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Eat Your Way Around the Yucatán Peninsula (Yucatan Food Guide 2024)

Updated: Apr 25

This is my food guide to Yucatan: the land of Mayan culinary tradition!
In this post, I highlight my favourite places to eat delicious modern and traditional Mexican cuisine on a road trip seeking thrilling food around the Yucatan peninsula and the Mexican Caribbean coast.


Contents


Road Trip Itinerary

Yucatan driving itinerary

Before I delve into the region's gastronomy and my ultimate list of what and where to eat the best food in Yucatan, here are a few tips and tricks for road-tripping the peninsula of Yucatan:

The peninsula includes the states of Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo (a.k.a. Riviera Maya) and road trips can start from either Cancun (usually foreigners as it hosts the largest international airports), Campeche or Mérida, where there's plenty of rental companies and choice. As foreigners, our trip started and ended at the International Airport of Cancun. We traversed the "pueblos mágicos" westwards, to Valladolid, Izamal and then to the capital Mérida where the traditional "pibil" style (slow-cooked meat) tacos dominate, then south at the incredible Mayan city of Uxmal and the "Puuc" route ruins before cutting through the jungle and down to the south-east at the majestic Bacalar which is not (yet) flooded by hordes of tourists and keeps a more laid-back local character. Finally, we drove north towards Tulum and then caught the ferry to Cozumel to taste the region's best seafood.

Driving is one of the best ways to explore the region's cultural treasures and be free to stop and eat anywhere you wish, even at the random roadside street fruit stalls!



We spent 12 days on the road in total (with sleepovers at Valladolid, Merida, Bacalar, Tulum and Cozumel) which was a bit fast-paced and possibly tough if you have not practised road trips with several layovers before. We also had to skip Campeche and a few other places that fellow travel bloggers recommend on their itineraries simply because it would be unrealistic for a family with young kids to add more stops. If I were to do that again, I would plan for 2 weeks at least for this same itinerary to be more relaxed, at a slower pace (slow travel is good for your soul), mostly allowing time to eat in places I liked most for more than once while making it easier for everyone to settle in. Driving in Yucatan is exciting and safe plus the stops for sightseeing work up the perfect appetite for tacos, fresh fruits, tropical smoothies and other local delicacies. Driving is also the best way to see the real beauty of these ancient Mayan lands at your own pace, let alone savour in off-the-beaten-track, well-hidden spots that tour operators will never take you.



Driving Tips for Yucatan

First things first: renting a car is pretty straightforward online and as usual, renting from the big airport-based brands is almost twice the price of renting from smaller companies around the airport. We rented from the local company Premier (which we found on reputable car rental engines) and were pretty happy with the service and support we received throughout our trip. They shuttled us from the airport to their office (just outside the airport), spoke good English, and supported us throughout the trip with WhatsApp messaging, all at a very reasonable rental charge.

Secondly, Yucatan is one of the best places for family-style road trips and I'm listing my top 5 reasons to drive in Yucatan:

  1. The road network is neat and roads are well maintained. Apart from the regular speed bumps, the tarmac is mostly pothole free and there are petrol stations almost everywhere for any time you need them.

  2. It is safe! The not-so-discreet presence of police and special force units (with large guns loaded on massive pickup trucks) cannot go unnoticed; no wonder the region has the lowest crime ratio across Mexico. In a country ridden by drug cartel crime, Yucatan feels like an oasis. Their frequent patrols around the Yucatecan cities and highways will put your mind at ease.

  3. It is stress-free! One thing I noticed (as a trained Greek driver) is that Mexican drivers seem to be pretty laid back and less tempered compared to us (Greeks) or our tempered neighbours (Italians and Turks); another tick in the boxes of stress-free driving vacation.

  4. No long distances; apart from the Merida-Bacalar segment (which is the longest 5-hour drive without any interesting layover in between) all other drive routes are relatively small, ranging from 1 to 3 hours. So it's quite easy to plan your road trip with most points of interest and city layovers being within the 2-3 hour reach from each other.

  5. Driving in Yucatan is affordable; the terrain is flat throughout the peninsula (no steep mountain drives), petrol prices are around 20-30% cheaper compared to Europe and there were only a handful of tolls in the whole 1500km we drove. Parking was easy and usually free in small towns (Valladolid/Izamal/Bacalar) and there a lot of private parking lots in larger cities like Mérida for a small charge. Just make sure you carry cash everywhere as cash is king and even large petrol stations do not support card payments.



Yucatecan Gastronomy

Yucatan has a unique gastronomy that stands out both in Mexico and on the world scene. Forget about Oaxacan moles, tacos al pastor, burritos, fajitas and other Tex-Mex. This is the land of Maya where the local cuisine is heavily influenced by the millennia of Mayan tradition, evolved by Mexican mainland techniques. And that is exactly what makes Mexican food fascinating: its gastronomy is so diverse and different from region to region, state to state and has a wealth of dishes on offer; from humble tacos to fusion fine dining and mouth-watering exotic puddings.


What to eat

The king of all dishes, rooted in the age-long Mayan barbeque tradition with "pib" (meaning an underground earth oven) is Cochinita Pibil (suckling pig), the signature dish of Yucatan. The pork fillets are marinated in a red sauce made of sour orange, achiote seed (which is native to the area) a special spice mix (black pepper, allspice, cumin, cinnamon, garlic and salt) then wrapped in banana leaves and cooked overnight in the pib. The pork is heavenly succulent, juicy and tender, it just literally melts in the mouth. It is served pulled with tortillas, Cebolla morada curtida (special local pickled red onion - get the recipe here) and you can top it with any salsa of your liking, ranging from mild to ridiculously spicy. Cochinita pibil is like a religion in Yucatan and a comfort food that talks straight to your soul; during our travels through the region, we got to try a lot of pibil tacos, so keep reading my city-by-city guide below to find out where the best was.



Another Yucatecan superstar speciality for meat lovers is Poc Chuc a thinly sliced pork fillet seasoned with orange juice and grilled and Sopa de lima (lime soup) best to try in their birthplace, the pueblos magicos of Valladolid, Izamal and Merida. Breakfast lovers can stuff their faces with incredible egg breakfasts like Huevos Rancheros, Chaya con Huevos (Chaya is a local leafy vegetable resembling spinach) or Huevos Motuleños in reasonably priced vibrant and full of youth Mérida. The latter is a dish not served outside the region which may worth trying. It starts with tortillas laid flat on a plate, layered with pureed black beans and fried eggs and topped with peas, sweet plantains and ham before the whole thing is drenched in salsa roja (mild red salsa).

And last, do not leave the country without feasting on fresh seafood tacos and Mexican-style ceviches and tostadas by the Riviera Maya (Bacalar, Tulum and the tropical island of Cozumel). The fish comes out fresh and tasty from the Caribbean and Yucatecans love to make tempura using shredded coconut instead of breadcrumbs! The peninsula is also proud of the Queso Relleno (stuffed cheese) which -truth be told- I did not particularly enjoy as much as the aforementioned signature Yucatecan dishes despite being a huge cheese lover.

Fish Tostadas at Bacalar
Fresh Fish Tostadas at Bacalar

Where to Eat

Valladolid

Best Restaurants at Valladolid: Carolin Boutique📌,  El Habanero📌, Ix Cat Ik📌


The drive from Cancun to Valladolid is around 2.5 hrs and the recommended stay is 2 to 3 days. Valladolid is ideal as a more offbeat base for visiting Chichen Itza and Ek Balam Mayan sites. Being less touristic compared to the Riviera blockbusters (Cancun, Tulum and Playa del Carmen), Valladolid is a fantastic option for backpackers seeking adventure and young families looking for chilled vibes and less crowds at a fraction of the Riviera cost. But Valladolid is not just that. It is a place you can't help but fall in love with. It's a perfect snapshot from the colonial era, with a serene exotic central square, pastel-coloured houses, independent artisanal shops and restaurants full of jolly people, Valladolid is charming and laid back.

But we also fell under the spell of its delightful little stylish bars and restaurants. Valladolid has plenty of brunch restaurants all within walking distance from the central square. So do not sweat if your Airbnb or hotel does not include breakfast. Carolin Boutique📌 for example is a cute little café with a lovely breakfast and outdoor seating under the shade of trees in a rustic garden yard. Right next to it don't miss Wabi gelato📌 and try the unique almond and habibi (sesame and honey) flavours.


Just opposite the central square, there is a huge covered food court, a refuge from the sun and heat. In that court, there is a cluster of food stalls (predominantly taquerias) and plenty of shared tables to enjoy your meal with a festive vibe. Locals seemed to queue up at El Habanero📌, apparently not without reason. With all the competitors around being nowhere close to the supremacy of El Habanero's tacos, I can understand why. Valladolid also hosts one of the most sizeable food markets I've seen in the area, Mercado Municipal de Valladolid📌 which I recommend visiting if you like markets and street food.



And last, for dinner, if there's only one place to dine out at Valladolid, that must be Ix Cat Ik📌. Named after a sweet Yucatecan chilli pepper, Ixcatik captures the essence of Mayan food, serving local flavours in their beautiful lush garden. The food here is made with great respect to the gastronomic legacy of the Mayan ancestors, but with a contemporary presentation and flavour to satisfy the modern eater. This is where we ate the best Sopa de Lima in Yucatan and somewhere to try elevated versions of Cochinita pibil, Poc Chuc and Eggs with Chaya (the local variety of spinach).





Izamal

Best Restaurant at Izamal: Restaurant Kinich📌

Izamal is located between Valladolid and Mérida, equally distanced (around an hour's drive) from each. It can be done as a day trip from either Mérida/Valladolid or it can be a stopover as you drive from Valladolid to Mérida (or vice versa). Plan around half a day at Izamal and try to catch some light, everything in this village is painted turmeric yellow and utterly picturesque under daylight. Starting from the quite large central square, you can have a short walking tour to admire the impressive church of Convento de San Antonio, then pop around the corner to the Itzamatul Mayan pyramid (which is small but is very central and you can climb it) and then stroll the alleys around the north of the square to check out beautiful artisanal shops with handmade products (like Raíces Mayas📌) to work an appetite for the main event: Restaurant Kinich📌.

If there's a mere reason to stop at Izamal, this is it! Grab a table in the massive seating area around the stunning colonial-style garden (no reservation is needed - there is ample space) and in the time you're waiting for your food, check the little in-house boutique (for unique cutlery, pottery and other serveware) while the kids play in the on-premise playground! When the time comes to food, get serious: this is the place you should try succulent and cooked to-perfection Poc Chuc (it was so good that we ordered it twice) and no-nonsense Cochinita Pibil. They also seem to be very proud of their Almenrado and Queso relleno, however we found them a little overwhelmingly saucy. Wash it all down with locally crafted beers and colourful margaritas.

Bear in mind that as you move into the jungle and the Yucatecan countryside, English speakers are becoming less and less, therefore speaking some basic Spanish will be an asset and help you navigate these off-the-beaten-track places of the Yucatan peninsula.



Mérida

Best Restaurants in Mérida: Museum of Yucateca Gastronomy📌, Manjar Blanco📌, Apoala📌

As one traverses the peninsula westwards, from Valladolid through Izamal, Mérida is inevitably the next stop; it may feel immensely big, busier and a little hotter.

Nevertheless, Mérida is a delightful blend of provincial and cosmopolitan, colourful and lively, a city steeped in colonial history and a bustling centre of gastronomy (traditional and modern chef-made) and nightlife. Broadly dominated by locals, but you can also spot a lot of domestic tourists and some 'gringo' backpackers and other food enthusiasts. Arguably, all this can be slightly overwhelming for young families without a car having to push a stroller on foot. But having said that, bear in mind the city is by European standards clean, safe, with proper pavements and lots of restaurants, that on the contrary, makes it child and family-friendly indeed.

But let's talk food, and specifically breakfast and brunch. One place that fascinated us (including kids) was the Casa Tho Concept House📌. A whitewashed 19th-century family mansion located on the historic Paseo de Montejo avenue of the Mexican Renaissance with boutique shops and a tranquil interior patio offering modern breakfasts, light meals and drinks. A true urban oasis, and the perfect place to isolate from the hassle and bustle of the city, and drink coffee to distress and lift your spirits. Another wonderful breakfast place is the Museum of Yucateca Gastronomy📌. Hip, airy restaurant dishing up local classics like Huevos Motulenos and Huevos Rancheros (both must try) and lovely atmospheric and contained outdoor seating, perfect for families.



A few yards away from Casa Tho, is the "Corredor Gastronómico", a road lined up with the city's best restaurants. There you will find the legendary Manjar Blanco📌 which serves, by far, the most thrilling Cochinita Pibil in Yucatan, prepared by a grandma chef with a century-old recipe. And while Cochinita is the superstar of the venue, the empanadas and the plantain fritters will rock your palate and certainly be appreciated by fussy kiddos. The outdoor seating is marvellous, under the shade of the trees, just get bug spray with you.

Since you are in the area, grab a stuffed (relleno) ice popsicle from Paletería Las Rellenas de la 60📌 right next to the Santa Ana church. This pop-art colourful shop specializes in popsicles stuffed with different ingredients, something quite interesting and unique. Popsicles made with milk can be stuffed with cajeta (caramel sauce), Baileys liqueur, or Nutella, while popsicles made with water, sorbet, are filled with chamoy, a Mexican sauce made from fermented fruit. The top 3 flavours we tried and seem to be super popular are the mango-chamoy (we returned for that) queso de pelota with cajeta (dulce de leche kind of caramel sauce) and cucumber with lemon!


Last on the list but possibly the best place to hang around for dinner is Parque de Santa Lucia. Apoala📌restaurant is located right on this pedestrianised, beautiful little local square, allowing al fresco dining (even when raining) and offering a good sized (not large, not small) square space for kids to play, ideal for keeping an eye on while dining. At Apoala you will find an inspiring menu with Mexican food from different regions, perfectly infused with Latin American and Mediterranean elements and converted into fascinating dishes. I don't think there's anything similar around and I am close to believing that perhaps Apoala was the best meal we had in Mérida and one of the dinners to remember from this trip. The ceviches and the seafood dishes (ask for the catch of the day) are to die for but also don't miss dishes like their salads and the Empoladas (homemade tortillas dipped in mole and stuffed with quinoa and banana) that you won't find anywhere else. There's also plain pasta for the kids. Feeling too hot and need a refreshing ice cream? A stone's throw away is Pola's Gelato📌!





Bacalar

Best Restaurants in Bacalar: Chiltepín Marisquillos📌, Nixtamal📌

Bacalar is a remote town in the south of the peninsula, close to the border with Belize, and a good 5 to 6-hour drive from Mérida or Cancun.



However far it may sound to the wanderer, it quickly becomes apparent it is not just the remarkably beautiful tropical lagoon of 7 colours that makes this place unique but also the fewer crowds, slower vibes and excellent seafood. Alas, not imply the rest of the Riviera Maya has no choice or quality, but merely that Bacalar offers reasonably priced excellent quality seafood and good services thanks to the 5-hour drive from Cancun that keeps the heavy tourism industry at bay - for now. Speak no more seafood lovers and swing by Chiltepín Marisquillos📌 for divine fish tacos and surf and turf skewers, shrimp-loaded silky guacamole, passion fruit and mango ceviche, delicious coconut breaded shrimp (which is very common at Riviera Maya and the Mexican islands) and tropical cocktails. The kids will thank you too: there's fish and chips on the menu and a pool on-site available for swimming! One of the restaurants I would come back for and food that I kept daydreaming about here in London every day since I came back.



One other restaurant that makes hype in the area is Nixtamal📌. Unfortunately just before we were seated the venue sank into darkness thanks to an electricity blackout in Bacalar that night. The locals spoke about the wood-fired Chocolate Salmon (that this restaurant is famous for) cooked in a traditional pre-Hispanic stove made of mud and sand. Maybe a reason to return for sure.


Tulum

Tulum is a famous destination among luxury retreat seekers. The two great spots attracting tourists are the postcard-perfect Mayan temple perched on a clifftop overlooking the Caribbean and the stunning cenote Corazón del Paraíso (almost heart-shaped cenote as you look from above).

Its natural luscious beauty, the posh fine dining restaurants and the proximity to Cancun (1.5 hr drive) have massively spoiled Tulum with inflated prices and numerous tourist traps. Having said that, we also fell for a tourist trap in Bacalar, so that alone should not be a reason to skip Tulum, in my opinion. Speaking of food, Tulum is a wonderful place to fine-dine deliciously fresh seafood and glorious beef cuts on charcoal grills in incredibly tropical beachfront shacks and toe-in-the-sand restaurants. If you are up for this and your wallet can afford it (think of London/New York prices) stick your toes in the warm white sand and sink your teeth in juicy grilled lobster (or steaks) dining among coconut trees at Casa Maria Mexican Grill📌



Casa Maria is a day-and-night beach club and restaurant operating from within the beachfront DiamanteK resort, with jungle aesthetics and lovely food. It can go really expensive with fresh fish, lobsters and steaks, but you can try lighter (and cheaper) meals like Coconut shrimp (the regional speciality), Ceviche and Fish tacos (the best I had on this trip)!



Isla Cozumel

Best Restaurants at Cozumel: Buccanos📌, Guisados📌, Casa Mission📌

I love islands. Islands emit a unique sensation of seclusion and a captivating laid-back vibe that is hard to beat. The smaller the island, the slower the beats. The slower the beats the lesser the stress levels and the bigger the appetite for good food and fiestas!

from Terminal Punta Venado (Calica) - near Playa del Carmen ' departs daily a very convenient ferry service that takes you to the majestic Mexican Caribbean island of Cozumel in 1.5 to 2 hrs. I recommend booking your slot online 1 month before your travel date to be on the safe side. The Ultra Carga ferry is very modern, there's plenty of seating space, a bar with food and drinks and an indoor air-conditioned play area for kids.

Despite Cozumel won't feel as secluded and off-the-beaten-track as you would hope, there is still a very charming Caribbean island vibe in the air. Colourful houses, crystal clear waters, coral reefs with spectacular marine life and great tropical food!

If you stay near the 'Zona Hotelera' and are too lazy to drive downtown (where the best restaurants are) a good alternative with huge American-style surf and turf food is La Cabaña del Pescador Lobster House📌. That said, expect to pay American prices here as the place attracts mostly American tourists staying at the nearby resorts. The food is good though. But if you do not have many nights to spare and are an insightful gourmand, Buccanos📌 is the place for you. It's part of a private beach club located on San Juan Beach and you can visit day or night. We went for Buccano’s at Night, the dinner restaurant where I tasted the best surf 'n' turf burger ever: Juicy Angus steak patty with lobster tail, a local salsa (not spicy) and some salad. Simple, authentic and delicious it just blew my mind. There's plenty of lobster served in various forms but the inspiring risottos and the modern fish dishes also stand out. They are also offering cooking lessons so check them out at www.eventsbybuccanos.com



But it is downtown San Miguel de Cozumel where the gastronomic heart of the island beats. The town is stunning, combining a long 'malecon' for idyllic sunset strolls, colonial-style architecture with Caribbean colours and wooden huts, just the perfect place to walk, shop and eat.

Start from the Mercado municipal📌 eating tacos at the food court and then roam in the market to buy your spices, sauces and very affordable -not touristic- taco serveware.



Still hungry? Two blocks from the market is the best taco in town, Guisados📌, served in impressive picturesque blue corn tortillas by a local grandma!


I kept the star of the island for the end: Casa Mission📌. An old hacienda house, one of the largest of its kind that local legend says was a former hideaway estate of drug lord Pablo Escobar in the Caribbean. Later on after his death, it was seized by the Mexican government and nowadays is rented to the current restaurant owners who have done a great job maintaining the old aesthetics and cooking great food. Whatever the truth behind the legend is, I was thrilled eating where the infamous Pablo allegedly walked and ate surrounded by gorgeous, lush gardens. The restaurant does not go very far with mixing or infusing cuisines and ingredients but keeps the Caribbean-Mexican elements, producing some extremely enjoyable dishes, in perfect quantities. I would recommend the coconut shrimp and fish dishes!

Perfect also for families as there is ample space and a playground on site to keep the little ones busy. Better book in advance as it is quite popular, and ideally before 9 pm if you want to hear the Mariachi band playing live.


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