Colonial Cities in Mexico’s Yucatan
The smell of chocolate and spices fill the air, coming from the cart at the corner of the flagstone street. There, a woman with greying hair stirs a great pot of mole sauce. You stand for a minute in the shadow of an old church - 500 years old or more - and consider just how hungry you are.
This city has been here since the 1500s. Who knows how long the woman at the corner with her mole stand has been here. But it’s not hard to imagine that she’s just the latest in an unbroken line of vendors in that very spot, her wooden cart resting in the same spot as the first food stand in this town, hundreds of years ago.
Spanish Colonial architecture, with its blend of utilitarian simplicity and Baroque ornamentation, conjures up romantic images of bygone days in a tropical paradise. The colonial cities in Mexico today preserve much of this colorful architecture, including fabulous old churches, busy marketplaces, and well-shaded town squares. But they infuse these old bones with new life, including many fantastic restaurants and unique shops. You’ll see a different side of Mexico when you step out of tourist-laden Cancun, and into one of the nearby colonial cities.
Three of Our Favorites
Colonial cities abound in Mexico’s Yucatan, each with their own charms and secrets to discover. These are three exciting destinations to visit when you want something different from the polished sheen of Cancun.
Famous for its beautiful architecture, world-class culinary scene, and vibrant culture, Merida is one of the best places to go for a taste of “authentic Mexico.” You’ll love exploring the nooks and crannies of the Yucatan’s capital (and largest city), where you’ll find a mix of big city life and Old World charm. Here’s a sampling of all you can do in this city in just 36 hours.
Merida sits three hours west of Cancun, making it an ideal home base for exploring the other side of the Yucatan. It’s a gateway to many of the region’s incredible Mayan ruins, and is actually built on the site of the Mayan city T’ho. Many of the stones making up Merida’s oldest buildings were taken from the original Mayan structures by the Spanish, creating an architectural symbol of the Yucatan’s rich history. Plan your trip to Merida.
Founded in 1543, Valladolid remains the home of multiple famous temples, churches, and convents, each a masterful demonstration of Colonial Spanish architecture. Old cobblestone streets are now traveled by car instead of horseback, and 16th Century buildings now house upscale boutique shops or unique restaurants. Dubbed “the anti-Cancun” for its low-key lifestyle and deep cultural roots, Valladolid is nevertheless an attractive destination for the more adventurous tourists who flock to the Yucatan.
Valladolid serves as a hub for people exploring the wondrous Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, or the many cenotes surrounding the city (both of which are worthwhile activities if you’re in the area). You’ll find a perfect blend of other tourist attractions, nightlife, and authentic Mexican culture in Valladolid. Visit Valladolid.
The walled city of Campeche is one of the Yucatan Peninsula’s most beautiful treasures. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999, Campeche will make visitors feel like they’re stepping back into the 16th Century with its winding cobblestone streets and painstakingly restored buildings.
Outside of the Old City, Campeche is a modernized state capital with everything you’d expect from a major city. This seaside town offers incredible food, exciting nightlife, and a one-of-a-kind experience of authentic Mexico. Visit Campeche.
Planning Your Trip
Spanish Colonial cities offer a unique experience for the adventurous traveler. These old, vibrant cities will give you a taste of a culture that you can’t find anywhere else.
Before You Go
The cities on this list, along with other colonial cities in Mexico, receive their fare share of tourists, but they’re not built around the tourist industry like Cancun. You’ll be going slightly off the beaten path, which means you’ll need to do a little more work ahead of time to prepare. Familiarize yourself with the city layout and means of transportation, and be prepared to immerse yourself in a new culture.
You Should Also Know…
Brush up on your Spanish, as you’re less likely to find fluent English speakers than you would be in Cancun (although you’ll still find plenty of English speakers).
If you’ve ever wanted to explore Mexico, but shy away from tourist-heavy destinations, touring one (or more) of these old colonial cities is exactly the trip for you!