Our most recent trip was rather unlike our typical brand of whirlwind exploratory missions – we found ourselves at a shmancy all-inclusive resort on the Mayan Riviera (la-dee-dah) to celebrate the wedding of some very, very dear friends.
Aside from the bride and groom whom we obviously love, the guest list was comprised of an eclectic group of 52 awesome people. This was fortunate as it rained virtually all week. And not that cute, intermittent, sunshowery-type rain you’d expect in Mexico, either! I am talking about torrential downpour, 24 hours a day, with not a glimmer of sunshine to be seen for days on end. Who knew? Of course, the rain proved to have absolutely no ill effect on the wedding, which, you’ll be happy to know, was an absolute blast.
After the epic nuptials and a few lazy, boozy days spent with our fellow wedding guests at the resort, it was time to ramble on – we hired a tiny red car, turned the dial to an all-bachata station, and sped off down the carretera.
As a result, here’s my list of 8 fun things you can do if you find yourself itching to explore the Yucatán Peninsula.
8. Get to know the wildlife. I spotted a turtle crossing the road as we drove, and made Riccardo stop the car so I could point it away from the road and back towards the jungle. Its most ungrateful response to this gesture of goodwill and vigilance was to bite me. So, just be careful.
7. Check out Chichen Itza. It’s the site of an ancient Mayan civilization, and it’s kind of a big deal. The Maya were a fascinating people who, aside from their infamous zeal for human sacrifice, are known for their complex architecture, largely peaceable cities, and penchant for a soccer-like game (the losers of which were typically punished by death).
6. Support local businesses. Feeling uncomfortably warm during a rare sunny break in Valladolid, Riccardo ducked into a barbershop. It came highly recommended (we think) by a morbidly obese and highly intoxicated guy at the saloon. The kindly but suave peluquero, who’s been in business for 35 years, proceeded to carry out the most fastidious and thorough head-shaving operation possible, for about 40 pesos.
5. If you can’t make it to Chichen Itza, go see the ruins at Tulum. A little less sophisticated, but no less interesting. You can go swimming there – but we didn’t really feel like schlepping back to the car for our forgotten swimsuits (and skinny-dipping was out of the question at this family-friendly site.) From an eerie clifftop vantage point, it was easy to imagine the Maya industriously rowing along on their trade routes, staying close to shore as their boats weren’t fit for the open sea. However, the highlight of Tulum (for me) was my encounter with an adorable vegetarian iguana named Guadalupe (ok, that may not be her real name).
4. Embark on a fruitless mission. A few years ago, Riccardo was in Cancún to photograph chef Chuck Hughes for a TV show called Chuck’s Week Off. He remembered shooting at a delightful tortilleria there, and vowing to return – but alas, he couldn’t remember the name, exact location, or any other identifying details. All he had to go on was the background in the photo below. We embarked on a wild goose chase around the sprawling city, searching high and low for the apparently legendary tortilla makers – but the search was in vain. Each time we thought we’d found it, we came up empty-handed. In the end, we were forced to give up and settle for still-awesome quesadilla and a huarache at Mercado 23… a stone’s throw from the actual location of the place we were looking for. The journey is often as fun as the destination (or lack thereof).
3. Eat vast quantities of grilled meats. Although we never made it to the tortilleria from point #4, we did find our Shangri-La in the form of El Fogón, a tiny open-air restaurant nestled unassumingly in the shadows of a gigantic Wal-Mart style monstrosity in Playa del Carmen. We went back twice afterwards to maximize our intake of guacamole and exceedingly tasty charcoal-grilled meats, going so far as to take a taco home on our last night in Mexico and then bring it a cross two international borders (once coming home to Canada, and then the next morning on a drive to upstate NY for a family party. I am not making this up. I wish I was.)
2. Get messy. It would have been shameful to let our last night in Mexico slip quietly away. Instead, the most hardcore of the remaining wedding guests mustered the stamina for a last hurrah in Playa del Carmen, complete with a visit to a charming establishment called “The Shots Factory”. Although we were all easily a decade older than the average Playa party-goer, we managed to dance our faces off before finishing the night at El Fogón (the same taqueria whose virtues I extolled in point #3). Riccardo, by now an old pro, instructed everyone to get a taco loco (tortilla enveloping about 8 kinds of grilled meats, and draped with a slab of bacon). Our taxi driver, Martin, was the only one to finish his. When in Rome, etc etc.
1. Go to a saloon with swinging doors! One of my many lifelong dreams has been to drink in a real-live saloon with swinging doors. Imagine my THRILL when we came across such an establishment in the town of Valladolid. Leaning against the time-worn bar with our beers and tumblers of tequila, we did our best to keep up our end of a conversation with a portly, inebriated fellow patron. The bartender served us small plates of salsa, stewed pork and ceviche from the massive vats behind him. Sadly, no tumbleweeds rolled by in the dusty street outside, and not one pistol was drawn. Still, pretty cool.
The town of Valladolid was a pleasant discovery. The Spanish built it directly on top of a Maya village after dismantling their buildings to get at the stone – kind of a sobering thought. Maya culture is alive and well here; over a million people still speak Maya languages in the Yucatán Peninsula alone.
Despite some unsettling stories we’d heard, we felt totally safe exploring the Peninsula. Only on a couple of occasions (when we decided to veer off the main road and into one of the many tiny villages) did we fear for our lives. Unsurprising, as I guess the economy in this part of Mexico is too dependent on tourism for people to mess with a couple of unsuspecting Canadians.
I don’t know if we’ll make it back to Mexico anytime soon, but I’m glad to have caught a glimpse of it.
Here’s a random smattering of bonus shots – the nice ones are Riccardo’s: