I’m not a water baby and had no intention of swimming in the cenote, which is of course all the rage when you go to one. My bead was on the restaurant (exactly as it was at Sotuta de Peon) which features a wide array of Yucatecan cuisine. The facility is not very large but it’s quite pleasant. As you see in the pics there are several palapa huts for dining and hanging out. There’s a swimming pool, as well, which seemed as popular with swimmers as the cenote itself. It was a hot day when I went — as are all days in Yucatan in September, to be honest — but the shade of the huts rendered the sun a much milder manifestation and the breeze kept things cooled off another few degrees so I was comfortable the whole time I was there.
As Wikipedia mentions, not all cenotes have a window above them: “… smaller sheltered sites and do not necessarily have any surface exposed water.” As you can see in the last two pics the Cenote de San Ignacio is one of the underground ones. The stairwell down to the cenote had a decidedly Plutonian look to it but I plucked up my bravery and descended. It was stuffy and humid. There were lightbulbs (bare, of course) strategically placed around the site to illuminate the cenote, which would otherwise be in pitch darkness because it’s subterranean. There were a few families cavorting in the shallow water, but after the drive from Merida it only took about five minutes down below for my stomach to urge me back into the daylight, headed for the restaurant. That’s where the real fun began.
The restaurant is a large, open-air building fitted with a typical Maya roof — timber structure covered with palm leaves. Here’s a look into the rafters:
Curiously enough such roofs are spendy things to build — according to information I had from one local informant. They’re labor intensive and cost much more than a conventional modern roof. From my perspective as a customer I thought the expense well worth it, since sitting in an open air building with a roof like the ones the Mayas themselves made added a nice feel to the place.
But the food was what drew me because I’d gone through the menu on the organizational website. Here’s what I found for “entradas” (entrees):
Even if you speak Spanish the names of the dishes may well be unfamiliar since we’re not in the world of tacos, enchiladas or burritos that we know from the Tex-Mex cuisine common in the States. Yucatecan food is quite different and some of the names of dishes are Mayan, not Spanish. So let’s have a closer look at the dishes in the screenshot and see what’s up.
Panuchos have their own Wikipedia page so let me quote:
Panucho is a Mexican food specialty from the Yucatán made with a refried tortilla that is stuffed with refried black beans and topped with chopped cabbage, pulled chicken or turkey, tomato, pickled red onion, avocado, and pickled jalapeño pepper.
I would add that panuchos can also be topped with pit-roasted pork called cochinita pibil which is a major taste treat.
Sikil pac is obviously Mayan, not Spanish. It’s Mayan guacamole, made with pumpkin seeds instead of avocado. It’s an accompaniment just like guacamole and you’ll usually find a blob of it on the plate along with whatever else you’ve ordered. It’s an unusual and pleasant flavor that I grew to like a lot during my two weeks in the Yucatan. Pumpkin seeds are called pepitas in Spanish, but I’ve never come across the dish called by a recognizable Spanish name such as salsa de pepitas so just remember the Mayan name and you’re golden.
Salbutes are the Mayan answer to tostadas. Here’s a description from their Wikipedia page:
A salbut is a puffed deep fried tortilla that is topped with lettuce, sliced avocado, pulled chicken or turkey, tomato and pickled red onion. Salbutes originate from the Yucatán peninsula and are a staple in Belize.
Codzitos are one dish I never tried during my trip, not for lack of interest on my part but because they weren’t easy to come by and there were too many other things to try when I was at a restaurant that offered them. Here’s the skinny on them from tasteatlas.com:
Codzitos is a Yucatecan dish consisting of fried tortilla rolls. The name of the dish is derived from the Mayan word koots (codz), meaning to roll. In order to prepare it, stale tortillas are stuffed with shredded meat (usually pork or chicken) and cheese, then fried.
Originally, codzitos were invented as a way to use up leftover tortillas. When served, this appetizer is traditionally topped with homemade tomato salsa, and it can be garnished with grated cheese and cilantro.
Chayitas require a bit more explanation because the defining ingredient, chaya, is a Yucatecan thing not common elsewhere in Mexico. I was completely unfamiliar with it and first encountered it as deep fried thingeys on a plate of Yucatecan traditional foods. It’s kind of like Japanese seaweed in texture. Personally I don’t find it a wow moment, but hey, you go with the flow. Here’s some info from the website alinteriordelestado.com:
La planta conocida comúnmente como Chaya, es endémica de la Península de Yucatán. El grupo mesoamericano maya le llamaba chay, su nomenclatura científica es Cnidoscolus aconitifolius. Y desde entonces ha sido elemento sustancial de la dieta del habitante de esta tierra, y día con día investigaciones de rigurosidad científica le aducen propiedades medicinales importantes que abonan a su importancia, aconsejable en la ingesta diaria.
Esta simpática planta, cuya creencia popular reza que sólo provoca comezón al tacto a quien no pertenece a la raza maya, puede figurar en el desayuno, en el almuerzo o en la cena; en el desayuno, se puede preparar con huevo, en una comida formal es protagonista de empanadas, tamales y también sus hojas pueden ponérsele al tradicional Puchero. También se puede disfrutar en una mitigante agua fresca, con limón.
[The plant commonly known as “chaya” is endemic to the Yucatan Peninsula. The Mayans called it “chay” and its botanical name is Cnidoscolus aconitifolius. It’s long been an important regional footstuff and scientific investigations continually discover new medicinal properties that recommend it as a daily menu item.
This useful plant, which in popular belief only causes skin irritation when touched by non-Mayans, can be used for breakfast, lunch or dinner; for breakfast it can be prepared with eggs, in a formal dinner it can figure in empanadas, tamales or in traditional puchero. It can also be used in a fresh juice drink with lime.]
Polcanes are tasty tidbits on the order of tostadas. Here’s the word once again from alinteriordelestado.com:
El popular “polcán” está hecho de masa de maíz y relleno de cebollina, pepita de calabaza molida e “ibes” (un frijol blanco particular de nuestra región), está combinación de ingredientes del relleno se le conoce como “toksel”. Por cierto, “Polcan” proviene de la lengua maya, “Pol” que significa cabeza y “can” serpiente, y crea el nombre “polcán” cabeza de serpiente.
[The popular “polcan” is made with corn masa filled with onion, ground pumpkin seed and “ibes” (a whilte bean special to our region), this combination of ingredients as a filling is called “toksel.” To be sure, “polcan” comes from the Mayan language. “Pol” means “head” and “can” snake, which gives the name “polcan,” snakehead.]
I suppose if you’re Mayan the idea of eating snakeheads has its place in the scheme of things. I’m good with thinking of them as a Mayan variation of tostadas. 🙂
To the list above I’ll add one more common Yucatecan dish: papadzules. I had them several times and like them a lot. They’re corn tortillas filled with chopped hardboiled eggs and covered in a sauce made with ground pumpkin seeds. Yummy!
At the bottom of the menu screenshot you see the name “Platon botanero.” It’s a platter made up of different Yucatecan specialties, so let’s take a closer look:
When I came across this option it took about 2 seconds to decide that was the thing for me. And oh boy was it a good choice. Here’s a pic of what came out of the kitchen:
And yes, it tasted as good as it looks. 🙂
There’s one other thing I’ll mention about Yucatecan food. It’s a calorie fiesta as well as a party for your taste buds. After two weeks of chowing down on such delectable things as you see in the pic above I headed home with the firm resolution to eat nothing but salad for two weeks so that my middle could regain is previously svelte proportions. I did no scientific calculations concerning how much my waistline increased after each meal of Yucatecan delicacies, but the cumulative effect was noticeable after two weeks. So just be aware, it’s not a slimming diet by any stretch of the imagination.
I’m still amazed that my friend from Merida had never heard of the Cenote de San Ignacio. If ever you happen to find yourself in Merida and want a lovely day trip heading south, I’d recommend putting the Cenote on your bucket list. The drive is pleasant and you can easily while away a morning, an afternoon or an entire day at the Cenote. I’m here to sing its praises and encourage more expat tourists to discover its charms. Two thumbs up!