It's a cliché for a reason, but everything looks better in the sunshine. Soon after our arrival in Valladolid, an old Spanish colonial town a couple of hours' drive west of Tulum, the by-now-familiar clouds rolled in and the heavy tropical rains kicked in, just as we'd headed out to explore the main plaza. Luckily the Spanish built their plazas with colonnades around the outside, so we dashed under cover as the plaza flooded in seconds, and the traffic started driving wakes against the pavement like over-zealous motorboats by the beach.
This didn't exactly help us fall in love with Valladolid, as it's getting a bit tiresome having to duck into yet another restaurant for yet another cup of coffee while the storms blow themselves out. Everything is wet all the time and everyone cowers indoors while their thunder gods get things out of their system, and as we poked our heads out into the gloom once the torrents had dried into a light drizzle, it really felt like a Monday afternoon. According to the people who live here, this year has been wetter than normal, and it feels like it; walking around Valladolid in the gloomy rain, you can't help noticing the black mould that's reclaiming the whitewashed walls as its own. Everything's getting a bit damp and rotten, even the architecture.
Thank goodness for the sun, then, which came out the next day and managed to keep shining until well into the afternoon, giving us the opportunity to wander round Valladolid in a much more amenable atmosphere. We'd decided to take a rest day before tackling the area's main attraction, the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá, and it was such a relief not to have to spend it cooped up inside, especially as Valladolid is a charming place to explore on foot. When the rains disappear, roads lined by hitherto cowering doorways open up to show a whole world of shops and human activity tucked away in the thick-walled colonial buildings; when shuttered up, the roads are a bit claustrophobic, with their high but very thin pavements (they're high to stop the buildings from flooding in the tropical rain, of course), but once the weather improves, things look up.
Once the sun puts his hat on, the shutters come up and lo and behold, there's humanity to see in all its glory, whether it's the weird shop that sells TVs, computers, mobile phones and, of course, motorbikes all in the same display; or the large number of chemists with their drugs stacked up to the ceiling behind their counters, and the small doctor's surgeries whose waiting rooms sport cheap plastic chairs, peeling paint and little else; or even the tiny restaurants that specialise in chicken dishes, or tacos, or things that you probably have to be Mexican to understand. In the sun, you can peer into the buildings of Valladolid, and all of a sudden it's that much more interesting.
Off to Church
The town centre is clustered round the airy green space of the main plaza, and in particular the Parque Francisco Cantón Rosado. This luscious park contains a surprisingly large number of loveseats, where two stone seats face towards each other but offset to the side, much like business class sleeper seats on modern aeroplanes. If you wander through the park at night, it's easy to see why they're there, for this is where couples come to canoodle, no doubt to get away from prying family eyes.
Overlooking the square, like the beady eyes of the mother-in-law, is the two-towered Cathedral de San Gervasio, which in keeping with the overall vibe of the town has trees growing out of the top of the towers, themselves (like the rest of the town) slowly mouldering into black in the oppressive humidity. It's charming, and this is probably why the main square in Valladolid is one of those must-see stops on those godawful coach trips that plague the touristy north of the Yucatán Peninsula, and in the afternoon the square clogs up with two or three air-conditioned buses at a time, each of them spilling out their pasty tour groups into the church; in the rain, the tourists all carry the same pink-themed umbrella of the tour company, making the exodus look more like a works outing from Willy Wonka's factory than a cultural exploration of Mexico's colonial religious history.
Inside the church, in time-honoured style, donation boxes ask for help in maintaining the church roof, though the gory and bleeding nature of the Christ effigies that they use to leverage Catholic guilt in the visitors are a bit of a shock to those, like me, who learned their religion from the rather more liberal Church of England. There are beggars in the church doorway too, which on first sight looks like one of those tired old scams from Tulum, but I saw the same beggars plying their trade in the morning in the food hall across the square, and the locals all gave money to them as they passed by the tables, so I suspect they're the real deal (and shame on me for thinking otherwise, I thought guiltily).
We also ate well in Valladolid. On our first evening we ate at an atmospheric restaurant called Conato 1910, which was tucked away in the backstreets, away from the plaza; the building used to be used by revolutionaries as a meeting place back in the early 20th century, and the decor was suitably ancient. The food was excellent – in particular, the guacamole was the best that Peta had ever tasted – and simply wandering through the streets at night, by now bone dry after the day's soaking, was a delight.
The other place with great food couldn't have been more different; for breakfast we wandered over to the food hall just off the square, where a busy little food stall sold an amazing range of breakfast and lunch dishes for a pittance. We went up to the counter, where a huge man sat, waiting to write down the orders; I put on my best Spanish accent to order coffee, fruit juice and huevos a la Mexicana (that's scrambled eggs with chicken, tomatoes, onions and peppers), and Peta had a huge fruit bowl with yoghurt and granola, and we took a numbered ticket from the man and sat back to listen out for our order number, 15, or quince (pronounced 'keen-say') as they say round these parts. Amazingly we did manage to recognise our order number being announced through the melee, and I wandered up to the counter to fetch a huge feast of Mexican delight that came to exactly 101 pesos, or just under a fiver. It made the ridiculous prices in Playa del Carmen look as offensive as Playa's touts, which is saying something.
So we might not have done a lot in Valladolid, but it was just what we needed. With the fiasco in Tulum, we were starting to get a bit sick of moving hotel every night, and a rest day in lovely Valladolid was just what the doctor ordered.