The Riviera Maya, especially in small towns like Tulum or Playa del Carmen, is one of my favorite places to get away and kick back, to eat shrimp tacos and drink mescal without a care in the world, but I could never do that at a huge resort. Here are my favorite small hotels on the Riviera Maya.
James Greenfield of Casa de las Olas is the go to source in Tulum for local fare. He draws everyone staying at Casa de las Olas a map listing taquerias, juice stands, and his local haunts that he has picked up on over the years. Here’s a rundown.
Freddy’s bar at Orient Express’ Maroma Resort and Spa on the Riviera Maya seems a little bit out of ordinary compared with the bars of the neighboring resorts. While Corona and fried chicken wings are being served elsewhere, Freddy’s has a Tequila and Ceviche Bar with more than 100 tequilas paired with a daily variety of six exotic Ceviches created by Executive Chef Chef Juan Pablo Loza.
On an almost unbearably hot day on the Riviera Maya, I came across the Refresco, a tequila based cocktail at Banyan Tree Mayakoba’s Sands restaurant, where the infinity pool joins with the turquoise blue Caribbean water to meet the horizon. As it’s name would lead you to believe, the cocktail is indeed refreshing. Here’s what you need to put in your glass:
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.
Few realize that Cochinita Pibil is actually a Mayan dish. It’s quite common now all over Mexico, especially in the Yucatan where it originated, and I see it often at Mexican restaurants and Taquerias in New York and around the States. Traditionally, cochinita refers to a slow roasted baby pig, though pork shoulder (which is actually pork butt) is more common now. The signature spice in the seasoning is achiote, the orangish-red seeds that give off a deep, earthy flavor and are used habitually in Mayan cooking. Cochinita Pibil is the dish that Rick Bayless won Top Chef Masters with (and his recipe from Mexico One Plate At A Time was very influential in this one).
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.