Yucatan Diary

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Valladolid

As much as we enjoyed pretty Tulum, we couldn’t wait to hit the road to inland Yucatan and see a more genuine, less tourist-oriented Mexico. Our first stop was Valladolid – a charming, unpretentious and serene little colonial town. While it isn’t exactly a tourist-free backwater, the city feels lived-in – its raison d’etre not being simply to cater to foreigners. Valladolid looks exactly how you would imagine a typical Mexican town to look – stucco, sherbet-colour colonial houses line wide and dusty cobbled streets that feature the occasional and elaborately painted horse-drawn carriage. Though the architecture is Spanish, a large part of the population is actually made up of Mayans, and a lot of them still speak the strange and beautiful ancient language and wear the traditional embroidered clothes.

What struck us most about this area of Mexico was how unconsciously ‘trendy’ it is; as we strolled under sun-bleached arcades we came across artisanal stores and trendy niche boutiques selling what at home would be sold as over-priced, pink crepe-paper-wrapped cult objects. Tiny artisanal shops sell Mayan chocolate made using ancient recipes, while others provide tastings of their home-made, organic Tequila and Mezcal. Coqui Coqui, a Yucatan perfumery decorated with elaborate coloured tiles and minimalistic black laquer display cabinets, uses recipes inspired by Franciscan monks who worked closely with Mayan alchemists to produce their floral-scented potions.

Then of course there’s the traditional Mexican food – inevitably trendy after having undergone a seemingly international, instagram-fuelled revival. Predominantly vegatarian restaurant Yerabuena del Sisal serves up chia lemonade and whole-wheat Tortugas with fresh avocado. After our inevitable over-consumption of every possible variety of  taco and avocado in Tulum we were happy to try something simple. Wandering around Avenida de los Frailes we noticed a long line of locals heading out of an inauspicious-looking backyard patio that was cooking up whole fresh fish from the market in nothing but olive oil and salt. We chose a big red fish that was cooked right in front of us, grabbed a double-sized Pacifico beer and ate in the Parque Francisco Canton in front of the imposing San Gervasio Cathedral.

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Chichen Itza

The cultural highlight of the Yucatan is without a doubt the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, though it seems almost inappropriate to call them ruins when they are so amazingly well-preserved for 1400 year-old structures. The most well-preserved and spectacular is El Castillo, temple of Kukulcan God of the wind (and Josh’s new nickname). It’s sometimes difficult when travelling, at least it is for me, to fully realise the significance of certain cultural landmarks, and get that immediate sense of wonder that you want and expect. I especially find this with certain religious icons and especially ruins. As spectacular as El Castillo is, I was disappointed to find that this anticlimax is exactly what I felt when I first walked into the Mayan site. I can only put this down to the heat, the ridiculous number of people and the jaguar whistle-wielding peddlers (they make a loud jaguar roaring noise, kind of cool at first, really annoying thirty seconds later).

I soon realised however that while the atmosphere may not have been the same as the Tulum ruins (that boasted stunning sea views and were virtually empty thanks to good timing), the temples themselves were far more beautiful and dramatic at Chichen Itza. Rather than stroll lazily through the site, it made me think about the beauty and significance of the buildings themselves. Each individual structure was testament to the amazing ingenuity and artistry of the Mayans. During the spring and autumn equinoxes, the late-afternoon sunlight hits El Castillo’s principal facade to create the illusion of snake slithering down the steps. El Caracol, dubbed ‘the observatory,’ seems carefully aligned with the movements of Venus – which was of tremendous spiritual significance to the Mayans. One of the observation points on El Caracol marks an appearance of Venus at a particular point on the horizon that takes place exactly once every eight years.

Of course you don’t have to visit Mayan or Aztec sites to experience Mexican culture. One of the things I loved about the Yucatan was how art seemingly permeated every aspect of life – whether this be the unrelenting aesthetic conciousness of Tulum or a beautifully embroidered and kaleidoscopically coloured hammock swinging from the ceiling in a bare and otherwise furniture-less thatched hut in the most remote of towns.

A lot of Mexican art seems laced with subtle irony. From the oxymoronic, cheerfully coloured skulls which reflect what Octavio La Paz would surely describe as a Catholic nation’s baroque fascination with the macabre, to a tiny bamboo hair salon we came across in a remote rural town that was painted red, white and blue in the traditional barber shop colours – a symbol not only associated with the service of bloodletting (originally the image denoted bloody bandages around a pole) but also reminiscent of the patriotic colours of the US flag and fifties consumer culture when this style of barber-shop predominated.

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IK-kil and Yokdzonot Cenotes

IK Kil cenote, a limestone sinkhole not far from Chichen Itza, is one of those surreally magical places that will demand a permanent and happy place in your memory. Lush, tropical vegetation suddenly gives way to a Lewis Carollesque hole of climbing ivy and seemingly endless vines that caress the clear blue water 90 feet below. Eager to swim with the hundreds of cute, mini catfish that inhabit the cenote, me and Josh climbed down and dove from the highest platform into the cool water below. Lying on my back and staring at the blue sky while ivy leaves fluttered down and dappled sunlight streamed through the vines forming tiny rainbows is an experience that I will remember forever. I felt like Alice in her dream.

I was so eager to get to IK-Kil early that we actually had to return to the hotel as the ticket office hadn’t even opened, but even when it did we had the cenote to ourselves for at least half an hour. It did busy up later though so if you want to have a more tranquil cenote experience, nearby Yokdzonot is beautiful. Though not as precipitous and immediately striking, it gets more sunlight, which makes the water warmer as well as a beautiful turquoise colour. Yokdzonot is more frequented by locals, and is actually owned by the community as part of a cooperative. We had lunch at the restaurant above the cenote where local women cook traditional Yucatan dishes like lime soup and flaky cochinita Pibil, washed down with with a local berry drink that I haven’t been able to find since. It was our last and without doubt best meal of the entire trip.

Yucatan Diary

Tulum

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If fashion blogs and instagram hadn’t entirely convinced me that I needed to drop everything and immediately go to Tulum, a new low-budget airline that has just started a direct Puerto Rico to Cancun route did. Given that where I live inter-island travel is notoriously painful, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally visit Mexico. We arrived quite late and so spent the first night in what is one of the few boutique hotels in Cancun. From the taxi there we saw some high-rise hotels and enormous multi-tiered clubs that looked like awesome fun if you were an excited 15-year old on Spring break. In our case we looked in vain the next morning for a Mexican-style breakfast in a deserted mall (we ended up in Mcdonalds (but at least they had a salsa/guac bar!)) and then high-tailed it out of there.

I’d heard that a lot of people biked around Tulum so we didn’t bother with a car rental and got the bus. I’m so glad we did – at Playa del Carmen we picked up a group of young Mariachi musicians who sang and played their beautiful guitars all the way to Tulum. Half-way through the set an English guy who was visiting started playing his trumpet along-side them and the entire bus started singing and clapping – I felt like I was finally in Mexico!

If you’re looking for a low-key vacation but want to avoid the gargantuan monolith-resorts of Cancun, Tulum is paradise. No structure is higher that the nearest palm tree – the predominant look being faux-rustic and sun-bleached and flawlessly stylish. The boutiques across from the sea are decorated with plush, four-poster beds and lined with powdery white sand so that it feels like an extension of the beach. It’s an instagrammer’s dream. I was particularly impressed by the restaurants and bars at night – think tiki torches guiding your way to your seat, or low-hanging candles and hispter-esque lightbulbs amidst tropical plants and the sound of cicadas. Aesthetically, I could not fault these lovely restaurants, but actually when it came to the food itself we found that the more basic the place, the better the food tended to be.

Where to eat and drink:

– One of the best meals we had in our time here was from a family-owned, road-side van with a couple of plastic chairs and tables outside. They made the food right in front of us and we had what was quite possibly the freshest, most delicious guacamole and ceviche we’ve ever had. As a bonus it doesn’t cost half as much as some of the more established places. Unfortunately I couldn’t see a name but the place is hard to miss as it’s pretty much the only one of its kind (along with another family-owned stall right next to it) on the beach-strip.

Mateo’s Mexican grill – Delicious and fresh. The nachos come out still warm from having been cooked then and there and the fajita’s are served on a sizzling hot-plate.

Pollo Bronco – this one’s in the town of Tulum. Lively and bustling with locals and tourists alike, the chicken is cooked in a wood-charcoal oven (hole in the wall) and is simple and delicious. It comes with fresh cabbage and salsa.

El Pez – We had cocktails on the beach here a couple of times, watching the dive-bombing pelicans and circling lemon-sharks as the sun went down. I highly recommend the Spicy Senorita cocktail – Tequila, ‘muddled’ red pepper with cilantro and chipotle and a dash of lime.

Restaurare – A vegan restaurant and bar that makes delicious juices and smoothies. I recommend the tropical mango, orange, papaya and mint.

Things to do:

– Nothing. Unwinding on the beach is the name of the game in Tulum. Everything seems geared towards total relaxation, even down to the king-sized, swinging sun-beds and swing-seats at the bars. As an indication the only club to ever open in Tulum closed down after a month – it just isn’t that kind of place. If you’re into yoga, massages and spa treatments by the sea on the other hand, the options are limitless.

– Go to Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve, or more accurately, get lost on your way there and go to Punta Allen instead. Sian Ka’an is a UNESCO site and comprises of more than a million acres of tropical forest and wildlife. Unfortunately, we didn’t really see any of this! Thinking we were going to the biosphere, we rented a 4×4 and set off to the park from the Tulum entrance which happened to be right by our hotel. We passed by what looked like may have been an entrance but the gate was shut so we just kept on driving, and driving…and then driving some more..2.5 hours of dwindling hope later on some of the worst pot-holed roads we’d ever seen, and we reluctantly admitted that perhaps we’d missed the entrance!  Luckily this road follows the narrow Boca Paila peninsula – which meant stunning scenery of the caribbean ocean and salt-water mangroves on one side and a milky-blue lagoon on the other.

Still, we hadn’t seen a single sign of civilisation and were getting really hungry and thirsty, so given that we had absolutely no idea if there was anything at the end of the road we nearly turned back when we came across Sol Caribe – a beautiful restaurant/ranch/life-saving oasis. I was so relieved at the thought of a cold beer and guac after hours on dusty, ridiculously pot-holed roads I could have kissed the hotel owner. I have absolutely no idea how they get their ingredients but the food was delicious. We had delightfully cold, Pacifico beers on a beautiful veranda overlooking the stunningly turquoise Caribbean ocean. We asked the waiter if there was anything at the end of the road and he told us there was a small town called Punta Allen, so we decided to keep going a little longer.

I’m so glad we did. Punta Allen is a tiny and sleepy sleepy lobster-fishing village, perhaps a bit what Tulum was like once upon a time. We felt like we were at the ends of the earth so naturally the first thing we came across was a hipster coffee-stall serving organic Mexican coffee served in genuine Mocha machines with some sort of ground demerara sugar emulsion. It was unexpected and lovely. It’s not on Tripadvisor but is right by the visitor centre and is called Cafe’ Lejana. Other than drink and eat there’s not much to do in Punta Allen except for stroll down the palm-fringed beach or go and visit the lighthouse. We saw a fishing boat that had been converted into a holiday ‘villa’ which I would love to go back and stay in if we ever go back. N.b. If you want to explore more of the biosphere and can’t find much info (we certainly couldn’t) there is a very thorough run-down here.

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Black one-piece – American Apparel; Floral Romper – Urban Outfitters; Black bardot top – H&M; Denim shorts – Mango; Shoes – Converse.

 

Tulum ruins. Dramatically perched on the edge of  a limestone cliff overlooking the ocean, the Mayan ruins of Tulum are undoubtedly the most stunning ruins I have ever seen. Come to think of it, they are the only ruins by the the sea that I have ever seen. We got there early so that it was just us, a few other tourists and what seemed like thousands of huge Iguanas who looked as old and still as the vestiges of the royal buildings they love to sunbathe on. There are so many of them and they are so majestic looking that you can’t help but think they are somehow aware of the significance of these crumbling edifices. You can access the beach (where turtles go to lay their eggs from May to October) from the site of the most significant ruin- El Castillo.

Dos Ojos and Nicte-Ha Cenotes. I’ve left the best ’til last. Cenotes are underground freshwater sinkholes that are thought to have formed when an asteroid crashed in the region around 65 million years ago. At Dos Ojos, breaches at the top of the caves means that the sunlight streams in from above, bouncing off dozens of stalagtites and turning the water unearthly hues of green and blue. You can get a diving guide to take you deeper into the caves where you can explore the incredible limestone formations with artificial lighting.

Nearby is serene Nicte-Ha cenote, which is more freshwater pond than cave. Flowering lily-pads and other freshwater plants float on stunningly crystal-clear water filtered by the surrounding limestone rock. I could have spent the entire day happily floating in this surreally beautiful cenote that looked like something out of a pre-Raphaelite painting. We were lucky to have Nicte-Ha all to ourselves but get to Dos Ojos early before the throngs of tourists show up in their fluorescent orange life-vests.

Where to stay:

– There are plenty of lovely boutique hotels in Tulum but knowing that we would love the cenotes we decided to book Manglex eco-hotel, which has it’s very own private one. The hotel is made up of four tree-level jungle cabanas that each have four-poster beds and mosquito nets. To get to the cabanas there is a wooden pier above the mangrove that ends in a sun-deck with white canopied lounge-beds overlooking Manglex cenote, which we explored at sunset with one of the hotel kayaks. We didn’t see any but apparently you can see the occasional small (and I’m told not dangerous) crocodile! The pier is very pretty at night when it’s illuminated green and they light lanterns and tiki torches to guide you to your suite.

If you’re after luxury rather than eco-chic this may not be the hotel for you – the ‘hot’ water was tepid at best (at least for us), and they turn off the power at night. I don’t know if we were just lucky but we were surprised that we didn’t have a problem with insects but I’d definitely recommend bringing repellant in case.

 

Tulum