Yucatán Road Trip: The Pickled Onion, Santa Elena

After leaving X’batún and Dzom-Bacal cenotes, Josh and I headed to the Pickled Onion, an eco-hotel that would serve as our base and surrogate home for the next two nights as we explored the Ruta Puuc.

Located between Uxmal (15 km) and Kabah (8 km) on the outskirts of the small town of Santa Elena, the Pickled Onion is run by Canadian ex-patriot, Valerie Pickles. Valerie’s passion for the Yucatan and her pride in cooking with fresh ingredients and purified water made the B&B one of the highlights of our trip and, thus, deserving of its own post. I also had the best mojito of my life here, a fact that gives the Pickled Onion a particularly special place in my heart.

Guest quarters consist of a series of small cabanas designed for minimal environmental impact and constructed in the style of contemporary Maya homes, with wood-and-concrete walls and thatched roofs. For those unaccustomed to eco-hotels (as we were), the structures may at first feel disconcertingly permeable, with insects and geckos passing easily through windows, within the woven ceiling, and beneath the roofline. Of these visitors, we most appreciated the geckos. Not only were they cute, but they served as natural bug-reducers. Their tiny feces, which dropped down from the ceiling onto furniture and suitcases, were less welcome but easy to clean up.

Our room contained both a western-style bed (with netting) and a hammock, the latter of which is the preferred bedding for many locals and the cooler option on warm nights. Unfortunately for us, we were not particularly adept at sleeping in hammocks, and our first night was tortuously uncomfortable due to the inescapable heat. In addition, we had to choose between using the mosquito netting over the bed—which helped to deter the small, black, biting insects that made their way into our sheets at night—or the overhead fan, because the manufactured breeze could not penetrate the lightweight canopy. Eventually, though, we accepted our bug-bitten fate, chose the fan, and finally fell asleep.

The temperature the next day—like most days—was in the 90s, and we ended up relaxing in the well-kept pool after an intense several hours of exploring ruins. Thankfully, the evening finally cooled off and our room became perfectly comfortable. We slept hard that night, and only reluctantly rolled out of bed (late) the next morning.

The only other unpleasant aspect of our time at the Pickled Onion, aside from our hot and buggy first night, was the appearance of moldy fruit in our breakfasts both mornings. This may sound nitpicky—and probably is, given that the rest of our food, even the rest of the fruit, was either good or excellent. At the time, though, we were already on our guard about all things food related, and had specifically been warned about eating the skins of uncooked fruits and vegetables. While never enticing, the repeated discovery of mold was especially off-putting in this context of food-paranoia, and made us nervous about everything else we consumed there. Fortunately, it turned out that such worries were needless, as we never got sick from anything we ate or drank at the B&B.

Now back to the good stuff. In addition to the hammock, our room contained a number of thoughtful details, including decorations of locally made crafts and a fridge (which, even when turned off, was useful for storing food without attracting bugs). My favorite touch, however, was the binder Valerie put together with descriptions of nearby sites, important information about the rooms (toilet paper goes in the trash; tipping is encouraged; to-go lunches need to be ordered the night before; etc.), and a short autobiography explaining how she came to own a bed and breakfast in Santa Elena.

All things considered, we would definitely stay at the Pickled Onion again, although preferably in the cooler months. The restaurant is open to non-guests in the evenings, so if you are in the area, even if you stay at another hotel, I strongly suggest getting your dinner (and a mojito) here.

Highly subjective personal rating: 7/10

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 2015.

Rock of Cashel, Cashel, County Tipperary, Republic of Ireland

Rock of Cashel. View from path between the Rock and Hore Abbey. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 29, 2013.

We left Blarney as the castle and grounds were closing and made our way northeast to Cashel, arriving before nightfall. Castle-hotels are among Cashel’s many attractions, but we chose to stay at Peggy O’Neill’s B&B, one of the town’s less costly options. Our friendly host offered us the choice of two rooms: one that was large and pleasant, the other that was small and had the following view:

View of Hore Abbey from Peggy O’Neill’s B&B, Cashel. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 28, 2013.

We chose the smaller room.

Of course, Cashel’s main draw is its medieval stronghold and namesake, the Rock of Cashel. Perched at the city’s highest point, Rock of Cashel impresses with its blocky enormity and abundance of carved decoration. The fortress’s English name is a bit confusing, as it implies the building is in some way the “rock” of the town. In fact, Cashel is the anglicized version of the Irish caiseal, or stone fort, while “Rock” refers to the hill it sits upon.

Although the site itself dates to the 4th or 5th century when it was seat of the Kings of Munster, the oldest remaining structure is the round tower, which was erected shortly after Muircheartach Ua Briain (O’Brien) gave the Rock to the Catholic Church in 1101. Like most round towers, it was originally a free-standing structure. However, it was later incorporated into the north transept when the cathedral was built in the 13th century.

Art historically, the complex’s most distinctive feature is Cormac’s Chapel, the interior of which contains unusual sculptural details, vestiges of painted decoration, and an intricately carved tomb. Consecrated in 1134, the Chapel may be the first Romanesque church in Ireland, and is certainly the best preserved. Cormac Mac Cárthaigh (MacCarthy), a bishop and king of Munster, commissioned the building. The sarcophagus, which boasts an elaborate Scandinavian Urnes design of intertwined animals, probably held either Cormac’s remains or those of his brother, Tadhg. The frescoes—a rare feature in Ireland—are the oldest on the island. They were covered in the 16th century during the Reformation and only rediscovered in the 1980s. Restoration of the chapel is ongoing, and access is restricted to groups led by the site’s guides. These tours are free, entertaining, and informative, but if you prefer to spend the rest of your time exploring on your own, you can join the group for the chapel portion of the tour only.

Iveragh Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry, County Kerry, Republic of Ireland

After leaving Dingle, we made our way down Iveragh Peninsula towards the ports we hoped would take us to Skellig Michael and its resident puffins. We eventually settled in for the night at the lovely Final Furlong B&B, where we watched horses graze in the backyard while the sun set over the lake.

View of the Skelligs (far backround) and nearby islands, from Iveragh Peninsula. Panorama by Joshua Albers, May 28, 2013.

We knew that getting to the Skelligs would be something of a gamble, as boats don’t go out in poor weather and weather in Ireland is unpredictable. I was, therefore, relieved the next morning to find the sky overcast but not rainy, and we hurried on to find a ship to take us to this much anticipated destination. What we didn’t realize was that even though the weather on land seemed fine, the wind was making the sea too choppy for safe passage. No ships were making the journey to the Skellig rocks that day, nor were they expected to go out in the near future. Eventually, we admitted defeat and journeyed on.

With much of the day suddenly open ahead of us, we decided to take our time along the Ring of Kerry and made multiple stops within Killarney National Park.

Upper Lake, Killarney National Park. Panorama by Joshua Albers, May 28, 2013.
Iveragh Peninsula. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 28, 2013.
Iveragh Peninsula. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 28, 2013.
Killarney National Park. Photo by Joshua Albers, May 28, 2013.
Torc Waterfall, Killarney National Park. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 28, 2013.
Muckross Abbey, Killarney National Park. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 28, 2013.
Yew tree in cloister of Muckross Abbey, Killarney National Park. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 28, 2013.
Killarney National Park. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 28, 2013.
Killarney National Park. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 28, 2013.