When I think of the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, the first thing that comes to mind is the sea. From beaches with warm waters that follow each other from the Gulf of Mexico to the Caribbean Sea. It is on this peninsula that the famous Cancún is located, which I have never been to.
But, I went further south from there, along the so-called Riviera Maya – which then reminds me that the region also inevitably evokes the testimonies of the Mayan civilization, as exuberant as it is intriguing, since it turned to dust without even knowing exactly the reasons.
Because when I think of the Mayans, I also think of the sea. Especially because some of its cities and monuments, whose remains we visit today, overlook the Atlantic Ocean.
This is the case of the ancient port city of Tulum, with its castle perched on the cliff facing the white sand of the beach. Although the remains of the impressive city (and pyramid) of Chichén Itzá are 80 kilometers inland.
With this mindset of someone who remembers the sea when thinking about this region (after all, what can you do, it’s not a peninsula, even if it’s quite chubby), I entered a totally different mood when I got to know Mérida recently.
The tropical, or Caribbean, heat was the same in this city, which is the capital of the state of Yucatán, and is located in the north of the peninsula, facing the Gulf of Mexico (the east, where Cancún, Playa del Carmen, Tulun are located, is that bathes in the Caribbean Sea, in the state of Quintana Roo).
Merida is not on the coast. It doesn’t have the appeal of the sea. Its charm is different.
It’s a colonial city, almost 500 years old, and with a nice scale — it’s an important capital, but with less than a million inhabitants. It has marks of the Mayan culture on which it was built (the ancient city of T’Hó), and also of Spanish colonization.
Old buildings, wooded areas, well-maintained old mansions, museums – including one dedicated to gastronomy. Because gastronomy is one of the local glories.
To begin with, it is certainly one of the best places to eat one of the national glories (typical of Yucatan), the cochinita pibil.
Although its main ingredient, suckling pig, is nowadays commonly baked in the oven, in Mérida it is often found prepared in the traditional way, in which the pig is roasted in a hole in the earth, then shredded and placed on tacos.
Check it out at the taqueria La Lupita (@taquerialalupitacom, inside the Santiago market), or at the Manjarblanco restaurant, which gained fame by appearing in a Netflix series.
There is no shortage of modern restaurants and more daring chefs in the city, such as the famous Huniik, by chef Roberto Solis. But you have to start from the beginning, especially given the traditions of Yucatan cuisine.
Given the primacy of corn among cereals and local flavors, for example, it is worth visiting Pancho Maíz, temple of this cereal and other native products, delivered in the form of homemade and tasty recipes.
Touring the city, its markets and restaurants, we are confronted with a mixture of pre-Columbian products and processes, but also Spanish influences, modeled on native products.
This is the case with scraps, pastes resulting from the mixture of ground spices, used to season different dishes —depending on the ingredients, they can be white, black or red (this one, made with achiote, or paprika, is essential for cochinita).
And they also give you chaya (spinach) empanadas with cheese, salbutes (a snack made from fried corn dough with seasonings and chicken or other meats), among other temptations.
Yucatán is proof that we know little about Mexican cuisine, which can be as varied as its immense territory.
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