Mexico's Yucatan peninsula is one of the most popular travel destinations on the planet - and for good reason.
But even though Cancun remains a perpetually packed spring break destination, and even as Tulum beach has recently soared in popularity, there is one hidden gem that 98% of tourists to the Yucatan totally forget about:
This hidden gem is my favorite absolute destination in Mexico and has largely remained a secret.
Valladolid recently won the 2019 Travel Lemming Reader Choice Award for North America - and it's not hard to see why.
Just check out this short video I made on my last visit:
If Valladolid isn't on your bucket list, here are 10 reasons you need to pencil in a new slot at the top:
Important Update on Coronavirus: Mexico continues to see a surge in cases, even as many travel media outlets fail to report fully on Mexico’s coronavirus safety situation. Be sure to fully educate yourself on the latest information and risks involved before booking any travel.
1. Experience Authentic Mexico
In my opinion, if you’re going to visit Mexico you should visit real Mexico – at least for part of your trip.
And Valladolid is the perfect place to do that.
This is a place where you’ll find locals slowly pedaling bicycles around the main square. It’s a place where friends sit on benches catching up with each other while their children wait in line for some delicious elote helado (that’s ice cream with corn in it, for the uninitiated).
It’s a place where most people don’t speak English, but where their warm smiles make clear they’re thrilled to welcome you to the home they take so much pride in.
You won’t find any chain hotels or Uber here. Instead, you’ll find stores, street vendors, and restaurants that mostly cater to locals but welcome the occasional stray foreigner with open arms.
Valladolid is, in short, everything I love about Mexico – and everything you’ll come to love too.
"This hidden gem is my favorite absolute destination in Mexico and has largely remained a secret."
2. Escape from Mass Tourism
Look, there’s no denying the appeal of the Yucatan peninsula’s more popular destinations like Tulum, Playa del Carmen, and Cancun.
But in the age of Instagram, those destinations have been flooded with so many tourists that you’ll almost certainly encounter more foreigners than locals there.
I have good news though:
If over-tourism is a disease that’s afflicted the Riviera Maya, Valladolid is the antidote.
Most of the tourists to Valladolid only come for very brief visits as part of tours to Chichen Itza. So if you take the time to stay overnight and soak in the town (see a list of the best Valladolid hotels here), you’ll find that you have plenty of space to explore without pushing through crowds.
3. Access Amazing Mayan Ruins (Before the Crowds Hit)
It’s kind of shocking that Valladolid isn’t more heavily touristed, considering it’s near what is arguably the most famous thing to do in Mexico: the ancient Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza.
Located just a 25-minute ride outside the town, Chichen Itza is a world-class site that gets super crowded by a lot of visitors for good reason.
But I’ll let you in on a little secret:
90% of the visitors to Chichen Itza arrive on massive tourist buses from Cancun and Tulum.
And here’s the thing: those buses don’t roll in until about 9:30, so if you stay in Valladolid you’ll have insider access to the ruins when they open in the morning at 8 a.m.
Here’s another secret about Valladolid: there’s another set of Mayan ruins just north of the town called Ek Balam, which are almost as impressive as Chichen Itza and yet receive a fraction of the visitors each day.
Shhhhhh … don’t tell the other tourists ok?
4. Soak in the Magic of Cenotes
Cenotes are natural spring swimming pools you can find all over the jungles of the Yucatan. Swimming in one is a great way to cool off from the jungle heat.
Valladolid is home to several incredible cenotes, including the sensational underground Cenote Suytun, which has recently become something of an Instagram sensation.
There’s even a large cenote – Cenote Zaci – right in the middle of the town!
Even if you’ve been to some of the cenotes around the Riviera Maya, you’ll find that the cenotes around Valladolid are a qualitatively different experience. Because Valladolid is further inland, the limestone bedrock is deeper and so the cenotes here tend to take on a grander, more majestic, cavernous feel that really adds to the overall experience in my opinion.
5. Capture the Photogenic Streets and Walls
You’ll be hard pressed to find a more perfectly preserved colonial town than Valladolid.
Just meandering the cobblestone streets and soaking in the colorful walls is part of the charm of visiting.
In fact, in places the streets are so picture-perfect that it feels like they must have been manufactured for the set of a movie or for the latest exhibition at Epcot.
You might even have trouble convincing your friends that your inevitably incredible Instagram shots are real!
6. Savor the Flavors of the Yucatan
It’s probably a good idea to hit the gym and shed a kilo or two before coming to Valladolid.
Because, once you’re here, you’re sure to put that weight back on quickly sampling the delicious flavors of Yucatan cuisine.
Try the papazules (rolled crisp tortillas covered in a creamy and cheesy sauce) or panuchos (kind of like an open face taco laden with shredded meat and all sorts of toppings).
7. Travel Confidently in One of Mexico’s Safest Towns
Mexico generally gets a bad rap on the safety front. The truth is that, despite all the sensational media stories, most of Mexico is pretty safe for travel (you should still look into Mexico travel insurance, though).
But Valladolid isn’t just safe – it’s practically a utopia when it comes to security.
Get lost in Valladolid and a friendly local is sure to help you find your way. Drop some money on the street and someone is going to chase you down to give it back to you.
This is, quite simply, a place that’s probably safer than your hometown.
8. And Save Some Cash Too
Not only is Valladolid one of the safest destinations in the Yucatan peninsula, it’s also one of the most affordable.
A fancy hotel that would cost $250/night or more in Tulum can be found in Valladolid for $75 or less. If you’re a budget traveler, there are great hostel dorm beds for under $8/night (check out our Valladolid hotel guide for more).
A meal at a cantina is just a couple dollars, or you can “splurge” and spend $10 for a first-class dining experience at Casa Conato.
Oh, and a beer is only going to set you back $1.50.
Bottom line: Your bottom line (see what I did there?) will thank you for incorporating Valladolid into your Yucatan itinerary.
9. Add a Cultural Compliment to Your Beach Vacation
Valladolid is just a short and comfortable 2 hour bus ride from Cancun, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen, but it offers such a different travel experience that what you’ll find in those beach towns.
So it makes a ton of sense to break up your beach vacation add a splash of culture to your beach vacation by spending a night or two in Valladolid.
Those will probably be the most memorable nights of your trip.
10. Meet the Friendliest People on the Planet
I’ve been to nearly 70 countries across 6 continents and I’ve yet to find a town that’s as universally welcoming as Valladolid.
Unlike many travel destinations, the locals genuinely want you to visit. They have a ton of pride in their town and are eager to share their home’s magic with visitors.
Even if you don’t speak much Spanish, you’ll find it easy to befriend the smiling locals here.
And you’ll walk away understanding why there is really only one word that truly describes Valladolid:
Ready to plan your trip to Valladolid?
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