Riviera Maya – Day 5: Tulum to Coba to Chichen Itza

10 Jan

After watching the spectacular sunrise over the ocean from our ocean front porch, we had a light breakfast at Tierras del Sol’s restaurant.  All the patrons were guests at the hotel (and there are only 4 or 5 cabanas) and the restaurant was run by two hotel staffers.  Service was a bit slow due to the small size of the kitchen (you can see them preparing your food) and the limited staff.  But hey, you don’t vacation in Tulum because you’re in a hurry.  We ordered the huevos Mexicanos, natural yogurt, and two glasses of juice (one orange, one mango). 

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The eggs were served with a simple side salad (cucumbers, tomatoes, and lettuce drizzled with olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and pepper) and multigrain bread and some butter.  I haven’t had eggs this good since my dad’s egg and tomato scramble with homegrown tomatoes from his garden.  I think that’s what made this whole meal great, everything was simple but really fresh.  And the peaking view of the ocean through the windy path by the cabanas wasn’t too bad either.  Total for breakfast was $14, and well worth it.

As much as I hated to leave that little slice of oceanfront paradise, we headed inland for Coba.  Due to its location, Coba isn’t as popular as Chichen Itza or Tulum for tourists.  The ruins area is large and spread out, and hasn’t been reconstructed to the degree of Tulum or Chichen Itza.  Coba is almost impossible to explore on foot due to its large size, but there are many bikes for rent as soon as you walk through the main gate.  This was my least favorite out of all three ruin sites due to the lack of signage (and therefore, explanations).  We also didn’t expect it to be so large, so we didn’t set aside enough time to explore the entire site.

As we drove further east to Chichen Itza, we stopped in the small city of Valladolid for lunch.  Valladolid is a pleasant and colorful town, with a festival going on in the main square when we dropped by.

La Parroquia de San Servacio in the town square:

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Festival performers:

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Colorful pastel buildings down one the streets extending from town square:

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Amongst these pastel buildings we found a place for lunch, Taqueria La Principal, adjacent to a crafts market.  We ordered two tortas (one carne asada and one chicken) with two cokes.  Valladolid doesn’t get much tourist traffic so there was a lot of pointing and half-sentences involved in ordering.

Torta de Pollo:

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Neither meat was especially outstanding (a little dry by my standards, but decent flavor), average to slightly above average by DFW taqueria standards.  Still, the meal was a bargain at $3.80 for two tortas and two cokes.  We were still just a little hungry after the tortas, so we went back out on the streets to find our next course.

Outside the church on town square, a street vendor waved at us, pointing to his bags of what appeared to be fried plantain chips.  During my half-sentence inquiry to him about what they were (“platanos,” my instincts were right), a little boy and his father coming out of the church bought all 8 remaining bags the street vendor had left.  My opportunity to try this little snack disappeared before my eyes in a matter of seconds.  We walked around the town square at least 2 blocks in 2 other directions in search of these fried plantain chips, but had no luck.  Couldn’t the man have at least spared one bag for us poor tourists?  Oh well.  Then we ran across this:

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A street vendor selling tacos, tortas, and some sort of thick masa shell (like a gordita, but smaller) of cochinita pibil.  This time, my companion was feeling adventurous and decided this was going to be the second course to finish our lunch.  He pointed to the thick masa oval thinking that it was like an empanada, pre-stuffed.  We had convinced ourselves that street food is safe when the product is fried in hot oil that kills the germs, so things like empanadas from the street vendor in Playa were not risky.  The street vendor smiled at my companion, picked up the masa shell, sliced it open with a knife, and began to tear off tender shreds of meat off of the main roast with his bare hands and stuffing it into the shell.

We turned to each other, mutual looks of fear.  Oh how we missed those thin plastic gloves they use at Subway, even if they’re only for show and are completely ineffective at guarding for germs.

50 cents and a topping of fresh chopped red onion later, we had ourselves a small cochinita pibil gordita.

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All worries aside, it looked really good.  I threw caution to the wind and gave in to my food-loving weakness.  The pibil was juicy and flavorful, a little fattier than at Yaxche, but not enough to ruin the texture.  My companion would not be shown up by a girl, he took the second bite, then proceeded to finish the whole thing because he liked it so much.

We never got sick. 

We finally arrived at Chichen Itza mid afternoon.  Chichen Itza was my favorite ruin site on the trip.  It is fully restored, just small enough to explore on foot, and absolutely breath-taking.

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The only downside to Chichen Itza is the number of pushy souvenir vendors due to its popularity.  Oh well.  The site closes at 5:00pm then reopens at 7:00pm for the light and sound show.  We headed back to the hotel to grab some dinner since we weren’t going to eat the $3 hot dogs at the snack shop at Chichen Itza.  To our disappointment, the hotel restaurant menu didn’t look that much better, with unpromising generic Mexican fare for more pesos than it was probably worth.  Instead, we headed into the town of Piste, 10 minutes away from Chichen Itza. 

The only strategy we relied on for finding dinner was to stop at a restaurant that looked crowded.  We drove through the main street cutting across town a couple of times and only saw a handful of places that were at least half full of patrons.  Most of them were a taquerias and the other was a woman cooking whole chickens on a grill in an open air space, no sign.

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The chicken smelled delicious.  But we weren’t sure this was even a restaurant.  There were 3 or 4 shabby tables set up with randomly arranged chairs, but no indication of a menu or waitstaff.  There was a large family dining there, but were they patrons or relatives?  It couldn’t hurt to ask.  “How much?”  “50 pesos for a chicken.”  “What about half?”  “30 pesos.”  Of course the actual  conversation was in Spanish, and went about half as smoothly.

With that we were lead to one of the folding card tables covered with a vinyl table cloth.  We ordered our soft drinks, two Manzanitas (tasted like carbonated apple juice) and a large bowl of spicy salsa with hot tortillas were brought out while we waited for our chicken to finish on the grill.  We were pleasantly surprised. 

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Open fire grilled chicken atop mildly seasoned rice, all for the equivalent of $3.  Chicken and rice, just the kind of comfort food we needed after a long day of driving and sightseeing.  This was seriously some of the best chicken I’ve ever had (and my companion whole-heartedly agreed).  BBQ, rotisserie, whatever, this chicken was better.  The skin was crispy from the open fire grill and the meat tender and moist.  The seasoning was just right, enough to seep into the meat without being overpowering.  $5 (half a chicken plus 2 soft drinks) bought us the perfect familiar yet exotic meal.  The sad part is I still can’t tell you the name of this place (I didn’t see a menu or a sign the whole time).  I can only tell you that it’s located next door to a restaurant called “Los Pajaros” (which would’ve been a suitable name for this place since it appeared to only serve chicken, if this place was a restaurant).

Stuffed full, we headed back to Chichen Itza for the sound and light show.  I would recommend spending the extra money on getting a headset in your language if you’re not a fluent Spanish speaker.  I was able to pick up words here and there, but was clueless for half the content.  My companion was even worse off, having elected to take French as his foreign language elective in high school.  The sound and light show itself was a little tacky, it tries to draw drama to the structures (and does so somewhat with the dramatic lighting) but repeats the lighting patterns over and over again throughout the narration. 

We were exhausted after a long day of traveling and adventurous dining.  Tomorrow we would head back toward the coast.

Onto Days 6, 7, & 8

Back to Day 4

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