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There was something incredibly welcoming about Izamal. It could have been that as we cycled through the smooth cobbled streets the ochre of the colonial buildings was being warmed by the late evening sun.
It could have also been the sudden bursts of enthusiasm from the otherwise lethargic locals relaxing in their doorways. Either way – this incredibly beautiful, friendly town felt just like what I had romanticised “proper” Mexico to be. And I couldn’t see any signs of any other tourists!
The Yucatan Peninsula
It had been a long day of riding and from the GPS it appeared that we were right in the heart of the Yucatan peninsula. This was confirmed to me by our guide Fernando who told me to “put that thing away” and “see for myself” as we climbed the nearby Mayan temple of Kinich Kakmo.
From the top all I could see was jungle; miles upon miles of jungle that neatly joined with the horizon in all directions. It made you think… without any natural landmarks apart from trees, how the Ancient Maya navigated around this landscape is anyone’s guess.
Dining in the Yucatan
“Now, who’s hungry??” Fernando’s words immediately brought us back from the edge of the jungle and ancient civilisations to the present moment where bellies were indeed rumbling. “It is your lucky day amigos. In my opinion, Izamal is home to the best dish in all of Mexico”.
The best dish in all of Mexico… We were three days into our cycling trip and we had already dined like kings. Exquisite tacos, succulent chicken marinated in various local spices, fresh guacamole and frijoles seemed to be the norm in the Yucatan, however, this dish, as explained by Fernando, was very special indeed.
As we sat down to eat at a restaurant tucked down the side streets, Fernando insisted that we not waste our time with anything else and let him order for us. About 20 minutes later, everybody was sitting in front of a steaming banana leaf parcel about the size of a small pillow that was bulging at the seams. Eager to get inside we tore into the leaf instantly releasing an aroma of mild spices and citrus.
Holding firm to its Mayan routes, Cochinita Pibil is one of the oldest foods in Mexico. Its preparation involves the roasting of an entire suckling pig, marinated in lemons, limes and vinegar. The high acidic content of the marinade tenderises the meat allowing it to fall apart in your mouth. It is then seasoned with the Annatto seed that is used to make achiote paste and buried in a fire pit wrapped in the banana leaf.
Nowadays you can find this dish throughout Mexico but its origins belong to the Yucatan and the locals of Izamal are proud to call it their own. And so they should be, it was indeed the most delicious thing I tasted on the trip.
Love and affection has gone into making this dish, all from traditional ingredients sourced from the surrounding jungle that we spied from the top of the temple. Travelling by bicycle through the back roads of the Yucatan we were able to stop and interact with the local communities farming these very products, which would have otherwise been completely missed had we travelled by bus.
Tradition was evidently thriving in this small part of Mexico, with many of the Yucatecan villages still speaking Mayan as their first language. Even though mass tourism and hotel giants were only a few hours’ drive away, here was a genuine Mexico clinging to its ancient ways, through food, language and history. I felt privileged to witness it and wondered for how much longer this way of life could avoid the mighty American dollar.
Experience the Yucatan for yourself with our trips below.