Riviera Maya – Day 1: DFW to Playa del Carmen

27 Dec

My 8 day adventure in the eastern Yucatan peninsula led my mouth to an expansive array of  experiences, from the cosmopolitan and chic Playa del Carmen where you can find just about any cuisine under the sun to the street vendors and home-style cooking of the small villages of the in-land Yucatan to the stuff your face, all you can eat, all inclusive resort experience in Cancun.  Good and bad, it was an exciting week to say the least for my taste buds, and this series of posts will attempt to describe those adventures with all the pictures I remembered to take during the trip.  A couple of notes before we begin on this savory journey:

1.  The Riviera Maya is a region, as its name suggests, whose cuisine is heavily influenced by the Mayan culture.  Just from some quick reading, I can say that perhaps Merida is the best city to explore the rich history and fascinating development of Mayan cuisine.  We didn’t get as far west as Merida on this trip due to time constraint.  We did get to sample quite a few Yucatecan dishes, but I wouldn’t use this as a source if authentic, well-executed Mayan cuisine is what you’re looking for.

2. Prices listed assume a 10 peso to 1 USD exchange rate.

We spent the majority of our time along the coast, spending time on the beaches of Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and Cancun.  Two days were spent in-land driving to and from Chichen Itza, making various stops along the way.  The map below shows the route of our journey.

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All this talk about Yucatecan food and I’m going to start the series with some local flavor (sorry). There’s normally nothing exciting about airport fare and DFW is no exception. However, for a lovely wake up call and a Starbucks alternative, La Duni Cafe & Bakery has opened a location in the comparatively new Terminal D.

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$6 later I was sucking down a piping hot vaca blanca, it’s a mocha but made with white chocolate, sprinkled with dark chocolate shavings, a pricey but luscious way to start your morning.

After a 2 1/2 hour flight to Cancun International and a 45 minute drive south in our rental Volkswagen Pointer, we arrived in Playa del Carmen. Playa is a bit of a hippie town, like a tropical, beachy Santa Fe, with a strong European influence with the large expatriate population. The main attraction in Playa is the beach with its abundance of dive shops and beach front restaurants and bars. One block from the beach is the pedestrian-only Quinta Avenida, with lots of tourist-oriented shopping and the majority of the town’s nightlife destinations.

A block of Quinta Avenida during the day:

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It was about 3:00pm after we’d checked into our hotel in Playa del Carmen. The only thing I had consumed that day was the tall cup of vaca blanca and a tiny bag of pretzels courtesy of American Airlines. To say that I was hungry would be an understatement. Half a block away from our hotel was a restaurant I recognized from my Frommer’s guide, La Parrilla, at the intersection of Quinta Avenida and Calle 8.

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La Parrilla offers balcony seating with a view of Quinta Avenida, good for people watching while you’re sipping on your margarita. Speaking of drinks, we picked up a coupon from our hotel lobby good for one free drink with purchase of a meal, which we redeemed for a Dos Equis Amber and a small margarita. A couple of sips of my strong margarita and I was officially on vacation.

Once seated we were presented with chips, pico de gallo-esque salsa, and a slightly spicy salsa verde. I ordered the chile relleno and my companion ordered the Aztec steak, both dishes were served with beans and rice. The rice wasn’t cooked in a tomato sauce like we’re used to in Texas, but it was still flavorful with peas and corn. I was surprised to see the “pink bean” (flor de mayo) in this part of Mexico, as I had read that the Yucatan was definitely on the black bean side of the “invisible bean line.” The location of La Parrilla lends it to be a tourist destination and the presence of the pink bean was just one of the many clues leading to that truth.

Chile Relleno:

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Even with my ambitious appetite, the giant queso fresco filled poblano chile was simply too much food. The batter held up to minor utensil abuse (didn’t fall apart upon touch) and the tomato sauce flavorful, but after eating half the poblano, it felt like too much cheese. Still, not a bad start for my first meal of the trip.

Aztec Steak:

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Aztec steak served a top of bed of grilled onions and cactus, with corn tortillas (we never encountered flour tortillas our entire trip, as expected this far south and east in Mexico). The steak was seasoned just fine, nothing spectacular but not bland either. The most enjoyable part of this dish was the grilled cactus since neither of us had had cactus before. It was much more tender and juicy than I had expected from desert vegetation!

Total was $35 with tip (two entrees plus four drinks, but the first two drinks were complimentary because of the coupon). I was stuffed, buzzed, and really excited to be in Mexico.

Walking around Quinta Avenida in the early evening, I witnessed Burger King spreading its campaign of machismo and heart disease to Mexico, in the form of the Texas Double Whopper. There are so many things I love about living in Texas, but being the state with 5 of the 25 fattest cities in America isn’t one of the joys I want to spread, especially not in the form of a 1050-calorie fast food concoction.

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Later that evening, around 11:00pm, I got a small craving for food since the last meal was at 3:00pm. The receptionist at the hotel recommended Babe’s Noodles & Bar (Calle 10 between 5 and 10 Avenidas) for spring rolls and the best mojitos in town. She was right about the mojitos, extra minty and refreshing. My companion ordered a caipiroshka and enjoyed it, too. We satisfied our late night craving with Babe’s shrimp rolls, filled with shrimp, cream cheese, spinach, and mango, served with a vinegary sauce with crunchy shallots.

Shrimp Rolls:

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Creative, delicious Thai food in Mexico? I didn’t expect it but was definitely more than happy to eat it. Total including tip for the spring rolls and two cocktails was $15. Prices in Playa del Carmen (at least the area close to the beach and Quinta Avenida) are comparable to those in the US. We were still in our paranoid stage at this point of the trip, so we ate at “safe” places to avoid Montezuma’s Revenge. As the trip went on, we became progressively more adventurous. But that’s to be discussed in another post, as my Babe’s mojito marked the end of my first day in Playa del Carmen.

Onto Day 2

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One Response to “Riviera Maya – Day 1: DFW to Playa del Carmen”

  1. Scott 12/27/2006 at 11:57 pm #

    Nice report, Donna. I look forward to reading more, especially about your meals outside the tourist zones.

    Scott

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