Before it became Valladolid, the city was a Maya settlement called Zací (zah-kee), which means "white hawk." The old name lives on in the cenote in a small park at the intersection of calles 39 and 36. The long but easily navigable stepped trail at Cenote Zací leads past caves, stalactites, and hanging vines that give the place a prehistoric feel, but the cenote's partially open roof lightens the atmosphere. It's a fine place to cool off, whether you jump in for a swim, dangle your feet in the water and let the fish nibble your toes, or just walk down to escape city heat and noise. I find Zací more peaceful and just as pretty as the famous cenotes outside of town. The park, which has a large palapa restaurant overlooking the cenote, is free; entry to the cenote is 15 pesos.

Ten blocks southwest of the main square is the Franciscan monastery of San Bernardino de Siena, dating from 1552. The monastery complex was sacked during the War of the Castes but a fine baroque altarpiece and some striking 17th-century paintings remain. Most of the compound was built in the early 1600s; a large underground river is believed to pass under the convent and surrounding neighborhood, which is called Barrio Sisal. ("Sisal," in this case, is a corruption of the Mayan phrase sis-ha, meaning "cold water.") The barrio has been extensively restored and is a delight. For a real treat, walk there along the Calzada de los Frailes (Walkway of the Friars). From the corner of calles 41 and 46, follow Calle 41A, the cobblestone street running diagonally to the southwest, about 1km (2/3 mile) to the monastery. The road is lined by huge clay planters and passes elegantly painted colonial homes.

Valladolid's main plaza is the town's social center and a thriving market for Yucatecan dresses. The square was renovated in the winter of 2009-2010, and all of the lush old shade trees were preserved. The Old World benches and confidenciales (S-shaped chairs inviting friends or lovers to chat or nuzzle face-to-face), were either replaced or repainted. Although the buildings flanking the square were repainted, new lighting was added, and walking paths were repaved, the square still retains its old colonial feel.

On the plaza's south side is the imposing cathedral, Iglesia de San Gervasio (sometimes called Parroquia de San Servacio). Its thick stone walls weren't enough to stop the Maya rebels who sacked it in 1847, touching off the War of the Castes. Vallesoletanos, as the locals are known, believe most all cathedrals in Mexico point east, and they cherish a local legend to explain why theirs points north -- but don't believe a word of it. On the east side, the municipal building, El Ayuntamiento, is the repository for dramatic paintings outlining the peninsula's history, including a wonderful depiction of a horrified Maya priest foreseeing the arrival of Spanish galleons. On Sunday nights, beneath the stone arches of the Ayuntamiento, the municipal band plays jaranas and other traditional music of the region.

For an overview of arts and crafts from surrounding Maya villages, find the pink, fortresslike building that houses Museo San Roque on Calle 41 between calles 38 and 40. Signs are in Spanish, but the displays mostly speak for themselves. Ancient stone masks, pottery, and bones unearthed at nearby Ek Balam are also on exhibit. The museum is open Monday through Saturday, 9am to 9pm. Entry is free.

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