There's so much more to do and see in Mexico outside of the amazing resort cities along the eastern coast of the Yucatan. Visiting cities like Valladolid or Merida on their own is certainly a worthy trip.
On my recent stay we tacked 3 days and 2 nights staying in Valladolid ahead of our 5 night stay in Cancun. While Mexico's eastern coast remains my favorite Caribbean vacation destination - I'll never visit the resort laden coast there again UNLESS I'm tacking on some time in one of Mexico's cultural hubs.
Located two hours west of Cancun, it's easily accessible by car, bus and even taxi. Take the toll road and it's a super easy, almost straight shot from Cancun airport to the center of Valladolid along a modern highway.
Although.. it is not well lit, so avoid driving here at night if possible! You'll find the toll booth (which was a little more than $20 USD) and a restroom about half way in to your drive - but that's about it until you reach Valladolid so be sure to have a full tank of gas leaving your rental car facility!
Be sure to check out our YouTube video highlighting the best activities in Valladolid!
Stay in the right lane unless you're passing and you won't have any issues driving amongst the locals. If you're staying in the center of Valladolid - driving in the city requires a bit more attention. There are lots of tight alleys with corners that are difficult to see around. While I felt like I had to pay triple attention most of the time driving - we never really had any issues.
The other perk of renting a car?
Taking charter buses from the resorts to visit either Chichen Itza or Valladolid just flat out.. sucks. It also cuts out the chore of having to sit on a van while the tour company gathers up guests from the different resorts. Renting a car can make the same trip across Mexico feel way more adventurous and fun. Once you do - you'll never go back when traveling abroad.
Where to Stay in Valladolid?
Venturing out on your own will require a bit more planning. Not to fear! Valladolid is relatively small and very walkable city. We stayed in a beautiful 300 year old AirBnB that sat along Calle 41A, the front door opened up onto the plaza where the Convent de San Bernardino de Siena stands (yes, that is quite the mouthful I know).
The location was excellent, I'd recommend staying anywhere along Calle 41A between the Convent and main city square. The distance between those two points is an easy 10 minute walk. Along the way you'll stumble across coffee shops, store fronts and restaurants.
Once you get situated where ever you're staying - the Convent and park area surrounding it makes for a great first place to visit.
You can tour the inside if that's your cup of tea and the area out front is a large green space where you'll find locals hanging about. There's a really cool Valladolid sign in front of the Convent that makes for a great photo op - be sure to check that out.
Are There a lot of Stray Dogs in Mexico?
Now is probably a good time to mention that many parts of Mexico, including Valladolid, have a large population of stray dogs. We never had any issues.. just be mentally prepared for groups of random dogs to approach you from time to time or to be hanging out along the roads when you venture west to Chichen Itza.
One night we had a random dog accompany us on our 15 minute walk across town from where we ate dinner back to our AirBnB! Another evening I was taking photos of the Convent after dark, I was setting up my tripod and suddenly.. I turn and I have a group of three good bois who decided to come investigate my setup.
Every pooch encounter was a friendly one, I just know not everyone is totally comfortable when being approached by a pack of stray dogs ya know?
After you've spent some time hanging out and enjoying the Convent area, make your way towards the city center. Here you'll find the beautiful Church of Iglesia de San Servacio which overlooks the town square (don't forget to look inside).
There's a lot going on here. The park in the main square boasts a beautiful fountain, tons of city and a variety of street food vendors. You can find delicious walking taco bags, ice cream, corn on the cob drenched in cheese and butter, marquesitas (think dessert crepes) and more!
Every evening we'd visit the square and wander around trying different snacks while hanging out amongst the locals.
Surrounding the square you'll find numerous restaurants (more on those below), hotels, bars and shopping oriented towards tourists.
I will say - the variety and authenticity of the goods sold in Valladolid far exceeds most of what you'll find in the resort towns so this is an excellent place to do your souvenir shopping.
Valladolid is the Closest City to Chichen Itza
If you're spending time in Valladolid - I highly recommend using it as a jumping off point to visit Chichen Itza and some of the nearby Cenotes.
Not familiar? Chichen Itza was designated as a World heritage site in 1998 and then subsequently voted to be one of the new 7 wonders of the world in 2007. It's a really cool place to visit.
The area boasts ancient Mayan ruins from the people who lived here between 600 and 1200 AD. The most recognizable and photographed building is El Castillo, also known as the Temple of Kukulcan.
How Far is Chichen Itza From Valladolid?
From Valladolid you can access Chichen Itza by car, bus or taxi. The 45 minute drive west of Valladolid is an experience in and of itself, which will take you through some less developed parts of Mexico.
We drove ourselves and would highly recommend doing that yourself. You also NEED arrive to Chichen Itza right when it opens. There's no debating on this one. Eventually an onslaught of tourists from the resorts will arrive on a sea of tour busses resulting in long lines to buy tickets (buy your ticket in advance!), long lines for food and snacks and long lines to enter the ruins. Lines lines and more lines.
Just arrive early, purchase your tickets in advance and you can completely avoid this problem. We pretty much walked right in at 8am. We spent about 3 hours exploring the ruins (I'd budget anywhere from 2 - 4 hours here).
By the time we were coming back out the entrance area was a mad house. Another perk of jumping off from Valladolid? If you visit Chichen Itza from the eastern coast you're looking at nearly 3 hours of driving each way in the same day, most likely on a crowded tour bus.
A very common tour package involves shuttling those same tourists from Chichen Itza down the road to Cenote Ik Kil afterwards. If you're visiting Chichen Itza and have the time, I'd also recommend making the same trip but in your own vehicle. The entrance to Ik Kil is 5 minutes down the road, so it's very accessible from here.
Looking for ways to slash your airfare costs? Check out our free guide here!
If you've heeded my advice on visiting Chichen Itza right when it opens - you'll be arriving at Ik Kil sometime between 11am and 12pm which is perfect. You'll arrive well before those stuck on the tour busses which means you'll also avoid another situation where you can be stuck waiting in lengthy lines.
If you avoid the lines, you probably only need to budget 60 to 90 minutes for Cenote Ik Kil. Take a stroll around the compound which is beautifully kept. There are even rooms you can rent if you'd like to stay overnight.
You'll find a large circular viewing area where you can look over the edge down into the Cenote where you'll spot a life guard and people swimming in the water. Take the stairs down towards the water - there's another observation area carved into the side of the cave walls which is a great place to stop and take photos.
Once you've gotten some photos, head back up to the locker rooms and change into your swim gear. I'd recommend bringing water shoes since the stairs leading down into the Cenote can get slippery while the sidewalks above can be lava hot from the Yucatan sun.
Once in the swimming area you'll find a ledge you can climb to do some cliff jumping (it's not that high, definitely give it a try)! After you've swam in Ik Kil to your heart's desire it's time to pack your things up and head back to Valladolid.
Where to Eat Valladolid
The location of Valladolid near the equator means it's hot (or at least warm) all year round. Which means the bars and restaurants here have tons of really cool out door seating options.
Here's My List of the Restaurants to Try in Valladolid:
Los Frappes - Located across from the Convent, we were lucky enough to stumble upon this gem one night when returning to our AirBnB. We saw bright lights and heard loud music. Naturally, we ventured over to check it out. Jackpot!
This place was an amazing good time - they had live music on the ROOF of their three story building with cheap cold beer. We didn't try the food so I can't opine - but if nothing else be sure to stop here for drinks and entertainment in the evening.
Restaurante El Atrio del Mayab - How can you not fall in love with this place. The food is amazing (Chorizo Eggs Benedict yeaaahh right!) but the ambiance is even better.
Sit outside - you'll find a large fountain area that's home to a turtle and giant buddha statue. This is an excellent place for breakfast and is located along the main city square.
ConKafecito - Looking for a European style coffee shop? This cafe was located right by our AirBnB so it was really convenient for grabbing coffee when we were on the move.
Libranos del Mal - I've heard good things about the restaurant at Cenote Zaci, but we ended up eating here after our visit instead. They had killer salsa and the chicken burrito didn't disappoint.
The vibe on the lower levels was something between a night club and sports bar, but they have a small seating area on the roof which is what I'd recommend shooting for. The food was great and the beer was cold. Definitely worth a visit if you're looking for something a little more off the run.
Mezcaleria Don Trejo - Sexy guacamole anyone? Any restaurant with a menu item called 'Sexy Guacamole', sidewalk seating and specialty tacos is going to be an instant hit with me. Mezcaleria Don Trejo definitely hits the mark and does all of these things well. Come here for tacos and a margarita after a day out adventuring through town!
San Giovanni Trattoria - Okay so to be clear I didn't come to Valladolid with the expectation that we'd be eating fancy Italian for dinner. HOWEVER, we heard about this place on at least three separate occasions between talking to our AirBnB host, expats and locals.
I'm sure there are plenty of other great dining options in the area, but these are the places I personally tried and would recommend from my recent stay.
While we didn't end up eating there - I've heard good things about the restaurant located at Cenote Zaci and it's certainly convenient if you're leaving on an empty stomach.
Looking For Other Cancun Day Trip Ideas?
If you're looking for more ideas for day trips from the Cancun area be sure to check out our post on Isla Mujeres here which is accessible by ferry from Cancun.
I've been to Mexico on four different occasions over the past decade. Usually my decision to go there starts with the desire to do an affordable & relaxing beach vacation.
In terms of accessibility, affordability and quality of the resorts you can stay at it's no surprise that Cancun is a popular destination. From those on a budget to those looking to book higher end resorts Cancun has a little bit of something for every type of traveler.
If you're planning to visit Cancun this year (or other nearby destinations like Tulum) keep on reading to learn why you need to check out Isla Mujeres. Specifically we'll talk about getting down to Punta Sur (the island's southernmost tip) and Playa Norte (the northern beach area).