Pulpo and prayers in Santiago de Compostela

Santiago de Compostela, Spain – November 2013

The year I sat my written and clinical physician exams was a particularly taxing one, as anyone who has prepared for them will no doubt know. Thankfully I passed them, and as both respite and reward, I booked a trip to Spain and Portugal, beginning in Madrid and doing a sort of clockwise loop around the Iberian Peninsula, ending in Barcelona.

In the middle of this loop was the capital of Galicia in the northwestern corner of Spain, a town with the lengthy name of Santiago de Compostela (Santiago being the Galician evolution of the Latin Sanctus Iacobus, meaning Saint James).

This place isn’t always on visitors’ itineraries, but some may know it as the final destination on El Camino de Santiago (the Way of St James). The Camino, as it’s often referred to, is a Catholic pilgrimage route that has been popular with the faithful since the 9th century AD when the tomb of the apostle James was discovered. Rather than being one road, it is in fact a large network of pilgrim routes stretching across southwestern Europe. The route networks grew during the Middle Ages when people just departed from their homes and set off for Santiago from whatever town they inhabited.

(I took a photo of this map in a restaurant that illustrates the various routes.)

To this day, hundreds of thousands of people walk the Camino de Santiago each year. Not all of them are devout Catholics; some people set out on the Camino for spiritual reasons, but just as many are keen on the hike itself, or to sightsee along the way. Some walk the Camino as a retreat from the chaos and noise of modern life. It has inspired films, documentaries and books. The walk itself is not too difficult (or so I’ve read), just long – it takes weeks to complete. The contemporary resurgence in walkers taking up the pilgrimage route really picked up during the 20th century. The fascist government of Francisco Franco (himself a Galician) even supported the Camino’s revival to promote a sense of patriotic pride in Spain’s Catholic history.

The scallop shell, often found on the shores of Galicia, has been worn by pilgrims since medieval times as the emblem of St James, and even now it remains the symbol of the Camino. The reason for this was a little mysterious to me but there is apparently some story about how the apostle’s body was lost in the ocean during a shipwreck (as it was being ferried to Spain after his beheading in Jerusalem), then washed ashore covered in scallop shells. Sounds a bit ghoulish to me, but sure. I’ll go with it. However it came to be, the scallop shell became associated with the Camino. It is frequently seen along the routes on signs and engraved into footpaths, pointing the way towards Santiago. In France, Spain, and Portugal, pilgrimage hostels displaying the scallop shell symbol provide overnight accommodation to pilgrims who carry a pilgrim’s passport (credencial).

In any case, I had made my way to Santiago not on my own two feet over hundreds of kilometres but by coach travelling north from Porto, crossing the border between Portugal and Spain. However, it was apparent that many visitors had indeed come here at the end of long peregrinations on the Camino, some with hiking poles in hand.

I felt a sense of respect for these pilgrims who had walked across an entire country, and perhaps a little sheepish embarrassment that I myself had just been plonked here by a bus. Silly of course, but I somehow felt like a fraud, even though I wasn’t claiming to be a pilgrim in any shape or form. It was humbling though, to witness the culmination of an act of pilgrimage, even if it wasn’t of great spiritual significance to me, and to understand how people of faith had been drawn to this place for over a thousand years.

The main plaza of the city, dominated on one side by the grand Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, was a great spot to people-watch. I could see the triumphant faces of the walkers as they stood in groups or pairs, taking in the facade of the cathedral.

The cathedral is the reputed burial site of the apostle James, and his remains were authenticated by the Pope and placed in a reliquary at the end of the 19th century. A visit to the crypt affords a view of the relics. Santiago Cathedral is one of three Catholic churches built on the tomb of an apostle (allegedly), the others being St Thomas Cathedral in Chennai (the doubting disciple traditionally believed to have ministered in India) and St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

According to legend, St James brought Christianity to the Iberian Peninsula; after he was martyred in Jerusalem, his remains were brought to Galicia. In 813 AD, a shepherd watching his flock by night saw a bright star in the sky (sound familiar?) and it guided him to the burial site of St James in Santiago de Compostela. He reported the discovery to the bishop and it was declared a miracle. The bishop told the king, the king ordered a chapel to be built on the site, and when word spread throughout Christendom, the Way of St James was born.

We were at the cathedral in time to attend a mass. After the opening rituals and some sacred music, the priest welcomed the pilgrims who had arrived that day, people from all walks of life. Together we all sat in the cavernous space: pilgrims, tourists, locals. Some people were crying with emotion. I am not Catholic, but it was difficult not to feel the reverence of the pilgrims as they worshiped.

After the mass had concluded, we explored the cloisters, then stepped back out into the main plaza.

Santiago de Compostela’s historic centre is well-preserved and full of impressively beautiful palaces, churches, and monastaries. The weather was wet for much of the afternoon but rather than dampen the atmosphere it somehow accentuated and enhanced the Gothic architecture and quaint cobblestone streets. The largely pedestrian-only old city was gorgeous, with its greenery-lined balconies, intricate fountains, and stone archways reflected in slick pavement stones and puddles.

An essential stop in Santiago is the Museo de las Peregrinaciones y de Santiago (Museum of Santiago and the Pilgrimages), which tells you all about the history and significance of the Camino de Santiago through the ages. The exhibits were very interesting and gave a lot of context to the town and the Camino (much of which has informed what I write in this post).

Another interesting museum was the Museo do Pobo Gallego (Museum of Galician People), located in a former Dominican convent in the old town. The museum displayed a whole range of items from Galician life, art, and culture, providing some insights on the complex history of Galicia and the roots of the Galician people.

Galicia is an autonomous community of Spain, like Catalonia or Basque Country, although far less often featured in the news for separatist terrorist attacks or illegal acts of secession. It’s fishing country, with the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Cantabrian Sea to the north, and it has a temperate and often rainy climate, in contrast to the usual perception of Spain (in most people’s minds more commonly associated with say, the sun-kissed summers of Andalusia).

The Galician people (galegos) have Celtic-Romance origins, so besides fishing vessels the museum also showcased Galician bagpipes. The Galician language is closely related to Portuguese, and since the establishment of Galicia’s autonomy, it has experienced a comeback of sorts after four centuries of domination by castellano (Castillian, what we outside of Spain call Spanish). During both the time of the Catholic Monarchs and, much later, the Franco era, the native Galician tongue was prohibited, but now over 99% of the Galician population can understand the language, and about 80% speak it, according to census data. There has been a high level of migration from Galicia to places such as Latin America since the 19th century. (According to the internet, famous people of Galician descent include Fidel Castro and Martin Sheen, born Ramón Estévez. And I suppose Martin Sheen’s children, a few of whom are famous in their own right.)

Inside the convent I also found this remarkable triple helical staircase, which made for one of the coolest architecture shots I’ve ever taken, I think. Although it’s much more extraordinary in real life.

Once we had seen enough of historic buildings and museums, we also paid a visit to the local market, which was housed in an old stone building; however, business seemed to be winding down as it was getting late in the day.

It goes without saying that I had to try the local food. Galicia has its own distinct cuisine, of which the undisputed champion is the delicious mollusc lovingly known to many cuisines around the world – octopus! (In España we say pulpo.) The Galician style of octopus is boiled in a copper pot, then served seasoned with olive oil, sea salt and Spanish paprika. You can find pulpo a la Gallega on pretty much every menu in the city, and indeed it has long been a quintessential Spanish dish – but the best (so every restaurant seemed to claim) is still to be found in Galicia. Most of the other local specialties are also of the marine persuasion: razor clams are a particular favourite fruit of the sea here, whether on their own as tapas or in flavoursome dishes, and of course, scallops feature heavily as well. But also prawns, mussels, crabs – you name it. And all ocean fresh!

Galician tortillas de patatas (Spanish omelettes) are also amazing.

There are also local cheeses, such as queso tetilla. Tetilla in Galician means “small breast”, although another translation might be nipple cheese, due to the uncomplicated fact that the cheeses are shaped like a sort of pear-shaped cone topped by a nipple. The cow’s milk cheese is a common ingredient in Galician cooking and is often eaten as a dessert. They were frequently displayed in shop windows, on sale everywhere. (One sign even had the English translation: “cheese titty”. I didn’t make this up, I swear.)

The signature dessert of the region is the tarta de Santiago (or torta in Galician, meaning cake of St James), which originated in Galicia during the Middle Ages. It’s a moist, citrusy cake made with almonds, eggs, and sugar, and flavoured with lemon zest (gluten-free for you celiacs). The top of the tarta is decorated with powdered icing sugar with the imprint of the cruz de Santiago (cross of St James), giving the pastry its name. According to the EU, it has to be made in Galicia and contain no less than 33% almonds to officially be a tarta de Santiago. Anything else is a pretender.

By the time we had finished gorging on shellfish and pulpo, dusk had come and the city had taken on a glossy yellow hue as the electric lights reflected off the wet stone. We weren’t staying in the historic centre, but chose to go for one more late stroll through the cobbled lanes to try and find a bar before calling it a night.

Even after all these years, my visit to Santiago de Compostela remains a brilliant, vivid memory. I couldn’t tell you exactly why now, but it probably had something to do with the enchantment of the pilgrimage and the stories of the Camino.

A part of me does want to walk the Camino one day. Maybe when I retire (if I have the privilege of getting old). There’s something magnetic to me about walking a route that millions of people have trodden upon over twelve centuries.

In my imagination, I see the nods of the townsfolk and hear the calls of “buen camino!”, as I set off bright and early in the morning through the verdant countryside, the path marked by scallop shells. I enjoy the camaraderie of my fellow pilgrims, and look forward to what the next town might bring.

If anyone wants to join me, feel free to drop me a line in 30 years or so.

Eating my way through Yaowarat, Bangkok’s Chinatown

Bangkok, Thailand – February 2019

It was the last day of the conference I was attending in Bangkok, and I found myself looking for something to do for a few hours. After scrolling through a few sites online, I zeroed in on a guided tour showcasing the street food of Yaowarat, the city’s Chinatown.

Having already spent three days in Bangkok I had already had ample opportunities to consume all the usual Thai classics (the ones everyone thinks of: pad thai, som tam, tom yum, etc). This tour promised something a little off the culinary beaten track. And the guide was a chef! Done, I thought, clicking the book button.

The more I travel, the more enthusiastic I am about trying local food. I have never been a particularly fussy eater to begin with (with a couple of exceptions), but the fact is that over the years the more local cuisines I’ve tried, the wider my palate has become. So I’m always up for a food adventure, all the more so when I’m in another country (even in the face of possible digestive misadventure).

Good food is often shouted about in travel guides and websites; popular spots are popular for a reason. But there is also terrific authentic fare to be found away from the usual tourist circuits, often well-known to locals but perhaps not so readily known to everyone else. It’s easy to find amazing restaurants in a city like Bangkok (with a national cuisine that is probably one of the most popular around the globe), but I was hoping to try something different this time. The chef’s tour promised a little light education delivered with some entertainment (edutainment?), as well as a decent feed.

For those visiting Thailand, eating in Chinatown might not be the first thing that springs to mind when it comes to planning an itinerary. But hear me out. Over many centuries of immigration, Chinese influence has permeated throughout Thai culture; naturally, this goes for Thai cuisine too. The Chinese community in Bangkok has traded on Yaowarat Road, the main thoroughfare in the Chinatown district, for 200 years. Chinese immigrants and their descendents were resettled in the Yaowarat area to make way for the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew, when Rama I (the first monarch of the currently reigning Chakri dynasty) moved the capital of Siam to Rattanakosin, now called Bangkok. Since then, Yaowarat Road has been famous for food, and after dark it turns into a paradise of street food stalls. Many consider it to be the birthplace of street food in Bangkok.

Bangkok’s street food scene has long been legendary, and a vital part of the city’s culture. And yet it was all in danger of forced extinction several years ago when Bangkok city officials threatened a strict crackdown on street stalls for “order and hygiene reasons”. This was foreseeably met with anguished cries of protest from local citizens and tourists alike facing the bitter loss of cheap deliciousness. Fortunately for all of us the authorities saw the grave error of their ways and within weeks had reversed the ridiculous, draconian decision. Contented sighs of relief were heard all around; today, we remain ever blessed with the tasty delights hawked by these decades-old food carts.

My stomach was already starting to growl as the moderators wrapped up the final session of the conference, and it only got worse as I made my way to the meeting point on Yaowarat Road. The website had advised all to come with any empty stomach. Mine was on the verge of autodigestion.

The tour started punctually on the hour. After some quick introductions, we were on our way. We walked past a makeshift street-side beauty salon, where ladies were having their eyebrows threaded in full view of passing foot traffic. I was tempted to get mine done, but there was food to be eaten.

Our first proper dish was a flat rice noodle affair (like what Malaysians would call kueh teow) topped with pork which had been braised for hours. The sauce was delicious (I feel compelled to just warn you now, I am probably going to run out of synonyms for ‘tasty’ very quickly and you’re just going to have to deal with it).

The lady making the noodles was ancient. She could definitely have been around when Rama I relocated the Chinese to Yaowarat two centuries ago. Long may she continue noodle-making. As a general observation, a lot of the vendors manning the hawker stalls were elderly. Or they appeared quite elderly anyway, which probably meant they were prehistoric. Because Asians don’t age. (Yes, I can say that. Yellow don’t mellow. It’s not racist, it’s an observation. Well, perhaps ‘yellow’ raises a few suspicious connotations, historically speaking, but… never mind.)

At another street-side stall on a particularly busy stretch of road, we stopped to enjoy some pan-fried parcels filled with Chinese green chives and served with a nam jim dipping sauce. I thought they would be very oily but actually they didn’t taste greasy at all. Not particularly strong in flavour, but quite a good snack option, unless of course you don’t like chives.

Waiting for us right next door was a platter of chicken skewers marinated in coconut milk and hot off the grill, served with a beautiful peanut sauce. Yes, I’m talking about satay. Oh, satay. Light of my life, fire of my loins. South East Asia’s fabulous gift to the world. This chicken was so tender and succulent, with that hint of smokiness coming from the chargrill. Definitely a winner, and probably one of my favourite things on the tour. Ok, I know, decidedly not “off-the-beaten-track” as far as Thai food goes but hey, it’s satay. You cannot have too much satay, it’s not possible. Unsurprisingly, these didn’t last long. For those in the know, the stall was playing a video of Mark Wiens of Youtube Food Video fame, eating their satay on infinite loop. I guess that’s how you know you’ve made it.

Sated for the time being (see what I did there), we were then led down a number of lanes and alleyways through the oldest parts of the Chinatown district and our guide told us a little about the area’s history. People were carting sacks of rice and boxes of produce up and down the narrow streets, forcing us to squeeze around them to avoid being squashed or trampled. Everywhere we looked, it was a hive of activity.

One long laneway was lined with stores devoted to selling paper versions of material possessions, intended for burning as offerings to the dead. Joss papercrafts are commonly used in Chinese ancestral worship, but in this day and age, one is no longer simply limited to paper “ghost money” from “Hell’s Bank” (these are the actual translated terms). Think paper iPhones, paper Rolex watches, paper Air Jordans, and you’ll have some idea of what the afterlife might possibly look like – at least for those fortunate enough to leave behind generous living relatives.

Anyone who has been to Bangkok will recall the experience of traffic – endless, dizzying, deafening traffic. The chaos of the roads can be headache-inducing. Cars everywhere. Motorbikes slipping between other vehicles by a hand’s breadth. I suppose this is no different to any number of Asian capitals, but it’s still something that takes getting used to (for an Aussie).

But I guess tuktuks are kind of fun.

We were next taken to a roadside curry stall. This place is really popular and highly regarded, having been featured in several food documentaries and numerous blogs/vlogs (including our previously mentioned friend’s Youtube channel). They’ve been serving their curry on rice (khao gaeng) in this exact same spot for decades. This was one place I actually had heard about, and I was quite excited to try it. I always have time (and space) for curry. Happily for us, our guide skipped the long line of customers waiting to order (no table service here) and we got our chicken green curry on arrival. As I sat perched on a bright red plastic stool situated worryingly close to the traffic, delightedly spooning mouthfuls of curry and rice off the plate balanced in my lap (forget table service, no tables either), it occurred to me that this right here was one of those “real Bangkok experiences” (yes, I know that sounds corny, but it’s my blog and I’ll write what I want).

Anyway, it was really good. Quite spicy too. The right level of spice for me. I’d like to say I savoured it bite by bite like some sort of sophisticated gourmet but no, that’s not what happened. I can’t tell a lie. Real talk, I practically inhaled it straight down my food-hole. I would gladly have had another serve but a pace had to be kept and we were ushered onwards to our next stop.

Down a dark and dodgy alleyway not too far from the curry cart was an egg noodle shop called Ba Mee Jab Kang. We were deep in the backstreets now. There were some seriously questionable structures here (like, two-upright-sheets-of-corrugated-iron-with-a-tarp-draped-over-the-top kind of questionable). Well, no one comes for the ambience, I suppose.

This noodle stall caters to the community of nearby construction workers, and a few were present when we stopped by. I think the guide said these ba mee (yellow egg noodles) were called ‘labourer’s noodles’ (and I think jab kang means labourer – I don’t speak Thai, so if anyone does, please feel free to correct me). The portions were huge. Which would make a lot of sense if they were meant to feed hungry construction workers. The uncle who runs the stall is the fourth generation in his family to do so, and he was churning those puppies out like a machine. The egg noodles were springy and swam in a creamy pork broth reminiscent of tonkotsu ramen broth.

We came to a proper sit-down restaurant (with walls and tables and everything). This one was for the shellfish fans. Giant prawns were flame-grilled before our eyes. The flesh inside was so juicy and everyone made a mess eating them. There were lots of other seafood dishes, like crab, mussels, and fish, all cooked to order. A very, very busy spot, although it could have also been because it was coming up to dinner time. The stir-fried morning glory was extremely popular and very tasty too.

By the time we exited the restaurant it was starting to get dark and the street food atmosphere was coming alive outside. Like any respectable Asian market, there were many delicacies with varying degrees of appeal to the average unaccustomed punter. For example, in left to right order below, we had what appeared to be larvae of some sort, unquestionably frogs, and something perhaps related to cockroaches.

It’s all in the marinade, I’m sure.

It seems to me that all Asian cultures have some form of food on skewers and in many Asian countries these offerings often include the more… let’s say, exotic parts of animals. You know what I’m talking about: chitterlings, sweetbreads, intestines, and so on. This was certainly true in Bangkok. I tried some chicken hearts – not bad really – and the guide ripped off a short piece of intestine for me (I can’t remember which species it belonged to, but something small) which I didn’t particularly enjoy. But I still tried it! And that’s what counts. Maybe the real treasure was the intestines we ate along the way.

And then it was dessert time. Believe it or not, this popular Thai doughnut (donut?) stall has been featured in the Michelin guide. Having said that, street food in Thailand features heavily in the Michelin guide (e.g. the one-starred Jay Fai). We watched as the pa tong go were made fresh for us. The dough was deep-fried to a golden-brown, similar to the Chinese version (you tiao or yow ja gwai) that I’m used to eating, but the rich pandan coconut dipping custard elevated these to new levels of Asian pastry goodness. Crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, and lathered in that delicious green goo. YUM.

I ate more of these than strictly necessary.

Finally, to end our food expedition, we were met by the emperor of Thai desserts. Mango sticky rice has become one of my favourite desserts since this trip, so much so that I have to order it if I see it anywhere on the menu, or else I feel unsatisfied for days. Just looking at this photo makes me hungry (and perhaps a little emotional). I was already predisposed to feel deep and great affection for this dessert as I’ve loved mangoes my whole life. (I think I had this sweet as a snack every single day that I was in Bangkok. Don’t judge me. I don’t judge you.)

On a street corner surrounded by honking tuktuks and bright signboards plastered with bold colourful Chinese characters, our guide announced that we had come to the end of our tour and gave us a few other local recommendations in case any of us were still hungry (none of us were). We parted ways with delicious memories and full bellies, and I personally vowed to come back to Yaowarat Road the next time I visited Bangkok (I mean I vowed silently, to myself, not aloud like a crazy person).

So there you have it: my Yaowarat experience. It was a fun few hours and very filling – I didn’t even describe everything we ate here, just the things I took photos of, since there were upwards of seventeen stops.

I absolutely loved Chinatown. It’s a hectic place, where Bangkok locals live and work and most importantly, eat. If you’re like me and you’d like to sample something a little different to the Thai takeaway staples you’d get back home, I can unreservedly recommend a visit to the Chinatown area if you’re ever in town. (Please note how I didn’t use the word ‘foodie’ even once. Just saying. Does anyone else find the word tacky? No? Just me? Ok.)

Plus, because I’m sure you’re dying to know, I did not get diarrhoea. Could there possibly be a better ending to this story?

Exploring the Mayan Ruins of the Yucatán (Part 1 – Ek’ Balam)

Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico – December 2016

I had just finished a tour in Cuba and had planned a few days of solo travel in Yucatán, Mexico. After spending two weeks with the same group of people, I was looking forward to some alone time (as a typical introvert). My flight home out of Havana was booked through Cancún anyway, so I figured I might as well see some of Mexico while I was there. I was particularly keen to visit Chichén Itzá, the famed Mayan archaeological site, but it wasn’t until I started doing a bit of research that I realised there were many other Mayan ruins in this part of the country.

The Yucatán peninsula separates the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico, and it’s a popular destination for North Americans who enjoy the beach and party culture of well-known spots like Cancún and Playa Del Carmen. In recent times, places like Tulum have become known for their eco-retreats and yoga centres. The fun but apocryphal story behind the name Yucatán is as follows: the infamous conquistador, Hernán Cortés, claimed in a letter to the Spanish Crown that when the first explorers (his countrymen) asked the natives what the land was called, they replied “I don’t understand what you’re saying” in Yucatec Maya, which the Spanish recorded as “Yucatan”. Of course, there are other, more scholarly derivations of the name, but this one is by far the best.

While Spanish is the main language spoken in Mexico, there are over 68 indigenous languages in the country, of which the Náhuatl (the Aztec tongue that gave us the words avocado, coyote, chilli, and surprisingly – to me anyway – tomato!) and the Maya languages are the most spoken. Yucatán is home to one of the largest groups of modern Maya in Central America and thus has the largest number of Maya speakers in Mexico. As a result, Yucatan natives (Yucatecos) often blend Mayan words and phrases into their Spanish. Some Maya use Maya as their first language and Spanish as their second.

I arrived in Mexico less than a month after the 2016 US presidential election. In Cancún my Airbnb host invited me out for a drink. We got talking about Trump’s policies; specifically, the president-elect’s attitudes towards Mexicans (who he called rapists, although conceded “some, I assume, are good people”) and his notorious wall. It was fascinating to get a Mexican perspective, although I must note it’s possible Cancún may differ to the rest of Mexico, being regularly filled with Americans on spring break or bachelor/bachelorette trips. In any case, there seemed to be a general air of apprehension permeating local discourse over how the change in administration would affect Mexican society, and the relationship with their prominent northern neighbour. Over a few beers, I merrily received a quick education in trade, immigration, economics, and a number of other topics. (It would be quite interesting to go back and revisit this conversation now.)

After one night in Cancún, I took a bus to Valladolid, a small town in the middle of the Yucatán Peninsula between Cancún and Merida. I’m not sure what I was expecting but Mexican long-distance buses are actually very comfortable. My only complaint was that halfway through the trip the driver put on some American movie dubbed in Spanish at full volume (it was something forgettable like Paul Blart Mall Cop), and I really wanted to have a nap.

Valladolid was a pretty but quiet colonial-era town. I stayed a couple of nights there as it’s a good base from which to visit both Ek’ Balam and Chichén Itzá. Chichén Itzá is definitely the more famous of the two as a tourist attraction. It has been called one of the “new” seven wonders of the world (the only ancient wonder still standing is the Pyramids of Giza). Ek’ Balam, located not far north of Valladolid, contains much lesser-known Mayan ruins surrounded by jungle.

I had read on travel blogs that the easiest way (perhaps even the only way, short of renting a car) to get from Valladolid to Ek’ Balam was to take a colectivo taxi. Colectivos are usually share-riding vans (yes, Uber didn’t invent share-riding), but colectivo taxis are shared taxis (shared with strangers) which leave when they are full (four passengers). To get one I had to find where they were parked, and after asking around in broken Spanish – ¿donde estan los colectivos, umm, Ek’ Balam? – I found the spot in a little alley with an archway cover. There was already someone there waiting, so we just needed two more. After about twenty minutes we were joined by another guy, who started chatting. I found out he was from the Netherlands, and had quit his corporate job to backpack through Central America. This explained why he was so tanned for a Dutchman. Weirdly, there was a lone Pacman arcade machine sitting in the corner, straight out of the 80s, and for a few pesos we passed the time with a fun couple of games.

Eventually, the first guy (who hadn’t spoken at all since I arrived) got sick of waiting and told the driver he would pay a double fare (for the phantom fourth passenger). The driver indicated via a sequence of tongue clicks and gestures that we should get in his car. I sat in the back with my new friend while our driver sped down the highway and I tried not to think about how fast he was going or what my travel insurance might cover (or not cover).

Our colectivo dropped us off at the car park (unharmed) and without really any discussion my Dutch buddy and I decided to stick together as we walked towards the first of the ruins. The trek from the ticket office took longer than I thought it would and wasn’t particularly well marked out, but once we emerged from the jungle, greeted with the first of the stone ruins, I must admit that I did feel a little thrill at getting to play archaeologist. (Let’s call it a persistent childhood fantasy.) Ahead of us lay a tumbled-down stone wall and we passed through its remains to enter the lost city of Ek’ Balam (well ok, formerly lost, I guess).

Ek’ Balam, meaning Black Jaguar (or Bright Star Jaguar, depending on who you believe) in Yucatec Maya, was a walled city older than Chichén Itzá, dating back to around 600 BC. Once the seat of the Mayan kingdom, its first ruler Ukit Kan Le’t Tok’ built the pyramid known as the Acropolis (Sak Xok Nahh in Maya, but also called El Torre – the Tower) which would in time become his tomb. It was abandoned before the Spanish arrived, and archaeologists first came across it in the 19th century but didn’t map it until the 1980s. As restoration of the ruins only commenced in 1997, it is still relatively new as an archaeological tourist site. Only one twelfth of the city has been excavated, which should keep them busy for a while.

As not many people visit this place compared to Chichén Itzá, you are allowed to clamber all over the ruins of Ek’ Balam, which is actually very cool. We were free to explore anywhere, including all the nooks and crannies of the ancient structures.

As we sat on the steps near the top of El Torre (a very steep ascent and not for the acrophobic), taking in the views of the ruins rising out of the surrounding jungle, my travel companion for the day told me a little more about himself. He told me about his job, and how sick he was of his life, and how he had suddenly decided one day to quit and travel, booking a one-way ticket to Mexico. He had arrived in Cancún from Europe a week ago with a fully stuffed backpack, a portable fold-up tent and a dream (alright, maybe not the last one).

Four days into his Mexican adventure, he returned from a dip in the warm Caribbean Sea to a beach near Playa Del Carmen where he had set up camp, only to find his tent and belongings gone. And so, he explained to me now, all he had left was what he was currently wearing and carrying – one set of clothes, a towel and his backpack.

It was quite an awful tale and perhaps a hard way to learn a lesson (don’t leave all your stuff unattended to swim in the ocean?) but he seemed to be coping with his misfortunes, so I left it at that. I mean what could you say, really.

Eventually we had to come back down, and the descent was terrifying compared to the climb up – it’s a wide steep staircase that goes straight down for eight stories. The steps are narrow and tall, and there are no handrails to hold on to. Some people were sort of sit/squat-stepping the whole way down, which looked pretty tiring. I did the zig-zag thing which felt safer (at least psychologically), but I did wonder how many people fall. Surely it happens. Perhaps it was a design feature meant to induce inadvertent human sacrifices.

After we were done exploring and climbing the ruins, we made our way to the nearby Cenote X’Canche. Cenotes are natural sinkholes filled with freshwater, often very deep and teeming with catfish. They are found throughout the Yucatán peninsula and were considered sacred to the ancient Mayans. Cenote X’Canche was about 1.5km along a gravel path through the jungle, with the option to rent bikes to get there. At the cenote’s edge, there were stairs leading down to a boardwalk around the water, as well as a rope swing. After the bike ride, it was perfectly refreshing to jump in to the cold clear water.

I spent most of the time floating on my back, looking up at the jungle which encroached over the sides high above. Besides the two of us, there were only a few other people at the cenote and it was a very serene afternoon. Finally, I said goodbye to my unfortunate Dutch (and technically homeless) friend who chose to linger a while longer, and cycled back to the car park, the cool freshwater drying off me in the light breeze. From there I didn’t have to wait too long for the next colectivo back to Valladolid.

First ruin down (and it was amazing). Next stop – Chichén Itzá.