Monday, December 19, 2011

The Year of the Maya

"Chac Mool" at Merida Anthropology Museum

Well, at the risk of sounding egocentric, as if that ever bothered me, this was my year of the Maya. Earlier this year I went to Guatemala and Honduras, where I saw the sites at Tikal and Copan. This time, in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, I visited the ruins at Tulum and Uxmal, fairly close to Merida.

I skipped the more famous Chichen Itza, because I'd heard it was always mobbed with tour buses from the beach resorts, and because, despite its UNESCO World Heritage designation, I'd heard that it would be a disappointment compared to Tikal. I have some friends who are completists when it comes to these things, but for me a few good examples will suffice. Uxmal is architecturally different from Chichen Itza, and a few people I met who had been to both felt that it's much more interesting, mainly for the detail on the buildings, which you don't get at Chichen Itza (and which, though striking, don't really compare with the carvings at Copan).

I went to Uxmal with a small tour group (there were seven of us) so I could see the light and sound show after dark (there's no public transportation back to Merida in the evening). When we arrived in the afternoon there were only a couple of other visitors at the site, a far cry from what I would experience in Tulum (and, I expect, what I would have experienced at Chichen Itza). The light and sound show was worthwhile for the way the lighting highlighted the detail on the structures. A photo doesn't do it justice, but nonetheless...

The photo at the top is of a Mayan sculpture at the small but impressive anthropological museum in Merida. The Chac Mool, a reclining figure, is a common icon of Mayan art. This one is from Chichen Itza.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Tale of Three Tulums

Tulum lies on the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan peninsula, in the state of Quintana Roo, about two hours south of Cancun. This stretch of coast has been dubbed "The Mayan Riviera" by the Mexican tourism industry. Formerly fishermen's villages, the coast was developed into a major resort area in the 1970s, starting with Cancun. Now Playa del Carmen, between Cancun and Tulum, is the most glamorous of the resort areas. Tulum is less developed, without the crass all-inclusives that dominate the other beaches. It was formerly the beach favored by backpackers, and you still see several places announcing yoga classes, but prices have gone up considerably and it's hard to find budget accommodations at the beach these days. What the beach areas all share are miles of pristine white sand and the sea as blue as Paul Newman's eyes.

Tulum is also the site of an ancient Mayan ruin, though a minor one in terms of its importance in the Mayan world as well as the quality of its architecture and preservation. Still, it's one of the most visited due to easy access from the beach resorts. In my hour at the ruins I saw more tourists than the much more spectacular Uxmal ruins, close to Merida, probably sees in a month. The one thing that sets the Tulum ruins apart from other Mayan sites is the dramatic seaside setting.

The third Tulum is Tulum Pueblo, the town just a bit inland from the beach, where hotels cater to budget travelers and where many of the folks who work at the beach hotels tend to live. I stayed in Tulum Pueblo, at a decent enough little hotel called Maison Tulum, which was marred only by an annoying, clueless manager who reminded me of something out of Fawlty Towers. What Tulum Pueblo does offer the tourist, even those staying at the beaches, is a strip of interesting international restaurants. I ate at an Argentine steak house and a surprisingly good Vietnamese restaurant.

I visited the ruins the morning after I arrived in town and shared my time at the site with hundreds of others, many coming in large tour groups led by men and women with those silly flags. The ruins are perhaps worth visiting as long as you're in the area, but unless you're a Mayan ruin completist you wouldn't be missing much if you skipped it.

Afterwards I took a cab a bit down the coast to one of the main stretches of beach, where I had lunch and drinks at La Zebra, a beach hotel that also rents cabanas for day use. After lunch I took a long, romantic walk on the beach with that certain someone, me.

I had two of La Zebra's fabulous house special pineapple Margaritas.

For lunch I had some excellent grilled fish tacos.

The night before, after I had arrived in Tulum Pueblo, I had a nice steak dinner at El Pequeno Buenos Aires, one of the Pueblo's two Argentine steak houses. Happily they offered half orders of meat, just enough after my spicy beef empanada and along with my order of frites with parsley, garlic and olive oil. They offer a number of cuts of steak, and I went with the vacio, an Argentine cut of flank steak that's not common outside of Argentina.

But my real find in Tulum Pueblo was El Canto de Buda, a 3-month-old Vietnamese restaurant. I scouted it out after I finished my Argentine dinner, and after looking at the menu and seeing the Vietnamese proprietress greeting customers, I decided it might very well be the real thing and decided to dine there the following evening.

Not only was it the real thing, it was better than most Vietnamese restaurants in New York. For 135 pesos (under $11), I had a three-course dinner (juice or tea included) that consisted of fabulous spring rolls, a crab souffle (made with crabmeat, egg, chopped pork, glass noodles and mushrooms), a side of fried rice and a dessert of tapioca pudding with sweet potato.

I told the owner that her food was excellent and she replied that she was lucky to have found a very good cook. "Mexican or Vietnamese?" I asked. "Mexican." Then I told her that in New York, no matter what type of restaurant you were dining at, odds were pretty good that the guys doing the actual cooking were Mexican or Central American.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

24 Hours in Valladolid

No, I'm not trying to write one of those pieces for the New York Times travel section, but I did spend literally 24 hours in Valladolid. Valladolid is Yucatan state's second city, but it's really just a little town (pop. 45,000) compared to Merida's nearly one million population. Like Merida, Valladolid was named for a city in Spain. The town is located about halfway between Merida and the beaches of the "Mayan Riviera" in the neighboring state of Quintana Roo. I took a bus from Merida that got me in around 3:30 in the afternoon, and took the same bus the following day, onward to Tulum.

Valladolid's a pleasant place to spend a day. Life is taken at a slower pace than in the big city, and you get the feeling that not much has changed in the past fifty years. It's a convenient base for the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza and Ek Balam, but for me it was a nice way to break up the bus ride.

The town's main plaza is usually referred to simply as El Centro. On one side is the cathedral, and on another is the hotel El Meson del Marques, where I stayed.

I'm a sucker for a good cloud formation, and I shot this near El Centro.

I noticed many congregations of crows in both Merida and Valladolid, and they're capable of a cacophonous Hitchcockian racket.

There aren't many real "sights" in Valladolid, and one wouldn't make a special trip to see them. One of them is the Convento de San Bernardino, which was actually a Franciscan monastery.

Valladolid has a cenote right in the heart of town, Cenote Zaci. Cenotes are sinkholes that collect rainwater, and some are popular for swimming. In Mayan times cenotes were the main source of fresh water in areas without lakes or rivers. Zaci is not as visually spectacular as some are considered to be, but one still gets the feel of one, with stalactites and stalagmites overlooking the pool.

Valladolid's biggest surprise is that it's now, in its own small way, a true foodie destination. Up until a couple of years ago the restaurant at El Meson del Marques was considered the town's best eatery. Their menu features a number of Valladolid specialties. For an appetizer I had the Valladolid-style longaniza, a semi-dry smoked sausage, delectably charred.

I followed that with queso relleno, one of the Yucatan's most interesting dishes. Literally "stuffed cheese," it normally consists of an Edam cheese rind (yes, Dutch cheese in the New World) stuffed with chopped meat, steamed until the cheese gets runny. Apparently, the hacienda owners would eat the center of the cheese and leave the rinds for the servants, and I guess one of them figured out this nice way of utilizing the rind. The version at El Meson del Marques, however, is a variation, sort of a deconstructed queso relleno served in a broth, along with turkey meat. This nice piece from Food and Wine features a discussion of queso relleno.

El Meson del Marques was dethroned as the king of Valladolid eateries only two years ago when Taberna de los Frailes (the Friars' tavern) opened right next to the Convento de San Bernardino and upped the culinary ante with their elegant fusion of local ingredients and haute cuisine techniques. This turned out to be the culinary highlight of my most recent trip to Mexico. I started with a fabulous fish soup that was accented with a local liqueur.

Even better was the tsi'ik, a kind of ceviche of pulled smoked pork that had a perfect balance of flavors.

And my dessert, a lemon cake that tasted similar to key lime pie, was fantastic too.

I think 24 hours in Valladolid is just about right unless you're using the town as a base to visit some of the Mayan antiquities. My only regret was that I only had one opportunity to eat at Taberna de los Frailes.