The Yucatan and the Maya Culture (Part 1)


When the name of Mexico comes up today, most people think of the border wall President Trump is itching to build.  Instead, when I think of Mexico, I recollect a recent visit to the Yucatan and the richness of my experience while there.  Between the people and their vibrant history, culture, and cuisine, it was among my most fascinating recent travel experiences.

Memories of Merida

As part of a culinary trip organized by the Mexico City chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier—the preeminent international organization of women in the food, fine beverage, and hospitality industries—I spent four days in and around the city of Merida.  Merida is known as the “white city” in the Yucatan, one of Mexico's 31states. Why white?  Because its streets and many of its buildings are constructed of local limestone; plus, the streets are cleaned twice daily.  Another interesting sidebar is that the drug lords have declared this a safe haven city which is definitely a selling point for tourists.

This is also the region that gave us the ancient Maya civilization which dates back to 2,600 BC.  It reached its peak between 300 and 900 AD gradually losing its power starting in the 1600s when the Spanish Conquistadors landed.  This was followed by other European and Middle Eastern visitors who arrived in the region's numerous ports to trade.  Each successive wave left its mark on the culture, architecture and cuisine of the region but did not diminish the enduring power of the Maya language.

Meeting the Modern Maya

In fact, today the Maya language is spoken by over 1.5 million Mexicans, the majority of whom live in the Yucatan Peninsula.  The Maya language is actually a "family" comprised of over 28 distinctive languages, although with many linguistic similarities.

One of my fellow travelers, Joan Brower, described it best: “Fascinating to me was learning that Maya is very much a living language that we heard spoken every day during our trip -- on the streets, in the food market we visited, and in phrases that we were told were mixed with Spanish.  Tour guides on our trip to the archeological site of Chichen Itza spoke in two languages, as did the participants at the "blessing" ceremony during our first evening reception -- Maya was spoken first, then translated into Spanish, and finally into English.”

In the city of Merida, 60% of the locals are of Maya ethnicity.  We were surrounded by the local Maya population and reminded of their great civilization by their distinctive appearance. Facial structure and physical stature were the same as what we saw repeatedly in hieroglyphics inscribed on ancient monuments.  Distinctive jewelry motifs and finely embroidered fabrics worn daily by the locals also reflected the ancient artistry.

As Joan recounted, “It was interesting to learn of the juxtaposition of a beautiful -- but brutal -- civilization. The Maya were warriors who routinely made human sacrifices to their gods, and yet their art was (and still is) sensitive and intricate.  And they were a highly sophisticated people with a fully developed writing system, ambitious art and architecture, and mathematical and astronomical systems that aided in planting and harvesting.  Their calendar, we were told, is as precise today as it was 2,000 years ago.”

Part 2 of this post will cover the ancient and modern cuisine of the region. One of my major references —and a must read for anyone seriously interested in Yucatecan cuisine—was Yucatán, Recipes from a Culinary Expedition by David Sterling.  This is a deeply researched and beautifully photographed encyclopedia of the region’s cooking.   David, who passed away several years ago, lived in Merida where he had a highly regarded cooking school, Las Dos.

Photo of Chichen Itza courtesy of Cici Williamson