How to Pretend You’re in the Riviera Maya, Mexico, Today


While your travel plans may be on hold, you can pretend you’re somewhere new for the night. Around the World at Home invites you to channel the spirit of a new place each week with recommendations on how to explore the culture, all from the comfort of your home.

It’s a land of mangroves along the Caribbean Sea, home to some of the earliest astronomers, and an inviting day trip back in time to ancient cities like Chichén Itzá, a Unesco World Heritage site.

Known as the Riviera Maya, the perennially popular vacation corridor south of Cancún to Tulum draws legions of revelers to its white sand beaches. Gatherings, of course, are unsafe these days, but with a bit of imagination you can relish the region’s culture and cuisine from home.

Like many travelers who first visited the area when it was quieter and less crowded, I was taken not only with its natural beauty — the lush jungle, the turquoise and green water-filled sinkholes called cenotes that some Maya believed were portals to the underworld — but also with the remaining traces of a society going back thousands of years. This is the Riviera Maya that instantly captured my attention, the coastal gateway to a great civilization that throughout Mesoamerica built pyramids and tracked the motions of the moon, gave the world striking hieroglyphic script, and left a legacy of captivating myths. And it just so happens that these enduring aspects of the culture are uniquely suited to exploring from home.

Nowadays, I visit those ancient ruins and dazzling cenotes virtually. You can, too. And while you’re at it, you can dive into epic quests with gods and mythical creatures, dance around your house to traditional music by Los Folkloristas and cook up the irresistible flavors of the Yucatán Peninsula. Suddenly, the Riviera Maya is only a book or recipe away.

One of the area’s celebrated dishes is cochinita pibil, pit-roasted pork. The Netflix series “Taco Chronicles” devotes an entire episode to it. Lacking a pit? Don’t despair. A heavy lidded pot in the oven does the trick in this New York Times Cooking recipe from Maricel E. Presilla, a culinary historian and chef, and Diana Kennedy, the author of cookbooks like “The Essential Cuisines of Mexico,” who has spent decades studying culinary styles throughout the country and who received the Order of the Aztec Eagle from the Mexican government. Even if cooking isn’t your thing, the documentary “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy,” about her life in Mexico, might be — it’s a meditation of sorts on finding your life’s work.

Add to your shelf the chef Margarita Carrillo Arronte’s “Mexico: The Cookbook” for a journey into the country’s culinary history, and more than 650 recipes, including slow-cooked pork and other delectables from the Yucatán Peninsula.

Searching for Maya cuisine beyond cochinita pibil for a New York Times article in 2012, the journalist and cookbook author Mark Bittman visited the Yucatán Peninsula, where restaurant owners showed how they make tamales, tortillas, salsa and huevos en torta. Mr. Bittman asked to make polkanes, which he describes as Maya hush puppies. Who could resist? Check out his recipes for polkanes, huevos en torta and tomato-and-pumpkinseed salsa.

Add to your quarantine playlist Lila Downs, the Grammy Award-winning musician who has sung in Spanish, English and multiple Indigenous languages like Mayan, Zapotec and Mixtec. Ms. Downs, who has written about her mother being from the Mixtec Indigenous group, has “multiple voices,” as Jon Pareles, the chief popular music critic at The Times, put it, “from an airborne near-falsetto down to a forthright alto and a sultry, emotive contralto.” Her NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert will foil any hopes you have of working — though it will get you up and dancing.

Keep your feet tapping with Los Folkloristas, a group Mr. Pareles once described as “rousing preservationists.” Their traditional music hails from various regions of Mexico. Happily, you can stream their albums wherever you are, and catch their lively performances on YouTube.

In and around the Riviera Maya are remarkable ancient ruins like those at Cobá, Tulum and Chichén Itzá, which in 2007 was selected as one of the “new Seven Wonders of the World” (the original seven had dwindled to one: the pyramids). Chichén Itzá’s monuments are “among the undisputed masterpieces of Mesoamerican architecture,” as Unesco describes it. Wish you could see for yourself? You can. Virtually tour the ruins with The Times’s “New Seven Wonders in 360” video. And explore more ancient Maya sites with John Lloyd Stephens’s classic, “Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán,” first published in the 1840s.

The sprawling Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve near Tulum is a Unesco World Heritage site, with tropical forests that are home to vulnerable and endangered species like the black-handed spider monkey, Yucatán black howler monkey and Central American tapir. From your laptop, it’s a breeze to travel there. Discover waters with West Indian manatee and nesting marine turtles on Unesco’s site, and dive into the blue cenotes of Sian Ka’an in an otherworldly video.

“From the diving with sharks near Playa del Carmen to the reefs near Tulum, the whole region is a divers’ dream,” said Oscar Lopez, a news assistant for The New York Times bureau in Mexico City, where he was born. He has since gone diving all over world, but the Riviera Maya is still one of his favorite places. “And that’s just at sea — inland, you can dive deep underground, sinking into cenotes to explore one of the largest underground river systems in the world, swimming past stalactites or floating gently in a smoky hydrogen sulfide cloud before rising to the surface and walking back through the jungle.”

The early Maya were accomplished astronomers and mathematicians. And you? Discover how much you know about the sun and seasons with games and videos on the “Living Maya Time” website from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.

Climb into a hammock or plop down on a comfy chair, picture yourself on the coast of the Caribbean and listen in as scholars of anthropology and archaeology delve into the history of “The Maya Civilization.” Who were the people who built the great cities, now in ruins, that visitors flock to year after year? Find out in this episode of the long-running BBC radio 4 program, “In Our Time.”

How are you going to channel the spirit of the Riviera Maya in your home? Share your ideas in the comments.

To keep up with upcoming articles in this series, sign up for our At Home newsletter or follow New York Times Travel on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. See more Around the World at Home guides here.

Stephanie Rosenbloom, the author of “Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude” (Viking), has been writing travel, business and styles features for The Times for nearly two decades. Twitter: @Stephronyt. Instagram: @StephanieRosenbloom 2021-03-02 10:00:23


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