Stuffed cheese, sinkholes, pink lakes and jam

As I’ve mentioned previously, they take Christmas pretty seriously in Mexico. Our Christmas decorations went up in mid-November, and as I sit here on the 11th January, they remain up. Los Reyes Magos have been and gone, the posadas, rosca de reyes and parade of gifts are all over, but almost everywhere Christmas lingers on.

I was quite surprised, therefore, to discover that Myriam was completely happy to dash off on Christmas day to catch a flight down to Merida. Christmas Day here is a surprisingly small deal, with the big stuff done and dusted on Noche Buena, and then a second bite of the cherry on Epiphany. So it was that we jetted off down to the heat of  Yucatan, to have a second Christmas with my friends from home who’d arrived in Valladolid a day earlier.

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There are usually two major themes to my Christmas celebrations. One, there will be people I’ve rarely, or never met before there (my mum has a habit of throwing the doors open to anyone without Christmas plans, most memorably to a Burmese doctor who had recently started studying in the UK), and two, there will be at least a small Jewish flavour to proceedings (largely due to my stepmother and closest family friends, with whom we tend to celebrate). So it was deeply reassuring to arrive in Valladolid after a long drive from Merida to find my friend Claudia (of close family friend fame), my friend Johnny, his mum, his brother, and a guy named Harry, tucking in to pok-chuc, queso relleno and sopa de lima with gusto. Johnny and Claudia had acted as couriers for the few things I’ve been missing here, and Myriam and I enjoyed stockings full of Bonne Maman jam, dijon mustard, chutney, Dairy Milk and a bottle of scotch.

Festivities over, we set about exploring the delights of the Yucatan peninsula.

It’s hard to really do justice to Yucatan, with photos or with words. In a country which has such weirdness and diversity bursting from the seams, Yucatan is the weirdest and most diverse place I’ve been so far.

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Photo: Myriam Robles Obregon

Valladolid, where we based ourselves initially, is surrounded by cenotes, sinkholes, often entirely enclosed in underground caverns, filled with fresh, cool water, where locals and tourists swim. They are, by Mayan tradition, the gateways to Xibalba, the underworld, something which is completely believable as you dive down through clear blue water which just keeps going and going. The one in the centre of Valladolid is supposedly 100 feet deep, and I saw not a trace of bottom at any point. The grisly explanation of why they close at five (all the cenotes are connected underground, there is an undercurrent and there have been instances of children drowning after dark, being sucked through tunnels and reappearing miles away in an entirely different cenote) certainly made me wary of trying to go too deep…

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Valladolid is also surrounded by a feast of Mayan ruins. We tried Coba – moody, atmospheric ruins deep in the jungle, with a Great Pyramid soaring above the tree canopy with unbelievable views for miles – and Tulum – tourist paradise/hellhole with a picture-perfect Mayan city perched precariously atop the cliffs above turquoise sea and a white-gold beach. We also snuck in a visit to Chichen-Itza, sort of a ‘must-see’, on the way from Valladolid to Merida, but I have to admit it left me a bit cold. Lacking both Coba’s otherworldly jungle-ridden mystique, or Tulum’s picture-perfect clifftop scenery, Chichen-Itza’s incredible grandeur and remarkable feats of astrology-as-architecture’ are rather marred by 6,000 other tourists all lining up to take the same photograph. Whilst the spectacle is amazing, it is hard to fully appreciate the intricate details that make it one of the 7 new wonders of the world when you are picking your way through crowds of others trying to do the same.

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Two big drives brought two separate experiences dominated by pinkness. A long, straight road from Valladolid brought Myriam and I to Las Coloradas, a salt refinery in the middle of nowhere surrounded by lakes and salt flats drenched in colour. Myriam had suggested this before we left DF, and I’d agreed, but been sceptical. I was expecting a brown lake with a hint of red, a sort of ‘catch it in the right light and you can see what they mean’ kind of thing. But these were genuine, ice-cream, marshmallow, candyfloss pink. An Instagrammer’s dream, something the locals are fully switched on to, preventing photos anywhere but the roped off, paid entry points through judicious use of aggressive motorcycle parking.

 

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Photo: Myriam Robles Obregon

A second trip, this time from Merida with Johnny’s mum Pam, Harry, and his mum Kirsty (who had joined us some days previously after a journey which seemed to have collapsed into horrendous farce at every opportunity as she had been delayed for three days, lost her luggage, had her hire car cancelled and lost her passport) ended with us on a bought, in the middle of mangroves, surrounded by flamingos. The weirdest and most beautiful birds I’ve ever seen, gangling about awkwardly when moving, but standing statuesque and beautiful when still, and in flight like nothing more than a long pink snake with black wings. This was an extraordinary experience, marred only by the slight risk of death when Myriam, possibly extremely allergic, was stung by an enormous bee about twenty minutes from land. Thankfully nothing more than an itchy armpit was forthcoming, and she took her ire out on a restaurant attempting to triple the bill for a snack and a few beers as we watched the sun set over the nearby beach.

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Photo: Myriam Robles Obregon

The food in Yucatan is one of the oldest cuisines in the world, and so good it is on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Before our trip, Myriam had waxed lyrical about marquesitas, queso relleno and cochinita pibil. Johnny was an enthusiastic and immediate convert to the joys of Mexican eating habits (at times risking diplomatic incident to get his taco fix), but Claudia arrived deeply sceptical. One by one, tacos, tortas, sopa de lima and marquesitas were tasted and approved of, with admirable volte-faces and admissions of hasty judgement made. I wasn’t, however able to make any headway with cochinita, which shows a sad lack of taste on her part, or with queso relleno, which is at least more understandable. This is a bizarre, if delicious dish, consisting of Dutch Edam (made popular by merchants and pirates in the 18th century), stuffed with spiced minced pork, swimming in a maize soup. It is genuinely far more delicious than it sounds, but I can understand an inability to overcome the bizarrity.

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New Year’s eve was spent on a roof, next to a pool, watching far away fireworks with red wine and nonsense with old friends. A perfect way to ring in the new year in this new place.

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Myriam sadly departed a day later, pulled back to the city by work. A trip to Holbox, a small piece of paradise drifting in the Gulf of Mexico, followed, but there’s no real way of writing about lying on a beach for two days without sounding unpleasantly smug (and probably a bit boring), so rather mention the largest, boldest and angriest mosquitoes I’ve ever met, some excellent fish and seafood, and a couple of runs along the beach, Baywatch-style.

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Photo: Myriam Robles Obregon

A wonderful trip, with some of my favourite people around, and a much-needed taste of my life back in London. But I think it speaks volumes about my time here that getting back to Mexico City, seeing Myriam again even after only a few days, and sitting back down in front of my computer to write, was a pleasure, and not the horrifying shock to the system that getting home and going to work usually is. This was just the next bit of an ongoing adventure, in which even the more mundane stuff is a bit exciting.

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