toll highway from Merida to Valladolid as there is a free alternative route which takes a little longer but gives you a good look at the countryside.
In Vallodolid, there are a number of inexpensive colonial hotels right off the main square and plenty of places to walk, eat and enjoy the sights including Mayan artisan co-ops.Valladolid is a good reminder that if you don’t like noise, music or colour you won’t want to come to Mexico, but if you do you will really enjoy the atmosphere wherever you go.Among its many charms, Valladolid has great restaurants with authentic Maya food. Yucatano dishes are varied and generally feature fish, seafood, pork and chicken. Beef is not prevalent and most ingredients are local and fresh. Of course they are spiced and prepared in the Yucatano way and are really delicious. Yucatican cuisine is much lighter and the spicing more subtle than in other areas of Mexico. Cheese is used sparingly, but tomatoes, peppers and onions, along with tortillas, form the back bone of many dishes. Juices and smoothies, beer and tequila based drinks, bottled water and cafe con leche are standard.
One could easily spend two or three days in Valladolid wandering the streets and exploring the surrounding area but we had only one night before we headed in a south easterly direction for the State of Campeche and the capital city, Campeche. Although in a different state it is still on the Yucatan peninsula. Along the route we passed through the pueblos, witnessing daily life as it unfolds at a much slower pace than in the cities. The countryside was beautiful and at one point we even gained some height as the road passed over a series of hills before returning to the flats along the coast.
The city of Campeche is a UNESCO world heritage sight. A walled city it necessarily became a fortress to fend off pirates and enemy armies. We stayed in a beautiful old colonial hotel a block off the main square. Tiled floors, high ceilings, open courtyard and long slender french windows overlooking the street made for a comfortable stay. The Campeche Malecon is beautiful and since it is outside the old city walls it is much more modern area. Inside the walls is another story. On the evenings that we were in Campeche, a laser light show was beamed onto the arched walls of the colonial commisario. It told the story of Campeche from prehistoric times to modern days. The visuals were designed to fit snuggly in the arches and on the front of the building, with brilliant colors and playful transitions, it was really entertaining. Folding chairs were set out earlier for the crowd that would come to watch but by the time we arrived the first night it was standing room only.
Also in the main square we watched as a group of mainly women set up for bingo. Instead of letters they use pictures which dates back to a time when literacy rates were lower. Every bit as voracious as the bingo ladies at home, they ranand grabbed at the folding chairs and tables before the delivery man could even set them down, he looked a tad fearful as they lunged at the chairs
On night two we viewed the show from the balcony of a restaurant overlooking the square. Inside the restaurant was brimming with kitchey antiques. Later at our hotel bar we met a group of young Mexicans who were great fun and very interesting. Most of them work in health care, a doctor, nutritionist, hospital administrator with a couple of teachers and a lawyer thrown in for good luck. We have all become fast friends on facebook and will likely visit with them when we return to Mexico in April.