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Once a stopover spot, Valladolid is becoming a destination

Street view of the lively central town square in the colonial town of Valladolid, Mexico.
Street view of the lively central town square in the colonial town of Valladolid, Mexico.Necee Regis for The Boston Globe

VALLADOLID, Mexico — The temperature was peaking at a steamy 95 degrees in the Mexican town of Valladolid last winter, but I was unconcerned. Floating in a chilled cenote — a wide and open-to-the-sky freshwater sinkhole — I gazed at stalactites and hanging vines, imagining prehistoric creatures and early Mayan civilization. My reverie was broken by a giant splash and ebullient cheers, shouted in Spanish, as local teenagers arrived from school and leapt from ledges 30 feet above the water’s surface.

The charms of Yucatan’s towns of Cancun, Tulum, and Merida are well documented. The inland colonial town of Valladolid, mainly known as a convenient stopover spot when making a pilgrimage to the nearby pyramids of Chichen Itza, is less discovered, less dominated by tourism, and coming into its own as a destination-worthy area to visit.

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The ruins of Chichen Itza are a half-hour drive from the colonial city of Valladolid in the Yucatan.
The ruins of Chichen Itza are a half-hour drive from the colonial city of Valladolid in the Yucatan.Necee Regis for The Boston Globe

Before arriving, I knew little of the town other than from a college pal who had moved there in 2010, and whose social media photos had sparked my curiosity. Expecting to find a sleepy little village, what surprised me was its size. As the third-largest community in the Yucatan, Valladolid has a verdant and lively central public square rimmed with hotels, restaurants, shops and a multi-towered 18th-century church. From here, a grid of wide numbered streets emanates from east to west, and north to south. The vibe is both busy and laid back, meaning there’s plenty to see and do, but no reason to rush.

The best way to experience Valladolid is to walk. The distinctive colonial architecture is minimal, with two-story walls rising straight and flat from the edge of the sidewalk, their stark facades tempered by sweet and jaunty pastel colors and wide-framed windows and doors. A number of buildings with curved arches and carved stone hearken back to when 16th-century Spanish settlers first built the town on a Mayan settlement. Though the indigenous population launched several attempts to reclaim their land — and lost — their culture infuses the town through handiwork and crafts, deeply flavorful cuisine, and traditional clothing — embroidered white cotton dresses and blouses that are still worn today in the Mayan community.

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The Museo de Ropa Etnica de Mexico is a museum of ethnic clothing designed to reflect the country's varied cultures in Valladolid.
The Museo de Ropa Etnica de Mexico is a museum of ethnic clothing designed to reflect the country's varied cultures in Valladolid.Necee Regis for The Boston Globe

Speaking of traditional clothing, it turns out that my college pal, Tey Mariana Stiteler , is not spending her days sipping margaritas in the Yucatecan sun. After retiring from a career at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, the bilingual Stiteler decided to put her life experiences to good use. This year, she debuted The Museo de Ropa Etnica de Mexico,, a museum of ethnic clothing designed to reflect the country’s varied cultures. Stiteler has collected the items herself, driving throughout Mexico — sometimes with her 90-year-old mother in tow — purchasing clothing directly from artisans in their homes or workshops, and collecting their histories and stories.

A visit to MUREM is complemented by a tour of the nearby Casa de los Venados, an 18,000-square-foot private home-turned-museum, filled with more than 3,000 pieces of Mexican folk and contemporary art. If you’re looking to start your own collection, a number of shops and markets, including the Mercado Artesanal Zací, sell locally made items such as exquisitely-crafted embroidery, needlepoint, leather goods, handbags, and more. Chocoholics won’t want to skip the Choco-Story Museo del Chocolate, exploring the history of chocolate from early Mayan times to the present in 12 interactive rooms, and an accompanying shop with tempting floor-to-ceiling chocolate offerings.

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A spectacular main altarpiece of carved, painted, and gilded wood in the church and former Convent of Saint Bernardine of Siena in the town of Valladolid.
A spectacular main altarpiece of carved, painted, and gilded wood in the church and former Convent of Saint Bernardine of Siena in the town of Valladolid.Necee Regis for The Boston Globe

It’s a bit of a hike (or quick, inexpensive taxi ride) to the church and former Convent of Saint Bernardine of Siena, circa 1560, a Franciscan edifice that served as both a church and fortress. As one of the oldest colonial complexes in the Yucatan, including a church, chapel, convent, atrium, and garden, it is a must-see for fans of the period. Inside the simple interiors, I found carved wood and ceramic statues of saints, fragments of frescoes, a painted image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and a spectacular main altarpiece of carved, painted, and gilded wood.

The courtyard of El Atrio, a restaurant serving distinctive Yucatecan cuisine, in Valladolid.
The courtyard of El Atrio, a restaurant serving distinctive Yucatecan cuisine, in Valladolid.Necee Regis for The Boston Globe

A day of walking made me ravenous. I was lucky to be guided to El Atrio, a restaurant on the main square serving distinctive regional cuisine. (I liked it so much, I returned the following day, because it’s the kind of place you dream about long after the vacation is over.) Walk through the dark interior to a bright courtyard with tree-shaded tables, a central fountain, and a woman whose sole job is to grill fresh tortillas for such Yucatecan appetizers as panuchos with cochinita (tortillas topped with shredded braised pork). Don’t miss the simply titled, Broth the Atrio, a tasty and traditional chicken soup with vegetables, rice, and avocado. The highlight of the meal was a locally-made pork sausage, longaniza, a dense, smoky taste explosion that led me to find the town where it’s produced, Temozon, on the road north of town heading to the Ek Balam archaeological site.

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The pyramids and ruins of Chichen Itza, a 30-minute drive from the Valladolid.
The pyramids and ruins of Chichen Itza, a 30-minute drive from the Valladolid.Necee Regis for The Boston Globe

Ek Balam (meaning dark or black jaguar) is a spectacular series of ruins located 11 miles north of Valladolid. The site’s imposing central pyramid is taller than El Castillo in Chichen Itza, with the added bonus that visitors can climb to the top for jaw-dropping vistas. Halfway up the main stairway, you can catch your breath and admire winged warrior figures in a ceremonial doorway that leads to an inner (closed to the public) chamber.

It’s recommended to visit both Ek Balam and Chichen Itza in the early morning, to avoid both the heat of the day and throngs of visitors. Though the better-known Chichen Itza was significantly more crowded than Ek Balam (hello, tour buses!), the area is so immense that it felt less crowded overall.

Cenote Xcanche offers a cooling respite from the Yucatan heat.
Cenote Xcanche offers a cooling respite from the Yucatan heat. Necee Regis for The Boston Globe

In the Yucatan, a day without visiting a cenote is a wasted day. Though there are said to be thousands of cenotes, I only managed to visit three. My watery sojourns were informed by the other destinations on my itinerary: Cenote Zací, in Valladolid city center; Cenote Xcanche, located adjacent to Ek Balam; and Cenote Yokdzonot, located in an eco-park cared for by Mayan woman, about a 20-minute drive beyond Chichen Itza. Each has its unique amenities and charms — zip line, life jackets, changing rooms, dining, showers, waterfalls — yet all offer a cooling respite from the heat in awe-inspiring landscapes.

Back in Valladolid, there’s no better way to end a day of exploring than a stop at Wabi Gelato, a tiny shop combining traditional Italian ice cream-making methods and flavors (chocolate, hazelnut) with local fruits for interesting taste combinations. Pineapple with cilantro? Dragonfruit? Tangerine? Another visit to Valladolid? Yes, please!

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Necee Regis can be reached at neceeregis@gmail.com.

A locally-made pork sausage, longaniza, is served with beans, onions, and avocado at El Atrio.
A locally-made pork sausage, longaniza, is served with beans, onions, and avocado at El Atrio.Necee Regis for The Boston Globe

Necee Regis can be reached at neceeregis@gmail.com.