For many, México (and much of Latin America) gives off a distinct vibe that to many can only be described as magical realism. Along those lines, back in 2001, the fine folks at the Mexican tourism secretariat designed a program whereby a village, town, or small city could receive a special designation as a “magical” place, hence the term Pueblo Mágico. These are special places throughout the country that have that “special something,” be it a unique culture, food, physical location, or local traditions that make them very attractive to visitors. The idea is not only to promote these places, but also keep them magical with an infusion of federal, state, and municipal funds to restore and maintain these unique locations.
The state of Yucatán has many places that I would consider magical, but only four are recognized as official Pueblos Mágicos. Some common characteristics are:
Freshly painted and colorful houses and businesses. The facades of buildings in the center of each town have been fully restored and painted making for a photogenic stroll along the streets surrounding the main square. Always have your camera or phone at the ready!
An absence of overhead power cables. In practically all the cities and towns in México, on your walk around any neighborhood and especially the town center, you will see a spaghetti-tangle of electrical cables and power lines overhead, mixed in with traditional telephone and fiber optic lines and even low-tech cable television lines. In Pueblos Mágicos, these are gone, and the sensation is liberating and their absence makes for much better photos!
No garish signage. All signage is strictly controlled and regulated. No fluorescent pink paper with crooked Sharpie lettering advertising a special. No horrid neon. Even the ubiquitous Oxxo stores have discrete and less intrusive signage than their urban, non-magical counterparts.
Here are those four Yucatán Pueblos Mágicos along with a little bit about each place.
Also known as “The Yellow City” (you might notice this color predominates in the central part of town) is famous for its Maya monuments, award-winning Kinich and Zamná restaurants, and the general laid back and friendly feel of the place and its citizens. The pace is slow, the strolling is fantastic, and the fact that you can have an aerobic workout after your substantial Yucatecan lunch by climbing Kinich Kakmó is an added bonus. One of five Maya constructions still standing, this pyramidal structure is the largest and occupies a giant chunk of Izamal real estate. Another building of similar size was torn down to build the convent, which is what most folks come for and where, in 1993, Catholic pope John Paul II visited to offer an apology to the indigenous peoples of the Americas who were mistreated in the past, stressing the church’s concern for their welfare during the long and violent period of colonization.
Izamal is a great day trip that can be combined with the archaeological site of Aké, the embroidery town of Kimbilá, or perhaps the photogenic cemetery of Hoctún; all three are relatively close by.
The town of Maní, once hilariously translated as “The Town of Peanut” by a government tourism website (Maní are peanuts in some Spanish-speaking countries), is best known for its rather tragic history and for its Poc Chuc, two seemingly unrelated concepts.
On July 12, 1562, the friar Diego de Landa was incensed at discovering that the supposedly converted Maya were still worshipping their “pagan” gods. He rounded up all their idols, hand-made books filled with their hieroglyphic accounts of history, medicine, and rituals, along with other objects, and burned everything in a huge bonfire at the monastery in what was known as an Auto de Fe. He is forever remembered for this act, and for the book he wrote sometime later describing Maya life at the time. Some say he wrote it in his defense having been called back to Spain to face a trial for his excesses, others insist he wrote it as an act of contrition. For perpetrating what is likely the single most destructive act that erased a significant indigenous population’s culture, folklore, and ancient wisdom on the continent, he is reviled by many.
The Poc Chuc reference comes from the excellent version of this traditional Yucatecan dish, as prepared by the Principe Tutul Xiú restaurant in the heart of Maní, just steps from the site of the event mentioned in the previous paragraph. Note that the Xiú were one of several “tribes” or groups of Maya that, along with the Ah Canul, Chel, and Cocom families, ruled different parts of the Yucatán Peninsula when the Spanish arrived.
Besides seeing and photographing the semi-reconstructed convent/church which may or may not be open when you are there, just strolling the streets is fun. Directly across from the convent, have a look at the walls and sidewalks of the houses. You’ll see stones “borrowed” from a Maya temple located on that very spot. In one or two of those houses you will find embroidered goods for sale, made by the ladies who live there. There is also a cenote in a cave that you can visit. It’s not swimmable but was an important source of water for the inhabitants back in the day.
Maní as part of a day trip is in the heart of citrus country and you will see orange groves, mango trees, and more as you arrive. It’s very close to the town of Oxkutzcab, famous for its wholesale fruit and vegetable market. There, you can buy limes and avocados by the case for cheap and bring them back to Mérida to share with friends and family. If you arrived in Maní via the Mérida-Chetumal highway, you might consider a circular route home, returning through the Puuc Route and Muna. Between Oxkutzcab and Akil is the Codornejo restaurant, serving up grilled rabbit and quail, which can be washed down with fresh Aguas Frescas. Their Agua de Mamey is to die for.
This is the only seaside Pueblo Mágico in the state and it is located just down the beach from Celestún on the Gulf of México coast. Sisal was the state’s original and official port (before Progreso) when Yucatán and Campeche reached a semi-amicable divorce arrangement.
The main street has no overhead cables (see above) and the facades of the homes and businesses are cleaned up and painted in pretty colors along a 2-3 block stretch off the main road. A few murals complete the scene, making for photo opportunities. I am assuming that it was designated magical for its laid-back feel and the fact that many nature and water-oriented activities are readily available. Historically, it is important but this is not evident at first and you must dig to find out about Sisal’s rather impressive past. For example: Empress Carlota, neglected wife of the Emperor of México Maximilano arrived here. Trade with Cuba was conducted through here as well. What was traded? Logwood, agricultural products, and… yes, Maya slaves. Horrifying and curiously not mentioned all that often in the glossy brochures.
Some folks rave about a beachfront seafood lunch, which indeed is pleasant and the beach is one of the nicest on the coast with vast expanses of white sand and tranquil blue-green water.
Also, look for the community square with a few cannons built into its foundations. There is a lighthouse as well, which apparently in non-pandemic times can be visited and you can climb to the top. The former Customs building, closed now due to Covid, is apparently a museum. The other thing to do in Sisal is visit some of the natural attractions of the area like fresh water springs, do some bird watching or, if you prefer shooting your birds to just watching them, perhaps sign up for a duck hunting expedition.
Known as the Pearl of the Orient, Valladolid is the largest town between Mérida and Cancún, and a popular stop for busloads of visitors, where they buy souvenirs and explore the town on their way back from Chichén Itzá.
It is home to a growing number of hipster refugees from Tulum who are setting up restaurants and boutiques, always called Maya this and Maya that. These cosmopolitan and snappy ventures contrast sharply with the rough, mainly Maya town that emanates a much more indigenous vibe than Mérida. There is a lingering and heavy melancholy in the air, perhaps due to the violence perpetrated there by both sides (Maya vs Yucatecan whites) during the prolonged Caste War between 1847 and 1901. Most of the city’s original white inhabitants were all massacred and the few that survived fled to Mérida and never returned.
You can visit the Zací cenote, named after the original Maya settlement there; it’s a spectacular and cavernous cenote that covers an entire city block in the center of town. Swimming is possible there. Check out the San Servacio church on the main square; enjoy a coconut ice cream from one of the vendors in the plaza directly across the street. There is the Calzada de los Frailes, a pretty street with a growing number of shops run by some of those hipsters mentioned above. For contrast, you can buy fat, juicy radishes from the Maya lady on the corner of the Calzada for pennies or use your platinum American Express card in one of the boutiques to buy a citrusy fragrance or a fashionable bag made from burlap sacks by local women. Don’t miss the Casa de los Venados, México’s largest private folk-art museum, housed in a magnificently restored colonial home. Tours are free, but a donation for the local Rotary Club is expected. At the former Convent of San Bernardino de Siena, they also show a videomapping Thu. – Tue. at 9 pm (in Spanish) and 9:25 pm (in English).
Valladolid is an excellent spot from which to explore. You have the coastal towns of San Felipe and Río Lagartos along with Las Coloradas with their somewhat overhyped pink lagoons a 2 hours’ drive away, the archaeological site of Ek Balam is close by, and the exquisite smoked meats of the village of Temozón beckon for a lunch stop.
You can also explore some of the locales where epic battles took place during the Caste War. For history and photography buffs, Valladolid was on the front lines for decades and there are many places to see. Read “The Caste War” by author Nelson Reed for a fascinating account of one of the most successful indigenous rebellions in North America.
Food in Valladolid is varied and ranges from the classic and inexpensive Yucatecan in the markets to the high-end eateries such as the innovative Taberna de los Frailes (currently only offers to-go service due to Covid), the health-conscious Yerbabuena or Casa Maca, and the new Paparazzi Italian restaurant.
Editorial by Ralf Hollmann
Author of Modern Yucatan Dictionary
Founder of Mayan Xic
Director of Lawson’s Original Yucatán Excursions
Photography by Yucatán Today, Nora Garrett, Natalia Bejarano, Maggie Rosado, and Amanda Strickland for use in Yucatán Today.
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