“Authentic Maya foon”, parte dos

Our Sunday Comics author tantalises us with a story of intense culinary revelation in Mexico 


Jim Gabour
13 October 2013

I began a discussion a few weeks ago about food experiences that often become more significant and revelatory than intellectual or spiritual exercises.   Since then, the more I thought about the three incidents I described in that article, the more similar affective memories came to mind.  I would here offer an international discussion that does not – except for this once – mention a decaying nation, riots, bombings, gas attacks, or a misbegotten lack of government.  I will mention one politician.  A man who keeps his word.

* * *

I would like to start where I began last time, but with a different meal, in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo on the Yucatan peninsula, not that far from the first I described.  I was attracted to the eatery in that initial article by a sign outside the shack which promised “authentic Maya foon”.   And so, part two.  Equally authentic.

This slightly more refined road house is located on the main dusty highway into a village called Coba, about 50 kilometers into the jungle west of the now-exploited, though still magnificent beach cliff temple at Tulum.  It won’t be found in tour companies’ online descriptions of the best restaurants in Coba, which the ticket-sellers think consists entirely of a cluster of tacky establishments built at the entrance to the village’s archaeological site, all of them newer tourist-oriented peso engines. 

But even though the ruins at Coba are the reason for the contemporary village’s existence, the further you get from that site, the more authentic the “foon”.

As background:  this group of ruins are the skeletal remains of what is said to have been the largest of all Mayan cities.  Some 6,500 structures fill over 50 square kilometers of what is now incredibly dense jungle. At the height of its power, in 750 A.D., 50,000 Maya lived in Coba, trading in flowery honey and hosting massive brutal games of pelota, a ball game played in a geometrically styled stadium with two hoops.  Imagine that.

Coba was suddenly and mysteriously deserted around 900 A.D., but its importance is affirmed as the city was the origin of one of the most advanced systems of raised roads, or sacbeob, in Mexico, a testimony to the skill of its artisans. With no visible landmarks, the Coba sacbeob travels sixty miles in a perfectly straight line ten feet above the jungles and rocks to terminate at the Mayan village of Yaxuna.

After its demise and abandonment, the site was not found, or even heard of again for almost a millennium, until 1891 when the archaeologist Teobert Maler hacked his way inland.  But such was the Mexican government’s lack of interest that excavation at Coba was not even started until eighty-two years later, in 1973.   During that year and 1974, Mexico finally discovered that a tourist was worth more than a barrel of oil.  Not only did Mexico begin to unearth Coba, but the government sponsored a start to construction of a massive hotel zone on the Cancun peninsula, an area now completely saturated with American style malls and hotels, and that now occupies just the northern tip of the sprawling Mayan Rivera.  How saturated is the intrusion of norteamericano culture?  MTV hosts its collegiate testament to upchucking, Spring Break, from Cancun.

A hundred miles away from the tsunami of umbrella-laden alcoholic fruit drinks, only about five percent of Coba has been unearthed, but Nohoch Mul, the second tallest pyramid of the Mayan world is once again open to the sky.  The main structure is forty-two meters high with 120 steps.  I can vouch for each and every one of those rough stones, because in the three times I visited there was no rope or rail, and once you reached the top the only non-life-threatening way to descend was to firmly plant one’s butt on the pyramid’s uneven surface and slowly slide down.  I only did this once, but this event remains one of my most demeaning life moments, as during my painful descent a tour bus full of high school children arrived to scamper up and down the face of the pyramid with absolutely no reticence whatsoever.   They pointed at me like I was an iguana.  I experienced a severe recurrence of adolescent embarrassment.

Interestingly enough, modern times have descended on the ancient.  For while entrance to the ruins costs $4, bringing in a video camera costs an extra $4.  The authorities have not yet quite caught on to the fact that in 2013 a cellphone is in fact a more useful and used video recorder, and even if they discovered this fact, they would not dare frisk the buses full of blue-haired and black-socked visitors from Trenton, New Jersey.  Could not afford to lose the $4 they have in hand while looking for an iPhone 5, secreted under a bulging mauve waistband festooned with puce sombreros.   

And while there are guides licensed and certified as knowledgeable of the Mayan era by the government, these gentlemen in my experience are mostly entertainers, rather than historians.  Twice I passed groups whose docents were delivering lectures on the scientific probability of Mayans being off-world aliens who in “Swiss Family Robinson” style had become stranded on earth, and whose seemingly magical powers of architecture and compass use derived from their home planets.

Black panthers still roam in the wild at Coba.

Completely wack and out of synch, yes, but all told, completely my sort of place.

I found out about Coba as a destination in the days before the regular bus tours began, during a rather tequila-laden night just off the coast from Cancun in a tin-roofed bar on Isla Mujeres, the Island of Women, looking out into a street whose buildings were a riot of color.  I was hypnotized by both the exterior sights and the creature with whom I sat at table. 


The scene of the Isla Mujeres diversion

I was in earnest conversation with a lovely redhead who was diverting my rapidly developing ardor with a sensitive cultural discussion of Maya ruins.   I do remembering ordering a second bottle of tequila and a large plate of limes.  The evening fell apart shortly afterwards, though somehow the name of the place stuck with me.  I awoke already on my way to Coba in the company of a very insensitive cab driver.  There were no buses or public transport of any sort to the ville in those days, and I had to spend more than several hungover minutes to convince the man to drive the hundred kilometers from the Mujeres ferry terminal to Coba, for US$20.  Four hours, two flat tires and 150 kilometers later – he missed the turn at Tulum twice, once to the right headed south and then to the left returning north – he could not believe that at the end of this potholed dirt road there sat… Villa Arqueologica Coba.


Inside the Villa Arqueologica compound in the middle of nowhere

A former Club Med constructed during the government’s first surge of development in the seventies, it had proved to be initially way too remote for a sustained ingress of elegant and moneyed tourists, but with the historic site’s slow growth in popularity the hotel had been restored and renamed; Small quaint rooms, each with a glass-covered grotto holding an artifact or relic, have sealed windows that look out directly onto the jungle’s floor.  In the moonlight from bed you can watch and listen as furry bats and giant moths blunder into the glass all night long.  Restful soft thuds, really.  It’s all there:  great billiard room and library, enormous spring-fed swimming pool, a porch that overlooks a crystal-clear lake filled with meter-wide flat-headed turtles.  There used to be a single crocodile, but the federales were reportedly called in to shoot him after he ate a tourist’s chichuahua.  Though it may have been a tan-and-white poodle.  My memory fades on the point.

The Villa also serves some of the blandest French food – a holdover from the Club Med days – that I have ever eaten.  Thus, my first walk back into the village for more “authentic” fare.

After almost three decades I have admittedly lost my pictures of the restaurant into which I finally fell.  It was/is owned by Coba’s mayor, and at that point his eight-year-old son, adorned in white short-sleeved dress shirt and black bow tie, was the sole waiter.  I had a picture of the handsome young man, hair neatly parted, proudly presenting my dinner.  A sad loss, that image.

And what a dinner it was.  Where I had indeed eaten the local pibil before, with chicken,  this was to be cochinita pibil, a whole roast pig wrapped in banana leaves with local Maya honey, orange and bitter lime juice, crushed achiote and habanera peppers and many other spices, buried overnight in coals.  All ingredients were sourced from within a hundred meters of the restaurant, the same food eaten a thousand years ago by the Mayan residents of Coba.  The mayor asked if I would help him remove this week’s pig from the coals in the early morning hours as his son was not quite yet big enough to help lift the hundred pounds of cooked meat.  He could only afford to serve the pork as an infrequent special for the people of the village, and he considered that meal his duty.  In return for my sunrise assistance, he promised would allow me first shot at the universally coveted, sweet, crusty, fat pig cheeks when the banana leaves were finally removed for lunch.

It was hard sweaty work, and after the extraction I had to go back to the Villa at breakfast time to shower off ashes and change clothes for lunch, but the mayor lived up to his word.  I ate pork candy.  With homemade tortillas, frijoles and arroz.  And many many beers. 

I ate and drank until siesta at 3pm, and found my bill to be an astounding five dollars American.  My impeccably-attired waiter apologized for the size of the bill, but reminded me I had bought the kitchen staff a round of drinks.  After that meal, I happily became a regular, and in one more late-night conversation discovered that the mayor also owned the only taxi in the village.  I had been wondering how I could get back to the coastal highway, hoping I could possibly bum a ride with another visitor.  But it was low season, I was really the only person in town, and the only resident at the hotel.  I knew my flight was coming up, and with much polite negotiation arranged for the mayor to drive me to the airport.

In the morning he sent his son out to tell the villagers he would be closed for lunch the next day – but he had to hurry back, as the next pibil was only three days away, this time to be made with venado, the native Yucatan deer.

Again, here was a politician true to his word.  First thing the next morning, with half the village in attendance for the event, the taxi arrived at the Villa and the sole tourist in Coba was ceremoniously escorted into the passenger seat of the official unmarked village taxi.  We drove north to international departure.  As I paid the mayor my fare, his son emerged from the backseat with a paper bag.  He was wearing his waiter’s shirt and tie. And smiling, he handed me a half a kilo of pork and a dozen tortillas.

I did not eat the free bag of almonds, nor drink the Diet Coke offered on my flight home.  I fell asleep to dream of piglets and panthers, honey, citrus and pelota

And walking the sixty miles of sacbeob though the jungle, knowing where I was going.  

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