Valladolid, Yucatán -- Once a long time ago, I took a tour. We spent a lot of time looking at sites of interest through the windows of a bus. The bus occasionally stopped so we could briefly descend with a guide, who walked ahead holding an umbrella high in the air, explaining things to us and making sure the group stayed together.
It was not a bad tour, I suppose, but in short order I realized that being a traditional "tourist" was not for me. I've seen a pretty good sampling of countries and cultures in the years since that experience, and I have tried to do my traveling in more discreet, organic ways that permit me to come closer to feeling the real textures and rhythms of a place. I want to see life and nature, not "attractions," which generally are cooked up by marketers especially for visitors and have little to do with reality. I want to feel history and observe culture, which is not easy when most everyone around me is more intent upon posting vacation poses to Facebook than in having an experience, and the locals I meet are only friendly if they think I will buy something.
Rather than gain superficial impressions of a wide area, I prefer to get to know a small geographical area in depth. One of my favorite ways to enjoy visiting a place is to immerse myself in a neighborhood and if possible stay awhile. It's a good way to get a sense of place, absorb the atmosphere and get to meet residents, who are much more informative and fascinating than any tour guide. I have done this in a number of cities over the years and find I can return again and again, and always feel at home in "my" neighborhood.
Habitually I adopt a cafe or restaurant, and once I have been in a few times, the staff recognize me. If the waiters are good and it's a real cafe, after a few days they bring my cafe americano -- black, no sugar -- without even having to ask (talk about feeling at home!). On the street, once they realize I'm not just a day-tripper who will be on the road the same afternoon, residents take the time to say hello. Soon I know streets, routines, bus stops, and where to find things. I begin to feel connected to the place. Then when I feel ready I can branch out and take day trips from my base area, returning to the comforts of the neighborhood at the end of the day.
In Valladolid, I have done just that. I discovered the neighborhood of La Candelaria, a historic area about three blocks from the main plaza.
La Candelaria meets all my criteria for a good neighborhood. It's within easy walking distance to centro and transportation. On tranquil Parque La Candelaria itself there is a good Italian restaurant, cafe, ice cream shop, a hostel, church, library and theater nestled amongst family homes, shaded benches and flowers. Within a couple-blocks radius it is possible to find just about anything else you might need.
There is activity in the park, but it never seems to get crowded or noisy. In the morning you can see men on bicycles and women dressed in traditional huipiles going to work and doing the daily marketing. People meet here to talk and pass the time of day. At night families come to the park to talk, walk their dogs, and play with their children.
On my first visit to Valladolid a few years ago I stayed in a large hotel on the main plaza. The visit was fine, but after seeing the cathedral, looking around downtown and visiting cenote Zací, I left, not feeling any particular interest in returning. After my immersion in La Candelaria, I look forward to future visits.
If you are interested in visiting Valladolid and staying in La Candelaria, I highly recommend this hotel, which charges under $40 US for a very clean and pleasant double, and is located on the corner of Calle 35 and Calle 42. That's a half block, on a pedestrian-only street, from Parque La Candelaria. If you are on a tighter budget, Hostel La Candelaria is located right on the park, located at the intersection of Calle 35 and Calle 44.
UPDATE, Feb. 2012: The hotel appears to have changed ownership and prices have risen a bit, but it's still a good deal. Here is a new link.