By nature of having been raised in the diverse mecca that is Vancouver, I was exposed to every type of immigrant community from around the city. Growing up I had a large Mexican contingent, and as such I’ve had the opportunity to visit many of my friends across a polarizing variety of states in their natal and proud Mexico. During one of my visits down South, I was completely taken aback by the simplicity of life, profounding depth of the Mayan culture, and surrounding natural beauty of the Yucatán Peninsula, also known as the Mayan Riviera.
We all have that special travel destination that keeps luring us back year after year. It is familiar and we can navigate it with ease, we make an extra effort to communicate with the locals and in turn they start to recognize us on the street. Having recently visited the peninsula, Zara and I decided to split our three weeks between two base anchors, the first in Puerto Morelos and the second leg in Tulum.
The town of Puerto Morelos, located halfway between the hectic and overpopulated cities of Cancún and Playa del Carmen, has never quite taken off in terms of development and tourism. Sure, there are plenty of opulent beach resorts interpolating the majority of the coast, but thank the heavens they are far enough away from this sleepy little town. We prefer not to travel anywhere during high tourist seasons, yet in this case we broke the cardinal rule as it is a great time to visit Puerto Morelos from around December through April as the weather is agreeable and local businesses are fully functioning; and by weather I mean it’s not during tornado season nor is it 95% humidity.
While in Puerto we rented a room from a laid back and friendly Canadian couple that offered the perfect beach front lodging. The town has a growing number of established ex-pats hailing from Eastern Canada, U.S., Argentina and other countries, which balances out nicely with the local community.
No trip to this lush and remote location is complete without visiting any of the most popular or lesser known Mayan pyramids.
The entrance into Puerto Morelos is dissected by the main road linking El Zocalo (town square) with the village of La Colonia, and eventually the highway. On either side of the road are the mangroves, which connect to both underground fresh water ways and the Caribbean sea. Sometimes you’ll be able to spot alligators basking by the banks, which joggers and day dreamers should be mindful of.
There are thousands of primordial underground water networks, regionally known as cenotes, and many that have yet to be found. According to the locals I’ve spoken to, apparently the best way to find them is by following the Quetzal bird as it eventually finds refuge in these subterranean water deposits. Mayans are also highly superstitious people and can tell a great story, especially when it comes to the fascinating tales of the elusive and mischievous alux.
The Punta Allen village located towards the end of the Boca Paila peninsula and the nearby Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is a prime destination for sports fishermen from all around, but as luck would have it this time around it was almost impossible to get there due to poor road conditions. Instead, we opted for going out near our stay by hiring a boat by the historic lighthouse.
Once we were out at sea we started trolling the water to catch some fish from the surface. The first one we landed was a barracuda, the locals eat it so I was happy to part ways with it by giving it to the skipper. Following our fishing excursion further in the ocean, Zara and I put on our fins as we got closer to shore and dove right into the water to snorkel around the now protected reef.
That afternoon we brought in a decent bounty and as with the first time I visited the Mayan Riviera more than twelve years ago, we brought the smaller catch to a local restaurant, El Pesquero, to have the fish prepared for us.
The following day, we prepped, grilled the snapper, and imbibed in the company of our wonderful hosts.
- 1 large red onion
- Salt and pepper to taste
- ½ cup pre-made achiote paste
- ½ tsp dried oregano
- ½ teaspoon cumin seed
- 3 cloves
- 5 dried allspice berries
- 2 small tomatoes
- 4 garlic cloves, mashed into a paste
- A fistful of thickly minced cilantro leaves
- Banana leaves
- ½ cup sweet orange juice
- ¼ cup sour orange juice. Alternatively use grapefruit or lime juice.
- 2 medium size potatoes, peeled or non-peeled (optional)
- 2 tbsp minced fresh epazote or 1 tbsp crushed dry epazote leaves. Dry epazote leaves have a stronger flavor than fresh ones.
- 1 cleaned 4 lb. snapper, halibut, sea bass or any fish that can withstand heat from the grill.
- Slice the large red onion into ⅓ of an inch rings and cut the potatoes into cubes.
- The marinade: Place achiote, garlic paste and oregano in a medium sized stainless steel or glass bowl and set aside. In a dry skillet over medium heat, lightly toast cumin, cloves and allspice until their fragrance is released — about a minute or so. Grind the spices to a powder form then add them to the bowl. Add one large pinch salt and sweet and bitter orange juice and form into a paste by breaking down the achiote with the liquids and spices until it becomes a thick sauce. If the sauce is too thick, add more juice. Note: you can substitute bitter orange with grapefruit or lime juice. Also, achiote is rich in color and may stain surfaces and clothing.
- Season both sides of the fish with salt and pepper. Cover both sides of the fish with the marinade. Chill for 30 minutes (or up to 2 hours) to let the marinade seep through.
- Slice banana leaves into large sheets or set aside the aluminum foil (which is what we had that day). Soften the banana leaves by passing them briefly over a stovetop burner or by rinsing them with hot water before patting dry. Layer the leaves twice on the baking sheet and place fish on it with the skin-side down.
- Evenly sprinkle the fish with the chopped tomatoes and any remaining juices, cilantro, epazote and potatoes, and finally arrange the onion rings over the entire length of the fish. Sprinkle with a little juice before wrapping it up. Lay down some additional leaves on top, then wrap like a package by tying it with string or thin strips of leaf.
- Bake for 25 minutes, then remove and let package rest, unopened, for 15 minutes.
- We used potatoes for this dish, but they are entirely optional. I would suggest to boil them in water ahead of time until half cooked before adding them with the rest of the ingredients. The prep time above is for a dish without them, so adjust the time accordingly if including potatoes.
- You can also use pico de gallo instead of separately adding tomatoes and cilantro.
- If you are like me and love some heat and a spicy bite, feel free to add 1 or 2 chopped jalapeños or chili, cayenne or chipotle powder. Whatever floats your boat.
Preparing the fish
Tulum & Valladolid
The remaining chapter of our trip was spent in Tulum with a quick tour to the colonial Yucateca town of Valladolid. I could go on about both places, but they are fully deserving of their own separate stories.
For more on what to do in Puerto Morelos, check out Zara’s post on Eat, Drink, & Be Merry .