Trip Report: the Toh Bird Festival 2011 – Day 6

Day 6 – Colonial architecture and the best “Cochinita Pibil” in Valladolid.

In the inner patio of Hotel Tunich-Beh, in the company of a great Ceiba tree, we help ourselves to a breakfast of toast, butter, jam, fresh fruit, cereal, juice and coffee. In conversation with the hotel’s owner we find out that this old house is actually a building of recent construction, designed in colonial style to harmonize with other houses on the historic Calzada de Los Frailes, a landmark of colonial Valladolid.

We go out for a walk to the zócalo or main square, intent on enjoying the sight of the Cathedral and then walking down to the Convent in Sisal neighborhood. In a few minutes we’re admiring the façade of the Iglesia de San Gervasio, which looks to the south of the square and is built in stone of such color that makes one think of nougat candy. A small plaque on the exterior wall informs us that it was built in 1545 under the tutelage of father Francisco Hernández, only to be demolished a century and a half later, in 1705, then rebuilt the following year. The reason for such an unusual exercise in demolition and reconstruction lies in an obscure historical episode, known as the “Crimen de los Alcaldes” (Crime of the Mayors). In 1703, for personal and political reasons, Fernando Hipólito de Osorno and Gabriel de Covarrubias were murdered inside the cathedral. Convinced that the altar had been desecrated by the hideous crime, Bishop Don Pedro de los Reyes Ríos ordered the church’s partial demolition, including the altar. The original church faced West, as was the norm in Yucatan, but its orientation was changed during reconstruction to keep the altar from staying in the same place where it had been desecrated.

Front façade of the Iglesia de San Gervasio en Valladolid. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

The main hall of Iglesia de San Gervasio. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

As we walk across the zócalo I can’t help but notice the city’s coat of arms, sporting a White Hawk as its main figure. Its complete description, according to Wikipedia, is as follows: “On a field of gold, a white hawk stands, borders in gules (red) with six golden castles (three on each side), and on the tip, the Mayan numeric sign for zero in gold. As exterior ornament, two crossed branches, one of cotton and the other one of Xtabentún with its flowers, and the motto: Heroic City, in red letters over a parchment strip.

Valladolid's main sqaure, and a detail on the square's benches with the city's coat of arms. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

The old mansions around the main square now harbor hotels, shops and restaurants. They are all worthy sights with their high ceilings, iron barred windows and huge doors. We enter the Parochial House and its museum-like atmosphere prompts us to walk silently. A lonesome employee types on a typewriter, not a computer. In one of the corridors a truly vintage Hammond organ makes me wonder, does it work still?

Back on the street we walk towards Sisal, where the Convento de San Bernardino de Sienna is located. Rose makes photos of doors and façades, while I stop to photograph a house of which only the outer shell remains, decorated with weeds and creepers.

Time seems to have stopped in Sisal. We enjoy exploring its streets, houses and small shops, until we reach the Convent and stop to appreciate its frontal façade. Founded in 1552, it housed the original headquarters of the Franciscan Order in Valladolid, which was in charge of the forced conversion of Yucatan’s original inhabitants to the christian faith. It was also here that Fray Bernardino de Valladolid began work on one of the first scientific treatises in Mexican history, the “Botanical Catalogue”, filled with plant names in Latin and Spanish, as well as detailed drawings and explanations on the healing properties, domestic use and industrial applications of each plant. The famous pirate Lorencillos was also kept prisoner here for some time. (Sources: Diario de Yucatán and CONACULTA). 

The Convent's front façade. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

The main altarpiece: cedar wood in three pieces, painted over red with black and gold moldings. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Walls of the Convento San Bernardino, seen from the back patio. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

Our visit to the Convent is cut short by a watchman, who informs us we must leave as it is closing time. One last look up from the back patio reveals several gliding vultures, drawn on black over the cloudy sky, reminding me who the real protagonists of this trip are.

We know we must face the last leg of our journey home, so we walk back to the hotel. I prepare our luggage while Rose prods Mrs. Lupita for information on where we may eat some good cohinita pibil  (Yucatecan pork dish traditionally cooked buried in the ground), away from the touristy restaurants. The hint she offers is worth gold: a few blocks away, on the corner of 46 and 39 streets, a portable stall is set up every day around noon to sell the town’s best cochinita. “Ask for maciza (solid), Lupita says, “so you get good chunks without so much juice. A block from there you can buy tortillas, and you can eat it here”. Rose goes out in her culinary task and returns promptly, mission accomplished. Again we sit at the hotel’s inner patio and eat with gusto. Our host wasn’t wrong: we both agree it’s the best cochinita we’ve tasted so far. A true quality dish for two, just 50 pesos including the tortillas (!).

So energized, we begin our return home. We take the road to Cobá and make good time to Tulum, then keep riding on what is now familiar territory. The trip has come to an end but we know that in all truth, considering the places we’ve been and the people we’ve met, it’s just the departure point for future travels.


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