You go to the Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula for four things: stunning white sand beaches; ancient Mayan ruins; idyllic, subterranean cold water cenotes (naturally occurring sinkholes), and the food. But you mostly go for the food. Or you do if you’re anywhere near as greedy as me. Thanks to a thriving food culture rich with native, Caribbean, European and Middle Eastern influences, the Yucatán is one of Mexico’s tastiest regions for feasting, preferably on regional specialities like the ubiquitous conchinita pibil: pork that’s been marinated in annatto seeds and sour orange before being slow-cooked to perfection between banana leaves. Piled onto tacos and topped with pickled red onions, this delicious dish can be found all over the region.
We began our journey in Playa Del Carmen, where bags of fresh-cut melon and pineapple with chilli salt, fresh fruit juices and dips in the Caribbean Sea helped us acclimatise to the sweltering heat. Playa is just down the coast from Cancun, and like the latter, is a rapidly commercialising party town, but it’s a good jumping-off point for exploring the rest of the region, and is also fantastic for shopping.
If you can swerve the crowds of American tourists, there is good food to be found in Playa, particularly from its street carts. We found one called Pescarito on 38th Street, which was clean, quick and, like many of the food spots in this area, focused on fish and seafood. Smokey, stewed marlin in an oniony, tomato and chipotle sauce served on crispy tostadas (deep fried tortillas) is their speciality, but we loved the ceviche tostadas: dried shrimp mixed with chillies, thinly sliced onion, shredded carrot and lime juice. Tingly hot from the chillies, the ceviche sat atop crisp tortillas, garnished with creamy, cooling avocado and sesame seeds – a bright, perky and fresh dish which set us back about £3 for four. My favourite part of our meal at this cart however was the preamble. As soon as we sat down, we were greeted with plastic cups of a hot red broth. “Betterrr than Viagraraar” purred the local man sitting next to me. I took one sip and was won over – it was a delicious blend of sour, fishy, spicy. It was in fact Caldo de Cameron: Mexican shrimp soup, which is made with a heady stock of dried shrimp, tomato, onion, pepper, carrot and chilli. Absolutely delicious, and as palate-perking as any high-end amuse bouche.
For dessert in Playa, there is only one place – Paleteria Gerry – a roadside shop selling homemade paletas – refreshing ice lollies made entirely from fresh fruits and their juices: think pineapple, mango and papaya. The coconut paleta dipped in chocolate and nuts comes highly recommended, as does the house-made horchata, a soothing sweet drink made with rice milk and flavoured with cinnamon. Because it’s so hot in this part of the country, fresh fruit juices are part of daily life, and become seriously addictive. I got a taste for the subtle, refreshing flavour of guava and Gerry’s sell it in huge litre cups.
After Playa, we headed down the coast to Tulum – a gorgeous, tropical seaside town (I use the term ‘town’ very loosely here) with the most beautiful beachside ruins presided over by a ubiquitous community of very nonchalant iguanas, who drape themselves over the crumbling stonework like the Mayans reborn. Tulum’s most famous restaurant, El Camello, opposite the fantastic boho-hostel-cum-private retreat, Frida’s Garden is known for its seafood. Sit outside on the ramshackle plastic chairs and watch the staff gutting, scaling and filleting fresh fish at lightning speed as you swig on ice-cold cervezas. Order the piquant, zingy ceviche, which is made with a mixture of white fish, prawns and squid, but make sure you order a small portion – the big one could feed ten!
In the evening, New York chef Eric Werner’s open-air restaurant Hartwood is the place to be. Set just back from the beach, in among the jungle palms, this place is a balmy, atmospheric hotspot where you can sit under the stars and eat delicious dishes cooked in the wood-fired oven. There are no reservations, so to nab a seat without having to queue, get here for 6pm. The restaurant is powered entirely by solar panels, and everything is cooked in the wood oven or on the open grill. We adored a salad of tender, Indian-spiced squid with chickpeas, and the signature dish of agave-marinated, slow-cooked pork ribs, which fell apart in sweetly, sticky chunks. They serve margaritas here by the massive glass goblet and be warned: a few too many of these and you won’t be able to read the menu, which is chalked up on a black board and changes every day.
The food is so good you’ll want to do as we did and return again and again – and the same can be said of the Yucatán.
Yucután Tourist Board
Avenida Tulum, Avenida Kukulkan y Palenque, 77780, Tulum, Quintana Roo
+52 984 138 5139
Av Tulum SN Manzana 32 Lote 9, 77780 Tulum, Quintana Roo
Carretera Tulum Boca Paila
7.6KM Tulum Quintana Roo
CP 77780 Mexico