The heat of a Yucatan summer day is peaking as we walk stairs carved out of stone to swim in the refreshing waters of Cenote Dzitnup with its magnificent rock formations, dripping stalactites and sprouting stalagmites. Floating on our backs, we can see shafts of daylight far above us pouring through the domed rock ceiling of what had been a hidden lake discovered in 1950 and the long roots of trees reaching down towards the water.
Cenote Dzitnup is our first stop in Valladolid, founded in 1545 and a pueblo magico or magic town in the Yucatan Peninsula. The town is a mixture of historic Colonial charm and natural beauty and Cenote Dzitnup is one of several nearby. Drying off, we next travel the short distance to eat at the Restaurant de Cenote Zací, a palapa-topped open air eatery overlooking Cenote Zací.
The cuisine of Yucatan with its deep Mayan heritage is distinctive and delicious and Valladolid surrounded by ranches, has its own specialties such as longanica, a pork sausage made here and sold throughout the peninsula. Sitting in the shade and watching people wend their way down the long walkway curving down to the cenote, we drink a beverage made of Chaya leaves ground in a comal and then mixed with orange or apple juice. Our waitress compares Chaya to chard and I later learn it is considered a Mayan superfood, full of wonderful vitamins and nutrients. Platters of carne asada ala planches, marinated and grilled beef, lomito (pork with tomatoes), sopa de lima (lime soup) and Yucatecan botanas (snacks such as squares of jicama), papadzul (tortillas stuffed with egg), forced meats and Gouda cheese in a tomato and onion sauce and calabasa salad made with diced squash and green chile, fresh corn, tomatoes and sprinkled with fresh cheese arrive at our table and are quickly consumed.
More than full, we walk the short distance to the downtown — no more cenote swimming for us after such a meal, we would sink like stones — to Parque Francisco Cantón Rosado, the center plaza. The setting sun casts the shadow of the Cathedral of San Gervasio with its large crenelated towers as we cross the cobblestone street to Casa de Los Venados, the home of John and Dorianne Venator who have turned their magnificently restored Colonial home into not only a living space but a museum for the Mexican folk and fine art they’ve been collecting for the last half century.
The 18,000-square-foot house in the town’s historic district is a treasure in many ways. Abandoned and decayed, the Venators bought it in 2000 and then spent eight and a half years in restoration.
“The house was built in 1620,” John tells me as we stand in the front vestibule gazing up at 120-foot ceramic mural. “It was the former home of the city’s mayor.”
Calling themselves relocated city dwellers, the Venators left both the cold Chicago winters and a condo on the 62nd floor of the John Hancock building to move to Valladolid.
“We looked in Pueblo, Oaxaca, Merida, some haciendas in the countryside and parts of Mexico City,” John continues. “But we loved Valladolid the best.”
The couple wanted their home’s interior created in a style reminiscent of Luis Barragan, considered one of Mexico’s premier 20th century architects. Known for the integration of modern and traditional elements in his designs, Barragan’s home, built in 1948 in a suburb of Mexico City, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Barragan’s emphasis on space and light is the perfect background for the tremendous amount of art the Venators have collected. Each space, either functional or decorative, is like a stunning set piece whether it’s a grand Catrina made of interwoven wicker and poised on a chair like a stately Edwardian beauty complete with plumed hat and parasol, a dining room exquisitely set with dishware from Tonala (there’s enough, John tells me, for 40 people as well as settings of hand painted Talavera for 60) to the large pool, its water made very blue with white and blue tiles, intersected by a long walkway traversing its middle and leading to a seating area and bar.
Even one of the bathrooms with its marble floors, walls and shelving and high ceiling accented with a large crucifix, figurines and a religious painting, is more than just a place to wash your hands. The home’s art is, according to John, “mostly wood and ceramics” from all parts of Mexico. But the couple also have had Mexican artisans create specific pieces for them such as a poker table where cigar smoking and sword wielding calacas are painted on the table top and the back of the cloth chairs which is the Venators’ version of the classic painting of four dogs playing poker.
Loathe to leave with so much still to be seen, the hour is late and so we stay good night. Outside in the soft summer air, the plaza is lively with people perusing vendor offerings, sitting in groups chatting on the white painted and elaborately wrought iron benches and standing near the center of the square where a statue of La Mestiza pours water from a pottery bowl into the large basin beneath her feet.
We said we wouldn’t ever eat again, but stop to buy flan from a street vendor, visit a few stores—when I was last here I almost bought a music box of skeletal musicians playing their instruments but didn’t and have regretted it ever since. The store is still there and while they have plenty of calacas, Catrinas and calaveras, the music box is long gone. I buy a Catrina sitting in the back of a boat being rowed by a skeletal sailor to add to my collection of such things. Then we stroll on, stopping at the charming El Meson del Marques to sit at one of the tables by the indoor fountain and sip cups of Café de Olla, rich, freshly brewed coffee with cinnamon, orange peel and piloncillo—the dark molasses sugar shaped in a cone.
I had been to Valladolid once before on my way back to Cancun from Chichen Itza almost a decade ago and was smitten with its Colonial beauty, culture, food and arts. It seemed like I’d been trying to get back for years and yet when the time came to return I wondered if the city would be as magical as I remembered. What a joy to find that it was even more enchanting this second time around.
1 cup pumpkin seeds (pepitas), toasted and cooled
6 ounces tomatillos, husks removed, chopped
¾ cup finely chopped red onion
1 fresh habanero chile pepper or 2 fresh jalapeno or serrano chile peppers, stemmed, seeded, and minced*
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon dried savory, crushed
¼ teaspoon salt
1 14 1/2 ounce can reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
½ cup water
1 – 2 tablespoons snipped fresh cilantro (optional)
6 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and chopped
1 large tomato, seeded and chopped
1 tablespoon snipped fresh chives
8 6-inch corn tortillas
½ cup Cebollas Encurtidas (see recipe below)
Mexican crema or sour cream
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. For the tomatillo-pepita sauce, set aside 2 tablespoons of the toasted pumpkin seeds for garnish. In a blender combine the remaining pumpkin seeds, the tomatillos, 1/2 cup of the onion, the chile pepper, garlic, savory, and salt. Add 1/2 cup of the broth. Cover and blend until smooth.
In a large skillet heat oil over medium heat. Add tomatillo mixture; cook and stir about 5 minutes or until thickened. Add the remaining broth and the water. Simmer for 1 to 2 minutes more or until slightly thickened. If desired, stir in cilantro.
In a medium bowl combine the remaining 1/4 cup chopped onion, the chopped eggs, tomato, and chives; set aside.
Dip tortillas in the tomatillo-pepita sauce in skillet to soften and coat tortillas. Spoon some of the egg mixture into the center of each tortilla. Roll up tortillas. Arrange filled tortillas, seam sides down, in a 2-quart rectangular baking dish. Spoon the remaining tomatillo-pepita sauce over filled tortillas.
Bake about 15 minutes or until heated through. Top with the Cebollas Encurtidas and the reserved 2 tablespoons toasted pumpkin seeds. Serve with crema.
Note: If you want to save time, eliminate the Cebollas Encurtidas and garnish with an additional hard-cooked egg, thinly sliced and/or crumbled queso fresco.
1/4 cup each grapefruit juice, orange juice, lime juice and white distilled vinegar
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt or more to taste
1 large red onion thinly sliced, about 2 cups
1 banana or jalapeno pepper, roasted, broiled or charred
2 bay leaves
Place the juices and vinegar in a mixing bowl along with the black pepper, allspice and salt. Mix well.
Add the red onions and bay leaves.
Char or broil the banana pepper in the broiler, on the grill or on a dry skillet set over medium heat or directly on an open flame, for 3 to 6 minutes. Turn it once or twice, until its skin has lightly charred. Add to the onion mix.
Toss well and let the mix pickle at room temperature anywhere from 1/2 hour to 2 hours, cover and refrigerate. It will keep in the refrigerator in great shape for 2 weeks.