Friday 17 July 2015

Restaurant Reviews - Mexico Part 1

In May my boyfriend and I travelled to Mexico and took part in Kuoni's Mayan Explorer tour, which took in several Mayan sites in Mexico plus Guatemala and Belize. Aside from the air conditioning in the mini bus not working properly and some shoddy hotels we had a wonderful time. We saw - and climbed - some amazing temples, photographed iguanas, made friends with a parrot and tried some great cocktails. The food on other hand was not as good as I had been expecting - perhaps partly because we weren't exactly in top-end hotels and restaurants -but with a few very good exceptions it was quite disappointing.

Dreams Tulum Resort & Spa

We stayed here on our first night and it would have been amazing, but I had a splitting headache and we'd just come off a ten-hour flight, so I went for a lie down after we arrived, and slept right through until morning! That meant we didn't have dinner, only breakfast the next morning - so I was quite hungry and made up for not eating the night before!

The breakfast buffet was in the World Café, one of their nine (nine!) restaurants. It's an all-inclusive resort and I know that buffet dinners are quite common where there are chefs at different cooking stations as well as pre-prepared food, but I didn't expect that at breakfast.

I also didn't expect to see an elaborately carved fruit sculpture... or four brands of vodka to mix your own bloody Mary.

I always want try everything at a buffet and would rather have small portions of more dishes than regular sized portions of one or two. And since we hadn't eaten dinner- and the previous meal had been on a plane -  I decided to make the most of it. For my first course I had a sort of ham and cheese toastie in French toast, which was delicious (why have I never thought to do that?) and a chicken enchilada. Is that breakfast food in Mexico? Who cares!

For my second course I tried a pulled pork open taco and a folded-over cheese quesadilla. These are actually quite small I promise!

Third course I moved to something sweet: waffle and pancake with chocolate and toffee sauce. I only had a couple of bites of this and let my boyfriend finish the rest!

Fourth course: I wanted something savoury after all that sugar so had some bread (two slices as they were different types of bread but I only ate half of each slice) with ham and cheese, continental style.

Fifth course: really full by now but I had to have some fruit. I needed something refreshing and healthy; I also suspected the fruit would taste different out here and I was right!

The hotel itself - what I saw of it - was amazing. We were upgraded to a swim-out room, which meant a ground floor room with a patio and hammock that led right into a small pool. It was a narrow pool in a square shape running around the sides of the building as you can see below with a grass area in the middle. These rooms were for adults only and meant you could have a more secluded swim than going in to the main pool.

We woke up at about 4am due to the time difference so watched sunrise from the beach, where the hotel has four-poster beds to lounge on!

The pool bar has swings as well as chairs to sit on which was cute - maybe not a great idea after a few drinks though!

A view of the main pool - this was taken around sunrise

One of the many iguanas that we saw on our trip - this was the first one we met, just off the path by the hotel reception and I was so excited - not realising they are quite common in Mexico!

Dreams Tulum seemed to be a wonderful hotel with good food, courteous staff and the swim-out room was amazing - I was quite sad I didn't get the chance to swim. I hoped that this would be the standard of all our hotels on this trip but I was unfortunately wrong!

We set off on our Kuoni tour with a local guide from a company called Hola Tours complete with a minibus whose air conditioning was barely functioning and dripped dirty water on us... our first stop on the tour was the Mayan walled city of Tulum.

Not as spectacular as some of the other places we visited on our Mayan explorer tour with Kuoni but well worth a visit especially if you are only doing day trips from Tulum or Cancun. There are toilets and shops selling souvenirs, suncream, hats etc as you enter the site; there are different parts of the ruins to look around though it didn't take that long - maybe an hour or so. Tulum is perched on the top of a cliff so has some lovely views - and look out for the very photogenic iguanas sitting on the ruins!
We also saw several very photogenic iguanas!

After Tulum we stopped for lunch while the driver shoved some cloths inside the air conditioning unit, which at least stopped it dripping water even though it didn't help the heat.
Restaurant-Bar El Faisan y El Venado
This restaurant is cheap and cheerful and popular with locals, and offers a wide selection of Mexican and American dishes. Our group sat on plastic chairs around a table and puzzled over the English translations on the menu; I was very amused by 'divorced eggs' and wondered what on earth they were; when I came home I looked them up on Wikipedia and discovered that is a literal translation of the name!

As I'd had a lot of Mexican food for breakfast, and my stomach felt a bit dodgy after the stifling heat in our minibus, I decided to stick with something safe and ordered a burger, as did my boyfriend (no surprise there!). The waiter misunderstood which item from the menu we had ordered and brought us the burger with ham - not a hamburger, but a beefburger with a slice of ham, which looked like a slice of the wafer thin ham you get in Tesco. Very odd! It also came with chips and tasted pretty good in a fast-food way; the meal with a soft drink only came to about 60 pesos (less than £2.50) so we weren't complaining!

After lunch it was back into the sweltering minibus and off to the Museum of Mayan Culture in Chetumal. It was interesting to find out everything in the museum is a replica rather than real - I was disappointed at first but realised that it meant that the original artefacts were hopefully all in situ and hadn't been taken from the archaeological sites and placed in a museum. Either that or they are all in museums in other countries. There was a really interesting exhibit on the Mayan calendar and counting system but we only spent about an hour in the museum before going to our hotel across the road.

Capital Plaza Hotel, Chetumal

The website for this hotel makes it look a lot nicer than it actually was, but judging by the outside it was one of the better ones in Chetumal. It had a very small pool but I did get to go for a nice swim. The room was fine though the shower wasn't very good and the hair dryer didn't work.

There was no choice of food at breakfast but that may have been because we were there in low season (even though it was only the beginning of May). We were brought a plate of fruit and offered tea or coffee, though I had to ask twice to get milk. Then we were asked if we wanted scrambled or fried eggs; I don't like either so instead was told I could have pancakes instead and was brought a plate of bone dry syrup pancakes (which looked and tasted like they were out of a packet) with a few slices of apple on top.

Sergios, Chetumal

We had dinner here with our group and I was looking forward to some Mexican food, but our guide had chosen an Italian restaurant, and because the meal was included the price of our tour, it was a set menu. The starter was meant to be mushroom soup but as a few people were allergic to mushrooms we all got broccoli soup instead, which was nice but not the sort of thing I really wanted in this hot temperature! The main course was a chicken escalope covered with spinach and melted cheese  inwith a small pile of mashed potato. It was quite nice though the mash was lumpy and my boyfriend doesn't eat spinach so he wasn't thrilled, but I actually really enjoyed my meal. For dessert we had a huge slab of chocolate cake which was very dense and dry.

The restaurant seemed popular and was busy but I found it quite strange that there was a TV on the wall opposite me playing a movie, as that's not something you see in restaurants in the UK!

On the tour we travelled to Belize and Guatemala next which I will cover in separate blog posts. As we returned to Mexico we travelled by boat to Yaxchilan, an ancient Mayan city on the banks of a river.

Going down from the road near the restaurant where we had eaten lunch wasn’t easy - we had to scramble down a steep slope and one of our group slipped and scraped her leg. We then had to walk across a wooden bridge that was swinging from side to side, at least it’s wide so you have no worries about falling off!

As we approached we could see the ruins looming out of the jungle and the roar of howler monkeys which sounded like something out of Jurassic park! Unfortunately we didn’t see any monkeys while we were there, though there were loads of butterflies and some bats inside the ruins.

To go up the hill from the river to the site there is a proper set of wooden steps with a handrail, but next to it a crumbing set of stone steps overgrown with greenery that looked really dodgy. Our guide said that was the old way of accessing the site and the steps were new, which I didn’t think anything of until he said when he came last month the new steps weren’t there and the only way up was the crumbling set! So if you read other reviews saying it is hard to access then don’t worry, it’s much better now.
old steps
new steps

The ruins are interesting, with some parts  you can climb up and walk around, though it’s not a big site but is interesting and quite different to the other Mayan sites we visited. There’s a little shop selling drinks and a toilet at the entrance so even though it’s in the middle of nowhere there are amenities!
After visiting the site we travelled to our hotel:
Hotel Mision Palenque

Part of a chain, the hotel offered fairly basic accommodation, with a pretty bare and simple room with a swinging saloon-style door to the bathroom. We had a ground floor room next to a walkway and were annoyed to discover that the window blinds didn’t quite shut properly no matter what we tried, so anyone walking past could see in! Our fellow travellers on our Kuoni group tour had rooms in the same row and said the same thing.
There was no mention of wifi either free or otherwise in reception or in any of the paperwork in the room so I asked the front desk and was given a password for free wifi though It did keep dropping out and making me log in again.

The hotel restaurant has a buffet costing 150 pesos (£6) that they repeatedly tried to direct us to, but we figured the food had been sitting there a while (it’s an open air restaurant) so we went for the a la carte. It was a pretty extensive menu over several pages but all in Spanish so we got on the free wifi with our phones and pulled up Google Translate! When the waiter eventually came he asked in English if we needed any help but we had already chosen by then.
I had beef medallions with three different sauces that came with some lumpy mashed potato and my boyfriend ordered the rib eye steak which came with two pieces of broccoli and one tiny jacket potato the size of a baby new potato. The steak was so fatty though that he couldn’t eat literally half of it. which we were amazed by - unfortunately that turned out to be typical of the restaurants we ate at. With just the one course and soft drinks each the meal came to about £16 in total.
Breakfast was a buffet with various hot and cold items; I had pancakes with maple syrup.

The next day we visited the Palenque ruins which were very impressive. It's very well preserved and you can climb up many of the temples for a closer look at some of the carvings. It's a whole city, smaller than Tikal or Chichen Itza which we also visited but with many different buildings that are in good condition including the palace in the centre.

La Higuera restaurant near Palenque
Primarily a steak restaurant; we had high hopes as the service was good and the waiter came out with a board of the different cuts of steaks to show us for us to choose from. We both had the chorizo steak which randomly came with a cheese quesadilla, though as I hadn’t realised that I ordered a baked potato with sour cream (which was quite small but lovely) and my boyfriend ordered the grilled cheese side. We weren’t sure what to expect – it turned out to be a piece of cheese like halloumi, lightly grilled, but it was absolutely massive – it filled an entire dinner plate!

Unfortunately the steak was quite fatty and had an odd texture more like gammon- one of our group said the steak had been brined, I don’t know if that’s right but it did taste a bit salty too. My boyfriend ate a lot of steaks while we were in Mexico around the Yucatan peninsula and they were without exception dreadful – often more fat than meat. This one was better relatively, but still far worse than anything we would have at home.

The rest of my Mexican adventure will follow in part 2 with more reviews!

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