For most travelers, The Yucatan is Cancun and the Riviera Maya. Don't get me wrong, these are beautiful places. I am not a beach guy, but if I need one, Cancun works for me. And the hotels... I had a chance to visit the new Nizuc, which is amazingly beautiful and the Rosewood Mayacoba, simply a wow. Did I mention the food? Remember when Mexico was tacos and burritos? Dinner at Nizuc featured an astonishingly good seafood dish accompanied by some very nice wine.... from Mexico.
But for me the best part of this trip was going into the Yucatan. We visited the Mayan site of Ek Balam, a recently excavated pyramid and temple complex. The treasures from the tomb are on display in the museum in Merida (which is fantastic), but the true treasure is a Mayan site that is not awash in people. You can climb the pyramid at Ek Balam, look at the entrance to the tomb, and survey the jungle from a platform once reserved for royalty, priests, and sacrificial victms. Nearby is a cenote, a sacred Mayan watering hole, that was once used for offerings to the gods (including people). You can now swim here, or zipline, or ride a bicylce in the jungle. Amazing...
We stopped briefly in the town of Valladolid. This is a classic colonial town complete with a 400 year old cathedral looming over the town square. I would love to have spent a day here exploring the neighborhoods and shops. But time was pressing so we headed off to Merida.
OK, why do not more people know about Merida? What a find. I did not know this; for about 60 years, Merida was the world's major source of sisal fiber, used heavily in industry, and the families that controlled the trade became fantastically wealthy. Following the fashion of the time, they hired architects from France to build their homes. So here in the middle of the Mayan Peninsula sits this gem of a colonial city with beautiful architecture, much of it well preserved. Several of the mansions have been turned into small hotels lovingly restored to their colonial grandeur. You can take horse drawn carriage rides along the main street, enjoy music and drinks in any of a number of venues, and, well, then there is the food. Yucatan food is a unique sub set of Mexican cooking; the local pepper of choice is the habanero. Every meal we had was tasty, but the highlight of the whole trip was a night at a place called Kuuk.
You have seen restaraunts like this on the food channel. Places where the kitchen looks like a science lab and the meal takes hours as numberous bite-size courses cross the table, each paired with wine again from Mexico's San Thomas Winery. We spent three hours having a twelve course tasting menu, each course amazing. The suckling pork was the best of the best, and the deserts were to die for. And here is the kicker. I had the pleasure of sitting next to the chef the next day, and he tells me that what they are doing is a bit too advanced for the local crowd, so unlike the similar restaraunts in Napa or Europe, you don't have to book this place months in advance. You can roll into town, call them and probably get a table that night. Or the next. And, while pricey, it is not ridiculous. The tasting menu with wine will set you back a bit over $200 USD per person. Try getting away with that at The French Laundry!
So yes, the Yucatan, and specifically Merida. Easy to get to (direct flights from Houston), charming, tasty and adventurous. Kind of everything I like. Contact me if you'd like to experience the adventure.