For our first trip away from continental Europe since 2019, we decided to go to Mexico, a place where we had never been.
As many of you know, our daughter Tory moved to Playa del Carmen, on the Yucatan Peninsula, in the spring of 2020. We had planned to visit her there last Christmas, but Covid intervened. Subsequently Tory moved to Queretaro, in the mountains not far from Mexico City. But when travel became possible again this year, we decided to visit her in Playa, both because Tory had to return there to pick up the rest of her stuff, and because she thought we might find more things to do on an extended visit.
Playa is part of the “Mayan Riviera,” a piece of the Caribbean coast stretching from Cancun down as far south as Tulum, which was developed by the Mexican government as a tourist area starting in the 1970s. Most of the development is low-rise (I think the Mexican government learned from the disastrous overdevelopment of Spain’s Costa del Sol during the Franco era).
Most of the beach area is covered by concessions, some belonging to hotels and others to independent businesses, where you can rent umbrellas and chairs by the day for a reasonable cost. Unlike in Italy, though, the concessions don’t go down to the water line. There is a strip of beach allowed for public use right along the water line, where if you get their early enough you can bring a towel and a beach bag and set up for free. Our rented apartment was only a couple of blocks from the beach, and we enjoyed going to the beach first thing in the morning, going for a swim and a walk and getting back home ready for the rest of the day by 10:30.
We spent much of our beach time in Playa del Carmen. On one afternoon, we ventured to another beach called Akamal, about 20 minutes south of Playa near Tulum. Akamal is like a time capsule – the only developments were cottage type hotels and a few small restaurants where you could have a beer or lunch, and then go for a dip without any fuss. Apparently Akamal is a sea turtle nesting site, which will limit development on this particular stretch of beach. We didn’t see any sea turtles, but we are grateful for their protection.
Akamal was also a good beach for snorkeling, which Ted and Tory enjoyed. There weren’t many fish – most of the brightly-colored tropical fish are in other parts of the Caribbean. But there were lots of interesting coral formations underwater.
Although I made a few attempts at snorkeling, I found I didn’t like the experience of not being able to breathe normally. I did, however, find some “brain coral” right on the beach.
In addition to swimming in the Caribbean, you can also swim in fresh water pools called cenotes. There are no above-ground fresh water sources on the peninsula, but there are naturally occurring sinkholes, fed by underground rivers, which formed pools of fresh water that the indigenous inhabitants used for drinking water. Today many of them are swimming sites which are popular with locals and tourists alike.
Different cenotes have different characteristics. Some are open to the air and surrounded by overhanging rocks you can dive from. Cenote Cristallino, near Tulum, also featured small fish which found the rough skin on your feet a tasty dish – a king of natural pedicure. It was a little weird at first to see throngs of little black fish swarming your feet – normally fish go out of their way to avoid contact with humans. But once we got used to the slightly tickly sensation of fish nibbling on your toes (though they don’t really have teeth), we enjoyed the experience. You could also snorkel here, but the water was so clear that you could just float on the water face down, wearing a face mask, and see the interesting rock formations beneath the surface.
Another cenote, Chukum-ha near Valladolid in the interior, was an underground cave – you had to descend 77 moss-covered stone steps to reach it. An old lady with a cane, descending in front of me, gave me the courage to proceed. The water in this cenote was very deep – 70 to 150 feet – which made the wearing of life jackets mandatory. It was a strange experience swimming in this deep water pool with the sky so far above you.:
Archeological Sites: Tulum and Chichen Itza
We also visited several archeological sites from the Mayan era. Tulum is less than a hour from Playa by car. In the Mayan era, it was a trading city accessible by water. The Mayans didn’t have the wheel, so to get around they either walked or used small boats. Today the open-air site is inhabited mainly by iguana. You can still see the small beach area where the boats used to enter.
Most of the buildings are made of limestone, which is plentiful in the area. The arches are square, not rounded as in Roman-type buildings. And you can still see pieces of the Mayan era decoration, some with traces of polychrome (the red, blue and yellow plant-based colors that the buildings were originally decorated with).
Chichen Itza, a much more extensive site, was further away (about a 2 1/2 hour drive from Playa), so we hired a guide, a wonderful young woman who was both a good driver and an excellent well-informed tour guide.
Chichen Itza was a city which is believed to have held as many as 50,000 people during the height of the Mayan era (600 – 1200 AD). By comparison, the population of Seville around the same period was about 70,000. There were still Mayans living in the Yucatan when the Spanish arrived in the 16th C.
What remains of Chichen today are the ceremonial religious sites used by the people who lived in the region. The main building is a temple to the Mayan snake god, whose heads are on the bottom of steep staircases on either side of the building.
The temple was built with an eye towards astronomical phenomena. On two days a year (what we could call the spring and autumn equinoxes) the late afternoon sun would light up triangles on the side of the staircase, creating the illusion of the illuminated body of the snake. (The Spanish, blind to the use of the building as an astronomical observatory, thought the worship of a snake god confirmed the local inhabitants as devil worshippers – Satan being depicted in Western art, of course, as a snake).
We couldn’t of course get a picture of the Snake Shadow (not the right day) but here’s a picture of the phenonemon from a commercial site.
There are a number of other buildings in the Chichen Itza site. One, near the entrance, contains depictions of the skulls of Chichen’s enemies, defeated in battle. Actual skulls were kept in niches on the wall to strike terror into the hearts of approaching enemies. These days, the skulls are kept in museums, although you can still see graphic images of the skulls on some of the limestone blocks.
Another building includes depictions of human faces. It is believed to have been part of a “Hall of Fame” which commemorated those who had distinguished themselves in battle or in the ceremonial ball game played nearby.
The playing field for the ceremonial ball game has the appearance of a large soccer field. The game was played with rubber balls (not human heads as was later alleged). The object of the game was to maneuver the ball into a large round target, one on each side of the field. Players couldn’t touch the ball with their hands, and they didn’t use their feet either (since Mayans didn’t use shoes). The ball would have to be moved about the field with other parts of the body – arms, legs, shoulders. The playing field was banked on two sides by walls with stepped ledges, so one imagines that the players would play the carom off a team mate’s shoulder in an attempt to get the ball into the target.
Early Spanish visitors who were allowed to watch the game had never seen rubber- It is somewhat amusing to read their written accounts, in which try to describe the game and the action of the ball without having a word for “bounce.”
However it might resemble a modern game, though, the play was serious -the game was played to the death. And in a twist that is incomprehensible to many, it was the winners who lost their lives, their deaths commemorated in the nearby Hall of Fame. I suspect the game wasn’t played “for real” very often.
As part of our full day tour of Chichen Itza, we also visited Vallodolid, a Spanish colonial town established in 1545. The cathedral of San Servacio was the second church founded by the Spanish is what is now Mexico, although the current structure dates only to 1705. Not surprisingly, it resembles the California mission churches built in the same era.
The date of the city’s founding makes it older than any European city founded in what is now the US – somehow my “American history” classes in school failed to mention this. Of course, most of the history of Mexico is omitted in those “American history” classes too. This is a source of some frustration among Mexicans, who think of themselves as Americans too, since they are located on the American continent.
I suspect the Canadians would like a word.
Eating and Drinking
One of the unexpected surprises of the trip was how good the local Mexican food was. Playa del Carmen in particular had a lot of restaurants. The restaurants were roughly divided into those serving tourists – OK but expensive for what you got – and those serving Mexicans, which were amazingly good and ridiculously cheap. Most of the restaurants serving locals were a 10-15 minute walk outside the main tourist center. It helped a lot that Tory, a foodie like her parents, had spent some months in the area and was therefore familiar with many of these restaurants.
The Mexican food served in Mexico is somewhat different from what is served as “Mexican food” in the US. Tacos and tortillas were ubiquitous, but they were served in unfamiliar and unexpected ways. And while chili peppers were a part of every meal, some sauces were piquant rather than hot. Every restaurant seemed to have its own selection of home-produced chili sauces, always with a more interesting and complex flavor than you get out of the commercial products.
Some of the dishes we enjoyed were:
- Tacos al pastor: tacos served with pork leg cut from a rotisserie (like a gyro or a doner kebab in the US, only made with pork not lamb), garnished with slices of fresh pineapple;
- Chicken with achiote, a spice paste made with local red chilies and achiote (annato) seed;
- Cochinita pibil, suckling pig marinated in achiote, chiles, and citrus, and slow-cooked in a pit;
- Aguachiles, a Mexican style dish of raw fish cured in citrus, something like ceviche, but with chilies;
- Birria, beef slow cooked in a savory broth served with chickpeas, and enlivened with chilies;
- Arrachera, skirt steak marinated and grilled;
- Roast corn on the cob, often served with chipotle mayonnaise
- Agua fresca, made with fresh or dried fruit and water; my favorite was Jamaica (made with dried hibiscus flowers), but the grapefruit and watermelon versions were good too.
For liquid refreshment, Mexican beer is well known and available in many varieties, including the dark Noche Buena varieties sold only during the Christmas season. We also tried some Mexican wine, mostly made in the Guadalajara region in the west of the country, or in Baja like the one below – not bad, but they won’t be challenging the Napa Valley any time soon.
The real discovery of the trip for me, however, was Mezcal, a distilled spirit made from the agave plant. Tequila is one type of mezcal, made from the blue agave plant. Unlike tequila, though, Mezcal is generally sipped slowly from small glasses, rather than being mixed in cocktails. There were several bars in Playa which specialized in artisanal, small-production Mezcal, which had a smoky flavor I quite enjoyed. Mezcal was often served with unusual accompaniments – orange slices, chocolate (often chili flavored) and chapolines (fried grasshopper) which Ted tried and said tasted mainly of salt.
I’ll close with some photos of Tory and her little dog Pinch.