Yucatan Weekend! Mayan Architecture and Magic Towns

As all my Facebook and Instagram followers know, Jorge and I were in Yucatan recently! We toured Chichen Itza and the town of Valladolid. (Valladolid is about 1 hour and 30 minutes from Cancun, and Chichen Itza is about 2 hours and 30 minutes.)

It was Jorge’s very first time at Chichen Itza and my third. Sometimes I feel that even though I’m the gringa and he’s the Mayan, I know a lot more ancient Mayan culture than he does haha I guess that’s what happens when you become a travel writer. As soon as we got there, Jorge was blown away. I rarely see him get this excited about anything that’s not a video game.

Our first stop was El Castillo pyramid, Chichen Itza’s most famous structure. This is also the one that has the descending shadow snake on the spring equinox! There were people behind us the whole time clapping because if you clap from certain points, it echoes back from the top of the pyramid and sounds like an eagle.

Also, like so many women do, I have married a man who is very much like my father. We always joke that my dad can’t go anywhere without seeing somebody he knows, and Jorge is no different. At Chichen Itza, we ran into his cousins!

We stayed at Chichen Itza for about 4 hours total, and I have one recommendation: less souvenir stands, more water stands! The amount of salesmen blowing their “jaguar call” whistles was ok for about 2 minutes, but the rest of the day I felt like I wanted to punch them. If you ever visit Chichen Itza, I hope you enjoy several hours of fake jaguar calls in your ear. And I only found 2 water stands the entire day, which is pretty difficult when you’re exploring an entire city with little shade. Travel tip: Bring your own water to Chichen Itza. Lots of water. Other than that, we loved it! Most people only know El Castillo and maybe the Observatory, but Chichen Itza has so many other structures! A large structure surrounded by thousands of pillars, beautiful artwork, small platforms, even more large pyramids you’ve never heard of, and a huge Mayan ball game court.

If you look closely at these pillars, you can see the engravings of Mayan warriors. Jorge loved these!

So… do you think you can get a ball through this hoop using only your hips to touch the ball? It’s probably for the best that you can’t, because the winning team of the Mayan ball game was sacrificed to the gods as an honor.

After Chichen Itza, we spent a night in Valladolid. Mexico has a “Magic Town” campaign where towns across the country are recognized for their culture, history and attractions. Valladolid is one of Mexico’s “Magic Towns”. I didn’t take many pictures because I was  tired of playing photographer after the day at Chichen Itza.

The evening was spent watching cultural dancing by a park, hanging out in the main plaza, eating dinner by the main plaza and taking pictures of the cathedral.

We stayed at Hotel San Clemente, which I HIGHLY recommend! A few Facebook acquaintances highly recommended Meson del Marques hotel which is right on the square, but sadly it was out of our budget. However, Hotel San Clemente did not disappoint… right next door to the cathedral, pool, pretty courtyard, lots of hot water and a spacious room, all for $450 pesos a night (less than $40 USD). Next time I might spend the extra money just to stay in a hotel or B&B with more charm and style, but Hotel San Clemente was an amazing deal. Here’s the view from our room’s door:

In the morning, we crossed the main square to enjoy breakfast at the Valladolid market because you can’t spend a morning in Valladolid without breakfast at the market. I got a huge plate of fruit and Jorge got all kinds of tacos. Next we stopped by Casa de los Venados, which is a colonial home that was once abandoned and now has been renovated by an American couple as their house and a museum. You can go on a guided tour for about 1 hour, and all the bedrooms, courtyard, kitchen, living room, etc are filled with Mexican folk art. I’ve never seen anything like it! I wanted to focus on the experience instead of the pictures so I have nothing to show from my visit, but you can check out the Casa de los Venados website here.

Well that’s all I’ve got from our Yucatan trip! Jorge and I hope to go to Izamal in the future, and return to Valladolid with more time and more money.

One Sunny Day in Chabihau

Our New Years 2014 trip to the fishing village of Chabihau was downright depressing.

I talk about our trips to Chabihau a lot. We have land there now and it’s just the perfect little place to relax and leave everything behind. However, those of you who follow the Gringation Facebook page and all my amigos here in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula know that the past 7 months or so have been filled with mind-blowing amounts of rain, flooding, discomfort and general dreariness. As bad luck would have it, the rain followed us to Chabihau a few weeks ago. We spent 5 days there, most of which I spent stuck inside Jorge’s parents’ Chabihau house (which right now is just a concrete cube with a few walls, a bed and a bathroom) working at least 8 hours a day and trying to get out of bed as little as possible because our room was partially flooded. It was the first time in 7 years that I even realized there’s no TV there. I really could have used some TV that week.

Sunday was the only nice day we had during that trip, and it was just so lovely. The sun came out a little, so I made Jorge go on an afternoon walk with me around Chabihau. Not much to say here, so here come the pictures I took:

 

At the end of the walk, we stopped by the beach. Sadly, the beach has been largely swept away by hurricanes. I am told it used to be amazing and the water was crystal clear a number of years ago. The first row of homes was even taken out by a hurricane, so the homes you see on the beach now used to be almost a block from the ocean! Mother Nature isn’t always kind, I guess.

 

And last but not least, my favorite picture of the day! I dunno why… I think it’s the combination of the path, the scenery and the sheep.

A Yucatan Tradition: Making Pib for Day of the Dead

For Day of the Dead, Mexicans set up altars in their homes so their deceased loved ones can come by to eat and drink. In the state of Yucatan, they make a special dish known as “mucbipollo”, “pibipollo” or simply “pib”, some of which is set on the Day of the Dead altars and some of which is set aside for the living family to eat.

I got to see the process up close this time when Jorge and I traveled to Yucatan to celebrate the holiday with his family. Jorge’s grandmother (known by the entire family as “Mami”) showed me the process of making pib at her home, and I even got to make some myself!

The whole process began in Mami’s backyard, where she has her stove set up to cook the tomato sauce for the pib.

Mami had hired a local woman to help her with some of the harder tasks. I chatted with her while she was kneading the dough for the pib, asking her how she spends her time. She told me that she works doing odd jobs for whoever needs help around town. That morning she had helped a neighbor kill some chickens, and in the afternoon helping Jorge’s grandmother make pib.

She even added a popular Yucatan ingredient called “axiote”, telling me it was used to add a little flavor and a lot of color to the pib dough. There was quite a bit of axiote, and it had to  be folded into the dough starting in the middle to keep it from getting all over the table.

Jorge’s grandmother thought we could use even more axiote…

Once the dough, chicken and tomato sauce were ready, we went from the backyard into the kitchen where my mother-in-law showed me how to put the pibs together. Jorge’s aunt and uncle were on chicken-shredding duty while the rest of us made the shell for the pibs and layered in all the ingredients.

Mami and her assistant had separated the the dough into balls. The bigger one on the bottom is to make the bowl of the pib, and the smaller one on top is to create the lid. As you can see, we had quite a few pibs to make!

The first step is to lay out the strips of banana leaves. My mother-in-law was showing me her method, when HER mother-in-law stepped in to make it just right. I guess you never stop learning from your mother-in-law!

My mother-in-law showed me her technique for shaping the bowl of the pib, using the knuckles to get just the right shape.

Once the bowl was made, I put in all the ingredients. Jorge kept telling me to add more chicken, while I was trying to get as much tomato sauce in there as possible. There was also a family debate over what to do with the chicken bones. My mother-in-law told me to just put in strips of meat and no bones, while Uncle Tony insisted every pib needs a bone or two inside to chew on later. When the sauce and chicken are almost to the top, it’s time to put in a few leaves of cilanto, tomato slices, onion slices and a sliced egg.

Next, you flatten the smaller ball of dough and use a banana leaf to cover the top of the bowl as a lid. Then (my favorite part because I like to get messy), you slather some more tomato sauce all over the outside of the pib.

Finally, wrap the pib in strips of banana leaves then tie the whole thing up to get it ready to bake.

Tah-dah! My masterpiece!

Here are all of our pibs wrapped up and ready to go to the town baker. Traditionally, pibs are cooked by digging a hole in the ground to make an underground oven, but since Jorge’s grandmother gets tired doing all that extra work, she decided to have them taken to the town baker.

And who better to take the pibs to the baker than Uncle Tony in his tricycle taxi! A popular form of public transportation in Yucatan towns.

The bakery was not what I was expecting! Here’s the outside (complete with birds cages, a Virgin Mary and some kids at play):

But the actual oven was in a small shack behind the bakery. The town baker had his hands full with trays and trays of pibs from many local families. He never wrote anything down, so I have no idea how he kept track of which pibs belonged to which family, but he did. The oven itself had kind of an igloo-shape and enough room for many trays of pib! Like a giant pizza oven.

Unfortunately I forgot to take a picture of the finished product when we got the pibs back in the evening, so here’s a photo taken from online:

source: http://infomediatelevision.blogspot.mx/2011/05/mucbipollo.html

While we were eating our pibs in the kitchen that night, the blender suddenly turned on for 5 seconds, then back off. Jorge’s grandmother said, “Oh look, los muertos came to eat pib with us!”

 

What’s the Difference Between a Timba and a Machacado?

During our trips to the village of Chabihau, we love to stop by and visit Tía Ofelia and Tío Cance for some timbas and machacados. (They’re not really tíos. They’re second cousins.) They own a little shop right by the entrance into town, with sand floors and 3 tables.

This trip, I decided to document the process because I haven’t seen these anywhere else, although I’m sure they exist somewhere.

 

Jorge and I spotted the mamey fruit sitting on the right side of the fruit shelf, so he opted for a timba de mamey while I chose the healthier machacado de mamey.

First, Ofelia scoops the fruit into a glass.

 

Then mashes it up with a mazo (wooden stick used in the kitchen for mashing things… that’s my official definition)

 

Next (my favorite part), Cance gets out the ice shaver…

 

…and puts a block of shaved ice into each glass.

 

Ofelia then pours a little vanilla into the mix.

 

The next part is what sets the timbas apart from the machacados: Jorge’s timba gets a sizeable dose of La Lechera cream, while my machacado gets zip.

 

To top it all off, another scoop of shaved ice!

 

Aaaand voila! The best beach snack ever.

 

So Now I’m the Proud Owner of 4 Coconut Trees…

A few more pics from our weekend in Chabihau. We stopped by our land to do some scouting, and ended up getting some coconuts from our palm trees. (Ok, Jorge and his cousin got them while I took pictures.)

 

Back at Jorge’s aunt’s house, my suegro was kind enough to grab his machete and chop open a hole in one of the coconuts so we could try some coconut water.

 

I was pretty proud because everyone was saying how our coconut water was some of the sweetest they’d ever had! I drank it straight this time, but Jorge’s uncles tell me it tastes great with ice and vodka. Duly noted.

 

My suegro was in the mood for some carne de coco (the inside part that you eat… not sure what it’s called in English), so he carved some out and ate it during the car ride back to Cancun.

 

Have you guys tried fresh coconut water before? 

We Bought Land!!

Jorge and I have been considering buying land in the village of Chabihau for a few years. Our dream is to build a small vacation villa there so we can someday spend more time there relaxing, eating freshly caught fish and hanging out with Jorge’s extended family.

Two weekends ago, we went to Chabihau to check out a piece of land we heard was for sale. Turns out it wasn’t exactly what we were hoping for, so Jorge’s second cousin took us around town to see all the lots for sale. We weren’t overly impressed by any of them (lots of work to do!), but we came across one that we fell in love with at first sight.

This past weekend, Jorge traveled to Merida to sign all the paperwork, and now it’s ours, all ours!!

Chabihau is a beach town, but we’ve always preferred the view of the lagoon, so our main priority was a lagoonfront property. I think we got it right.

Looking at the picture below, it covers everything from the barbed wire fence on the left to the palm trees by the car on the right. (10 meters wide, 25 meters long)

 

Several friends have already mentioned that it looks perfect for camping. We hate camping, but anyone else is welcome! haha

Yucatan Food: Cayumito

One thing I love about living in the Yucatan Peninsula is its amazing fruit. Recently, my suegra gave me one that I’d never even seen before: cayumito.

My suegra had gotten the cayumito from a friend who had recently traveled to the nearby state of Campeche. She told me the best way to eat it is to cut it in half, then use a small spoon to scoop out the insides.

Cayumito seeds

The texture of the cayumito was like a grape, but the flavor was sweeter. I’m a huge fan of fruits, and this one did not disappoint!

What’s the weirdest fruit you’ve ever eaten?

 

 

A Yucatecan Church Dance

Jorge’s parents have been going to the same Catholic church around the corner from their house for years.

This past week, the church celebrated its 25th anniversary, and they spent the whole week partying! I only went to 1 night of celebrations (but I hear there were lots of rockets, dancing and food involved throughout the week), and I got to see the ladies dress in beautiful Yucatecan ternos while they showed traditional regional dances.

(Please forgive the blurriness of the photos! It was nighttime and there was lots of movement.)

There was a taco stand (run by my suegro), a marquesita stand, a live band, a conga line, a dance circle and some salsa music. These church-going folks sure know how to party!

More Yucatan Cuisine: San Simon and Caballero Pobre

Last Saturday, we went to a birthday party for my suegro.

Jorge’s grandmother had traveled from Yucatan to celebrate, and a visit from Abuela Elsy wouldn’t be complete without some fabulous Yucatan cuisine.

First we had San Simon. This dish is basically turkey with broth, covered in lots of toppings. The toppings can vary depending on the recipe, but our San Simon was covered in fried plantains, onion and homemade french fries.

It sounds like the most random combination of ingredients ever… but it was DELICIOUS.

For dessert, I got to try Caballero Pobre (“Poor Gentleman”) for the first time. I feel like this dish is basically the “french toast” of the Yucatan. It’s a baguette soaked in egg, fried in a bit of oil, then covered in a syrupy-cinnamony sauce.

Jorge’s been going over to his parent’s house every day this week to get some more of Abuela Elsy’s food.

What dishes are popular in your area?

My First Alux Encounter

When I first moved to Mexico, I was fascinated by all the stories about run-ins with ghosts, hauntings and mythical creatures. Being the skeptical American that I am, I brushed it off as a cultural difference for several years.

But now… I’m starting to realize that Mexico is just filled with some crazy, crazy stuff.

Long-time readers may remember the stories about the mythical Yucatan alux (pronounced “ah-LOOSH”) that friends and family had told me. The stories made me start to think, “Maybe there’s some truth to this.”

And then on New Years Eve, I’m pretty sure I saw one.

Jorge and I were riding in a 15-person van from Cancun to Chabihau for his cousin’s wedding. During the 4-hour drive along the highway, we pass through mostly jungle with a few small villages along the way.

Around 7 pm, it was already dark. We were just leaving one small Yucatan village and entering the jungle again, going slowly because of the village’s speedbumps. Up near the driver, I saw the head of a black figure standing right by the van, in the middle of the road. From the height, the shape of the head and the way it moved, I immediately thought it was a child, except it was … blacker than black? As in I couldn’t even make out features or anything, just an outline filled in with entirely black. I was unsettled and wasn’t sure why.

As we passed the thing, I turned back and saw that the figure was actually hunched over and huge. It was shaped more like a dog than a child, but at the same time the street dogs in the Yucatan aren’t giant or black (at least none that I’ve seen!) Plus… dogs just don’t move like that.

I later told Jorge and his family that I’d seen an alux, and they didn’t seem the least bit surprised.