The events in this post follow on from and intersect the events of our time in Playa del Carmen.
It’s now two and a half months since we returned from Mexico and so, understandably, my enthusiasm for sharing our adventures is waning a little (but mostly because I’m bitter that I’m not on another holiday already) and some of the finer details of what we got up to fading in my memory.
Brevity is not my strong suit, as you all know – I was just going to bombard you with photos for this final installment of my Yucatan story, but that didn’t quite work out. However, WordPress tells me the word count of this post is roughly half that of my previous Mexico entry… so, win? Ok, let’s go.
Tulum was actually a fairly small Maya city, not as large or powerful as Chichen Itza or the nearby Coba. Most of its importance in Maya times as well as its attraction as a tourist spot today was and is due to its location by the sea.
Around the 1200s to 1400s, it served as the main port for Coba and marked the convergence of trade routes from all over Central America… Today, it makes for a pretty stunning and romantic landscape.
Most of Tulum’s structures have been pretty well restored which, as you would know if you’d read my Chichen Itza post, isn’t something I like, as when I visit “ruins”, I expect them to be at least somewhat in ruins.
However, I have to admit the whole effect was pretty scenic, the white waves breaking upon the sandy beach below.
As with all the other sites, we drove ourselves to Tulum, 45 minutes down the coast from Playa del Carmen, and arrived bright and early before almost all the other tourists. Besides the beautiful views, the other advantage this site had over Chichen Itza was that touts were not allowed inside the boundaries of the site itself and had to set up their shops and stalls just outside.
Iberostar Tucan & Quetzal Resort
We returned to Playa from Tulum to by about noon as it was a small site and without many other visitors and we were able to look around unhindered. Plus, it was pretty, but really not that historically interesting or significant.
After having lunch in town, we returned to the resort we’d checked into the night before to get ready for the wedding which we’d flown all the way from Australia for (or at least, provided us with the excuse to come to the other side of the world).
You might have gathered that I normally don’t like the idea of staying in all-inclusive resorts unless a) it’s only for a night or two, b) it’s a fairly small one without noisy kids, c) I’m pretty certain that there are good food options beyond family-style buffet dining and d) it’s pretty easy to get to town where the action is, preferably by walking. Unfortunately, Iberostar fit none of those criteria, and we only stayed there as that’s where the wedding was… however, fortunately, it had some cool things going for it which I didn’t all expect!
Firstly, it had a sort of rainforest theme and there was a forest sanctuary type area in the middle of the two-sided resort where native wildlife lived. Some of the animals also roamed the complex freely, so that you’d see peacocks wandering around near the lobby or outside your room on the lawn trying to mate with a peahen who was… less than interested. There were creeks and ponds where cute turtles lived, and you would cross a bridge overlooking said body of water to go to dinner. Pretty cool.
Secondly, the beach was really very nice.
Thirdly, the place was huge, so even though food options were scarce and low quality, at least you never felt like you were short on space. The Tucan side dwellers could easily wander over to the Quetzal side, and vice versa, and it would be a nice 10+ minute stroll, or more if you went through the rainforest to see the cute animals.
Fourthly, the wedding was just beautiful. Not only because I got to see a dear friend marry the love of his life but everything was just done so perfectly. Simple and cute, a little casual, yet elegant and pretty – it was a beautiful day, the beach pristine. The resort organisers did a great job, but mostly the success, I’m sure, was due to the lovely bride’s perfectionism and great taste.
For the sake of privacy, I haven’t put up proper photos of the wedding party, but you can see how picturesque the set up was. The groom is a ginga – I’m pretty sure that’s what the orange side was for!
The red United mat? I guess red carpet makes everyone feel important, but for this couple, this has a deeper meaning. This particular carpet was painstakingly obtained through auction and I believe symbolises one of their first milestones together. No pun intended.
That atmosphere was one of… mirth. (Why does no one use that word anymore? How else can I describe it?) All the guests were in a light-hearted, unrestrained vacationing mood. I guess that’s the major advantage of destination weddings – everyone is away from home and their daily worries, able to throw all their energy into helping the couple celebrate. We were helped along by swag bags put together for every guest containing keep cups for the beach, drugs to fight hangovers, after sun remedies, rubber duckies and other goodies.
Due to plans to head out to Coba early the following day, we couldn’t stay late to party with the other revelers, and besides, to be honest, as introverts (and after an active day in the heat) we were a little drained by everyone’s high spirits.
To get to Coba from Playa, one has to first drive down to Tulum, then turn inland and take a less well maintained road north-east for another 45 minutes.
Coba was my favourite out of the Mayan sites we visited during this trip for a few reasons. Firstly, it wasn’t so well restored as Chichen Itza or Tulum. Secondly, it wasn’t so overrun with tourists – in fact, we barely saw a soul the entire time we were there, which was helped in part by point three; the place was huge! The built up area of Coba covers some 80 square kilometres and if we hadn’t hired bicycles (awesome point number 4), it could have taken us days to explore the site.
Lastly, I loved Coba because of the Nohuch Mul pyramid, which with its 42 metres of precariously steep and worn steps is the second highest structure of the whole Mayan world (and certainly the tallest in the Yucatan), and best of all you could still climb it!
A special mention must go to the adorable squirrel I found leaping from tree to tree. Too bad it was to quick for me to capture it in action.
Riding our slightly rickety hire bikes through the canopied paths of the forest, surrounded by trees and bush and not a single human in sight, was indescribably delightful – I just felt giddy with exhilaration. We sped up or slowed down whenever – it didn’t matter. It had romantic potential too – if only I’d thought to pack a picnic lunch! We were away from harsh Yucatan summer sun, and even the mozzies kept surprisingly distant.
And that concludes my travelogue for Mexico 2013. I shall be back with more pretty pictures from our next adventure, wherever that may be. In the meantime, I’m sure you will get very fat off my food-related blogging (if you listen to me at all, which you should).
You can see the set of full-sized photos on Flickr.
Warning/Disclaimer: Half the photos were taken with an iPhone camera.
The events in this post follow on from our time in Merida and adventures in Uxmal, Chichen Itza and Izamal.
I hope you all enjoyed the respite from relentless photo bombardment? I guess I took a longer break than intended. Here’s a penalty pic.
So anyway, where were we?
Right, we left Mérida on a sunny morning on a first class ADO bus bound for Playa Del Carmen. Before I left Melbourne, I had romantic visions of sitting on a Mexican bus pitching down the dusty freeway, writing a thoughtful blog post about my adventures so far. The reality wasn’t anything like that. The bus was super comfortable and the ride very smooth, there was no wifi and the locals on the bus kept their curtains drawn the whole time so it was really dark, making me feel far more like watching a movie.
We arrived in Playa in the middle of the afternoon, the hottest part of the day, and were immediately accosted by a guy in a bicitaxi. In fact, it barely qualified as one of those, as the “seats” were just a couple of planks and were placed in front of the bicycle rather than behind it. We rode with him for a bit, mostly because he was so insistent despite not speaking a word of English, but also because we were melting and had no idea where we were.
We checked into our accommodation, which was a fully self-contained little unit in a complex called El Taj, probably about 100m from the beach. It wasn’t perfect, but it was cute and well located and meant we could cook breakfast, and immediately I wished we could stay there for our entire time in Playa del Carmen.
The moment we cooled down sufficiently, we went for a stroll down Quinta Avenida (“Fifth Avenue”), downtown Playa’s main promenade. It reminded me a bit of the Pub Street in Siem Reap. Different sort of demographic of travellers but similar atmosphere of holiday-making and enjoyment with tourist-targeted restaurants and bars lining the avenue. Contrived as it kind of was, I quite enjoyed it.
Inexplicably, there was a clothing store on Fifth Avenue called “Maori Fashion”, which didn’t look like it sold anything like what the name suggested. Perhaps the owners were hoping the Americans wouldn’t know any better?
The ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica were known for their history of chocolate consumption. With no better time than after a long bus journey, I hunted down a chocolate cafe called Ah Cacao to sample some Mayan chocolate. Supposedly. I had an iced chocolate and wasn’t impressed with the drink at all. Later, we went back for their ice cream, which was much more delicious.
After spending a few days in Playa, I observed that at least during the day, the downtown area was mostly occupied by European travellers and tourists from other parts of Latin America, and I even overheard the odd few Kiwis. Considering the huge volume of North American vacationers in those parts, there were surprisingly relatively few to be seen on the streets. It later became clear that most of them were hiding in big resorts, not needing or wishing to leave the comfort of the big all-inclusive complexes for the town.
While doing my first real bit of shopping in Mexico, I stumbled across a clothing store which stocked lots of funky, colourful apparel very much to my taste (as well as a few tackier pieces I chose to ignore), a Hello Kitty cushion, sky-high platforms including the biggest range of Jeffrey Campbell shoes I’ve ever seen in a physical store (being somewhat deprived of them in Australia, apparently). If you’ve read the fashion posts on this blog before, you’ll realise that my feet live in JC’s basically permanently. Suddenly, I was wishing I didn’t travel so light.
The ambiance prevailing over Quinta Avenida after dark was lively and infectious, different from the laid back atmosphere during the scorching daylight hours. The avenue and all the little streets off it were full, as even the resort-dwellers came to town for the nightlife.
That first night, we went down one of the side streets and entered the restaurant, called Mayan Bistro, attached to the Hotel Aventura Mexicana. A clean and well managed decent three-star hotel, I’d heard that the food was surprisingly delicious here. We weren’t disappointed. The menu was interesting, and just a little bit fusion, the service was friendly and unforced. The portion sizes were huge, the flavours bold and rich. The restaurant opened out into the internal courtyard of the hotel, which was quite landscaped and very atmospheric in the moonlight.
We ordered the aguachile-style ceviche, which had a great, citrussy punch and was incredibly refreshing – it had us totally addicted to ceviche for the remainder of the trip as a mouth-watering foil to the hot weather.
KP and I both chose seafood mains, as now that we were back on the coast we wanted to pack in as much of the fresh stuff as possible before returning to good-seafood-deprived Melbourne. You chose the type of seafood you wanted (fish, shrimp, squid or “scallops” – more on the inverted commas later), then a sauce and cooking style, and finally a side to go with it.
I’m such a sucker for tender, delicate white fish, which is what I got here. I chose to have my fish cooked a la talla, described as “prepared in an aioli sauce of ancho chilies, garlic and lime” and turned out to be extremely creamy and rich as well as packed with flavour. Out of curiosity, KP ordered the “scallops”, which surprised us when the dish arrived as they were nothing like the scallops we have at home. These were about a quarter of the size and had a strong “fishy” taste which wasn’t exactly what we were after from fresh seafood. And, to be honest, they kind of looked like gnocchi. My side of Mexican-style “street corn” wasn’t what I envisaged, either – I expected grilled corn on the cob – but it was nevertheless delicious.
Our second day in Playa Del Carmen coincided with our anniversary, and initially we wanted to head out to a beach club for some sun and snorkeling, but woke up too late so it was going to be a day of pure relaxation for us instead.
For brunch, we headed out in search for a Venezuelan eatery I’d read about called Kaxapa Factory.
What on earth is a kaxapa, you ask? It’s a thick, corn pancake hailing from Venezuela, eaten with a variety of possible fillings, often for breakfast. Jose, the owner of Kaxapa Factory is honestly one of the nicest guys you will ever meet; so genuinely warm and friendly and endearingly chatty; for two somewhat antisocial travellers, we were absolutely blown away! Just take a quick look at any online reviews and you’ll find that we weren’t alone in this feeling.
The food was simple and honest but to die for, the ultimate indulgent yet “real food” breakfast. KP had beef arepas while I opted for the signature kaxapa with 3 quesos (3 cheeses). My kaxapa came piping hot and perfectly browned, with oaxaca cheese, ranchero and manchego. We shared an order of bolitas de queso, deep fried balls of corn and cheese with creamy sauces.
After the decadent meal, we collapsed on the beach with our Kindles, in the private enclosed area for our hotel. I spotted the cutest little puppy. Totally relevant!
Weighed down by a rich dinner and heavy brunch, and having got enough sun, we actually headed to the gym in the afternoon for a sesh – it was a large, fancy local gym which we were allowed the use of through our hotel, but it wasn’t actually part of the hotel.
So now I will always be able say that we spent our 4th anniversary working out together in a Mexican gym after eating Venezuelan food, puppy watching on the beach, to be followed by a French fusion meal cooked by a Dutchman.
Speaking of which…
We booked dinner at Oh La La because it was touted as the finest haute cuisine in Playa Del Carmen as well as being rated the top restaurant on TripAdvisor. Unfortunately, this experience reminded me that TripAdvisor is, at best, a location-relative thing. This may be best establishment in Playa, but it doesn’t hold a candle to a good, mid-range restaurant in little old cosmopolitan Auckland.
Don’t get me wrong, the food here was nice enough, with plenty of potential. The meat and seafood were cooked very well, but the flavours were safe, the dishes not very creative, and the side accompaniment portions too big for delicacy (eg. too much mash), throwing the composition of the dishes off balance (ie. too much carb).
Funnily enough, I had a very juicy, plump lamb rack all the way from New Zealand, which was also the standout dish of the night with a lovely jus. The roasted vegetables were the big let down.
The service was attentive and efficient, but not too friendly. Not cold, exactly, but there weren’t too many genuine smiles and the general feeling was that they were trying a little too hard to be professional. At the end, however, they redeemed themselves by offering us a complimentary dessert in celebration of our anniversary.
The next day saw us up early and off to a private beach club called Blue Venado. Although recommended by our hotel, I had checked and double checked online that it was actually good and not a tourist trap. We had tried to cook breakfast that morning, and had the beginnings of a delicious Mexican omelette, but heartbreakingly had to chuck it out so as not to miss our ride.
When we arrived, the beach was completely devoid of people other than us. It was beautiful. Can I just say that the Caribbean waters are ridiculously clear?
I immediately ordered a virgin piña colada, and here was where I learned that such a thing was called a piñada! It made ordering them in the future so much easier.
After a morning of cocktails, reading and swimming, we had a spot of lunch before heading off to ride quad bikes (ok, ATVs) through the sand dunes.
Oh yeah, there was also snorkeling. And we clamboured through a wet cavern, a gruta (a cave-type cenote). Unfortunately, through all of this, all I had on me was a shitty disposable waterproof camera. You know the ones popular in the 90s? How retro (and stupid) of me.
Just imagine how I felt when I had to walk into a good old fashioned photo store (is that even what you call them? It’s been that long) to develop the actual, physical, film and was handed back a stack of horrible grainy photos, negatives and all. Some of the pictures didn’t even have anything in them! Hey, you try looking through a little viewfinder with a big snorkel mask on!
Knackered and still wet and sandy, we went straight from the club to pick up our second car rental of the trip, and from there headed to the massive Iberostar Tucan/Quetzal Resort in Playacar (Playa’s upmarket hotel strip) for the start of the festivities for which we actually came to Mexico for! We checked in and rushed to the buffet for dinner, and suddenly found our exhausted and socially awkward selves surrounded by lively, happy Americans there for the wedding. More on this resort and the wedding festivities in a later post!
We drove to Tulum first thing the following morning (again, more on that later) and afterwards, returned to Hotel Aventura Mexicana for a late lunch, where I was served the hugest piñada ever! And then another one… er, accidentally. You know when the waiter comes to take your empty glass and casually asks if you want another one? Yeah, and you know how if they say it in a different language, you might, at first think they said “can I take this away” instead, so you say “yes” before realising your mistake? That’s how you accidentally get a second glass. This happened more than once.
On our last full day in the Yucatan, we took the car to Coba, a large group of Mayan ruins which were the ones I had most wanted to visit from the start (you know it – more on that later!)
Back in Playa, we decided that buying a bunch of hot sauces to take back home would be just the thing to do. So we went to Walmart for what was actually the third time (the first two times being for groceries and swimming gear).
^ And that is what we came back with. Very restrained, I think.
We then had one of my top 5ish meals of our stay in Mexico. Cheap for Playa Del Carmen, unairconditioned and and full of locals and tourists alike, Los Aguachiles had a menu packed with fresh seafood options within colourful tacos, tostadas and ceviches.
There were half a dozen sauce options just sitting on the table – just how I like it: DIY condiments and flavour adjustment!
We stuffed ourselves full of seafood, yet didn’t leave feeling fat at all as it was all so light and fresh, and the citrus flavours helped with digestions so that, combined with an active morning riding bikes and climbing pyramids, we were starving again by dinnertime.
In between the two meals, while finishing off my gift shopping, I found an artisan store full of these beautiful, hand painted, hand carved, extravagantly colourful and exotically fantastical wooden animals! These carvings are called alebrijes, and most are produced in Oaxaca. For my mum, I bought a cute bunny with impossibly long ears, and KP got for our home a little tribal skeleton-warrior.
Our last night in Mexico was spent with a couple of friends who were also there for the wedding. On our way to dinner with them, we stumbled upon some street food stalls I wished I had discovered earlier.
Being our final meal in the Yucatan, we decided to go for Mayan cuisine. We hadn’t had any Yucatecan nosh since Mérida, having basically just inhaled seafood daily since arriving in Playa.
At Xulam, the ambience and decor were a little over the top and the dim lighting a little too… “romantic”, but it was a pretty decent feed and not a bad way to end our Yucatecan experience.
So, five down, one to go, and I’m almost burned out! Stay tuned for the last installment of my Mexico travel story sometime… whenever I feel like it. Next up will be the world of Iberostar Tucan, a beautiful beach wedding, and the Maya sites of Tulum and Coba.
You can see the set of full-sized photos on Flickr.
Warning/Disclaimer: contains a lot of “old building porn” and almost half the photos were taken with an iPhone.
The events in this post are surrounded by our time in Merida
The first thing you need to know about Uxmal is that it’s not pronounced “Ucks-Mull”. It’s actually said like “Oosh-Mahl” and means “built three times”. A contemporary of Chichen Itza, Uxmal collaborated economically and politically with the larger city. It was founded around 500 AD reaching the height of its power being in the 9th century, being home to about 25,000 Maya during this golden era.
Today, it is one of the slightly less restored and less tourist-infested sites of Mayan ruins, located about 80 km south-west of Mérida, passing through a number of small villages. The road south from Mérida was modern but not exactly excellently maintained. We rocked up about 10 minutes before the site opened to the public and during our whole visit, we only saw about 3 other people. Hardly any of the structures were fenced off and un-climb-able, which we were to learn was a bit of a rarity.
I’m no Mayan architecture expert, but apparently the buildings in Uxmal are typical of the Puuc style. There were beautiful friezes on the walls and sprawling courtyards (quandrangles), and lots of dramatic height for important structures.
The site of Uxmal includes two step pyramids. You are greeted by the Pyramid of the Magician (Pirámide del adivino) as you walk through the entrance. Quite an attractive structure from some angles, I noticed this pyramid has curved sides.
There was also a large ball court on which the Mayan version of the Ancient Mesoamerican ballgame was played once upon a time. Not a whole heap of detail is known today about the finer rules of this sport, however, we know that in most versions of the game you had to hit the ball with your hips and the use of hands and feet was not allowed. There are some further clues in the ballgame’s modern descendent, called ulama, still played by some indigenous communities in parts of Central America.
What’s also fairly certain is that a rubber ball was used, and it was probably very heavy. Judging by the height of some of the hoops I’ve seen in the ancient courts, I can’t even imagine how hard it must have been to score, and boy do I hope they got their calcium, because hitting a 2kg (?) ball with just your pelvis has got to hurt!
Research has also suggested that the game was used to settle political conflict between cities instead of engaging in full on warfare. If that was the case, I kind of wish today’s wars could take the form of a friendly rugby game.
Not so friendly was the fact that a bit later on in Maya history the game was closely entwined with human sacrifice rituals. Hmmmm.
The Governor’s Mansion was impressively majestic and overlooked the whole site, being built on top of a hill. Even today, it’s a beautiful view.
The Great Pyramid (la Gran Pirámide) is the bigger of the two “old triangles” and despite a cautionary sign, we scrambled all the way up to the capstone. It had a great view of the remaining façade of the House of the Doves (below right).
Another shot of the gorgeous House of the Doves:
All of the Maya sites we visited were surrounded by greenery, probably having been excavated from amongst jungley-ness. I attracted mozzies like nobody’s business at each of them but Uxmal was far from the worst for that. Nevertheless, that evening we hunted down insect repellent. There were also lots of big-ass lizards just happily wandering around like they owned the place. I guess they kind of do, since they’re the largest permanent residents?
Uxmal ended up being a great first Maya experience and the fact that there was barely anyone else around except lizards and we didn’t encounter a single person trying to sell us stuff really helped us enjoy it immensely.
Chichen Itza (which rhymes with chicken pizza) the next day… was a different story.
On the way back, we went a slightly alternative route following a little truck loaded with what I think were plantains and drove through a small town.
I loved all the ultra-colourful residential buildings everywhere in Mexico.
Almost every structure in Chichen Itza was fenced off with a wide berth. So visiting was basically a lot of standing 20 metres away from a bunch of old stones thinking “oh, that’s nice… moving on!” Many of the main buildings had been restored to nearly pristine condition. On the one hand, I guess it’s nice to be able to see almost exactly what a pyramid looked like a millennium-and-a-half ago, but it just doesn’t “feel” right to see something so ancient looking so shiny and new and “perfect”.
El Castillo pyramid is the worst culprit. From only a few metres away, it looks like it was built last year!
What was fortunate was that we managed to beat every single tour bus and all but a dozen or less other visitors. We also arrived before any touts – in fact, we didn’t even know they were going to be setting up unattractively right in the middle of the site until an hour or so after we came in.
The rich history of Chichen Itza covers almost 1000 years in Mayan chronology. It was one of the largest and most powerful histories in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
The temple atop the pyramid served the Maya god Kukulkan, a deity in the form of a feathered serpent. But the really interesting thing about El Castillo is that each of its quite symmetrical four sides has 91 steps, and added together with the capstone (top) counting as the final step it makes 365 – the number of days in a year.
The Temple of Warriors along with a couple of other temples are surrounded by a thousand beautifully carved columns. I don’t actually know if there are exactly a thousand of them but collectively, the structures are called the Group of a Thousand Columns and they were my favourite group. In its heyday, the columns would have supported an extensive roof.
Though the ballcourt at Uxmal was considered a large one, the Great Ballcourt of Chichen Itza was in a league of its own. This court is actually the largest in Mesoamerica and currently the most well preserved. Magnificent…
Here’s a small step pyramid called the Osario. A temple at the top opened into the pyramid, and in the cave below, several skeletons were excavated in the 19th century.
I talked about the annoyance of the souvenir stalls setting up right in the middle of the Chichen Itza complex, but I’ll allow that some of them actually had pretty cool stuff. Hand-made, some of them unique and one-off, others very similar to what everyone else was selling but clearly not manufactured all in the same big factory. That may sound like a strange remark but after having identical souvenirs touted in my face in a dozen developing countries, this is saying something.
It was at about this point when my camera ran out of juice because I’d stupidly decided the night before that it didn’t need a charge. I had only charged a few days before and at home it tended to last a month or more, but the heat combined with walking around for hours with it switched on a lot of the time was obviously draining it more than I thought! The rest of my photos that day were taken with my trusty iPhone 5, which did an okay job… but when we got to Izamal later, and when I tried to zoom in down on KP diving into a cenote, I really wish I still had my G1 X.
So, I guess I was pissed off about that when I took the next few photos, because I can’t for the life of me remember what they’re of!
El Caracol (The Snail) is a circular or cylindrical temple built a top a platform and looks suspiciously like an observatory of some sort. Interestingly, historians do believe it was used for astronomical observations, particularly that of the movement of Venus.
Among the things I found out at the Maya world museum in Mérida was that the peninsula’s foundation is made of limestone and other carbonate rock, like a big fat sponge. Due to this geological composition, the Yucatan’s famous caverns and sinkholes (cenotes) were born out of gradual limestone erosion and collapse from moisture absorption over the centuries.
Chichen Itza is home to two large cenotes, Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote) and Cenote Xtoloc, which supplied the ancient city with water as well as being used in sacrificial rituals. Objects as well as humans were sacrificed and valuable artifacts were uncovered in the early 20th century.
The final photo (right) above shows Cenote Ik Kil, which is not part of the Chichen Itza complex but a few kilometres outside the ancient city. This was safe for swimming and accessible to the public for a fee (as you can tell by the smoothed walls and the ladders) and KP had a wee dive in here. The iPhone did a shitty job of capturing this action down in the dark sinkhole so I haven’t included those photos.
By the time we left Chichen Itza, our hire car was running out of petrol and there wasn’t a gas station in sight. Everything seemed to be dying on me that day. At one point, a giant sign teased us by having an image of a petrol pump machine on it, which got us excited, only to read the label “80 KM” underneath. What is the point of having a sign to indicate something that is eighty kilometres away, if not to take the piss!?
Our calculations indicated that we would most likely but not certainly make it all the way back to Mérida on our current tank, but the bigger problem is that I actually wanted to make a huge detour to see Izamal. With the average data reception on my phone, I managed to – maybe, vaguely, on some dodgy forum somewhere, perhaps, there’s-a-pretty-good-chance – figure out that there was a Pemex (Mexico’s state-owned petrol company) in Izamal. That being good enough, off we went, driving through some tiny towns and over horrible, bumpy, narrow roads and passing many a motorised tuk tuk taxi.
Izamal is one of Mexico’s “Magical Towns“. I’m pretty unclear on what that means or what the criteria are but perhaps Wikipedia can tell you (I didn’t read it that closely). I don’t know about you, but when I hear “magical” and “yellow” in the same sentence, I just think of the Wizard of Oz.
Large for a town but very small for a city, I don’t know if I’d call Izamal “magical”; however, it was pretty charming and pretty pretty.
For one thing, every building within the city centre and just outside of it is painted the same shade of egg yolk yellow. It’s pretty magnificent and a bit dizzying as you’re driving through it. My poor iPhone didn’t know what to make of all the yellow and I’m sure the colour balance is off in these photos because it was really much cooler in person.
The town was a maze of one-way streets and Google was not being as helpful as it was in Mérida – we almost didn’t find the Pemex! It was only by accidentally driving the wrong way down one of these streets that we lucked out. We were stopped by a cop and at first were convinced that this was “finally it” – we’d be asked to fork out the bribe money like we’d been warned. Instead, the lovely dude explained to us in decent English that we were idiots driving the wrong way and gave us directions to the petrol station.
Like many of the larger towns and cities in the Yucatan, Izamal was built on top of ancient Mayan ruins and is surrounded today by several important Maya archaeological sites. In the centre of the town, atop an Ancient Maya acropolis and next to two large public parks is a huge Franciscan monastery. Or convent. I don’t know, because I’ve heard it called both. Either way, it’s one of the oldest in Central America, and the Atrium was the second largest in the world (after the Vatican!) at the time of its completion in 1561.
The Franciscan monk Fray Diego de Landa, who was born in Spain but was sent to Colonial Yucatan to bring the Roman Catholic faith to the Maya, became a Bishop and resided here.
While Landa was ruthless in his efforts to stamp out “paganism”, burning and destroying many Mayan codices (writings) and religious idols, he also dedicated much of his life in recording detailed accounts of the Maya language, writing, culture and religion, much of which work is deemed quite accurate even today.
And there, my friends, ends your history lesson for the day, and ours for that day. Our Maya and Colonial Adventures over for at least a few sleeps, we drove back to Mérida through those little crappy country roads on a nice full tank of gas.
You can see the set of full-sized photos on Flickr.
Next up: Playa del Carmen
The events in this post follow on from our time in Cancun
Our arrival into Mérida was even wetter and more depressing than our Cancun landing. A very flat city with narrow streets in the older parts of town, we passed through some pretty decent flooding coming in around sunset.
Here was when my Mexican SIM card really became indispensible. We had hired a car to take us everywhere, as we wanted to go places public buses and tours didn’t go, we wanted to avoid peak times for visiting the ruins and have the freedom of checking out the more obscure corners of the city itself without having to negotiate a taxi fare every time. A Sat Nav unit could be added to the car hire for a fee which I thought was rather exorbitant, and even then, of course, it wouldn’t have the up-to-date detail of Google maps as far as landmarks go. The price I paid for 1 GB of data and some included minutes on my SIM ended up being the same as the Sat Nav unit would have cost in the car, and obviously with so many more perks.
What’s more, and what we didn’t realise until we got there, is that Mérida doesn’t even have street numbers! So, addresses only got as specific as “near the corner of this street and this street, across from this famous building”, which is nothing if not impossible to enter into most navigation systems; and almost every street in the historic centre was a one-way, not always with clear signage. Needless to say, I became an expert at following that little blue GPS dot on Google Maps and giving on-the-fly turn-by-turn directions for places I had never been to in my life.
We had decided to base ourselves in Mérida due to its proximity to Mayan sites of Uxmal and Chichen Itza, and several other smaller ones, and because of its own rich Spanish colonial history. Spanish conquistadors founded the city in the mid-1500s, built on top of the Mayan city of T’hó. Like many conquistadors, they seemed to be assholes and so some of the oldest buildings in Mérida are built using the stones from ruined structures of Ancient T’hó – including the Catedral de San Ildefonso, possibly the oldest cathedral in the Americas.
In the 19th and early 20th century, some of the families of Mérida became very wealthy off the back of plantations of henequen, used to make sisal rope. There are still beautiful old haciendas (estates) around the area, many of which have now been converted into hotels, restaurants and in at least one case, a tourist attraction claiming to demonstrate the entire process from planting, harvesting to rope making. The city’s main boulevard, Paseo de Montejo, was built by the rich of Mérida in the 19th century; an attractive, well-kept tree-lined wide avenue leading out of the historic city centre, it is home to gorgeous mansions of the post-colonial era.
After leaving our stuff at the hotel, we braved the watery streets again to seek out local food, much wanted after the procession of decent but inauthentic international fare we had at Secrets. Yucatecan cuisine is distinctive from common Mexican food and has much stronger European influences due to the peninsula’s early isolation from the rest of the country. We had plenty of both culinary traditions while we were in the Yucatan.
We found La Chaya Maya, which was full of locals and tourists alike, and had a great buzz and atmosphere.
Unfortunately, the food was really not that great. Having had no experience with Yucatecan food, I couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong other than that it was all a bit bland compared to what I expected, and the dishes seemed neither cold nor hot but kind of a clammy lukewarm. That description makes it sound worse than it was – it wasn’t horrible, I was just extremely underwhelmed.
I had the Relleno Negro – ground turkey and pork cooked in a sauce made from several varieties of blackened chilies and spices. It had a surprising sweetness to it, and wasn’t chilli-hot in the least, and I couldn’t identify a large number of spices in it at all. The other dish pictured is called “los tres mosqueteros yucatecos”, featuring three corn tortillas stuffed with turkey and smothered with three Yucatecan sauces – relleno negro (as aforementioned), pipian sauce, and papadzul sauce. All three were quite sweet, but particularly the cream coloured one, which I found almost sickeningly sweet for accompanying a meat dish. The reddish one, however, I quite enjoyed.
I finished off with a flan, because there was no way I wasn’t going to have as much flan as possible while in Mexico. It’s one of my favourite desserts from basically anywhere in the world!
Disappointingly, when we woke up the morning after our arrival, the rain was still relentless and we couldn’t head out to visit the smaller Mayan sites I had wanted to see on our first full day. Instead, we stayed in bed until the rain had temporarily let up and went to explore the historic city centre. One thing about the tropical heat: the streets dried out super quickly, and later that day, just as quickly, flooded out again.
El Centro Histórico de Mérida was once enclosed by city walls. The streets are numerous, narrow, mostly in a grid and are numbered – odd-numbered streets ran east-to-west and even-numbered ones north-to-south. They were one-way with the direction alternating with each subsequent street. The historic centre was full of splendid, sometimes colourful Spanish colonial buildings, many restaurants and bars, and budget to mid-range accommodation. After wandering around this area on foot for a bit, the downpour started again and we decided to have a look at the Mayan history museum near the outskirts of the city.
Mérida is a sprawling, cosmopolitan city with almost a million population, mostly well-maintained modern (and – other than in the historic centre – wide) roads, highways, multinational chains and big shopping malls. As the administrative capital of the Yucatan state, it is home to a decent number of expats, and I had fun tracking down some of these guys’ blogs for locally-residing-yet-English-speaking tips and recommendations.
We were guided to el Gran Museo del Mundo Maya by trusty Google Maps and my iPhone 5.
The above right is a vessel designed for drinking chocolate!
And below: Maya Almanacs
I found many of the statues of Mayan deities to be quite cute, and the beautifully decorated stelae to be surprisingly intricate.
A touchscreen computer program allowed me to analyse my date of birth on the Mayan Calendar and email it to myself.
It was mid-afternoon by the time we were finished, and I’ll definitely say that the museum was informative and well worth the visit. All the signs and explanations were trilingual in Spanish, Maya and English. Yucatec Maya is spoken by a third of the population of the Yucatan Peninsula, where 60% of the population is of Mayan descent. The downpour had become a drizzle and we were starved.
After many a wrong turn and run down neighbourhood street, we arrived at a beautifully restored hacienda called Xcanatun which now houses a boutique hotel and a high-end restaurant serving creatively fusion-istic Maya cuisine. This was, without question, the best food we had all trip, and definitely not just because we finally found KP’s favourite Mexican brew.
Modelo has the largest share of the beer market in Mexico, yet for some reason, none of the first half dozen or more restaurants and eateries we went to had the “Negra” brand that he learned he preferred from a Central/South American dinner we partook in back home during the Melbourne Food and Wine festival.
There’s not much to be said about the food other than that it was delicious! Delicately prepared and beautifully presented, the fusion dishes mostly got it “just right” with the fine balance of Western and Mexican flavours; and the service was impeccable. I was honestly quite surprised at the world class calibre of the dining at this reputable but pretty secluded estate, or maybe my expectations had been dropped by days of average or only-kind-of-good food.
My absolute favourite was the Crema de Chile Poblano al Roquefort – (self-explanatorily, cream of poblano chili with roquefort cheese). It was served with fresh tortilla strips and a dramatic piece of blackened poblano pepper, and to this day I cannot get the amazing taste of this soup out of my mind. This only slightly overshadowed my main event, which was cochinita(pork, in this case pulled pork)-stuffed Angus beef eye fillet with herb-roasted onion, habanero peppers and “cochinita sauce”. I took it that last item referred to the sauce traditionally served with cochinita pibil, but I can safely say I didn’t enjoy any of the subsequent cochinita pibil dishes I ate over the rest of the trip even half as much as this dish. It was substantial, yes, and maybe a little unbalanced or heavy-handed only in the large proportion of protein on the plate, but it was oh-so-good!
I believe KP’s entrada and plato fuerte were both from the specials board and can no longer remember exactly what they were, but I do remember the decadent flan with toasted coconut, caramel sauce and coconut praline that I ordered for dessert as well as KP’s tequila-infused key lime pie. Both were a perfect blend of Mexican and European tastes.
Sometime, very early on in our trip, we somehow fell into the cycle of early wake-ups followed by a daytime activity, then a mid-to-late-afternoon siesta followed by a late dinner. On this day, we somehow overdid the siesta part, probably due to our amazing and substantial late lunch, and I suddenly awoke at about 10pm and bolted out of bed.
It was raining again and we ended up at a nightclub called Casa Pompidou which reportedly also served amazing wood-fired pizza which we never got to sample as there wasn’t any space left in the eating area even at that hour. The place was interesting and had some seriously eye-catching art, but totally not our scene, and besides, most of the dance floor was open-air.
Wet and hungry, we drove around central Mérida for some time, looking out for somewhere open which had both food and parking until we stumbled across a place on Paseo de Montejo called Slavia. The decor inside was ridiculous! It was an over-the-top blend of “Arabian Nights, French Boudoir, and Asian Temple” and among its other gimmicks, it served a variety of fondue. Regretfully, we ordered a set of this and it was horrible – the cheese was overpowering, did not melt easily and the bread served was ridiculously stale, and the seared tuna side dish overcooked, tasteless and barely edible. The fondue was supposed to be infused with peppers and spices but instead was just quite a pungent cheese that drowned out anything else it came in contact with. We also tried a venison carpaccio which, though fresh enough to be perfectly safe, was for some reason drowned in too much olive oil. All in one day, we had had the best and the worst meal of our stay in Mexico.
With an early rise planned for the next day to explore Uxmal, we pretty much headed straight to bed after this crappy experience, hoping that we wouldn’t get “cheese nightmares“.
I will talk about our Uxmal expedition in a future post. Thanks to our early start and having our own transport, we were back in Mérida fairly early in the afternoon , so we decided to pay the largest local market a visit. The Mercado Lucas de Gálvez is within the historic city centre and is really more of a marketplace area, spread out over many buildings with all kinds of merchants, meat and produce, and street food vendors. Not a gringo in sight that day, it was a busy, colourful area and the traffic congestion was insane!
Many carts prepared and sold tortas (basically a sandwich) and tacos.
There was a massive open air food court type area where we had the best tacos of our whole trip for 5 pesos each. That’s roughly 40 cents AU. #canteven
I may have overdosed on the hottest salsa I’ve ever tasted. Oops. I can’t stop thinking about this afternoon and wishing I could get amazing 40 cent tacos here at home.
With our tummies happy, mouths burning and body overheated (it was really hot), we headed to the mall for some shopping and air conditioned relief…
… where we found clothing and “stuff” and I bought mundane essentials such as a top up of eyeliner. We were also hunting for an HDMI cable, of all nerdy things, as we wanted to watch the latest Game of Thrones episode (it was the Red Wedding one) that was on my laptop. Apparently, we had to watch it on a bigger screen, hence needing the cable. In our search, we ended up at a massive superstore-thing which was like a huge Big W (or NZ’s The Warehouse) with a large supermarket attached, among which interesting things we found were a million flavours of microwave popcorn and a giant tank full of nothing but chicharrones (pork crackling)! Now, the crackling I can understand, as it’s a complement to many Mexican dishes, but it seems that in this part of the world there was also a little obsession with popcorn. It seemed to be sold everywhere as a cheap snack, like fries might be in the US.
That night, we had a pretty so-so Yucatecan meal at Los Almendros near our hotel and rolled “home” to bed the next morning.
After returning from Chichen Itza, a nearby cenote (sinkhole) and the charming town of Izamal the next afternoon, we headed to the historic city centre for some cheap, honest Mexican food. El Trappiche was a very basic eatery in a low-end cafe type setting, opening out to the street and with no air con. It was packed full of locals, the menus were in Spanish only and the staff didn’t speak English – all good signs. I ordered an enchiladas with salsa verde, and it didn’t disappoint. The presentation was, of course, nothing to look at, but the salsa was delicious. KP’s burrito was a simple affair with melted cheese and a huge side dollop of refried beans, but was enjoyed all the same. Sometimes, after a sweltering morning climbing pyramids and swimming in sinkholes, this is just the type of thing you need!
A refreshing virgin piña colada finished off my experience, and it was honestly among the best iced coconut-based drinks I’ve ever had (and I’ve had countless across the world). My only complaint was the “sprinkle” of cinnamon they put on top was actually more like a thick layer of the stuff, and this wasn’t the first time in the Yucatan that I’ve had this “cinnamon problem”.
We had the same type of fare the next morning – three cheesy breakfast tacos – as we prepared to hop on a bus back to the Caribbean coast, this time headed to Playa del Carmen.
You can see the set of full-sized photos on Flickr.
Warning: contains an overdose of food porn
The events in this post follow on from our short stop in LA
Our final flight from Mexico to Cancun was moved forward an hour. Cue, me, frantically trying to call the transfers people to ensure we still had a lift to our hotel. That Mexican SIM card was already coming in really handy, but trying to get my meaning across in English was harder than I expected in a destination so full of American tourists. Then I felt like an arrogant, entitled prick just for thinking that.
We arrived at Cancun airport to torrential rain and the next several days’ forecast wasn’t looking good, either.
“Welcome to Cancun!” our driver said cheerfully, “Welcome to the rain!”
Me: “Is it going to be like this all week?”
Him, sunnily: “I think so!”
I didn’t know whether to be relieved or furious that we had booked in at a beach resort in the middle of a week of thunderstorms. On the one hand, being at an All-Inclusive meant we wouldn’t have to make the effort to go out in the rain to find food and drink; on the other hand, having a private beach and an all-you-can-drink bar poolside isn’t much good when it’s pouring.
Thankfully, we did have a few hours per day of beautiful weather and flawlessly blue skies, during which times we rushed out to get as much sun and beach as we could.
Our destination, Secrets: The Vine, was 16km down the road extending from Cancun proper that they call “Zona Hotelera”, a strip flanked on both sides by the ocean. I believe it does actually have a road name, but no one ever used it – on the strip was nothing but upscale and mid-range vacation accommodation.
There are family-friendly resorts and then there are adults-only resorts. An adult-only resort doesn’t mean some kind of self-enclosed orgy paradise but just that only people over 18 are welcome to stay there. Read: no little kids.
One thing we took awhile to get used to on this trip – and I still can’t say I’m comfortable with it – is the tipping culture. I’m used to living in a country (or countries) that pay its hospitality and all other workers a fair living wage. Tipping is almost non-existent in Australia and New Zealand, except at fine dining restaurants and perhaps the most upscale of hotels (where, ironically, the staff probably need it the least). Sure, if you go to a cafe, it might have a tip jar at the counter, but if you left a fiver on the table or tipped the person filling up your car with petrol, it would be highly unusual.
And then there’s the awkwardness of it all. What’s the right amount so that you aren’t throwing away your money by tipping too much or insulting them by tipping too little? How openly do you do it if it’s for an individual? Where on earth do you find this continuous supply of small denomination notes and coins?
Although part of a well-established chain of resorts, Secrets itself is fairly small and intimate… which means less guests, which means generally higher quality everything as there is a lesser quantity to cater for.
At night, it was alive. The atmosphere was charged with the vibes of happy people enjoying themselves and the resort’s several on-site bars were full but not crowded. Outdoors, the pathways and landscaping around the swimming pools were illuminated, and it was all quite pretty and romantic.
The food at Secrets was good. Not great, not even really good – although there were a few stand outs – but it was as much as I could hope for and was expecting from an all-inclusive package after the horror stories I’d heard and read about (and later in the trip, experienced).
Included food meant more than just dining for free at the onsite restaurants. It meant free booze in the minibar, and that I could order a crème brûlée at 3am to be delivered to my room (and did!) and wander over to the lobby cafe for an espresso and a croissant in the morning if I didn’t want a full buffet breakfast.
Room service: creme brulee and tiramisu delivered to the suite
There were 8 restaurants in the complex – each featuring a different ethnic cuisine, though not necessarily authentic. All were walk-in, although some got pretty busy at peak dining hours so we took to the habit of going much later than normal meal times. Our first meal was a late lunch at the Market Cafe lunch buffet after arriving from the airport through the storm. We witnessed a pissed off “guido”-stereotype with his friends being hilariously turned away for attempting to enter the restaurant in a wife beater.
The selection at the buffet was impressive – there was a huge variety of international dishes, a salad bar, sandwich bar, sushi bar, roast station, a chocolate fountain and countless dessert and bread choices. Quality was a little hit-and-miss, but overall, really of a pretty good standard for buffet fare… especially in the case of a couple of gorgeous cakes.
We rocked up at the Sea Salt Grill at almost 10pm that night after a massage and an amazing and bit of an afternoon nana nap (much needed after almost 48 without access to a bed). This casual poolside restaurant serves fresh seafood, Caribbean style, and was just a bit of a let down. The seafood was, indeed, very fresh, and my entree of Chalaco Ceviche had a delicious sauce, but the mixed seafood grill main ordered by KP was a little dry and somewhat under-seasoned. I didn’t think that serving the dishes on green plates did any favours for the presentation.
However, my Grouper dish was pleasant enough so I didn’t walk out too unhappy, and the two yummy desserts certainly helped, especially the delectable Dulce de Leche. The service was attentive, though that probably wasn’t hard when we were only one of three tables at that time of night, and we were offered a little amuse bouche before our courses. It wasn’t that good, to be honest, but it was cute and was a lovely touch.
On the second night, we checked out Olio, the resident “Mediterranean” restaurant and this was the weak point of the dining during our stay.
While our entrees were lovely, especially the nicely spiced and seasoned beef and lamb meatballs with garlic aioli, we ordered two fish dishes which were both a bit disappointing. Don’t get me wrong – in no way was this food inedible, but this restaurant was trying to be something it wasn’t.
I had the trout with “garlic chips”, which as you can see was a thin fillet of fish with a few toasted slices of garlic laid over the top. Presentation questionable, and I don’t know that the garlic chips added to my experience of the fish (though they were tasty – I mean, come on, garlic!), and there were three disproportionately chunky blocks of “potato confit” (really just mashed potato, reconstructed with parsley) on the side which threw the dish off balance with the protein serve being so small.
None of the elements tasted awful – most were actually pleasant on their own – and I feel like it would have been a better success if they hadn’t tried to be so upmarket with their dishes. Case in point: KP’s red mullet “confit” was fresh, tender and well cooked but was not technically confit, and the wine “reduction” didn’t taste or look like what it promised.
Due to the less than ideal weather, we didn’t spend a lot of time in Cancun proper, which probably worked out for the better as we were able to take full advantage of the resort’s and food and facilities which I would probably otherwise have been too impatient to do. One morning, though, the sky looked quite clear and we needed to reserve some tickets at the bus station in town. We walked out onto the main strip and flagged down one of the old public buses marked “Centro” hurtling down the road towards Cancun, and off we went. With no aircon, the ride was hot and stuffy, even with all the windows open, and we were literally the only non-Mexicans on board, but the driver was friendly and helpful.
After a sweltering time at the bus station I was definitely not up for another bumpy ride back to the hotel, so it was off on a hunt for a restaurant I’d heard about not far from the terminal. For a fairly famous eatery, it was kind of located in the middle of nowhere, on a quiet residential street near a park and a market.
La Habichuela was one of the first major tourist-friendly restaurants to open up in the town during the first boom of the industry in Cancun in the ’70s, and it still does very much have that retro vibe to it. Its “themed” decor, for one thing. That said, I didn’t find it to be gimmicky or kitschy, but rather just a bit stuck in its ways – and if you were on the receiving end of the warm and attentive old fashioned service, you wouldn’t think it was so bad.
The food was quite good and the portions generous. My tasty and beautifully smoky “appetizer” of Tapa Al Ajillo was probably a larger serving size than I’d normally eat for lunch at work. KP’s Paradise Ceviche (conch ceviche) wasn’t as good, but was still lovely – fresh and refreshing. I chose one of La Habichuela’s signature dishes of “Grouper Supreme” (apparently, I was having a little temporary love affair with grouper that week) which consisted of a grouper fillet in a guava sauce, stuffed with lobster. I had really high expectations for this dish and while I liked it, I was a little disappointed. The guava sauce was very sweet and somewhat overpowered the delicate white fish, the lobster seemed a little tough and dry, though still sweet. KP had a whole fish “Veracruz Style” served in a lovely tomato-based sauce, which he reported was not too sweet (overly sweet tomato-based sauces being a pet peeve of his, apparently). Before and alongside these courses, we were given some lackluster dry bread with amazing fresh butter.
By the time we ducked out of the restaurant it was raining violently again so we braved the taxi fare negotiation scenario and took a cab back to the resort.
The friendly resort staff spoke English clearly with American accents, but we found after awhile that many of them were just going through the motions. Talk to them about anything to do with the hotel and they’re awesome… anything else and they get this glazed look in their eyes, smile and blurt out a random selection out of a set number of polite responses that often don’t relate at all to what’s being asked! This didn’t annoy so much as amuse me.
Reception lady: Good morning! How are you today?
Me: Great! Just checking out, thanks.
Reception lady: Let me help you with that! Going to the airport?
Me: No, we’re actually off to Mérida for 4 days.
RL: Oh perfect, what time’s your flight?
Me: No, no, we’re not flying there. We have a shuttle taking us to Mérida.
RL: Ohhh, you’re going to Mérida! Lovely! For how many days?
Me: … 4… days.
Me: We’re actually going to rent a car and drive out to see Chichen Itza and some of the other sites!
RL: *Frozen smile* Oh perfect, are you going to visit Chichen Itza?
Me: *Internalised headdesk*
When I stay at hotels, I tend to miss the breakfast buffet window due to sleeping in – unless it’s the exact opposite and I leave to go somewhere at 5am – and that’s what had happened at Secrets. But I couldn’t leave this luxurious resort and Cancun for the five hour trip to Mérida without a final indulgent breakfast, now, could I?
If every breakfast-included hotel I stayed at served breakfast like this, I’d probably actually have it more often. The selection at the toast station would have been super exciting if I was a bread person and I wanted to take the waffle bar home with me. Besides the good variety at the juice bar, there was a pile of healthy packaged drinks we could take with us for the day as well, such as yogurt drinks, energy drinks and fruit juices.
We were now well-fueled for a long road trip to Mérida.