Friday, March 18, 2011

A Little Taste of Mexico

"It doesn't even feel like we're in another country," the girl seated behind us said in dismay to her husband as our hired van ferried us from the Cancun airport through the Zona Hotelera to our all-inclusive beachside resort. I could understand her disappointment. The Zona Hotelera has about as much local Mexican flavor as a Chili's restaurant, and if you limit yourself to it then you might as well have stayed within the US borders.

Fortunately, Zoe and I had a mini road trip to Chichen Itza planned—though if we had either gone on a bus tour or remained on the autopista cuota, we would never have gotten a glimpse of what Mexico is really like. After our visit to Chichen Itza and Il-Kil, we decided to go on a little adventure and take Highway 81 libre—the free road that would double our travel time back to Cancun but provide us with far more interesting scenery (For Zoe and I, there's no worse fate than boredom, apparently). The roads were riddled with topes, which we quickly learned was the Spanish word for speedbumps. But we got to see everything from cows tied to thatched-roof houses to more stately little cities.
By the time we hit the road, we were starving. As much as we would've loved to stop at any of the roadside shacks we drove past (one had particularly enticing hunks of meat cooking over an outdoor charcoal grill), we were afraid of getting hit with Montezuma's revenge (Someday I will return to the Yucatan and do Chef David Sterling's Street Eats tour to rectify this). So in the end, we had to make do with Maruja Cafe y Galeria, a lovely outdoor cafe in Valladolid's main square that had a sufficient number of tourists dining in plain view. With instructions from a waiter, we were able to find a municipal parking lot where we could safely park our car for just 5 pesos. Then we walked back and sat down for a little snack and people watching on the outdoor patio. I ordered a michelada—a lovely Mexican concoction that typically contains cerveza, tomato juice, lime juice and spices. My Yucatan version tasted like the tomato juice had been traded for Worcestershire and had some delicious heat. The drink tastes similar to a Bloody Mary and is somehow that much better imbibed at a town square in Mexico.
Before my trip, my Mexican friend Carlos had told me to try the Yucatan specialty cochinita pibil (also known as puerco pibil), which is essentially slow roasted pork that's been marinated in orange juice, lime and achiote paste. Fun fact about cochinita pibil:  In the movie Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Johnny Depp's character Agent Sands is so obsessed with this dish that he kills any cook who makes it too well in order to "maintain balance" in the country. (Source: Wikipedia) Zoe and I each ordered corn tacos with cochinita pibil and it was very tasty. The pickled onions were a nice touch as the flavor was not strong at all but gave a nice crunch and provided a slightly sour component to the dish. We were happy.
After lunch, we checked out the small gallery within the cafe where there were these amazing sculptures of ancient Mayans. Quite nice to see after spending the morning exploring Chichen Itza and Il-Kil.
From there, we went back on the road for our slow crawl to Cancun. Despite the slow pace and some minor directional hiccups,  it was an enjoyable ride. A lot of people told me we were crazy for attempting this drive given how the news is full of warnings about how dangerous Mexico is these days. But our drive was relatively uneventful, save for one military checkpoint where we were asked this very serious question: "¿Va a tomar el sol en Cancun?" ("Will you sunbathe in Cancun?")

If you're an experienced traveler with your wits about you, I would recommend going off the beaten path to see the real Mexico beyond the Americanized hotel zones. There is so much more to this country than all-inclusive resorts and body shots, and it would be a shame to miss out on it. 


  1. Oh man those roadside shacks actually have great food. My friends and I eat at those all the time whenever we are in Playa del Carmen or Tulum and we never got sick. We're also friends with many of the locals (not expats but actual Mexicans) so we always have people to watch over us and tell us where to go, etc. Oh and super authentic food! I would advise that the real Mexico is actually something you find when you stay there for a more significant amount of time, befriend the locals, go into their homes, etc.

    Looks like you had fun though. :-) That's what counts!

  2. Oh wow Jan, I am BEYOND jealous! My post 30 Before 30 life will TOTALLY have to include a roadside shack eating tour in Mexico! (also a trip to Playa del Carmen and Tulum, which I heard are both amazing!)

  3. Celine, we were in Cabo in January and had an awesome time trying all the local restaurants. EVERYTHING we had was amazing. The only thing I stayed away from is tap water. Since I'm preggo, the doctor said to stay away from uncooked food. But I couldn't resist the salsa and guac that was everywhere. It was worth it though. I never got sick and loved the Mexican experience we had. Looks like you had a fun time too. Wish I could have had that michelada. :( Hubby had a Mexican beer tour though and tasted all of the Mexican beer for me. Great article!

  4. I'd definitely recommend going off the tourist trail in Mexico! Like you noticed, Cancun is very Americanized... which is great if someone just wants to swim and sunbathe, but the real treasures of Mexico are deeper in and so worth visiting!

    I spend a bit over 5 months wandering that country and while I avoided the border areas (where the problems tend to be) it was one of the most memorable bits of my around the world trip so far.

    Tips if you go back, check the travel advisories and talk to the locals, between those 2 sources you'll be very safe wandering almost everywhere in Mexico. :)

  5. Carly - I am so jealous! I wish we'd had the chance (and the guts) to try more local restaurants. I will definitely come back to do it. And you should come back for your michelada after you pop! I hear beer's good for producing breast milk by the way ;-)

    Catia - Five months of wandering in Mexico sounds like a dream! ( and your succeeding visits to Pompeii and god-knows-how-many-other-places just make my mouth water) I can only hope to get that chance someday. I definitely intend to come back to Mexico for a longer trip and I will turn to your blog for tips when I do!

  6. My best friend's dog's name is Tope because he is a bassett hound, so he's like a speed bump. When I was in Mexico, I took a photo of the signs for Topes for them.

  7. That is awesome! I wish I'd taken pictures of the Topes since they turned out to be such a memorable part of the trip!

  8. I'm such a sucker for street food and I think a shack tour sounds amazing. Your post and the picture of the tacos almost convinced me to leave the house to find a taco truck tonight! :)

  9. I have been on a quesadilla and margarita trip since getting back. I just can't seem to get Mexico off the brain! A taco truck hunt sounds like a fab alternative to a shack tour!


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