When you think of the Yucatan peninsula, what generally pops into mind?
Maybe it is those pristine, blue coloured beaches, Instagram perfect cenotes scattered right across the region, Yucatecan food (yes, it is one of the best in Mexican cuisine) and of course the sacred Mayan temples.
One of my favourite cenotes
For me, I was especially intrigued with Mayan life and the people that make up this interesting culture. However, when we visit these memorials today, the discussion always lies around the people from the past.
But… What about the Mayan people that are still around today?
There is very little talk about them.
What if you knew that it is a culture that very much exists still today?
What if you knew you could experience the Mayan culture through food in a local’s home?
Chichen Itza: when two worlds collide
To elaborate my point, as a great example I will use Chichen Itza, the second most visited site in Mexico, and one of the 7 wonders of the modern world. According to UNESCO it was one of the greatest centres of the Yucatan Peninsula.
This archaeological site dazzles thousands of people daily for it’s well-structured pyramids, temples and other stone structures; more importantly, because of the desire to know about the Mayans, their culture and their significance back in time.
Enjoying Chichen Itza at sunrise
When travelling to a popular site such as Chichen Itza, mass tourism becomes increasingly evident. Huge buses coming from all directions arrive, there are taxi drivers with cars full of families and endless amounts of private small tours. As people arrive, they are confronted with vendors selling souvenirs and all things that may be “useful” for tourists.
It is interesting to watch the interaction between the “two worlds.” It seems distant and perhaps awareness is lacking between the two about one another. Consequently, there is a lack of inconsistent value of the Mayan people today and how they are “used” for the benefit of mass tourism.
The ancient Mayan civilization was one of the most fascinating and influential cultures in our world’s history. Lying in the tropical ecosystems of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and the southeast of Mexico, Mayan cities encompassed a complex society far ahead of its time.
Fast forward 500 years and despite the inevitable repression due to the Spanish invasion, much of the native and historical Maya tradition has remained with its people today. Although the Maya people speak Spanish, they maintain their Mayan language through the teachings at school and heritage of older generations; and much of their traditional dresses and weaving is still a traditional custom.
Another thing that remains, is their expertise in farming and what it entails, as well as their cooking techniques and recipes that are passed down through generations.
So having this information now, it makes me wonder if there are thousands of tourists visiting the Yucatan region, why are we not empowering communities enough to preserve their culture?
As a traveller myself I want to know the people behind each place, the cuisine and the culture.
So why not compliment the archaeological memorial, Chichen Itza, along with an experience that connects us as tourists with the communities that are forgotten about.
For example, something as simple as what food represents. For me food is an element that connects us to share and learn about one another. I believe it is the essence to travel and culture.
Learning how to make an important ingredient in Yucatan cooking– recado rojo using achiote
Visiting Chichen Itza Today
Now…Let’s go back to Chichen Itza. When you visit the archeological site you may be entering in a tour or solo. Either way, I am sure this will apply to all.
Limitations to food
That second you step out of the site, there is that moment of going from “wow!” to “what now?”
For a few hours of your life you become a cultural seeker or investigator into history, and then.. suddenly.. it ends.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if that idea or mood continued throughout the day.
There are limitations to food and street food near Chichen Itza. The street food that does exist, as a tourist you may generally be hesitant to try it.
Street food can always be a tricky one when you are unsure of the “right places.” Believe me I know, I have had some not so great experiences with this. I will never forget the times in Morocco and Thailand eating on the streets. Oh the food was to die for, but my body did not think so at the time. Oops.
Just a delicious meal in Morocco I will never forget
Anyway… when it comes to food in this region, the only options that seem to be available are in the large restaurants or buffet restaurants in hotels.
However, just around the corner, there are small towns with small Mayan communities and villages where the Mayan culture is still very much alive.
Chichen Itza, as part of the food experience tour
The Contemporary Mayan family in Chichen Itza
Meet Beto and Claudia. A loving Mayan couple and parents to three beautiful girls. They left their stressful lives in a big contemporary kitchen, in a resort near Tulum as cooks to become entrepreneurs of their own taco stand in Piste- a little town outside of Chichen Itza. They then became taqueros serving cochinita pibil tacos.
Not only have they acquired contemporary cooking skills from working in a large kitchen but they also cherish recipes and traditional cooking techniques that have been passed down through generations.
Living in Mexico, I have had honour of becoming friends with the family.
With a common passion for food and cooking, I have stood by their side, hosting cooking classes to travellers like yourself. I have had first hand experience to their exciting and secret recipes. I have witnessed the difficulty in getting that perfect tortilla in five seconds and the magic of using ancient techniques in cooking- such as grinding the achiote as seen in the video above, roasting the tomatoes in an open fire or cooking the meat underground.
Roasting the chillies on the pan, while the tomatoes roast in the fire below
The Taco Stand in Chichen Itza
It is your standard unfussy taco stand, alongside the busy road leading up to the memorial, that is Chichen Itza. However, to many locals within the area who visit their stand daily, they have perfected their recipe to create the best cochinita pibil in the region!
This is why when you look around, there are many taxi drivers who are waiting for their clients to finish at the site. Ther are tour guides and bus drivers all sitting down on the plastic chairs right by the road, enticing their taste buds with their favourite cochinita pibil taco.
Along the road with thousands of tourists passing by every minute of the day and when you look around at their small stand.
There is not one tourist!
Instead, we (tour companies) take tourists to where they think will suit them best… a buffet restaurant! For many, this suits them fine but for the traveller like myself, who seek authenticity when travelling, they are seeking for far more than this.
Connecting travellers with the locals through food experiences in Chichen Itza
Making salsas together
How the food experience in Chichen Itza all began: connecting with the locals
Enter Carlos (my partner in crime)..
The Mexican local and guide with a passion for sustainable tourism. He was working in tourism at the time, looking for a place to eat outside of Chichen Itza.
He discovered Beto and Claudia’s taco stand and saw potential- Talent, culture, authentic food all being wasted and missed.
The tourists need to know this side of Yucatan cuisine and the cooks behind it.
By this stage, Carlos and I had already met and we were doing the long-distance thing. I remember his excitement when he told me he was taking a group to their house for the first time. From then we began coordinating and sharing ideas to make this a memorable food experience for like-minded travellers.
This all began our creation of Naj Kooben (“home kitchen” in maya)-
Supporting local communities through authentic food experiences, that Carlos and I began.
Learning about Yucatecan and Mexican cuisine
The beginning to a wonderful exchange of culture. Carlos and the family began sharing the world of Yucatan ingredients and food.
An experience which all began just as a project- taking groups to experience the untouched wonderful Yucatecan cuisine. During this time, with Carlos’ passion for food and the local people, he carefully selected the special ingredients of the Yucatan with the Beto and Claudia.
They included the cochinita pibil (a delicacy to the Yucatecan people and a really expensive dish, in most touristic restaurants) and local fresh vegetables such as the local pumpkin, to design a beautiful, colourful, well-balanced menu of dishes that really represent Yucatecan cuisine.
Something I have also noticed here when visiting “local communities” who offer lunches for various tour companies, is that they do not exhibit the colourful cuisine that Yucatan really offers.
Instead, you are generally only given a very bland chicken with rice and if you are lucky avocado. Tourists are generally very courteous and accepting, however, travellers who appreciate culture and food deserve to experience the real Mayan Yucatecan cuisine.
A little sample of the home made dishes in the house including Chaya and local pumpkin
Bringing locals and travellers together through responsible tourism
Guests waiting for their delicious home-cooked meal.
When I arrived to Mexico to see Carlos, he was so excited to introduce me to the family. It was like a gift had been presented to me, and from that moment, I knew this is something special that we must ALL experience.
After many years of travelling, I came with a lens of a traveller, appreciating food, culture and the real people behind it. I fell in love with Mexican cuisine, the diversity from region to region and how fresh ingredients are so readily available.
Vegetables and fruits do really taste different here, it is the real “organic”.
Driving ten minutes from the touristic destination of Chichen Itza, lies a small village, Piste. Just a few tourists insight, which is ironic considering how close it is to one of the most visited sites in Mexico.
Dusty long roads, hand-built homes, gardens with crops and flowers, a small cemetery and a couple of isolated shops along the road.
Stepping out of the car, a brick house stood before me. So quiet you can hear the dogs barking from streets away and the sounds of the children running and playing on the streets.
Meet the Mayan Family in Chichen Itza
The first person who greeted us was sweet five year old Sonia. No shoes, a smile that runs from one ear to the other and an energy that is so contagious.
She screams: “Carlos, Carlos.”
I was greeted by another two lovely teenage girls, the other two daughters. Very well mannered and faces which show how happy they are to see us.
Every time I see them now they are curious and are always asking questions about me and my life. They are always so excited to share their stories with me. Every encounter with them, it becomes more of sharing experience and exchange of culture and language.
As we entered their spacious and modest home I passed the table ready for the tourists, simple and effective, with their personal touch. It was calling people to sit down and enjoy this very special meal.
I couldn’t help myself but stop and stare at the rainbow of food that had exploded all over the table. There was enough food to feed 10 families.
I am getting hungry as I think and write about this.
All the ingredients and dishes ready to go for the visitors.
The guests were about to arrive but Beto, Claudia and her mother were in the backyard in the “outdoor kitchen” preparing those final touches.
The kitchen built entirely on their own included an open wood fire oven and most importantly the pib, which Beto had created with his own bare hands. I learned that this is something very special to see as most locals don’t even have one of these. But considering they make their cochinita daily for their stand, it is a vital component for their business.
The pib in the backyard built to slow cook the cochinita underground
The tortillas are ready!
With warm smiles, the family were waiting for us.
They are always so happy to welcome us into their home. I observed them and all their interesting techniques as they were preparing the hand made tortillas for the guests. It reminded me of watching a pizza man at the front window, rolling out the dough and throwing it above his head. They do it with so much style and ease.
They invited me to join and of course, I either sucked at it the first ten times or it took me double the time. I felt like I was in a pottery class. There is a real skill in making these tortillas and they make it look so easy. Still to this day when I try it with them, I am still very much a beginner at it.
The guests arrive for their Yucatecan meal
The guests had soon arrived and I was not only so excited to be part of the experience behind the scenes but even more proud that Carlos and I could make this happen.
More importantly, I couldn’t wait to sit down and eat all the delicious food, from the chaya, to the local pumpkin to the hand made tortillas of course.
Cooking class: making tortillas with Claudia
A way for mindful travellers to connect with the locals in Mexico
What I feel most passionately about the food is that even if you do not eat meat, the variety of fresh vegetables combined with aromatic herbs and spices is what makes me always go back for seconds. Every dish is full of flavour and highlights the true essence of Yucatecan cuisine.
This food experience is just the perfect way to compliment the adventure in Chichen Itza. A way for mindful travellers to connect with the locals and for the family to share their knowledge and skills with the rest of the world.
I love seeing Beto and Claudia’s satisfaction and sense of pride for their cooking when they see people from around the world eating and enjoying their food.
Who wouldn’t want to enter someone’s home for a home cooked meal?
A traveller enjoying a home cooked meal
Closing the gap between tourism and local communities
When you decide to visit a culturally rich country such as Mexico, you are generally wanting to understand more about the people, the culture, history and food.
Where and who better to learn all of this from other than from the people themselves. Meeting a family such as this one, and bringing like minded travellers here, allows them to share their knowledge, their expertise, skills and home life (without exploiting them of course) with others.
Our goal in all of this is to help preserve alot of what has been lost in ancient Mayan cooking with the impact and influence of the “western world.”
To create an awareness of the importance of their skills in not only preserving their ancient techniques but ensuring their recipes and skills are passed down to their children.
I know for myself, as someone with a family from Italy, due to our busy lifestyles in Australia, we started requesting ready-made food, such as ready made pastas. I was lucky enough to have my grandparents with us to witness what goes into creating Italian food from scratch.
The concept of getting together with families to continue making the sauces from scratch has almost been forgotten about. We somehow did not place enough importance on it. It brought families together and gave us the chance to continue celebrating culture in Australia.
Have you experienced this yourself, with your traditions or cultures being lost? I would love to hear from you.
Yucatecan and Mayan Cuisine: has it been lost?
When you think of Yucatecan food, you generally might think of Cochnita- pork, the star of Yucatecan food. However, what about the locally available produce that was very much alive in pre colonial times in the 16th century?
These still form the foundation for Yucatecan food- Tomatoes, chilis, corn, pumpkins, chaya, achiote seeds.
In terms of food, through this experience, we hope to shape the perception of what defines Yucatecan cuisine. Whether you are vegan, vegetarian or a meat lover, there really is something for everyone.
Fresh local ingredients for Mexican cooking
Authentic and Responsible Tourism in Mexico
This brings me to a company that we have partnered with at Viajas Conciencia.
This small company we have built a rapport with also share the same vision for sustainable and responsible tourism as we do. They bring travellers looking for these authentic interactions to come and learn about what the family have to offer with the rest of the world.
We share the same visions in promoting awareness about local life and preserving their knowledge and ancient skills in the preparation of food.
In fact, from the income the family are receiving from tourism, they too have found a way to continue building their home and to further their own business as taqueros in the region.
Further to this, I was quite delighted to know that one of the daughters has been inspired to learn about languages as she enters adult life.
How can you book this food Experience in mexico
If you are visiting the Yucatan, Peninsula and/or Chichen Itza you too can also get that authentic food experience and meet the people behind the delicious food of the Yucatan.
If you would like to attend this Chichen Itza and Mayan Cuisine experience, contact me to make your experience in Mexico a memorable one.
Travelling to Tulum?
Attend a cooking experience and learn how to make tacos, salsas, guacamole etc right in the heart of Tulum town. My friend Lily will share her passion for Mexican cuisine and recipes passed down from her grandmother in this cooking class in the comfort of her home. My favourite part of this experience is making the tortillas from scratch and the little mezcal tasting. As you know in my post about Oaxaca, I do love my mezcal.