“I guess this is what we eat for lunch,” said Magellan.
“And this is what we drink,” I said as one of the Mayan women, looking like she was dressed for a party in her magenta blouse and shiny black skirt, her hair slicked back to reveal dangly earrings, placed a large plastic pitcher of milky liquid on the table.
“Is it horchata?” I asked.
We were on our way to Ek’ Balam, the most recently discovered Maya ruins on the Yucatan peninsula where at the beginning of this century, archeologists uncovered an extraordinary royal tomb halfway up its acropolis.
“The big tour buses don’t come here,” I said to Magellan as we drove into the Ek’ Balam site. “There’s nothing here to eat except chips and chocolate bars. The restaurant at the cenote is a kilometre’s walk away and who knows what more they’ll have?”
“Let’s drive back to the pueblo and see if we can find something,” said Magellan. “Didn’t you say there was a restaurant there?”
Our trip to Tulum was a last-minute decision to get away from the cold spell that’s chilling Vancouver this winter. Unlike our usual trips, we agreed to no pre-planning. No must-dos. No meal reservations. No decisions until we got there.
Sometime during or after the two-hour breakfast around the communal table at Casa de las Olas, we’d decide how the day would unfold, assisted by recommendations from the owner Jimmy, Curator of Opportunities, and the other dozen or so guests, most who were on their second or third stay at this end-of-the-road inn. Ek’ Balam was highly recommended. Russell liked the view from the top of the acropolis and Erin appreciated the refreshing swim in the X’Canche cenote that’s on the property. Dean showed us photos of the beautiful city of Valladolid enroute and Monica said they were going back to the Ek’ Balam pueblo to buy one of the brilliant hammocks for which the women in this village are renowned.
I checked out Loco Gringo Ek’ Balam, which indicated there was a restaurant in the pueblo and while it wasn’t open for lunch, they may feed you if you called ahead. No planning remember? We hadn’t called ahead. Besides, the pueblo was only a few kilometres from the Ek’ Balam archeological site.
I’m guessing about 300 people live in Ek’ Balam, a sleepy village of neatly spaced palapas, almost every one of them strung with an adornment of dazzling hammocks for sale. “There’s the restaurant,” said Magellan. “It says ‘Closed Mondays.’” We drove up to Genesis Eco-Oasis, a small, walled inn that didn’t look open either and wasn’t advertising a restaurant anyway.
“How about that place?” I asked, pointing to a convenience store with what appeared to be a restaurant attached on the side.
We couldn’t figure out the small sign in the window, which read something like “Cocina casera hecho con amor.” Inside, we could see a narrow living room with three tables and beyond that, a larger room with a long table around which three or four seated men and women were talking.
A young Maya boy about fourteen years old, wearing a shirt of the most intense shade of royal blue I’ve ever seen approached us. “Can we get something to eat here?” I asked. “Minuto,” he said, disappearing into the back room.
A few minutes later, he motioned us in. Half a dozen women of varying ages, all beautifully dressed, came out to say “ola.” A handful of young children ran in and out of the room. We hadn’t been seated for three minutes before a round aluminum deep-dish plate of chicken in a dark, runny sauce appeared on our table along with half a dozen corn tortillas, freshly cooked.
Having grown up on a farm, I boast of a cast-iron stomach, foolishly, as those earthy microbes from my long-ago youth have been replaced by fifty years of a city diet. Magellan’s a bit more squeamish when it comes to eating spring rolls from food carts in Bangkok and raw chicken at a restaurant in Barcelona.
“What’s horchata?” Magellan asked me.
“Remember, we had it in Valencia. It’s made from ground almonds and rice steeped in water. You liked it.”
“Local water,” he grinned. “Here goes,” he said, pouring himself a small glass.
About then, a handsome young man, tall and solid and wearing a shirt of the same royal blue fabric, entered the room. “You like?” he asked as we rolled up the chicken in the tortillas, trying not to drip sauce all over the table.
“Yes,” I said. “What is this dish called?” It was relleno negro.
At the corner of the larger room, I could see a woman forming a small ball of dough into tortillas. “May I take a picture of the cooks?” I asked, pointing to my camera on the table.” He waved me into the next room, where two women were forming tortillas and frying them in a large vat of oil and a third was tending to a huge cauldron of relleno negro. Feeling like I was imposing, I took a few quick photos and told the three women how delicious their food was.
“Is this a restaurant or just your home?” I asked the blue-shirted man. He said “yes.”
A little boy jumped up into his lap. “My son,” he said. “His birthday today. Five.”
So that explained why everyone was so impeccably dressed!
Then in came four men, three Maya and a lanky gringo about our age who had the weathered look of a rancher and handed one of the women a brown paper package with flowers peaking through, indicating it was a present for the birthday boy.
Now we were really beginning to feel like we’d interrupted a party.
“That was excellent. How much do we owe you?” Magellan asked the proud father.
“Nothing. Nothing,” he said waving his hands accordingly.
“We can’t do that,” said Magellan. “Here,” he said handing him 200 pesos (about $12), “your son’s birthday present from us.”
On we went to the Ek’ Balam ruins, where the brilliance of the Maya shines in the sheer size and intricate design of this ancient royal city—radiating in the generosity of its descendants.
At the end of the Tulum road near the Sian Ka’an Biosphere, the seven-bedroom Casa de las Olas (House of the Waves, make that pounding waves) attracts guests who don’t want a pool, bar service or high-pressure showers. People who wear Dead Star T-shirts. Brand bourbon. Draw you a map of how to get to Chamico’s. Design restaurant kitchens. Win Pulitzer prizes. Take stunning photos of Valladolid churches. Jimmy, the owner, his pal Bear, the onsite Canuck (watch him do “rakey yoga”) who winters here because it’s “magical” and LuLu, whose breakfasts have guests lingering for up to two hours, make lasting impressions that result in a guest-returning rate of 70%.
Thanks to Lee Christie from Genesis Eco-Oasis in Ek’ Balam Pueblo for answering my questions.
Loco Gringo is a great source for visiting Ek’ Balam.