Valladolid: Gem of the Modern Maya
My hostel was only a couple of blocks from the bus station, but I had already fallen in love with the town of Valladolid by the time I got there. (Doubly remarkable if you consider the neighborhoods most bus stations are in.) The streets were colorful and tranquil. An atmosphere of friendliness filled the air.
Meandering along, I came to the town square. In any Mexican town you’ll find a zócalo- a town square with trees and benches, and a fountain or bandstand in the center. Valladolid was no exception, except that the statue in the middle of the fountain surprised me. Statues tend to be of some political figure- Miguel Hidalgo or Benito Juarez, or some such man. This statue wasn’t of a man at all. It was of a woman. She was dressed exactly like the local Mayan women who sat on the benches in the square, and she held a humble water jug. How endearing to see the nobleness of women doing daily tasks celebrated!
Downtown Valladolid also has its own cenote. A cenote is a limestone sinkhole, filled with cool fresh water – as in, the perfect place for hot, sweaty travelers to cool off. Cenote Zací is conveniently located in a park in the center of town.
I wondered down the street towards the Templo de San Bernadino, but got distracted by the chocolate museum. Yes, there’s a chocolate museum. (See why I like this town!) Now we all know that the ancient Maya created a brilliant civilization, what with their sophisticated calendar, complex writing system and coming up with the concept of zero. But to my mind, nothing speaks so highly of the culture as their reverence for cocao. The Mayans had a goddess of chocolate. They sometimes used cocao beans as currency. How ingenious is that! Not only does it solve one of life’s major dilemmas- money or chocolate, but it also meant that money literally grew on trees. The museum illustrates the complex process involved in making raw cocao into chocolate (very similar to the process for making coffee beans into coffee) and, of course, ends with tasting and a chance to buy samples.
The museum of San Roque, located in the center of town, displays items from daily Mayan life, as well as historical information on the 1847 War of the Castes. This was a bazaar episode in which, in an effort to win independence from authorities in Mexico City, the European rulers of Yucatan decided it would be helpful to arm their slaves. Predictably, the enslaved Mayan population turned the weapons against their overlords.
In a subtle way, the Maya here are still fighting. The day before coming to Valladolid, I had toured the ruins of Uxmal and Kabah, outside of the city of Mérida. It was a long, hot day in the sun and I dozed off for a few minutes during the ride back to town. When I woke, all the other passengers were asleep and the driver/guide seemed to be blinking a lot. I decided it behooved me to make conversation, so I told the driver how nice it was that there were no vendors at the ruins we had just visited, and how I remembered there being many vendors at Chichén Itzá.
It turned out that until 2010 Chichén Itzá was privately owned, first by the American, Edward Thompson, who shuttled some of the artifacts off to the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, and later by the wealthy Barbachano family. Somewhere a long the line, the local Mayan population decided that they have as much right as anyone to be profiting from the site. Fair point, I suppose. So, they began swarming in, without permits, to sell their wares. It remains a sticky issue.
In the Neighborhood
Valladolid makes an excellent base for visiting Cenote Dzitnup and Cenote Samulá, as well as the nearby Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá and Ek´Balam. Visiting the ruins while staying in Valladolid gives one a chance to notice how similar the local people look to the faces in the thousand-year-old carvings. The Maya live on.
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