Stereotypes die hard. When we returned from Spring Break in Cancun, even my 85 year old Mexican-American neighbor asked, “Did you see the spring break girls?” Those ingrained images of Girls Gone Wild and other drunken American college students on Cancun’s lovely Caribbean shores fuel a major segment of its tourism industry. That reputation also drives away those who have graduated beyond the desire for wild partying (or never had the interest). But the Spicebox Travels family knows otherwise. Years ago, we discovered that Cancun and the rest of the Yucatan peninsula have some of the best beaches in Mexico. We returned this time for a relaxing beach vacation as well as a chance to delve a bit further into this well known, but rarely truly known city in Southern Mexico. For us, that means finding the markets and tasting the food.
First, you need to find out “where the locals go.” This is harder than it sounds, because when you ask a local, the question that is actually answered is “where a tourist might find clean and fancy and not too spicy.” This is not a good way to find the local hole-in-the-wall with the best sopes. It’s also not a good way to find out where to buy groceries and supplies– tourists are generally given directions to Walmart (really), when the local supermarkets Comercial Mexicana or Chedraui are equally clean and well-stocked, but so much more local. But with repeated questioning in my husband’s enthusiastic Español, we discovered some gems.
To Market, To Market
Any long-time reader of this blog will know that I always visit the local market within days of my arrival, anywhere in the world. People tried to direct me to Cancun’s Mercado 28 for a sanitized version of a Mexican market, but I wasn’t in the mood for overpriced souvenirs. Instead, we took a bus (OK, the tourist bus, an air-conditioned coach with videos on the TV, but only 85 pesos (less than $1) for the long ride into central Cancun that would have been a good $25) to Mercado 23. When we asked for directions to Mercado 23, the driver (and several curious local passengers) looked surprised. Sure, the mercado doesn’t look like a tourist attraction– it’s small, just a few blocks of loosely connected stalls in either direction, but certainly full of character. You could buy everything from basic groceries to huaraches to prepared food here. If you’re looking for crafts and souvenirs, there are a few stalls and one large store selling a good supply of intricately embroidered huipiles and Mexican pottery, and you really won’t get a hard sell. Be prepared to speak Spanish. To get there, take the tourist bus, route 1, and get off on Avenida Tulum near the main Cancun bus terminal and Comercial Mexicana, the large supermarket. It will be across the street, on the left, a few blocks in.
While the North American concept of Mexican food is fairly homogenized, the variety of regional cuisines across Mexico is endless and wonderful. Sure, we had some standards– tacos, quesadillas and chilaquiles.
But we were more interested in the local and unknown to us. Yucatecan food has influences from the native Mayans as well as the cultures of the Caribbean, Spain, the Middle East and Northern Africa. We noticed this tiny pink restaurant with a Mayan name we couldn’t understand, seating no more than 8 people at a time, and saw that it was always full of happy looking diners.
We came for the tamales. A local version, tamales colados (Yucatecan pudding tomales), drew us in. These large tamales are wrapped in a banana leaf (instead of the corn husks more common in other parts of Mexico) before steaming. They contain a very moist masa filled with shredded chicken, diced tomato and hard-boiled egg.
(Incongruously, this reminded me of a steamed rice cake dish from Tainan, in Southern Taiwan– wa gui.) We asked our lovely server, Victor, about the permanent menu posted on the wall, and were told it was for lunch only:
I recognized the words “poc chuc” from the name of the restaurant, but had no idea what this Mayan word, obviously the specialty of the casa, might be. This is a Yucatecan classic, pork that has been marinated in citrus and achiote, then grilled. It’s served with rice, a thin black bean puree, cabbage slaw, an incredibly sweet grilled onion and tortillas. The assertive marinade used for grilled meat is reminiscent of Jamaica’s jerk chicken.
We were happy to have chosen accommodations at the far end of the Zona Hoteleria in Cancun, far from Señor Frogs and Coco Bongo and other places I don’t think I need to experience (I should tell my 85 year old neighbor that’s where those spring break girls are). This meant almost empty beaches and a serenity you couldn’t imagine in a tourist destination like Cancun. But we also spent half of our trip on a getaway island, Isla Mujeres. This is an easy 15 minute ferry ride from the tourist central part of Cancun, and a world away in tempo. It’s a 4 mile long island, and it’s all beach. There are taxis, but you’re more likely to see people riding around on golf carts or scooter, or simply walking. It’s a popular and inexpensive day trip for locals, but if you stay for longer, you’ll definitely unwind. The beaches are beautiful, in particular Playa Norte, and there’s also a lot of other nature to explore. Waking up to birdsong in the morning sure beats an alarm clock.
Isla Mujeres is where we discovered our poc chuc restaurant where we ate three consecutive nights. We were also in walking distance of Mango Cafe, every expat’s favorite breakfast place, where the friendly staff serves Mexican-influenced North American breakfast favorites as well as North-American-influenced Mexican dishes, such as my chile relleno filled with bacon and eggs. A brilliant idea!
I haven’t had a chance to try making poc chuc yet, but there a great looking recipe by Rick Bayless on Jun Belen’s blog.
Read about an interesting bit of Mexican history and try my chilaquiles verdes.
And don’t forget the perfect margarita to wash it all down.
This post is for #LetsLunch, a monthly virtual potluck on Twitter. This month’s theme is Spring Break. If you’d like to join us, just tag and tweet your post #LetsLunch and join in the fun. Please read these other tales of spring break from other members of the #LetsLunch group.
Emma’s Mickey-plated Pizza at Dreaming of Pot and Pans
Jill’s Basil-Infused Cotillion Cocktail at Eating My Words
Lucy’s Pepperoni Pizza Swirl Muffins at A Cook and Her Books
Lisa’s Beetroot and Salmon with Horseradish at Monday Morning Cooking Club
Linda’s Instant Carrot Cake at Free Range Cookies
Karen’s Sourdough Sandwich Bread at Geofooding
Ann Marie’s Mofongo with Ground Beef at Sandwich Surprise
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Wow, I feel like I’ve been on vacation. And what a tamale! Beautiful.
Glad you enjoyed it! The tamale was amazingly moist and flavorful– I hope I can find some back home, too.
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You’re an armchair traveler’s dream tour guide. Feeling fat and happy and slightly sunburned after this tour of the Yucatan.
Thanks so much, Lucy! Glad to share my travel photos with you.
Great article! I’m considering a trip to Cancun because I’m craving some cheap sun and swimming …. Would you have accommodation to recommend? (Without the spring break girls!)
Hi Johanna, thanks for the comment. We stayed at the Westin, which is not always the most budget-friendly option, but can be if you look out for specials and deals. That end of Cancun is where I’d recommend staying (far from the center, next to Club Med). But for less expensive , more laid back beach, I’d really recommend Isla Mujeres, where there are tons of inexpensive places to stay. Let me know if you go!
You are indeed an armchair traveler’s dream tour guide! And a gastronomic one to boot! Great post Spicebox xx
You are making me so hungry! What a lovely post about the Yucatan. Looks like a paradise for foodies!
Thanks, Mia. There’s still a lot of Yucatecan food I didn’t have a chance to explore. What’s most interesting about it is its diverse influences. I’m planning to explore other Mexican regional cuisine as well– one day, will have to make the gastronomic pilgrimage to Puebla!
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Wow!! Great post Linda! I’m looking forward to Isla Mujeres even more now.
Have a great time!
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Thanks for the post, great info. I am looking for a kitchen shop around the market. do you know if there is one? If you can reply also to my email address that would be great.
I don’t remember if there is a kitchen shop there, but the market is a very typical Mexican urban market. Hope you get a chance to check it out! Report back if you do! Buen viaje!