Mexico is amazing and has quickly become one of our favorite vacation places. There’s so much to see in the Yucatan and Quintana Roo that a week was not enough!
7 days in Valladolid and Tulum
Our first day was not smooth sailing, not as easy as “we landed in Cancun, rented a car, and drove to Valladolid.” It took a while for our rental car company to find us, and I couldn’t make international phone calls despite paying for the service before leaving the US. A group of strangers lent us a cellphone to call EasyWay Car rental and the car company quickly picked us up. The transaction at the rental office was straightforward and professional and it’s no wonder that Easy Way gets rave reviews. However, we couldn’t leave Cancun right away since I refused to go on unfamiliar roads without a working cellphone. The whole snafu set us back almost 2 hours but we made it to Valladolid just as it got dark.
Roads and Driving in the Yucatan and Quintana Roo:
The roads in Cancun-Valladolid-Tulum are well built, smooth, and are relatively easy for driving. I noticed that local drivers ignore the speed limit, but the main roads/highways are wide enough to let fast drivers pass.
Speed bumps: The towns in the Yucatan and Quinatana Roo love speed bumps. Some towns will have signs for these puzzlingly constructed humps and other towns won’t. The speed bumps range from narrow to ocean swell size. The narrow ones make the car do a quick hop and the ocean swells are so high and wide that I would turn the wheel diagonally on the way down to avoid a nose dive (slight exaggeration).
Hazard Lights: The use of hazard lights is quite common to warn vehicles of a sudden change in speed or to increase the car’s visibility to other motorists when passing a slow vehicle, speed bumps, one lane road construction sites, and hard rainfall. Speed limits can also switch from 100km/h to 40 km/h within just a few feet when approaching intersections or towns.
Driving from Cancun to Valladolid – Its easy and straightforward since the 180D highway bypasses the towns. Keep in mind that there are no gas stations or rest stops for the 90 to 100 km drive. There were 1 or 2 signs for a rest stop/gas station but one would have to map out how far the place is from 180D to plan stops ahead of time.
Driving to Tulum from Valladolid – The quality of roads and driving on Highway 180 to Tulum was the same as the 180 D from Cancun to Valladolid. There are more towns to pass through which allows the driver a quick view of Quintana Roo/Yucatan life. The peninsula is flat as a pancake and most of the drive is highway, cars, and the rainforest (not a whole lot of trees) in between towns.
Where we stayed: Casa Marlene – 3 nights
Casa Marlene is a Spanish colonial home that the owners converted into a bed and breakfast. The home greets its guests with antique furniture, high arched ceilings, and colorful floor tiles. The bed and breakfast creates an authentic glimpse of what Valladolid is about. The price point for Casa Marlene is at mid-high range but the location, ambiance, comfort, and service were outstanding. The only room available when we booked our stay was the Rosa Maria Suite which consists of two floors. A living room fronting the street and a large bedroom on the second floor. The traffic can be loud on the first floor but it was nice to have the space to ourselves. We used the living room to make coffee in the morning and also to set our packs down after a long day of touring. Once in the bedroom, we barely heard the traffic, which allowed us to sleep well at night. The friendly and attentive staff served our freshly made, delicious breakfast on the veranda that overlooks the garden and pool area. You can book a room directly at Casa Marlene here or through popular hotel booking sites.
Valladolid Notes and Points of Interest:
Chichen Itza – the famous Mayan ruins that everyone comes to the Yucatan to see. The site is only a 45 minute drive west of Valladolid. Chichen Itza is truly impressive, especially when one keeps in mind that ancient people built the tall structure by hand.
Ek Balam – a Mayan site that’s about a 30 minute drive north of Valladolid. Tourists can still climb on top of Ek Balam to see an amazing 360 degree view of the Yucatan forest. The compound is smaller, compared to Chichen Itza, with structures located closer to each other. Visitors have more time to plan another tour for the afternoon after visiting Ek Balam.
Parque Francisco Canton/Parque La Mestiza – a nice place to walk through and sit during the day or early afternon/early evening. Vendors set up carts at night, selling snacks such as Churros and seasoned corn chips.
Valladolid Light Show – a free show located at Convent de San Bernardino. We thought it was going to be campy but the show was well animated and directed. It’s a great and entertaining way to learn more about Valladolid’s history.
Chaya – a mild tasting green similar to spinach and usually served as a drink in the Yucatan. I couldn’t get enough of this stuff. It was refreshing and delicious.
Liquor/Liqueur – Keep an eye out for liquor/Liqueur stores close to Parque Francisco/La Mestiza. We purchased a smoky flavored Mezcal for a gift and a small bottle Xtabéntun Valladolid Anise Liqueur as a souvenir.
Zazil Tunich Cenote – A Mayan underworld experience about 30 minutes from Valladolid Centro. The family that owns Zazil Tunich schedule tours to avoid overcrowding. We had about 15-20 minutes to ourselves swimming in clear waters inside a cave. We lucked out on Zazil Tunich given the number of tourists that visit cenotes in the Yucatan. After such a quiet, serene and surreal experience, Andrew and I decided not to tour other cenotes. You can book a visit to Zazil Tunich here.
WHERE TO EAT IN VALLADOLID
El Meson de Marques – Architecturally beautiful with white stucco, columns, spanish floor tiles, and high celings and arches. The restaurant offers veranda or garden style dining where the dining tables surround a small fountain. We ordered Queso Fundido with Chorizo served with tortillas, Salmon with tomatoes, and Grilled Octopus. The food was good but not spectacular.
Bazaar Municipal Food Court – Located at the corner of Calle 39 and Calle 40 and a few doors down from El Meson de Marques. It is one of the cheapest food options fronting the main park/square. The restaurant employees waved and called out to us as we walked in the Bazaar. It was comically good natured. We picked a random store front and ordered a Pork Sandwich/Torta, four kinds of tacos, a soda and a tamarind drink. Our food was okay, not the best “cheap food” in Valladolid, but the cost was only about $7.50 (USD) for two.
El Atrio del Mayab – The restaurant is located next door to the Cathedral of San Gervasio. The hostess that greeted us at the entrance of El Atrio was wearing the prettiest embroidered traditional dress. She led us through an arched hallway to a dimly lit garden where she seated us. The setting is romantic and cozy. The dining tables surround a small stoned fountain-pool with a statute of a portly friar holding sausage links. It is an homage to the friar who created the popular Longaniza de Valladolid. Thinking about the statue makes me chuckle but the friar should have more statues around Valladolid. The Longaniza is delectable. It is also one of the cheaper options on the menu in most Valladolid restaurants. We ordered the El Atrio Lettuce Salad, Longaniza de Valladolid, and Cochinita Pibil. The food is delicious and the restaurant lives up to it’s tagline: Cocina Regional Yucateca/Yucatecan Regional Cuisine.
Eleganzza Restaurante – Saving the best for last! Eleganzza is located across the street from Casa Marlene. The unassuming store front caught our eye every night, as we walked by, since they would set up a large flat grill and a juicy hunk of grilled meat on a vertical skewer. A wooden sign that advertised Pozole was also hard to miss. We decided to have lunch at Eleganza after touring Chichen Itza and ordered Longaniza de Valladolid, Empanadas, and a Pork Burrito. The friendly waiter set a bowl of nachos and two sauces, white ranch/cream and tamarind, for us to snack on while waiting for our food. The sauces were tasty, the food was just outstanding, and the portions were generous. The best part was our lunch only cost about $15.00 (USD). We went back to Eleganzza that night for dinner and also for lunch the next day before driving to Tulum. Our orders consisted of different types of Tacos and Pozole. We think Eleganzza is one of the best restaurants in Valladolid.
Where we stayed: Ginger Hotel
Everyone raves about Tulum but we were a bit underwhelmed with the place after being in Valladolid. Without a doubt, the beaches are some of the most beautiful I have seen. White sand, turquoise waters, and Mayan structures overlooking the ocean. The scenery is breathtaking and one can say Tulum has it all. However, Andy and I like to see and learn local culture and the touristy beach town didn’t offer much to experience. The beachfront properties were too expensive and resorty so we decided to stay at Ginger Hotel in Tulum Centro. Our room was small, furnished with a queen sized bed, armchair, flatscreen TV, DVD player, and a refrigerator stocked with “welcome” complementary snacks.
Each room is themed with a different mural which makes it interesting and less basic. Most of the rooms do not have cable but the front desk offers a good selection of DVD movies. Make sure to get the DVD before the staff leaves for the night. There are only 4 parking spaces in front of the hotel but street parking is available. Ginger Hotel is on a quiet street and an easy walk to shops and restaurants. It is also conveniently located near a grocery store for snacks and bottled water.
Tulum Notes and Points of Interest:
Candido’s Pollo Asado – a small road side eatery that specializes in charcoal grilled chicken. Andy and I hit the local food jackpot! Picky eaters might be put off eating by the side of the road but we wanted to try what appeared to be a local favorite. The large charcoal grill shows how much chicken is sold by Candido since the place is tiny. During our meal, several cars and people came by to pick up their orders. The turn around was fast and the customers plentiful. We must have looked a bit lost since a friendly stranger, waiting for his to-go meal, excitedly explained to us how good the chicken was and even helped translate our order to Candido. A plate consists of 1/4 chicken and sides of spaghetti, rice, and tortilla. The sides were room temperature but tasty. Watered down beans and salsa was also served with the meal but we didn’t eat it.
Muyil Mayan Ruins and and Sian Ka’an Biosphere – Muyil is not the grandest Mayan ruin in Quintana Roo but it has Sian Ka’an Biosphere at its backyard. Since we arrived in the morning, the guy behind the ticket counter suggested for us to do the Sian Ka’an boat tour before looking at the ruins. His suggestion helped us avoid the noon/mid-day crowd of people waiting to get on boats. Sian Ka’an spans 780,000 acres with 4 lagoons. Our boatman took us to two lagoons, showed us how to wear our life vests over our waists, assured us that all the crocodiles live in Lagoon 4, and waved us off as we floated away. The gentle but strong current took us downstream. It was just Andy and I floating for about 20 minutes through mangroves and grasslands. The bottom was white sand and the water clear. I thought I might’ve seen a snake and decided it wasn’t worth looking at things too closely after that. Besides, any wildlife lurking about would’ve been terrified by my loud paranoid screams. The experience was fun and exhilarating.
Coba – a large compound with several Mayan architectural sites. Andy and I rented bikes to explore Coba or we would’ve walked more than 6 kilometers to see the structures. Passenger bikes or bicycle rickshaws for 2 people with drivers are also available for rent. I skipped climbing to the top of Coba’s tallest structure. Andrew, however, wanted to see the view. The steps are narrower, steeper, and worn down compared to Ek Balam. A friendly and chatty guide told us stories of climbers slipping and falling on the steps. He said he wore a superman shirt for the purpose of saving tourists since rain was in the forecast which makes the steps more treacherous.
Tulum Ruins and Tulum Beach – the view from the bluff at Tulum Ruins is breathtaking, we walked down the stairs to the small beach cove to explore and take pictures. Oddly enough, Andy and I didn’t swim or have a “beach day” since we were more interested in sightseeing. We still, however, wanted to check out what Tulum beach was about. Fortunately, our hotel in Tulum centro is affiliated with Coco Tulum Hotel located on a beautiful stretch of the white sands and turquoise waters that Tulum beach is known for. We took advantage of this perk and spent about 1-2 hours at the bar looking out to the ocean. The resto-bar only takes cash so we were only able to order a plate of fish tacos and a drink each.
Tienda de Miel – A unique souvenir shop with an extensive collection of different flavored honey, honey wine, and bath and body products. The products are good quality but low priced. We bought different samplers as gifts and a couple of bar soaps. I was able to try the small honey shampoo sampler after coming back to the US. They did not skimp on the honey, it smelled wonderful, which made me wish I bought a large bottle.
WHERE TO EAT IN TULUM
El Asadero – The restaurant for juicy and tender steaks. The interior is tastefully designed with wood and iron with one side of the restaurant dimly than the other. Late afternoon to early evening is the best time to go since there’s a long wait at dinner time. Andy and I ordered the steak tacos which were fairly good. We weren’t too impressed since Eleganzza in Valladolid raised the bar for any restaurant serving tacos. Since the El Asadero is known for steaks, we came back another night and ordered the Arrachera steak. The plate came with sides of spanish chrorizo, roasted nopal/cactus, roasted potatoes. There are no words. We were blown away! The steak was tender, perfectly seasoned, and melt in your mouth juicy.
Piola – A pizza restaurant located a few blocks from Ginger hotel that serve thin crust pizzas. We ordered tuna tartare, tossed salad, and a cheese and tomato pizza. The dab of pizza sauce on the tartare was off putting, almost criminal. Once this offense was scraped off (by us) the tuna was actually pretty good. We like thin crust pizzas with only a few add-ons to the cheese topping. Piola’s is good, casual, simple. The salad was hit the spot- need fresh greens-delicious. We went back another night to order pizza to go for dinner. It had been a long day of touring and pizza and movie night in our room was a great idea.
Candido’s Pollo Asado al Carbon – a local food hot spot. During our drive to Mayan ruins, we noticed several places that would have chicken sizzling in small to large charcoal grills. The smell coming from these eateries as we drove by was amazing and made us hungry to try it out. We set out to find a grilled chicken restaurant after touring Coba and noticed a couple of cars in front of Candido’s. The eatery might not be appealing to picky foodies since it is literally a small place with a couple of tables by the roadside. We walked up to the grill looking like lost tourists and was approached by a friendly local who spoke good english. He informed us that an order of 1/4 chicken came with a side of spaghetti and rice, tapped Candido on the shoulder and translated that we would like two plates, and cheerfully waved goodbye as he walked away with his chicken in a to go bag in hand. Andy and I picked a table and were promptly served. It was scrumptious. While eating, several cars pulled in, ordered chicken to go, then drove away. It was obviously a popular place with the locals.
El Camello Junior – where to go for seafood in Tulum. The food was good, simple, cheap, fast, and fresh. I was hoping for grilled fish but it doesn’t seem to be a thing in Quintana Roo. We ordered the Pescado de Frito with a side of rice, vegetables, and beans and Sopa de Mariscos (shirmp, octopus, shrimp and crab). El Camello Jr. is a good lunch stop after a morning in Muyil and Sian Ka’an Biosphere.
Summary: To be honest, I was on edge prior to our trip since Cancun’s safety had recently been in question as well as incidents of crime in Tulum and Valladolid. I consulted The Yucatan Times frequently and my fears were appeased since the news wasn’t as bad as I thought. Some of our relatives were also concerned that we were going to “Mexico”. I noticed there were puzzling looks from locals every time I asked “is it safe?”. Walking around in Valladolid and Tulum, I realized that walking at night or hanging out in a park or on a square is common, and crimes and bad people are isolated incidents much like in other places I’ve been to or lived in. Overall, we were pleasantly surprised at how wonderful the Yucatan and Quintana Roo was. It is easy to navigate and the people are sincerely friendly and helpful.
Andy and I fell in love with Valladolid. The city’s pastel colored buildings, walkable streets, parks we can sit and hang out in, unforgettable delicious food, and much more. We also enjoyed our visit in Tulum mainly for the Tulum Ruins, Coba, and Sian Ka’an. The city however, caters more to beach goers. In the end, it is all a matter of preference and what one looks for when vacationing.
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Cenote Photo courtesy of Zazil Tunich
Steak Photo in Tulum Food Collage courtesy of El Asadero