A Culinary Adventure through the Yucatan Peninsula, Part 2: Achiote, Chayote, and Cenote

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Part 2 of our culinary adventure takes us from five-star food and lodging to the hot and sticky Mayan jungle. But even here, I found some interesting and delicious food ideas to share.

On the day of our 20th anniversary, we rose early, slathered on the biodegradable sunscreen and 100% DEET and headed on our all-day tour of the Mayan ruins at Coba to be followed by an adventure through the Mayan jungle nearby. We signed up with a tour company called alltournative (www.alltournative.com) that runs eco-tours through the Mayan region, providing much-needed jobs to the local people. The tour groups are small and the tour company has gone out of their way to ensure that the tour groups don’t do any harm to the natural environment along the way.

ready to climb Nohoc Mul

The Yucatan Peninsula is probably best known for the ruins of Chichen Itza – which is considered one of the seven wonders of the world and is the second most visited site in all of Mexico. But we chose to visit some Mayan ruins at an archaeological site called Coba, located about 1.5 hours closer than Chichen Itza, which allowed us to combine the visit with our afternoon of high-flying adventure through the jungle. Visitors to the site are still allowed to climb the stairs on the side of the temple (Nohoc Mul) all the way to the top, which affords a fabulous 360 degree view of the surrounding ruins and jungle. (my husband took this panorama and “stitched” it together on the computer).

the panorama from the top of Nohoc Mul in Coba

After a couple of hours viewing their ancient ball courts (the winner was killed – how’s that for a different value system), look-out towers, and temples, we headed further into the jungle for our adrenaline-raising antics. After marveling at the presence of a bank of computers and a modern digital camera in direct contrast to the thatched huts and above ground water and electrical pipes, we headed out in canoes to see if we could spot any spider monkeys. We learned how to make a noise to attract them but apparently we weren’t good enough – none came out to say hi.

traditional Mayan lunch (except for the spaghetti)

Next, we were treated to a traditional, locally made Mayan lunch. I was skeptical, to say the least but heat and hunger urged me to keep an open mind. Our guide described the food and some of the ingredients used. The chicken had a red sauce on it that is made with the seed of the annatto tree. The annatto tree produces seeds ranging in color from yellow to red to black with variations in between. Different colored seeds are used for different purposes from industrial dyes to cooking. The red seed produces a spice called achiote (pronounced ah-chee-oh-tee) which is used in traditional Mayan cooking on the Yucatan peninsula as well as many other cuisines native to the Americas. Achiote has an earthy flavor similar to paprika and saffron. I bought some at the airport on the way home. Here’s what it looks like:

achiote powder made from annatto seed

We were also served a delicious vegetarian soup with chayote (pronounced chahy-oh-tee) in it. I really didn’t want any soup, given the temperature but decided to try it anyhow. It was absolutely delicious. The broth was so light and the chayote, which is a type of squash, was really delicious. The texture was easy to enjoy and the flavor has been described as a blend of cucumber, zucchini and kohlrabi. Here’s what a chayote looks like:

inside and outside of a fresh chayote

After our delicious lunch, we headed off to the cenote (pronounced suh-noh-tee), which is a deep sinkhole in limestone with a pool at the bottom that is found especially in Yucatán (thanks to Merriam Webster online dictionary for that definition). Before we could enter the cenote, we had to participate in an ancient Mayan ritual with the local shaman in order to be allowed to enter what the Mayans consider a holy place. We also had to rinse off all of our sunscreen and bug spray so we didn’t pollute the fresh water. Here you can see the “blessed” family who is now able to rappel into the cenote to cool off.

after the Mayan blessing ritual

Alltournative's photo of the cenote

Yes, that’s right, rappel. There were no steps with a handrail. There was a body harness, figure 8’s, and a rope being controlled by our tour guide and some of the local Mayan people. My husband and son went first while the woman and children of the group worked up our courage. Finally I did it, hoping to encourage my daughter to give it a try. She was quite reticent so the tour guide finally lowered her in on the rope. Once inside the cenote, we sat in an inner tube and floated around. It was so refreshing and a much needed break from the jungle heat. Did I mention that when we first looked down into the cenote there were bats flying around. Did I mention that I went in anyways?

Next stop? Zip lines across a lake with crocodiles in it. I surveyed the area once I arrived at the zip line site to see how long it would take to walk around the lake, rather than zip across it. Given the heat and distance, zip lining seemed more appealing. So we donned our harnesses and helmets (what’s the helmet for anyhow? – how does that protect you while hanging from a rope in mid-air or if you drop into the lake below with biting crocodiles? but I wore it regardless), and one-by-one, we zipped across. Much to my surprise, I actually made it to the other side safe and sound. In fact, the whole group did. We felt very accomplished.

my daughter zip lining across the lake

Now back to the van for the long ride back. We stopped at the tour office to get photos and our surprise finish which turned out to be a well-earned shot of tequila. From our tour guide, Hugo, we learned that the local way to drink it is to dip the slice of lime in the salt, suck on the lime/salt combo, then down the tequila. It was a perfect ending to a most exciting day of history, food, and adventure.

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12 Responses to A Culinary Adventure through the Yucatan Peninsula, Part 2: Achiote, Chayote, and Cenote

  1. Scargosun August 20, 2010 at 7:33 am #

    That looks like an amazing day. I am not sure that I will be able to do that when I go but hope to someday.

    • omgyummy August 20, 2010 at 7:44 am #

      If I can do it, anybody can! Thanks for coming back to visit!

  2. Rosemarie August 22, 2010 at 8:06 am #

    Just popping by from SITS! I just lived vicariously through you – what a wonderful trip!

  3. Julie M. August 22, 2010 at 8:40 am #

    What an amazing adventure you had! You’re taking me back to our trip through Belize and Guatemala five years ago. That is such beautiful country down there. That food looks delicious as well, I remember it like it was yesterday. Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us!

  4. Andrea (Lil-Kid-Things) August 23, 2010 at 7:10 am #

    What a fabulous day! When I was a teen I took 2 different mission trips to the Yucatan and stayed in a village called Senor about 3.5 hours inland. It was such an education! Thanks for sharing your experience. Love your blog!

  5. Lamb August 23, 2010 at 7:22 am #

    Whoa, I love this post! I tried zip lining when I was in 3rd grade, but only because I didn’t know what I was getting into. At that age, it never crosses your mind that it might be dangerous. After all, why would the adults have you try it if it weren’t safe, right? Even though it was fun, I’ve grown up to be waaaaay too much of a worrier to give it another try!

    Also, if you are ever wanting to try a new chayote recipe, there is a pretty good one (if I do say so myself!) on my blog :)

    • omgyummy August 23, 2010 at 8:58 am #

      Hi again! Thanks for popping back by. Thanks for the tip on your recipe for chayote — here’s the link:http://lambaround.blogspot.com/2010/01/i-bought-chayote-squash-now-what.html. It sounds great. I will definitely try it. I put some chayote in a beef stew I made last week and even the kids loved it. It got soft, but not mushy. Another reader suggested making it with curry (as your recipe suggests) or perhaps a cilantro or basil pesto.

      As for the zip-lining, it is so common for kids to do it at camps these days but when I was young, I never did anything like this. But I’m glad I did it. I’m not sure I would categorize it as fu (for me) but it wasn’t as terrifying as I thought it would be either.

  6. Cindy August 23, 2010 at 1:57 pm #

    Crocodiles!!! You sure were brave. did you know crocodiles can eat lions?????

  7. Cheryl August 24, 2010 at 9:27 am #

    Wow! That was just one day of your trip? Amazing! Stopping over from SITS to say hi. Beautiful photos!

  8. Stephanie M at Together In Food December 4, 2010 at 9:40 am #

    I love that you hiked through ruins, rappelled into a cenote, and zip lined on your anniversary. We went to the Yucatan Peninsula for our honeymoon and got lost biking to a cenote tucked away in the jungle…but when we found it — no one there but the two of us — and sat down to enjoy our picnic lunch, it was so memorable and gorgeous. I also enjoyed Mayan food…until I ate it for 12 days straight, as we were staying in a hacienda converted into an inn in the middle of nowhere that served nothing else! Thanks for helping me relive a great trip!

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