A Moveable Feast: Yucatan cuisine makes up for Cancun’s buffet of debauchery

FEB. 17, 2012

CANCUN, Mexico – Truth be told, the ancient Mayans didn’t really believe the world would end in 2012 A.D. However, if they ever went to Cancun today they might change their minds.

The mega-hyped beach resort has gone from a fishing village in the 1970s to a pitiful Mexican theme park, complete with Bubba Gumps, ESPNZone and more drunk college kids than Auburn-Alabama weekend.

About the only thing Mayan in Cancun is the occasional hotel maid. She must look at the Sigma Chi rush chairman stumbling around in a sombrero and wonder what has happened to her proud, 3,500-year-old culture.

Where she finds it is the same place I did: the dining table.

The Mayans settled in the Yucatan peninsula in about 2,400 B.C. and their food is still the star of la cocina Yucateca. I recently spent a week in the Yucatan and found Mayan cooking my highlight, along with an unspoiled island with golf carts but no golf courses called Isla Holbox.

Food in Mexico is opposite of the weather: The more south the less hot it is. The guacamole was as tasteless as ground meal.

The Mayan food, however, involved bananas and fresh vegetables and pork simmering all day. Words of Mayan cuisine made my mouth water for the entire four-hour flight to Cancun.

In downtown Cancun away from the strip, the barkers outside the restaurants are only slight less annoying. La Parilla is a pleasant, open-air restaurant priding itself in varied Mexican cuisine. I trusted it merely due to its establishment in 1975, before the first tanked Texan showed up.

Here my first meal in Yucatan was the most traditional of Mayan specialties. I had pibil fish filet. Pib means “hole in the ground” in Mayan. While the waiter didn’t appreciate my

suggestion to change Cancun’s name to Pib Town, the dish was an authentic anecdote to the city’s Denny’s-like atmosphere.

For centuries, Mayans have used a technique called al pibil. They rub various meats with recado rojo, an inviting mixture of local herbs, spices, chilies and vinegar.

The meat is then wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in the ground for up to eight hours. My luscious dish came out covered in a simmering blanket of tomatoes, onions and peppers all laid out prettily on a big plantain leaf.

To continue my Mayan crawl, however, I had to do one thing: I fled Cancun like a vampire at sunrise.

At my hotel coffee shop, I had just eaten the worst French toast of my life, a cold, soggy substance more appropriate for mopping up spilled motor oil than for human consumption.

I took a four-hour bus ride around the northeast corner of the Yucatan peninsula and an hour ferry ride to Isla Holbox. Only 18 miles long and barely a mile wide, Isla Holbox is one long continuous, white-sand beach too tranquil for any cars to exist.

Golf carts navigate passengers along the sand and dirt paths. Boats take you to see brown pelicans feeding their chicks in bird sanctuaries, dolphins playing in the lagoon and 20-foot whale sharks migrating in the summer.

Here is what rural Mexican dining is all about. However, Mayan cuisine also gives way to seafood. Still, the coconut-encrusted fish at the Caribbean-style restaurant, La Isla del Colibri, tasted so sweet it could be sold at Godiva.

Also, the intangibles in Isla Holbox are priceless. At El Farito, simply a wood patio with a big open window looking into the crude kitchen, the waiter let me cross the path to a tiny grocery for cheap bottles of cold Victoria beer to go with my steak burrito.

But to get real Mayan cuisine, I had to go to the heart of the Mayan nation. Vallodolid, about 50 miles from Cancun, sits in the middle of Yucatan’s most famous Mayan ruins: Chichen Itza, Ek-Balan and Tulum.

Featuring a large, pleasant plaza with lush grass right out of Augusta National, Vallodolid is populated with Mayan descendents, short, dark, handsome people, many of whom only speak Yucatec Maya.

And if you want them to laugh, ask about their ancestors’ prediction that the world ends on Dec. 21, 2012. What the ancient chroniclers meant was Dec. 12 marks the end of the 13th Bak’tun, the 400-year period in the Mayan long-count calendar.

Another calendar starts Dec. 22. Relax, folks. Have a shot.

The hosteria at my Hotel El Meson del Marques looks like the dining room of a Spanish land baron: Spanish colonial architecture, dating to the 17th century, with snow-white archways and hanging ferns surrounded a bubbling fountain.

Here is where I had Mayan cuisine dating back when the Mayans were a growing intellectual force in the 3rd century. My classic cochinita pibil was a hunk of shredded pork simmering in tomato sauce atop a banana leaf and sitting in a crude tin box.

The next morning, I had the Mayan breakfast dish: chilaquiles. They take the previous day’s tortilla chips and mix it with chicken, green chili and onion. The chips are soft. The chicken-chili mix is full of flavor. It’s like a Mayan scramble.

It’s the perfect filling for the two-hour bus ride back to Cancun. After exploring true cocina Yucateca, you’re glad the world won’t end.