Playa del Carmen and the Riviera Maya aren’t the charmless nightmare that is Cancun. True, Señor Frogs and Sandals are there, but there are some hotels that really help you get the most of a real Yucatan experience without camping on the beach in Mayahuel. Here are my three picks:
Maybe the Cancun area is what the Mayans had in mind as the end of world in 2012? Then again, maybe that message was misinterpreted. Yaxché (pronounced jag-shey) is one of the oldest restaurants in Playa del Carmen. Unbelievably, Mayan food is the focal point of the menu. Sure it might be a little bit gimmicky: there’s flaming coffee that I’m fairly certain that the Mayans had no part in. Yet, apart from Cochinita Pibil, Mayan dishes aren’t really utilized in high-end restaurants anywhere in Mexico. Rather than become more gimmicky though, the restaurant is increasingly working with Mayan communities in the Yucatan.
About a month ago I stayed at the Fairmont Mayakoba on the Riviera Maya. While there I was pleasantly surprised with the resorts commitment to sustainability, particularly in their restaurants, two of which are AAA Four Diamond Award Winners. I was impressed with the chef’s garden, use of sustainable seafood and lobster bought from the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, and not shying away from the likes of geoduck, tiradito, and Mexican wines. The Fairmont Mayakoba’s Executive Chef, David Andrews, was kind enough to give us this interview.
It’s a tiny speck of land sitting a short ferry or yacht ride from Cancun. There’s a point where the ferry lands that has become a sort of satellite Cancun atmosphere where 2×1 margarita specials and crummy t-shirts are dime a dozen, but the rest of the island is still enchantingly pure and quiet.
The Riviera Maya on the Caribbean coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula is more traditionally thought of as dead space for the adventurous foodie. Most assume that, like Cancun, it’s filled with American chain restaurants and overpriced resort food. To some extent that’s true, but there is also some excellent street food, regional restaurants not aimed at tourists, and a growing group of internationally trained chefs that are utilizing the products of the Yucatan.
Across from a Mega super store the world’s saddest looking mariachi is playing to a packed open-air grill, Taqueria El Fogón. There’s not an open table in sight. One large horno a la leña, wood fired oven sits on one side of the restaurant. A cook is preparing Tacos Al Pastor. He’s cutting off pork from a tower of spit-roasted meat, a Shawrama like cooking style brought to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants. Beers are served michelada, with hot sauce, limejuice, Worcestershire sauce, and a salted rim. Waiters race across the restaurant with trays of Alambre Beef, Chorizo Quesadillas, and Tacos and Tortas of various fillings. Three bowls of hot sauce sit on every table. It’s lively and local, though a few tourists wander in. When the mariachi is done he packs his things up in a wooden crate and covers it with a black garbage bag and walks off into the night.
Playa del Carmen, Mexico is a city that didn’t really even exist 15 years ago. It’s surrounded by jungle, now the city has been infiltrated by hundreds of hotels and even more restaurants, many of which serve stylish, contemporry food. Being that there was nothing here before and Cancun was never exactly a gastronomic hotspot, where do the chefs come from?