Whether you are a first-time visitor or a seasoned traveler looking to go deeper than on a previous trip to the Yucatán Península, a traditional cooking/foodie or village experience is something you’ll definitely want to partake in.
Called Cocinas Tradicionales (traditional kitchens) and Aldeas Mayas (Maya villages), the attraction is to immerse oneself in Maya culture for a few hours. Advertised and promoted as the new and latest thing to do, the objective is to come away with a better understanding of what goes into the preparation of the traditional foods we eat and the ingredients used to prepare them, as well as to see a little of life in and around the villages or towns where these experiences can be had.
How to choose such an experience when there are now so many, as some are inevitably going to be better than others? By “better” I mean gaining a far greater appreciation and understanding of the culture and people and not feeling like a spectator or, worse, an intruder, into the life of the people you have spent time with.
Each village, each group of local entrepreneurs, puts their own stamp on what it is they do, but there are some basics that are offered or at least referenced:
Making fresh corn tortillas by hand on the traditional comal and cooking fire
A must and offered by practically all the cooking/food preparation attractions out there. Sitting around a cooking fire, built between three stones and topped with a flat “comal” or griddle, guests sit on knee-high stools around a small wooden table and pat out tortillas with varying degrees of success. The process is led by a Maya woman dressed in the traditional hipil, whose patience and engagement are vital to this part of the experience
Cooking in a Pib or pit
Many dishes are traditionally cooked in a Pib or an earth oven; hence the name “Pibil”. This is standard in many traditional village kitchens, although in today’s fast-paced society and city life, the oven is the favored method. But purists swear that the smoky aroma of food cooked in the traditional way is far superior and so, the Pib is a staple element of any demonstrative Yucatecan cooking experience. Depending on your time, this process can be participated in from scratch (building the fire, preparing and placing the dish onto the hot stones, and covering it up) or it can be pre-prepared where you will just see the process, and the food will be magically cooked à la a pre-taped cooking show.
A display of traditional ingredients
This is a table set up with a series of containers, usually “Jícaras” or gourds, with the different ingredients on display. From the blood-red annatto seeds (achiote) to the local basil and oregano, all are fresh, aromatic and should be explained to give you a better idea of what they add to the recipe
How to choose your traditional maya cooking experience
When choosing where to go, check the photos. Look for:
Fresh flowers, natural materials like jicaras (gourds), wooden utensils, and family members (or others involved in the process) wearing traditional clothing.
- A small group atmosphere; avoid what look like places that are set up for visits from busloads of tourists.
- Images of guests like yourself actually taking part in the preparation of the foods and accompaniments.
- The Pib, fire-blackened pots and pans, stacks of firewood, trees and plants, and the traditional cooking fire.
Three tried and true cocinas tradicionales (traditional kitchen workshops) in yucatán
Of course, I have not visited all the “cocinas tradicionales” but I have a few favorites that are definitely worth visiting. All are available through local guides and select tour companies, or you can make reservations directly with the folks through social media or by contacting them directly.
Aldea X’Batun – Valladolid
This is a few minutes drive from the center of Valladolid, just off the Periférico or ring road that encircles this once-sleepy and now rapidly expanding city, located halfway between Mérida and Cancún.
The reception upon arrival is smilingly warm and authentic, and you’ll be offered a cool refreshing drink. Trees, vegetation, and the sound of birds are all around you. One can feel a lot of positive female energy here and your hostesses are unfailingly patient and really care about your experience. The open kitchen features a communal table large enough so that a family or group of friends can help with the chopping, mixing, and preparation of the day’s meal. There are hammocks for resting between activities, under the shade of endemic trees that have been not only saved, but incorporated into the design of the entire property. You can visit their Huerta (garden) where herbs and edible plants are grown and if you like, you can even stay the night in a traditional Casa Maya to enjoy the full immersion experience. If I had to choose one word to sum up this experience, it would be “harmony” .
The experience can be three to five hours long, depending on what the menu is and how much fun you are having.
Local restaurateur and man with a vision José Cen answers all inquiries at 985 852 6555.
La Chozita Xa’ Anil Nah – Santa Elena
Merely 90 minutes from Mérida is the village of Santa Elena, formerly known as Nohcacab, a perfect lunch spot after Uxmal and Kabah. There, your hosts at La Chozita will offer a short demo/explanation of the food to be served and a refreshing natural beverage. The meal has been prepared beforehand and is enjoyed under the shade of citrus trees. You may accompany the ladies patting out fresh corn tortillas over the traditional cooking fire.
Other activities include Pib cooking and visiting a local native Melipona (stingless) bee farm where Maya beekeepers nurture and cultivate the fragile species and commercialize its highly-prized honey.
Xa’ Anil Nah is interesting as it is entirely run by a group of dedicated local women, spearheaded by Gladys Collí, a quiet but insistent promoter of her town and people, who skillfully navigates the challenging mindset of a small Yucatecan town and modern demands of sustainable tourism. You can reach her at 997 133 5768
La Chozita Xa’ Anil Nah
Santa Elena, Yucatán
Tel. 997 133 5768
Ya’axche Restaurant and Classes/Workshop – Halachó
Ya’axche is an excellent option run by local celebrity chef Wilson Alonzo, who offers several options from in-restaurant dining (weekends only) and classes to full-on workshops. The latter includes a market visit where you will meet the locals and buy fresh ingredients for the day, the complete preparation of a Pib, and all the food to be had during the visit. I recommend dedicating time for the workshop (which can run up to six hours or so)—you will come away totally satisfied, well-fed, and imbued with the warm feeling of this welcoming experience.
Along with family members and neighbors, local culinary students from Universidad Tecnológica del Poniente (in Maxcanú) provide support for the activities. An amazing day. At the time of this writing, you can contact Ya’axche via Albert Suárez at 997 151 0862
Whichever destination you choose, slow down, keep an open mind and heart and you will have an excellent memory to cherish for a lifetime.
Google maps: Yaaxche Centro Etnogastronómico /Quinta Santa Cruz
Alberto Suárez 997 151 0862
By Ralf Hollmann
A Yucatecan born in Germany and raised in Canada, with a degree in Hospitality and Tourism from the British Columbia Institute of Technology. Ralf has experience in leisure tourism, journalism, research, editing, writing, and creative writing. He’s also a musician.
Photography by La Chozita Xa’ Anil Nah, Carlos Rosado, Olivia Camarena Cervera, and Alicia Navarrete for use in Yucatán Today.
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