Where Mexico is concerned, I’m no novice. Sure, there are many states I still dream about visiting (Puebla, Oaxaca, Chipas) and yet I’ve lived for a time in two of them (Morelos and Queretaro) and know there’s so much more to Mexican cuisine than what one finds on the menus at establishments in the United States. As such I was “mildly” dreading my cruise stop in Cozumel because I didn’t want the “gringo experience” while there (i.e. being surrounded by scores of other non-Spanish speaking travelers whose idea of an authentic Mexican dining involves going to Señor Frog’s for a huge margarita and some chips and salsa). I’ve lived and traveled in the real Mexico and while Cozumel was new to me, the Mexican culture was not.
So what did I end up doing on my day in Cozumel? I went on a food tour deep into its local heart and soul.
Cozumel Chef is the brainchild of Emily, former engineer turned classically trained French chef (and did I mention she’s an American?). Through her company, food tours are offered on the island of Cozumel, led by Jerry, a native Mexican (by way of Mexico City).
We ended up meeting at a MEGA (Mexico’s version of Walmart) and were immediately led to our chariot (or taxi cab which we used for the duration of the tour). This was my second food tour ever where we didn’t walk, instead using wheels to transport us from site to site which did allow for more ground to be covered.
As luck would have it and and as Jerry joked to us upon meeting, we had a “VIP tour,” as we were the only two that signed up for that day. It was truly awesome since it allowed for an intimate tour, not to mention I could really practice my Spanish.
Upon exiting the MEGA parking lot, Jerry told us that within a couple of blocks we would be leaving behind the tourist scene and delving deep into the heart of the “real Cozumel,” one that obviously doesn’t feature Mexican restaurants for the tourist palette and stores selling the ubiquitous Cozumel souvenir junk.
If you’ve never been to Latin America before, when you see the “real deal,” yes, it can be a bit jarring but you’re in Mexico, a developing nation. So please don’t be insensitive like a table mate on our cruise who used the word “slum” to describe the scenery.
We visited a total of four eateries along with a couple of other stops for some cultural lessons as well as an on the spot fresh tortilla. The tortilla maker had literally just made them. They were delicious.
Here’s a recap of all the places we stopped at in order:
Antojitos Doña Pili
The tour started on an authentic note when we tried two true Mexican items-nopales (catcus) and the delicacy, huitcaloche (i.e. corn fungus) on our first stop. I had eaten nopales once before but this was my first time trying huitcaloche. It’s one of those things that provided you don’t know what it is, really is delicious. Just don’t Google it and see pictures of it. But I loved the fact that the quesadillas were filled with foods other than the standard chicken, cheese, and onions.
Jerry also gave us three drinks to try-a type of lemonade, horchata (a rice flavored drink that I adore), and agua de jamaica (hibiscus drink).
At our second stop, we tried tacos de conchinita pibil, authentic food from the Yucatan, the Mexican state we were currently in. This dish is typically made with suckling pig which is then rubbed in achiote paste, marinated overnight in sour orange juice, and wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in an earthen pit known as the pib. These tacos are incredibly messy due to all of their succulent juices but absolutely delicious.
Here we had a choice of Mexican beers or Coke (Mexican coke that is) to try. I shocked D by having (half) a Mexican beer. He went with one unique to the Yucatan that isn’t sold in stores in the United States, while I tried one from the Pacific Coast.
Okay, so we did encounter some gringos while we were here but as this was yet another authentic spot, clearly they had good culinary taste.
Here we had traditional Mexican favorites, chips and salsa, although this was an incredibly spicy salsa that Jerry warned us about. I didn’t attempt but D did and he definitely got some pink skin and a sweaty complexion shortly after. I stuck with the tasty frijoles.
We also tried a bowl of another Yucatan favorite-sopa de lima. The acidity of the lime in the hot broth provided an unexpected but terrific taste explosion. It’s also topped with fried tortilla strips which is never a bad thing either.
And per Jerry’s advice, we both got Sidral Mundet (apple cider) to drink. This was delicious and so entirely un-Mexican, I felt.
El Sazón de Camaron
At our penultimate spot, we had shrimp tacos (we were on an island after all) although with Jerry’s mild cajoling, D had a second of poblano peppers and onions. I’m not the biggest fan of shrimp but with the way they were fried and nestled in the always comforting tasting corn tortilla, I did enjoy them, even though I was about to burst by then.
Kaokao Chocolate Factory
And for our final tasting of the day, since it was just the two of us we had a choice between a Mexican bakery or a chocolate factory. Having been to Mexican bakeries before but never a chocolate facility, we went with the latter.
While small, Kaokao Chocolate Factory runs a fairly sizable operation on the island. We didn’t have time for a tour (these are 60 minutes in length offered at various times throughout the day), although a worker there did give us a brief introduction to the factory and we were able to sample half a dozen different chocolates including some truly unique ones like cactus and chile pepper. My favorites though were the more traditional ones, dark chocolate and coconut.
There’s a lovely shop to purchase a variety of chocolates from as well as things like chocolate flavored teas and coffee and even chocolate skin care products, not at all the same mediocre junky souvenirs.
Jerry also took us through the Mercado Municipal where he explained about the Mexican way of “grocery shopping,” fruits and vegetables unique to Mexico, and the freshness of its meat and fish. He also had us try jamaica (hibiscus) leaves which I was not at all a fan of.
I cannot stress enough how absolutely wonderful a time both D and I had. Although we’re food tour veterans, this was the first one I had ever done in Mexico which made it all the more special since the country has always had a special place in my heart and I truly adore Mexican cuisine (even if some of it is too hot for my taste buds).
We went on two organized cruise excursions in our other ports of call and they didn’t hold a candle to our food tour in Cozumel. These excursions often lack authenticity since you’re in a port for such a short period of time. That’s why it’s all the more important to search out those authentic experiences when you can.
A food tour with Cozumel Chef is the anti-organized/overpriced cruise port adventure and one that you will absolutely adore. I promise. And Jerry, well, he was just the Mexican cereza on top-a mil gracias.
The Red Headed Traveler’s note-
When traveling to Mexico, many people are concerned about the water (aka Montezuma’s Revenge). Remember, you’re going on a tour with an established company where most of the participants are foreign. That, and many Mexicans themselves don’t drink their own water or use it for cooking. Everything you try while on the tour will be safe to eat and drink. And the one and only time I had Montezuma’s Revenge was from ice that I got at an ice machine in an American chain hotel. Food for thought.
Disclosure-I was given a complimentary tour in exchange for my review but as always all thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.