Last week, the Hubs and I were on vacation in Riviera Maya, Mexico. I can’t even describe how beautiful it is there.

Miles of white sand. Turquoise waters. Not just at the resort, but everywhere you looked. It was too much. I’m spoiled for beaches from now on.

The Hubs and I have different travel styles. I like to go places and see things and “get some culture.” He likes to lay on the beach and nap. All. Day. Long. We have to make compromises. Admittedly, when I plan the trip, I’m exhausted when it’s over. His style is definitely more relaxing. At the end of one of his kinda trips, I’m five pounds heavier.

I’ve wanted to visit Riviera Maya for a while. I love Mexico, having been to Cozumel a couple times years ago. But that’s like saying you love the U.S. if you’ve only ever been to Daytona Beach. I love the food, the music, the art, the people in Mexico, and I just had to get more of it. Plus, I think the ancient Mayan  civilization is fascinating. Riviera Maya is right in the middle of the historic land.

We opted for an all-inclusive resort about 10 miles south of Cancun in Puerto Morelos. It’s a quiet little beach town, and there’s really nothing around this resort–kinda a drawback if you want to leave the resort and get some local culture. Here’s the thing I hate about staying at an all-inclusive resort: It’s harder to get an “authentic” experience with the local culture. You can be very insulated from anything outside of the fence around the resort if you’d like. It makes me sad that there were French, Italian, Mediterranean, and Japanese restaurants at our resort. I’m in Mexico, damnit. I want to eat real Mexican food. (There actually was a very good authentic Mexican restaurant at the resort, too.)

But all-inclusives do have their pluses. Particularly if you have a language barrier. You wouldn’t want to stay downtown in a locals area to get the local culture if you couldn’t even communicate with the locals. Having had two years of Spanish in college, I felt pretty good about my ability to communicate with everyone in Riviera Maya in their native tongue, but about 15 minutes after we went through customs at airport, I realized I was WAY overconfident in my Spanish. (I was surprised how  much came back to me after a couple days hearing it so much though, and it helps, too, if you’re totally sober when trying to understand… One thing that was not helped by being at an all-inclusive.)

At any rate, sure, at an all-inclusive resort, if you only want to eat french fries and Buffalo wings and drink Bud Light, you can. But it’s not hard to get some local culture, nonetheless. You just have to look for it a little harder. We found enough to satisfy me on this trip.

I mentioned the restaurants, and food at this resort was actually better than I expected. The cool thing at this resort was that every day, a big grill was wheeled out by the pool, and the staff had a poolside BBQ. There was steak and chicken thighs, tortilla chips and fresh guacamole and pico de gallo. There was fresh fruit and fresh salads with fresh veggies.

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We quickly discovered the chicken was way better than the steak. And that green sauce. Oh, lawdy, that green sauce. Salsa verde, actually. It. Was. Amazing. And it was everywhere. Breakfast and lunch. I put it on everything. The chicken was marinated in beer, lime juice and cilantro. The Hubs and I have vowed to try to recreate the chicken and salsa verde. Don’t worry, I’ll blog the recipe.  I’m just waiting for tomatillos to come in season.

Even though there were a number of restaurants, like I mentioned, French, Japanese, Mediterranean, Italian, in addition to authentic Mexican, we did try those other restaurants. And they were pretty good. The only one we didn’t really care for was the steakhouse-style restaurant. We actually ate at the French restaurant on Bastille Day.

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Creme Brulee on Bastille Day

Of course, the Mexican restaurant was hard to beat. Eating at the other places just felt weird. If you go to Mexico expecting to get the kind of food you get served in a typical Mexican restaurant in the States, I hope you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Much of the food served at typical Mexican restaurants here has been Americanized for our palates, in the same way that Chinese food in the United States has. A lot of the dishes are unique to the States, although it resembles classic Mexican cooking.

I had fried Oaxaca cheese for an appetizer. Oaxaca cheese is from the state of Oaxaca on the southwestern coast of Mexico. It’s a soft, mild cheese, very similar to mozzarella, but a little more firm. It lends itself well to breading and frying in much the same way that fried feta does.

Of course, it was served with the ubiquitous salsa verde, which was an awesome bright, acidic counterpoint to heavy fried cheese. Many cuisines have a “green sauce” with a base of herbs or greens, but only Mexican salsa verde feature tomatilos. They look just like small green tomatoes, and they are related, but it’s a totally different fruit. They have a more acidic and tart flavor than tomatoes, even than green tomatoes. The flavor is almost citrus-y.

For the main course, I had conchinita pibil, a slow-roasted pork dish. It is native to the Yucatan dating back to Mayan times. The two main components of the pork dish are that it is marinated in citrus juice, and seasoned with the seed of annatto fruit, which grow on trees throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. Annatto seeds taste like a cross between black pepper and dried mildly hot peppers like poblanos. (Or at least that’s what the sauce tasted like–peppery and spicy.)

The pork was served with some flour tortillas, and of course, salsa verde. It was simple and amazing. Salsa verde is so good with anything heavy and rich. Plus, because of the climate of Mexico, the growing season is virtually year-round, so there is always fresh produce. The cuisine is all about the freshest ingredients, and it’s delicious.

Of course, I had to sample the drinks that Mexico is known for. We had our fill of Modelo, Corona and Pacifico beers served with a fresh lime wedge. The margaritas weren’t bad, but I also tried a michelada. From what I read before going to Mexico, it’s always good to ask how they’re made, since there are so many variations. But it is basically beer with lime juice and chili powder. Only problem was, I couldn’t remember the verb for “make” in Spanish. “Que… uhhh… es en michelada?” That didn’t quite get it. So, I threw caution to the wind, and just ordered one. It wasn’t bad, but tasted like heartburn waiting to happen. It had a salt and chili powder rim, and in addition to lime juice, I definitely tasted worcestershire sauce.

a hand-shaved mango margarita, served poolside

The whole reason I wanted to visit Riviera Maya was to visit the Mayan ruins. Tulum was about an hour south and on the coast. I read in my research that Chitzen Itza was more spectacular, but it was inland and about a two and half hour ride. July is definitely not the time to visit Riviera Maya because it was so unbearably hot. So, I opted for Tulum because it was closer and I thought it might actually be cooler. It was still pretty hot. It is the jungle, afterall.

But it was stunning.

We spent about 45 minutes exploring the actual ruins. There is little recognizable left of the ruins, but you can tell it was a grand city. Some original paintings on the inside of the structures that are visible through the windows still exist. The height of Tulum was around 1200 A.D. The translation of “Tu Lum” in Mayan means the wall. It was a city within three walls, with the fourth side open to the steep cliff down to the sea. El Castillo is the centerpiece of the city, with it’s center directly over the opening to one of the underground rivers that crisscross the Yucatan. Tulum wasn’t so much a fortress as it was a commercial port. Good from Europe and South America entered the Mayan civilization by carefully navigating the natural narrow opening in the world’s second longest barrier reef into the underground river and up into Tulum.

We had swimsuits on, and after exploring the ruins (in the morning, no less) in the oppressive heat and humidity, we couldn’t resist going down to the beach–which is part of the national park, for a dip.

The beach was stunning, but was actually very tiny. It was crowded and we didn’t have a lot of time to relax, so we didn’t stay long.

At any rate, I hope to try a batch of salsa verde soon, and try those grilled chicken thighs marinated in lime, beer and cilantro. Don’t worry, I’ll share the recipes on here. I think I’ll skip the micheladas, though.