Spring Break in the Riviera Maya means a whole lot of excitement for the residents of Tulum and the Tulum coast, where Playa Azul sits nestled on the beach facing the sunny Caribbean Sea.

Spring Break means all the rental jeeps in the area will be filled with cavorting, excited young adults happy to free from late, cold nights of studying and cramming for high school and university exams.

Youth and liberty will be the heart beating wildly as frisbees and soccer balls whiz around some of the beaches in the Riviera Maya.

Night time brings a lot of good, lively music in the local establishments and dancing for those sensing the beat of the drumming waves caressing the shoreline.

I remember my own early days as a traveler with my friends on spring break to Tulum. When in my past life we were travelers of the backpack variety, we would bump and jostle our way among chickens on laps and overcrowded milk-run buses from the airport in Cancun to Tulum, on what would seem like a very long, but scenic trip.

Beers would be cold by ice, not refridgeration, but would go down almost as nicely as the perfect 5 degrees below zero it is now served at.

Taxis were almost non-existent back then, so the now 2 minute ride to the beach in air conditioned luxury would seem like an eternity while waiting for someone in a vehicle that looked like it would survive the journey could be flagged down.

The beauty of the final destination back then were the beautiful white beaches and tropical cabanas that could be found at the end of the arduous journey, making it all so worthwhile.

And that, my friends, is one of the beautiful things that hasn’t changed. Playa Azul is nestled in with all the charm and beauty of the days of my youth that I remember of Tulum, with the creatures comforts I have come to expect in my ‘ahem’ – mature years.

Ahhh, let the festivities of youth and freedom begin!

Since romance was in the air after the wonderful wedding I went to at Playa Azul, I decided that a short vacation for my husband and I was in good order.

It won’t be a full moon February 14th this year, but well, romantic walks along the beach are lovely no matter how light or dark, I always say.

The weather that week will be fantastic, too, February and March are the best times to visit the Riviera Maya because the days are lovely and hot but the nights are still snuggly cool.

I know the restaurant at Playa Azul will have a romantic menu planned for Valentine’s Day and sometimes they get a band in, so romantic couples can enjoy slow and fast dancing while spending time in the restaurant overlooking the swaying palm trees, the peaceful beach and the rocking waves.

I know in the Tulum city center there are always exciting and cultural activities; since the town became its own municipality, the excitement of independence is in the air, and the residents and local Mayans always enjoy the excuse for a good celebration!

I remember one time in a little Tulum shop I found a pinata store, and in between the Sponge Bobs and Cinderellas I discovered a little Santa Claus pinata, a little faded from the sun, but still dressed in red and white left over from December, and I bought it for my hubby. The red was perfect for Valentine’s Day, and we had fun knocking it around, until all the goodies I had planted in him finally broke through. We had a lot of fun eating the chocolates on the beach under the stars.

I think taking a romantic holiday at Playa Azul is the perfect way for two people spending years of love together to celebrate. We will have our own little palapa house on the beach, and we can look out of our room at the ocean while listening to the waves and birds singing.

There is no better way to escape the cold than to dig your feet in the sand and stretch out on your beach towel on Valentine’s Day.

We await our trip with excited anticipation.

After celebrating the wedding at Playa Azul, and enjoying the wedding cake so much, I asked Morgan the wedding coordinator, for the ‘Tres Leches’ Cake recipe.

Morgan gave me the following recipe, with the additions that her chef makes for the extra creamy taste. It takes some time to make, but I highly recommend it worth the time, and it is perfect to make if there are any budding chefs in your household!

There are three elements to the final cake – 1) the cake 2) the ‘Tres Leches’ filling and 3) the icing.

Here are the ingredients and quantities you will need for the cake, the filling and the icing:

all-purpose flour ~ 2 cups (240g)

baking powder ~ 2 teaspoons

eggs ~ 11

caster sugar ~ 2 cups (400g)

whole milk ~ 1/3 cup (80ml)

condensed milk ~ 1 – 12oz (354ml)

evaporated milk ~ 1 – 12oz (354ml)

double cream ~ 1cup (225ml)

pure vanilla ~ 1 teaspoon

water ~ 1⁄4 cup (60ml)

golden syrup or honey ~ 3 tablespoons

 

For the Cake:

Preheat the oven to 400f (200c) degrees and grease an 8in (20cm) springform cake tin. Very Important! – Sieve together THREE times 2 cups (240g) flour and 2 teaspoons baking powder. Set this mixture aside.

Use an electric mixer, beat the whites of 8 eggs until they form stiff peaks. Gradually add 1 cup (200g) sugar while still beating. Then follow with the 8 egg yolks one at a time and beating well between additions. When the last yolk has been mixed well, use a hand whisk and fold the flour & baking powder mixture in, in three goes. Add 1/3 cup (80ml) of whole milk using a folding motion to keep the cake light and airy. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake in the oven for 30 to 35 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.

For the ‘Tres Leches’ Mix:

Put all the ingredients ~ 1 – 12oz (354ml) can of condensed milk, 1 – 12oz (354ml) can of evaporated milk, 1cup (225ml) of double cream, 1 teaspoon of pure vanilla extract in the blender or food processor and blend them together. Pour them into a jug and set aside.

When the cake is cooked, make lots of toothpick holes to allow the ‘Tres Leches’ filling to soak the cake. Once the cake has been pricked, take it out of the tin and place it in a cake plate or tray with a lip to keep the extra filling in.

While the cake is hot pour the ‘Tres Leches’ mixture slowly through the whole of the cake, making sure you’re gentle and that all the little holes you made earlier get saturated with this milky mixture. It is very important that the pouring of the milk is done while the cake is still hot as otherwise the cake will just go soggy. There’s a lot of milk mixture, so don’t worry about it, just pour it gently and try to cover the cake all over and down the edges. Store the cake in the fridge to cool.

Now make the icing:

Beat 3 egg whites until they form soft peaks. Put aside.

In a small deep heat 1 cup (200g) of caster sugar, 1⁄4 cup (60ml) of water and 3 tablespoons of golden syrup (or honey) until they start to boil. When this happens, turn the electric mixer on high with the egg whites, remove the heated golden mixture from the heat and slowly start pouring it into the electric mixer. Do it very gently and keep the mixer working on high speed until all the liquid has been incorporated to the whites. Now it is ready.

Ice the cooled cake and top it with anything you would like – chopped pecans, fresh strawberries or any chopped fruit.

For the cake at the wedding I attended Morgan had the chef add another Mexican sweet treat called ‘cajeta’ made from goat’s milk on top.

It was de-lish-shuss!

I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a long weekend wedding at Playa Azul Tulum. There were 45 guests making the trip from Colorado, and our group had the whole complex of cabanas, restaurant and beach facilities of Playa Azul to ourselves for 4 glorious days of tours, beach rest, catching up and celebrating marriage.

I was the first one of the group to arrive in my rental car and I met Morgan, the wedding coordinator for Playa Azul. Morgan gave me some background information on Playa Azul weddings.

Morgan told me that Playa Azul can accommodate all sizes of wedding parties – she has some smaller, more intimate wedding parties, but it’s nice when a wedding party has enough people to have the whole place to themselves.

“Playa Azul becomes like a luxurious Robinson Crusoe ‘village’,” Morgan told me. “The guests can gather at the restaurant, at the beach bar or on the beach, or they can retreat to their own secluded palapas.”

In the restaurant the band was setting up for the ‘Fiesta de Bienvenida’ – the Welcome Party, and from the kitchen I could hear the tinkling of ice and clatter of appetizer platters being prepared. I love that sound!

Jessica, or ‘YeYe’ was coordinating the waiters and the bartenders for the group which was arriving soon.

I was so happy to see the mother-of-the-bride, my friend Susanne, and after I met the bride and the rest of the guests, I knew I would thoroughly enjoy this group for the weekend.

Playa Azul’s concierge, Toño arrived. He was ready to ensure that everyone received their room keys quickly, and that they were all fully orientated to the paradise that had arrived at.

With all the planning complete, the bride and groom seemed to be totally relaxed as it was time to trust Morgan and YeYe to look after their guests and wedding plans.

The Welcome Party was a success and most of the guests retired early, to get rest for the party weekend ahead.

Friday morning we were greeted with a delicious breakfast spread.

Susanne and I decided to loll about on the beach all day, but the younger folks decided on a day of eco-touring; jungle ziplines, and cenote swimming that Tono arranged with a local tour company.

On Friday night the wedding party had a rehearsal dinner while other guests did their own things – some went into Tulum to try out some local restaurants and clubs.

Saturday and the bridal party enjoyed a spa morning in a local esthetic salon, and were treated to a morning of manicures, mayan massages, pedicures and hair styling.

At sunset the wedding ceremony began on the beach, with a gorgeous arch of flowers, candles and flower petals backdropped with a beautiful sunset sky, and turquoise sea.

The pastor had a beautiful sermon about love and marriage and the tone was very solemn and the tears began to flow!

A local Mayan shaman performed some of the copal incense traditions from Mayan weddings and the smell was wonderful mixed with the flower fragrance.

The bride and groom were joined in holy matrimony and Susanne joined the wedding party for photos on the beach. A videographer was filming everything.

The beach bar was open and the pre-party began! Waiters served Mexican hors d’euvres of guacamole, seafood ceviche and antipastos and drinks of sangria, red and white wine.

After a short time the wedding party joined us and we strolled to the upper terrace to enjoy the wedding dinner overlooking the beach….

What can I say about the food – It was a fabulous meal with a Mexican flare that Hannah had selected.

We started with a tortilla soup, and wound our way through surf-and-turf – tender filet mignon steak and locally caught lobster bathed in a lightly spiced sauce.

Strawberries decorated a beautiful tiered ‘Tres Leches’ – Three Milks – wedding cake made by a local cake maker.

The toasts and roasts were carried out with shots of tequila, and soon we were in need of dancing, so we returned to the beach where a DJ had a dance area with a colorful lights show and large speakers set up.

We danced until 2 am. I didn’t know I still had it in me.

Sunday we arose to another gorgeous spread of brunch items.

Shortly after, the vans arrived to bring guests and the newlyweds to the airport. I bid a tearful goodbye to Susanne and my new friends…

What a perfectly unique way to have a wedding!

If anyone would like more information about a Tulum wedding, please contact Morgan through the home page on the Playa Azul website.

One day while I was lounging on the beach, my friend Blake arrived with a large bottle of a drink he was given by one of his Mayan friends. He told me it was ‘pulque’, and that some Mayan entrepreneurs were working on reviving this ancient alcoholic recipe to sell near Tulum.

We poured some in glasses and tasted it, and it had a very – interesting – taste. It was somewhat chocolatey, with a hint of tequila. I could taste the alcohol, and it added a nice touch.

We were curious about the history of the drink, so we went to the restaurant at Playa Azul and checked it out online.

It seems that in Pre-Columbian times in Mexico pulque was a ritual drink made for nobility and leaders of spiritualty, to be consumed frugally and only on certain occasions. (A little like Champagne, I thought to myself) After the Conquest, however, the governing body allowed its production to be commercially available and thereby used it as an important source of taxation revenue, ironically enough.

Also unluckily now too, due to the fact Pulque has a very short shelf life and degrades very quickly with the movement of transport, it is only made now in very rural areas and has been cast as a drink for the ‘poorer’ classes.

The ingredients of pulque explain the slight tequila taste I noticed. The sap from one of six different types of maguey, or agave plants, is fermented. Pulque is different from tequila, where only blue agave is used.

Normally, as the agave plant matures, the center starts to swell as the plant gathers sugar to produce a tall flower stalk which sometimes reaches the height of 20 incredible feet. In the production of pulque this flower stalk is cut off, leaving a depression in the plant where maguey sap, or ‘aguamiel’ – honey water accumulates. It can take a plant 12 years to mature enough to make the sap for pulque, but then the same plant can be ‘milked’ for up to one year.

I was amazed that one plant could possibly produce over 150 gallons of ‘aguamiel’ in its lifetime!

When the aguamiel is ready to be fermented, mature seeds of the pulque plant are added to start the process. Unlike beer which uses yeast to start the fermentation process pulque uses a special bacteria which in some respects is higher in quality than yeast. Fermentation takes place between 7 days to two weeks, and continues until the consumer drinks it, which makes it a drink that cannot be shelved for long, although apparently there is now “Pulque” sold in cans in some areas of Mexico.

I wonder if it will come to Tulum with the industrious friends of Blake…

I have seen a frothy white drink being served in large margarita glasses in almost every restaurant I go to in Tulum.

This morning, before breakfast in Playa Azul Tulum I asked our waitress what the drink was.

Anna said it was a non-alcoholic drink made from rice and native to Mexico called ‘Horchata’. She said it is a healthy alternative to pop that is both filling and easy to make. The kids love it.

Anna told us that even though there are pre-mixed concentrates of horchata available in the ‘supermercados’ -supermarkets – the ‘madres’ of Mexico usually make it from scratch.

I ordered my first horchata and was very pleased with its taste. It is a good hearty drink and can be served either really sweet for those cursed with a sweet tooth like me, or toned down.

When I went online I checked out the recipe and it is quite simple to make. Mexican ‘madres’ – usually have an abundance of rice in their pantries, so this became a great drink for the kids of the family.

I was surprised that the recipe called for uncooked rice, but that is what makes it not taste exactly like rice pudding..

RECIPE FOR HORCHATA

1 cup of uncooked long grain white rice

4 cups of warm water

1/2 cup of whole milk

1/4 cup sugar or to taste (or with a sugar substitute if one is so inclined)

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Whole cinnamon sticks (optional) for serving

 

Combine 1 cup of rice and 4 cups of warm water in a blender. Blend for a few minutes until the rice breaks up but watch out that it doesn’t become too liquidy. Let this mixture settle in the refrigerator overnight.

Gently strain the rice mixture through a fine mesh sieve or cheesecloth to separate the rice pieces from the rice liquid.

Pour the rice liquid into a blender and add 1/2 cup milk, vanilla and almond extracts, cinnamon, and sugar or sugar substitute. Blend the horchata for 1 minute until smooth. If you want to serve it like the Tulum restaurants do, pour it over ice in a large margarita glass and use cinnamon sticks to stir.

I found this recipe so simple and I concocted my own variation when I had a lot of leftover rice with one meal back at home. My daughter doesn’t like the consistency of rice pudding, so I used this recipe and used my leftover rice – I used more water as the cooked rice made the drink thicker without it.

I just love discovering new things in Tulum!

I always love discovering books written by local people. I just finished pouring through my ‘Plants In The Mayan Culture’ book by Russian-born photographer and cooking connoisseur Svetlana Aleksandroff, when I discovered another local book written by a Canadian-born writer living in Tulum near the Playa Azul Tulum.

Casey Grace and her daughter Landis have visited historical Mayan destinations and villages all over the Yucatan Peninsula since Landis was a little girl. She is now13 years old.

From the modern glittery Riviera Maya to small ancient Mayan pueblos like Ek Balam and Noh Bec untouched by time, Casey and Landis have been fascinated and educated to the legends and ceremonies by Mayan friends.

Casey decided to share their explorations of the rich Mayan jungles in the first of what she hopes will become a Nancy Drew-style series of mystery adventure books with an added educational twist.

In her first book, “The Secret At Chichen Itza”, Landis and Maya foil the plans of greedy ‘ejidatarios’ who plan to destroy the Royal Jaguar Sanctuary looking for the priceless Princess Itza Emerald hidden millenniums ago by besieged Mayans.

With flashbacks to the 1100′s, I was intrigued and educated from the chronicles of the infamous ‘Friar Diego de Landa’, who, in, 1562, conducted an ‘auto de fé’, or religious cleansing in the Yucatan where, in addition to 5000 idols, he burned 27 books or ‘codexes’ in Mayan writing.

Casey bases her historical fiction around an undestroyed ‘codex’ that their Mayan friends recently unearthed in a cave deep in the jungle. Does the codex hold the secret to the discovery of the legendary ‘Princess Itza Emerald’? – it is up to Landis and Maya to find out!

Here is the adventure description on the book jacket as written by Casey Grace -

‘Temperatures start rising as the small plane Casey Grace is landing in Ek Balam narrowly misses a huge iguana that suddenly appears on the runway. Things continue to heat up when Landis and Maya have to discover the whereabouts of the Princess Itza Emerald before greedy developers exercise their ejido rights and destroy the Royal Jaguar Sanctuary looking for it themselves. 

The equinox is coming and one of the legendary serpents will make her annual journey down from high atop Chichen Itza’s Grand Pyramid to look for Princess Itza’s Emerald and the village of Ek Balam will feel the wrath of her curse continue if she doesn’t find it…

Landis and Maya are entrusted with a copy of a secret ancient legend codex recently unearthed in a cave in the jungle. They have to unlock its code to help them solve ‘The Secret at Chichen Itza’. Or can they solve it in time?

Join Landis and her friend Maya, on their quest for the priceless treasure.’

I am halfway through the book and I am learning many facts about Mayan culture I have not read nor heard of before, so I can recommend this book for adults, too!

‘The Secret at Chichen Itza’ is available at Landis Grace’s website at LandisAdventureBooks.com as a download or softcover book at Amazon.

I just love the Riviera Maya!

 

After spending 5 glorious days soaking up the sun, we thought it was time to explore some Mexican culture in the surrounding area. We rented a car and it came with a map in the glove compartment.  ‘Hey’ I thought, ‘No matter how many left turns we make today, we shouldn’t get lost.’

Five minutes from our Playa Azul Cabana we joined the main highway and turned left and set off towards Felipe Carrillo Puerto, a bustling little town further inland and the gateway to the little towns in the heart of Mexico.

Seeing as we were on a mission to learn about the local culture, we turned on the radio and found some energetic Mexican music.

After making a right turn to the west from Felipe Carillo we eventually approached one little town after another, and at the entrance of each one, we were warned to slow down by the ‘topes’ – speed bump signs. Some of these innocent-looking bumps actually have the capability of dismantling your rental car’s transmission from its lodging if you hit them too hard and fast.

The main highways intentionally lead the traffic into the heart of each little Mayan town so you won’t miss anything. Once there, you will find many long lights or stop signs giving the tourists opportunities to park and enter the little shops in the ‘zocolo’ – town square.  The zocolo is filled with people of all ages.  The elderly are usually found sitting on one of the many park benches discussing various important topics – on this weekend the topic was the up-coming Federal election.  As I overheard some of these debates, I began to understand and appreciate the Mayans more and more.  The discussions were carried on with utmost respect for one another.  No one tried to speak louder than the other or cut them off.  They allowed one another the time to finish their thoughts without interruption.

The ladies, young and old, wear white ankle-length dresses that are decorated with flowery lace embroidery.  The men wear the customary white long sleeve pullover with white full-length pants, topped with wide-brimmed white cowboy hats to shade the sun.

The ‘trabajadores’ – laborers – work outside all day.  The ladies wash clothes by hand and hang them on clothes lines strung from the many decorative trees.  They cook outside as their homes are hotter than the oven itself.  There are open fires in every yard.  The smell of smoke and ‘asado’ grilled chicken hangs in the air as we stroll through the less-travelled dirt roads.  Kids are playing soccer and don’t quit until their parents call them to eat.  The men, sitting on tree stumps, eagerly wait with plates in hand.

Every yard has chickens and turkeys of all sizes.  Some newly-hatched are caged for their own protection.

Even with the heat of the day, the Mariachi bands regale the streets in elegant suits covered in tasseled buttons and fringes. The music is joyous and loud.

Our camera is full of photos and our stomachs with ‘lemonada’ – lemonade – as we return to our Playa Azul Cabana, we both feel fulfilled with the day’s activities.

Reflecting back I am full of admiration for the Mayan people and the laid-back life they lead.

Playa Azul Tulum

Some of the wonderful traditions celebrated here in Mexico can take you a little by surprise and others can sneak up on you.

Sometimes a growing cacophony of honking, blaring music and singing will cause pedestrians to pause to wait for the parade procession to appear around a corner while taxis make mad dashes to escape the hubbub before partygoers on slow moving floats shorten their workdays.

And then some traditions are a little more subtle, missing the fanfare yet just as moving and important.

My May trip to Tulum coincided with one of the more subtle traditions, marked by huge crosses I saw on many construction sights in a new section of Tulum.

At first I thought that a famous person had died that morning; a dignitary or Mexican rock star, but the crosses were so colorfully decorated with crepe paper and bows that I thought the decorations looked too happy and whimsical to show respect for the death of someone important. Plus, the workmen on the job sites were happy and smiling.

I took some photos of the crosses that seemed so small on top of the buildings, but I caught one being set up and by the heights of the construction crew hammering and wiring it into place knew the cross was at least six feet high.

The crosses were quite beautiful, and some had long trails of tissue paper wafting around in the wind. I could hear some of the tin foil used for effect and pie plates tinkling together on some.

When I arrived back at Playa Azul Tulum, I asked my new friend  Ricardo at the front desk the story behind the crosses, and he explained to me that once a year the Mexican ‘trabajadoras’ the laborers, place a cross above their worksites, for God to see and pour blessings and safety over the people working there for the following year.

I thought to myself, ‘What a wonderful custom’, and it certainly looked pretty above the townscapes to see all the beautiful crosses with their colors and tails of colors waving in the wind.

I just love Tulum, with all its wonderful smiling people and their delightful idyllic customs.

Playa Azul Beach

I had heard a little about the Mexican celebration called ‘Cinco de Mayo’, and since I was very curious to learn more about this land I was visiting, I grabbed my smart phone and went online in the restaurant at Playa Azul Tulum.

I read that ‘Cinco de Mayo’ translates to ‘fifth of May’, and the day is greeted with fireworks and a day off from work and school to reflect on its meaning. It marks the day of the ‘Battle of Puebla in 1862’.

The reason the celebration is so memorable for the Mexicans is it represents their victory in a David and Goliath-style battle against the highly-armed French fleet in 1862.
I discovered that when the ill-prepared Mexican band of 4,500 inexperienced soldiers fought off the brutal attack from 6,500 highly trained french soldiers from sunup to sunset on May 5th, 1862, the sheer bravery, faith and ferocity of the patriotic Mexicans forced the French to return to Europe to reorganize and increase their army to 30,000 for their renewed attack on Mexico the following year.

Even though the French eventually won against the Mexicans and governed the country for 6 years under the rule of  Archduke Maximilian of Austria, Napolean’s nephew, the Mexicans celebrate their victory at ‘Battle of Puebla in 1862’ as a symbol of the country’s ability to defend its independence with faith and bravery.

Later, as I lay in my hammock soaking in the tranquility of the Caribbean, I closed my eyes and imagined what it might have been like to be a young teenager back in 1862, enjoying my adolescence in this idyllic and beautiful country then being called into joining an army for a seemingly losing battle to defend it the next.

The bravery and patriotism of these young men protecting their right to govern their own land against a marauding foreign land set to exploit them is a fine example of what makes a country a home, and the kind of patriotism that the Mexican people stand for.

I am so glad that I am free to come and go in this beautiful land, to appreciate it and love it, as those brave souls did so many years ago; a love and faith so much stronger than their reality that they could not win against the Goliath that came to take it from them.
I love Tulum, and I love this land that welcomes me with the smiling families and dignified souls that have grown from a love of a land and of itself; in the tradition that a proud and dignified nation comes from.