Yucatan, Mexico - September 2009

For the past five years we have spent the Labor Day weekend in Cozumel, Mexico with family and our good friends. Since we had the entire week free before school began (Elliot is now officially in Kindergarten) we decided to take a few extra days to rent a car and drive around the Yucatan on a Mexican Road Trip. Looking at a map it seemed like a good idea. Rent a car, get out of Cancun as fast as we can and head west toward Merida.

We made hotel reservations and came up with a *very* loose framework of what to see and do. At the time, we didn't realize that the Yucatan Peninsula is really BIG. We landed in Cancun and got through the airport fairly quickly by avoiding all of the time share hawkers. Next stop... the National car rental office. The process, which normally takes five minutes, takes a lot longer in Mexico. In our case it took over thirty minutes to get our car. After a few miles of driving the check engine light came on. Back to the rental center where we were assured that the car was fine and the check engine light is on in all the cars because of emissions issues. Maybe so, but we weren't taking any chances since we had such a long trip ahead of us. Twenty five minutes later we got our second car and headed out to Merida.

Surprisingly, the roads throughout out trip were very easy to navigate and in much better condition than most of the roads in the NY metro area. The highway between Merida and Cancun is a straight, flat and well paved toll road which is traveled by very few people, probably due to the cost which is almost $30 USD for the entire distance.
About half way through out trip we stopped in Valladolid which is the largest town between the two cities and one of the few exits off of the toll road. We headed into town to look for a place for lunch. Above is the main cathedral just off of the Zocalo (town square).
At the opposite end from the Cathedral is a small grouping of restaurants, similar to a food court. Since it was Sunday afternoon most of them were closed. We chose the busiest one and ordered some pork tacos and chicken tortas from the Loncheria El Amigo Casiano. The highlight of our day was a visit to the Cenote Dzitnup (admission about $1.85) for a swim break. We had been in the car for over three hours and this attraction was a recommended to us by a friend in Cozumel as a "Must Do." Our friend was right and words cannot really describe how amazing the site is. After carefully navigating the slippery steps our mouths almost dropped at the site in front of us. Huge stalactites hanging from the ceiling above an enormous pool of cool clear water for swimming. The only problem we had is what to do with our stuff. We had all of our money, passports and scuba gear with us in the car and although everything seemed safe we still had some concerns. The last thing we wanted was to be stuck in the middle of almost-nowhere with nothing. We ended up hiding the passports in the car and taking the wallet and car key with us. The next problem was what to do with them while swimming, so we hid them in Keith's shoes under the insole. 10 minutes later we realized that the key was missing. After rushing out of the water, Keith realized that they key was in his pocket the whole time. Sorry National, but we have no idea why the key remote control stopped working....

The "coco frio" was a good value and yummy treat for $1.48.
It was getting late and we still had a lot of driving ahead of us, so we drove right past Chichen Itza on the way to our hotel. We had some other Mayan ruins planned for later in the week and we rationalized that it was better left untouched on this trip. We drove up the mile long driveway to the Hacienda San Jose which is a restored 18th Century livestock and corn hacienda. Less than 100 years ago, the hacienda encompassed 7000 acres of land but today the remaining 37 acres have been transformed into a hotel.
The hacienda is marketed as a romantic secluded getaway so we wondered if the presence of a 5 year old would bother anyone, but as it turns out we couldn't disturb anyone if we wanted because we were the only guests on the property. Our casita was huge and certainly a destination in it's own right.
We all enjoyed a candlelit dinner outside in the gardens.
The next morning, we woke up early to explore Merida. On the way, we stopped for breakfast at the Panificador el Rey in Tixkokob for some Mexican breads. We knew we would have great food in Merida, so we just needed something to hold us over until lunch..
On the way into the historic center we stopped at a road side cart for some Salbutes (which are basically tacos where the tortillas are lightly fried.)
They call Merida the white city so we expected that the buildings in the historic center would be white. We were a little surprised that almost no buildings were white and the Governor's Palace was green. Later we found out that it is called the white city because of the traditional white clothing that people wore, not the color of the buildings.

We really didn't have a plan for Merida other than to walk around the historic center and head to the market. Since it was close 100 degrees we limited our walking around and headed to the closest market for lunch.
We made a few stops along the way and tried as many new foods as we could including everything from Yucatecan tamales, Tortas al Pastor and the drink above. We suspect that this drink was a dragon fruit, and was delicious.

In the afternoon we headed to another small colonial town called Izamal. We stopped at Casa Izamal which is a small batch distillery. We didn't think anyone was around, but we walked through the loading docks and found two people, one of which was the proprietor Mario Casales who gave us a tour and a tasting even thought we showed up without any notice. Although everything he told us was in Spanish we still got the gist. Above, Elliot is standing on some barrels of rum that still have a few more years to age before they are bottled.

In the laboratory we all got to taste some honey liquor. Fortunately, Elliot didn't like it that much but we thought it was yummy. Definitely worth a detour if you are in the area.

Izamal is one of the largest Mayan pyramids, but unfortunately we got there after closing so we didn't get to climb it. Other ruins from the ancient city are unexcavated and located in homeowners yards. Izamal is known as the yellow city and every building is painted in the same mustard yellow. We had a lovely dinner at Kinich Restaurant and headed back to the hacienda.

We began the next day in Uxmal, a large pre-Columbian ruined city of the Maya civilization. Our guide was excellent and gave us an overview of the city and the various important structures.
Throughout our trip nature was everywhere. We saw dozens of iguanas, thousands of butterflies, too many fish and even a few tarantulas crawling around.

The view is great from the top of the great pyramid at Uxmal. Easily the highest point for hundreds of miles.

On our return through Valladolid we stopped at another Cenote for a swim break but we managed our personal belongings a lot better this time.

Cenote Samula was even more stunning than the first. The cavern was about 60 feet high with a large opening that lets natural light to shine in.

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