Last month I had the opportunity to go to Mexico for a photography gig. I’d been to Mexico several times before when I was in college; my university had a program called “De Colores” where we’d drive down to Tijuana for the weekend and help build a home for a family in need, then drive back to Los Angeles by Monday morning to be back at class. It was a wonderful experience every time I went, the people were so warm and kind and the food was always incredible, and up until last month, that remained all I’d ever seen of Mexico, so I just kind of assumed (stupidly) that the whole country was similar to Tijuana. This mentality would be like visiting only Jersey City and assuming that it was an effective representation of the culture and cuisine of the entire United States. Clearly, this is not the case with any city and nation, and it was certainly not the case with Mexico. So when the chance came up to go deep into southern Mexico and explore the culture there, I was razzed beyond jazzed and immediately hopped on board, (effectively throwing my resolution to stay home more in 2017 to the wind! Take that, will power!!) I spent time in both the Yucatan state and Oaxaca state, but since there was so much awesomeness to share and talk about in each one I’m splitting them into two separate blog posts to keep things simple (and also to be able to motivate myself more effectively to write about each of them, since two shorter posts is more doable than one giant one…) I’m going to walk you through the details of my trip below, but if you want the short version of what to do/see/eat you can scroll down to my recommendation list and hyperlinks 😀
I had no idea what to expect scenery, safety, or city-wise before we got there. When I got off the plane, I was immediately greeted by a pleasant temperature of 82 degrees, and things only improved from there. The Yucatan is a state in southeastern Mexico that borders the Gulf of Mexico and another Mexican state Quintana Roo, which is where the cities of Cancun, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen are located (so it’s baaaaasically right in the middle of paradise). My home base for my time in the Yucatan was a town called Merida, which is a treasure trove of colonial Spanish architecture and was filled with buildings dating back to the 1500’s. The entire town is painted in an array of vibrant pastel colors, and its based around a large square in the city center called Parque de Santa Lucia. Every Saturday the locals do a traditional dance which involves some adorably flirty dance moves and also balancing some amazing stuff on their heads while dancing (including a tray with several filled shot glasses on it. Yes, that’s right, FILLED F*CKING SHOT GLASSES. I had a really hard think about my own posture after witnessing that.) The whole town is super walkable, I wandered around for a few hours at sunset with my friend Alana and felt nothing but safe the entire time, and we were whipping our cameras out every 5 seconds to take pictures of the gorgeous old buildings we encountered on each block. The town is about 1 hour by car from the beach and about 1 and a half hours by car from some of the most intact mayan ruins in the world.
While we were there, we made the trek out to Ek Balám, one of the smaller (but still incredible) and less tourist-y Mayan ruins. This one was particularly special because you are still allowed to walk up and wander through the ruins and buildings. The view of the surrounding jungle from the top of Ek Balám was well worth the climb up the ancient structure. It was so peaceful and beautiful up there, like having a little space up in the clouds. From there we rented bicycles and rode along a bike path to the nearby cenote, Xcanché. Cenotes are basically ENORMOUS fresh-water wells that are scattered throughout the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico (there’s over 6,000 of them in that area of the country alone). They’re typically very deep and they are all connected by an underground river system, which keeps fresh water flowing into each one so the water is always super clean, bright blue, and perfect for swimming. They’re also very deep, and this particular cenote was 100 feet from top to bottom. As a part of the trip, I was supposed to zipline over the cenote and then repel into it harnessed into a climbing rope. I’ll let you folks in on a little secret….I can’t swim. I have an instinctual fear of submerging my face under water for any length of time, which makes anything other than doggie paddling pretty much impossible. I’m also very afraid of heights and get mild vertigo when I’m looking down at something very far down. But, I’m also turning 30 in a few days and was in a king of “what the hell” mood, and I also didn’t want to be difficult—so I just went for it. And I’m SO, so glad I did. It was a TON of fun and the exhilaration was an incredible natural high. I especially loved the rappelling part. You have the harness on over your swimsuit and the climbing line you repel down is tied to this tree on the edge of the top of the cenote. The rappelling man secures the line to your harness, and you just swing over the edge of the cenote and start slowly rappelling down. What you don’t realize until you look up, however, is how insane the view is. The tree’s roots go from the edge of the cliff face allllll the way down into the cenote, clinging to the rock walls of the well, and you get to look up at this epic and stunning tree and sky and then down at the most pure, beautiful blue water the entire time. There was an older man at the bottom of the cenote with an innertube, and as I rappelled down he positioned it so that I rappelled right into the center of it. Then I just wiggled off my harness, and got to splash away and float all around inside of it, safely snuggled into my new innertube home. I literally could have spent an entire 12-hour day floating in that thing, it was one of the most majestic, tranquil, and beautiful outdoor experiences of my life.
After that we had lunch at Selva Maya, which is a buffet inside of an ancient stone structure. Normally I am pretty weary of buffets, but this food was *soooooo* good and the set-up allowed me to try a little bit of a bunch of the traditional dishes that are native to the region. These goodies included tamales colados (marinated meats with garlic and local chilies wrapped with corn meal and banana leaves and then steamed), chayitas (cracker-like fried corn cakes made with dried corn and the leaves of a local spinach-like plant called chaya), and cochinita pibil, (pulled pork slow-cooked with oranges, achiote chilies, and spices in an underground oven). After lunch we stopped at Chichen Itza, which is one of the largest mayan cities ever built. It was constructed between 600 and 900 A.D. and the architecture was mind-blowingly advanced. You can stand at the base of Temple KuKulkan and clap, and the clap will echo back at you even louder than the original sound. The acoustics are insane. We went there near dusk and the energy surging throughout the city ruins was unlike anything I’d experienced before. Very mystical, peaceful, and grounding. We only got to spend 30 minutes there and walk around one small part of the giant ancient city, so I definitely recommend alotting at least 4 hours to walk around the whole thing.
The next day we went to the Ria Celestun Biosphere Reserve and got to take a boat ride along the Yucatan peninsula and observed thousands of flamingoes eating and flying around in their natural habitat. I’d only ever seen them in a zoo before, and they’re wings are always clipped there, so I’d never seen them in flight. They transform from this curvacious creature into one, solid, flat, straight line that goes all the way from their beak to the tips of their long twiggy legs. It was a surprising and kind of adorable transformation. We went on a boat ride through the jungle after that, and got to walk around a swamp area and see more of the local wildlife, like this beautiful native duck with a pointed beak, and a baby alligator who was just chillin’ in the swamp swimming hole. After that we went back to Celestun city and had a huge seafood lunch at Restaurante Los Pompanos right on the beach. There’s nothing quite like eating a ton of lobster, octopus, and conch with your feet in the sand and your swimsuit still wet from the ocean <3
After that we went back to Merida and spent our last night in the city having an amazing dinner at Rosas y Xocolate and then went back to spend our last night at Casa Azul, which remains my favorite hotel of all time. It was an old mansion that was constructed in the 18th century and had fallen into disrepair, then it was purchased, restored to its former glory, and turned into a very private boutique hotel. There are only 8 rooms there, and the entrance to each is through the main courtyard at the center which has a series of small tables, a beautiful lush green tree, and a bench under it with a trickling fountain filled with marigolds. The staff was *so nice* and there was always someone in the courtyard to help with anything you needed at any time. I have more restaurant, bar, and sight seeing recommendations below, I can’t speak highly enough of this place and its food, scenery, and people. Everyone was so incredibly welcoming and every dish we tasted was absolutely delicious. There’s such a depth and variety of flavors in the food there that you can’t find outside of the Yucatan, I definitely regret not filling my suitcase with bags of the dried chilis that lined the local food stalls, and I hope you don’t make the same mistake!
Eat + Drink
Rosas y Xocolate in Merida (upscale)
Tortas de Lechón or Cochinita Pibil at Mercado de Santiago in Merida (low key)
La Chaya Maya in Merida
Malahat Speakeasy + Mixology Bar in Merida
La Negrita Cantina in Merida
Huevos Motuleños at Doña Elvia’s in Pueblo de Motúl (low key)
Selva Maya in Valladolid (low key, near the Ek Balam + Chichen Itza ruins)
Restaurante Los Pompanos in Celestun (low key, fresh seafood on the beach)
Green Juice (a local health tonic made from a base of pineapple juice and chaya leaves, every cafe has its own version)