We’ve got a tradition to spend New Year’s Eve in some hot country free of cloudiness and cold weather, where there is no pressure to spend this special time partying. The tradition is only three years old but hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day! We already tried India and Goa and the Canary Islands. This year we went to Mexico.
Why Mexico? There’s at least a few reasons: marvellous white beaches and turquoise sea as seen on Bounty chocolate bar commercial, local colourfulness manifested in clothing, architecture, nature and of course cuisine, Aztec, Maya and Olmec remains and one more practical reason – Mexico is exotic yet civilised enough to visit it with a 7 month old little one.
We’re on our way. First we flew to Frankfurt, then to Cancun with Lufthansa’s low fare airlines called Condor. We didn’t notice the low fare element though. Maybe that’s because we booked our flight quite late and it turned out to be the high season. What we noticed, was crappy service. The stewardesses were close to non-existent even though we travelled with a little child. The food wasn’t the best we’ve tried, and there wasn’t a lot of it. Most of the stuff including mind numbing wine had to be paid for extra. Also, there were no LCD screens in the headrests. Believe, they might come in handy during a 12 hour flight! Despite these inconveniences – we got there!
The plane has landed…
We landed in Cancun in the evening. It’s a tourist resort situated on the Caribbean Sea coast. First impression was great: helpful Mexicans wilfully lead us to cash machines and car rentals and carried our luggage. All for the price of small propina –a tip. When we mentioned Polonia they responded with “Karol Wojtyła” in broken Polish. Seemed like a good start.
We got our car and left for Boulevard Kukulcan aka. Zona Hotelera. Cancun is an “artificial” city built from scratch in order to attract hordes of tourists to local beaches every year.
Its origins are very intriguing. In the 70s, Mexican government conducted a research in order to decide where to build a new tourist resort. The results indicated that a narrow piece of land nearby what todays is Cancun was the best location. The resort was supposed to compete with already popular Acapulco. Hotels, restaurants, shopping centres and an airport were built. The government was wise enough to build a residential zone for locals working in the tourist zone.
Today’s Cancun (Boulevard Kukulcan to be precise) named after Aztec God Quetzalcoatla (meaning a “Furry Snake”) is filled with elegant hotels, numerous shopping centres with exquisite shops, restaurants and marvellous but crowded beaches. This is where we came to stay for a while and of course eat something.
We ate delicious lunch in Crab House restaurant. We tried an ideally grilled octopus with a jacket potato, stuffed jalapeno peppers and one of the best parrillad de mariscos we have ever eaten. Filled with energy, we started our trip towards “real Mexico”.
Chilaquiles in colourful Valladolid
150 km later, we found ourselves in Valladolid.
Yucatan roads are quite empty and a bit rocky, but small villages along make the trip interesting and enjoyable. In most of them you can encounter a few characteristic elements — a small shop with a fridge full of cold Coca Cola, greasy barber shop, picturesque cemetery, huts covered with palapa –dried leaves of a coconut palm, and people moving in simple rickshaws.
In Valladolid we stayed at a little hotel called Maria de la Luz situated near the market square. The price was affordable, the room a bit small, but fitted with a TV and a bathroom. The city is very lively, especially around the market square filled with trees that turns into a sweets, drinks and marquesitas marketplace in the evening.
Marquesitas is a local version of Polish whipped cream filled pastries. They’re quite easy to make – you only need a portable cart and a funny looking double sided pan. Marquesitas seller pour some dough on the pan as if he was going to fry a pancake. He puts grated cheese with hot sauce or Nutella inside and rolls it. You get a crispy hot waffle with desired filling. Great snack, especially during a walk in the evening.
Valladolid is a small town and, as everywhere else in Mexico, very colourful– both in terms of people’s clothing and the architecture. Women dress in white dresses with colourful flowers sewn on them. Street sellers are colourful as well. Ladies selling fruits in the streets start their work in the morning, peel the citruses and sell them in plastic bags.
We chose Las Campanas restaurant for breakfast. We had chiaquiles con pollo (nachos with chicken and onion) and chiles rellenos, which are stuffed hot peppers. Mexican breakfast is quite heavy and nutritious. It usually consists of meat, beans, cheese, heavy dressings and tortilla. Regardless of the time of day, handmade nachos are served for starters. Salsas go along with them – guacamole and one with finely chopped tomato, onion, coriander and a hot pepper occasionally.
Papadzules in Chichen Itza
After a nutritious breakfast we left Valladolid for a must see on Yucatan Peninsula – the remains of pre-Columbian Maya city of Chichen Itza.
Most breathtaking buildings of Chichen Itza are the Temple of Kukulkan and the Temple of Warriors along with the statue of Chca, God of rain. It surely is one of the most popular archaeological sites in Mexico as it was almost impossible to get through the crowd.
After the sightseeing we went to get some energy for the trip in Los Mestizos restaurant. We ordered local specialties – papazules (tortillas with hard-boiled eggs with pumpkin seed sauce), salbutes (little fired tortillas with lettuce, chicken, tomato and red onion) and gueso relleno (cheese filled with minced meat, floating in a corn flour based white sauce). I found salbutes best – crispy, quite light and good for hot weather. And colourful of course 🙂
Corrida in Estipa
After Chichen Itza we travelled to Rio Lagartos to see flocks of flamingos. On our way we decided to change our plans rapidly. Travelling by car allows you to make spontaneous decisions.
As we passed through a small city of Estipa, we encountered an unusual structure made of wooden planks and palm leaves and tied together with a string. A local cop (cops and soldiers are omnipresent in Mexico. They’re also very friendly — at least towards tourists) told us that annual corrida de toros is going to start soon.
It was a no-brainer: corrida in a Mexican village is like hitting the jackpot! The whole city gathered to see this annual event. Everyone was sporting their best haircut with lots of gel — even the 12-year-olds — and wearing their best jeans and boots. Time to celebrate! The locals started to take their seats on the structure and the arena filled with boys selling chips, sweets, apples on a stick and candy floss. Then the cowboys entered.
It was like in the movies: a lasso, a hat and a worn out, chequered shirt. We kept waiting for the beginning of the spectacle – the entrance of the bull and the toreadors. Finally, the bull arrived along with the toreadors. The latter ones were quite unusual, though — four women with masculine faces and firm legs. After a closer look they turned out to be men dressed in girly clothing and high heels. Corrida in Estipa didn’t have too much in common with the Spanish spectacle with fancy dressed toreadors, red cloth and strict rules.
“Women” took off their high heels and run around barefoot, infuriating the bull with their dancing, colourful skirts and even throwing chairs and beer cans at him. The audience was having the time of their lives. In the end, the cowboys entered the arena, caught the bull with a lasso and took him away.
The crowd cheered and was really involved… We left the arena satisfied. The locals along with the police bade us farewell.
Mole poblano and tacos con pollo in Merida
After a spontaneous stop in Estipa, we arrived in Merida in the evening.
Merida is the biggest city of Yucatan. It used to be called Paris of the new World or White City and attract all Mexican millionaires. Beautiful churches, overshadowed squares and old residences along Paseo Montejo are a reminder of its years of prosperity.
Nowadays, Merida is a big and lively city with big traffic jams issue. It’s best to stay in a hotel near zocalo (the main square) or a local park. There’s plenty of hotels: try colonial Hotel Reforma or Hotel del Parque if you prefer something modern. The prices range from 550 to 600 pesos.
Merida is fascinating. Colourful Indian women sell scarves and shawls in the street and the lively cafes and squares are filled with people of all ages. One of the things we liked the most was the closing of a street and its instant transformation into a footpath. Restaurants brought out their tables quickly so you could stop by and have a crispy taco or quesadilla and a colourful drink with a slice of pineapple (fresa colada – yummy!)
Someone’s dancing, the music is on, the band is playing. The locals are eating and drinking with the tourists…
The best place to eat and drink is Pancho’s on 59 street (Calle 59) – www.panchosmerida.com. We ordered a tasty mix of Mexican starters, chicken with spinach in mole sauce (a Mexican chocolate sauce) and delicious cheesecakes — one with coconut and the other with chocolate.
We left Merida to see yet another Maya city ruins. This time in Dzibilchaltun. It’s quite close to Merida but don’t bother if you’re running out of time. Compared to Uxmal, Chichen Itza or Palenque it’s not really that impressive. There’s just a few structures left and the views aren’t spectacular at all.
Progreso and Chicxulub Puerto
This was another (after Dzibilchaltun) disappointment of our trip. I was really looking forward to seeing Progreso and Chicxulub Puerto. These cities were supposed to be perfect spots for sea food lovers and weekend destinations for Merida citizens.
The sea view from the beach in Progreso is spoiled by a long bridge laid between the shore and harbour, built a few hundred metres into the sea. To make it even worse, there were road works next to the beach and the food we ordered in one of the seaside restaurants was bland and tasteless.
Chicxulub Puerto turned out to be a dead and sleepy city. We saw some ruined villas that may have been the weekend residences, but mainly we noticed staggering gentlemen holding Coca Cola bottles. You can imagine what the bottles contained.
Pulpo a la mexicana and ceviche w Celestun
Disappointed with seaside Progreso, we returned to Merida for the night. In the morning we left for the flamingo reservation in Celestun.
The city is situated 90 km from Merida and connected with a decent road. Before we went to see the pink flamingos, we stopped at the beach and ate ceviche (a mix of marinated sea food in lime, onion, tomato and coriander sauce), camarones a la plancha (fried local shrimps) and pulpo a la mexicana (octopus in tomato, peppers and onion sauce). Everything was delicious.
Filled up, we went on a boat trip to see local birds: flamingos, white and grey pelicans, herons and cormorants. Hundreds of flamingos seen from just a few metres can be really impressive!
Passing the tunel de manglares is also something you will remember. A small boat squeezes between mangrove roots. Exotic.
Uxmal and Kabah
Uxmal and Kabah are yet another Maya archaeological site on the way from Merida to Campeche, the capital of the state of the same name.
We decided to visit Uxmal mainly because of the huge Pyramid of the Magician and picturesque Nunnery Quadrangle. Uxmal is less crowded than Chichen Itza and makes for a great spot for a quiet walk among the ruins.
We only passed Kabah, though. You can see some of the monuments from the road i.e. beautiful Temple of the Masks. It’s quite an empty place, which made us think that it is not a popular tourist spot. We drove on!
We travelled to Campeche (unexpectedly running out of fuel among Mexican villages on our way) and then to Tabasco and Chiapas states… Stay tuned!