Running along the eastern coast of Mexico’s curling Yucatán Peninsula, Riviera Maya is home to some of the most glamorous beach resorts and international restaurants. When you’re in the region, you don’t need to look far beyond the beach to find street stalls and taquerias serving dishes that are truly a staple for the locals.
The state of Quintana Roo and the surrounding region have absorbed culinary influences from the Caribbean islands, the Dutch, the Lebanese, and the Spanish to create a mix of flavors that fuse fragrant spices and smoky chilies, the zing of citrus, and earthy vegetables.
For example, one of the region’s most famous dishes—the ubiquitous cochinita pibil—involves pork being rubbed in a chili and spice mix before it’s placed in a hole in the ground, lined with hot stones, and slowly cooked for hours. It results in a smoky, moist, and tender meat that’s always worth the wait.
Riviera Maya’s five must-try dishes
You’ll discover a variety of local delicacies on your journey through the region, but make sure you don’t go home without trying these five specialties.
This popular antojito (‘little craving’) is served as a snack in restaurants, markets, and street stalls across the region. While it originated on the Yucatán Peninsula, it’s also become a staple in neighboring Belize, and involves a deep-fried taco topped with pulled chicken, diced white cabbage, pickled onions, avocado, and salsa and topped with a cream sauce. Other variations exist, but this is the classic combo.
Most Riviera Maya visitors will have zingy ceviche at the top of their culinary list, and it’s safe to say the sea-lined region serves some of the best in Mexico. While shrimp, octopus, and fish varieties are the most common, it’s worth hunting down a version made with caracol tomburro—a black-skinned seasnail found in the shallow waters along the coast. It adds slightly more bite to the dish and works well with tomato, onion, and cilantro. Locals add a touch of habanero chili to spice things up a little bit.
At the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, more than 100,000 Lebanese immigrants settled in Mexico, with many making the Yucatán Peninsula their new home. While they only make up 5% of the nation’s immigrant population, they’ve had a big influence on the culinary scene. Kibis are proof—these snacks of spiced ground meat, onions, and grain have become a much-loved part of Quintana Roo’s culture. Keep a lookout for vendors walking along the beaches carrying full cases on their heads.
Pronounced ‘teekeen sheek’, this historical Mayan dish is a whole fish marinated in a vibrant achiote paste—made from crushed annatto seeds—which gives it its iconic bright orange-red hue. Once marinated for three to four hours, the fish is wrapped in a banana leaf and placed over charcoals—a modern technique that replaces the underground pit ovens of the past.
If you happen to be in the region on February 2nd, you’ll see the importance of this dish as it’s eaten in celebration of Candlemas—a Christian holiday celebrating the presentation of Jesus at the Temple. For the rest of the year, they’re eaten for a lunchtime snack or alongside an evening beer, served from carts and stalls often found close to supermarkets and public squares. Wrapped and cooked in banana leaves, they’re traditionally stuffed with chicken and topped with a red chili sauce.