If I could only eat one type of food for the rest of my life, it would hands-down be seafood. As a traveler who lives in a landlocked state hours from any ocean, visiting a place with an abundance of fresh seafood is one of my favorite things to do.
In a recent trip to Mexico’s Quintana Roo state in the Yucatán Peninsula, I had my fill of the freshest fish and seafood and was able to try some signature dishes that lit my taste buds like firecrackers, sweetened my sweet tooth, and opened my mind to new and untried foods.
After spending 10 days on Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox, I was able to taste and sample some traditional island and Yucatan foods that I was curious about. Some of the dishes were so good that I nearly fell out of my chair into the sand, and some were just okay in my opinion.
But, like pizza and beer, even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good. For those looking for an adventure in culinary exploration, here are six foods to try if you venture into the Yucatan islands.
I love ceviche. Scratch that; I adore ceviche, and I would eat it every day if I could. Luckily, on both Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox (and in popular places like Cancun and Playa Del Carmen), ceviche is an easy-to-find dish.
Ceviche is a seafood dish where raw fish, shrimp, lobster, conch, or any other similar seafood is “cooked” in citrus juices like lemon juice or lime juice. It’s usually mixed with bright pops of purple onion, jalapeno, fruits like pineapple or mango, peppers, and cilantro.
The process of cooking raw fish is called denaturing, and the citric acid of the lemon or lime basically cures the fish until it is “cooked.” During this process, the protein in the seafood absorbs the flavors of the spices and the citrus.
The result is a bright, tangy, bold dish that’s both tasty and healthy. Ceviche is usually served with tortilla chips or tortillas, and it can be eaten as both an appetizer or an entree.
Because fresh seafood is abundant in the Yucatan, you can find this dish at pretty much every restaurant, but my favorite on Isla Holbox was Villa Mar Restaurant and Bar, which is right on the main drag leading to the beach.
On Isla Mujeres, be sure to order the ceviche at The Soggy Peso Bed & Cocktail Bar, which is a bit off the beaten path from the main tourist area. In addition to great ceviche, this place has a cool, laid-back vibe and a fun practical joke they pull on unsuspecting guests — and no, I’m not giving away what the joke is!
2. Fresh Lobster
You don’t need to go to Maine to get your lobster fix while in the Yucatan. Lobster is as plentiful here on the islands as sunshine is, and the lobster tails taste just as good.
Once considered a dish for “poor people,” lobster is now considered a fancy dish for fancy dinners. Luckily, the cost of lobster on Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox are much more affordable, and the lobster is usually caught fresh that day.
To help maintain the population of the Guinea Hen Spiny Lobster and the Caribbean Spiny Lobster, lobster fishing is only allowed from June 30 to March 1. The states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo are the main producers of these lobsters.
On Isla Mujeres, the best lobster we had was at Fish & Gin, a seafood restaurant and high-end gin bar. In addition to the fat lobster tail that came served with a side of warm, silky drawn butter, the gin cocktails here complement the rich flavor of lobster.
Personally, I recommend trying the gin cocktails, even if you aren’t a gin fan. The cocktails range from concoctions made with gin, fresh green grapes, lemongrass, and basil to drinks made with gin, Xila liquor, fresh strawberry, passionfruit syrup, and egg white.
3. Tikin Xic
What in the world is Tikin Xic? Well, it’s a whole fish marinated with adobo de achiote and citrus fruits like oranges, wrapped up in a banana leaf, and cooked in an earthen oven under a fire.
Achiote is a paste made from the annatto seeds from a specific tree found in the Caribbean and South America. Because of their bright red or bright yellow color, the seeds are also used to “color” dishes and even textiles, but the flavor is mild, earthy, and nutty.
I first heard about this dish from my travel companion, Tim, who discovered it while visiting Isla Mujeres years ago. Throughout our 10 days on the islands, he must have brought up Tikin Xic at least once every day, so I knew I had to try it.
As a big fan of any kind of fish, I found the flavor to be much milder than I expected, but full of flavor thanks to the other spices like cumin, garlic, coriander, and cloves added into the paste.
If you are Isla Holbox, I highly recommend the popular beachfront restaurant Raices Beach Club and Marina. The fish dish came out perfectly steamed and was big enough to satisfy two grown appetites.
4. Lobster Pizza
I love pizza and I love lobster, so the marriage of both my favorites seemed like a dish made in heaven. The Restaurant y Pizzeria Edelyn on the main square of Isla Holbox is widely considered the first to offer such a pizza delight, but you can find lobster (and shrimp and fish and octopus pizza) at most of the restaurants and beach clubs on Isla Holbox.
The pizza itself is relatively simple. Its dough is topped with a light layer of tomato sauce, topped with cheese, and then finished with chunks of lobster meat. You can also get pizza topped with shrimp, fish, or a combination of all of the above.
Pizza Mike’s on Isla Mujeres also serves lobster pizza, and this local pizza joint is widely considered one of the best places for pizza on the island.
5. Fish You Catch Yourself
What tastes better than fish you caught with your own spear, fishing rod, or hook? While on Isla Mujeres, we ventured out with Seahawk Divers for a morning of spearfishing and snorkeling.
In all honesty, Tim and our guide Manu did most of the spearfishing while I floated around looking at sea life and sleeping sharks, but the cowfish and redfish that the boys snared made for a filling and delicious dinner that night.
Most spearfishing spots on Isla Mujeres are only a short boat ride from shore, and the numerous reefs attract lots of fish like grouper, snapper, lionfish, yellow jack, and hogfish. Because Tim and I were staying at a hotel that did not have a kitchen, our lovely guide Manu not only cleaned our fish, but he also whipped up a mouthwatering bowl of ceviche with the fish we caught.
On Isla Holbox, you can charter a fishing excursion to catch more edible fish, but if you can snag an excursion with The Tarpon Fishing Club, you can try your hand at snagging the elusive baby and giant tarpon that hunt the waters. What’s more, you can fly fish for these famous game fish, though tarpon isn’t a fish you’ll be eating.
6. Street Food
I’m a huge fan of trying dishes from the little carts that line the streets of Isla Holbox and Isla Mujeres to try a quick snack, some street tacos, or the sweet crunch of churros or Nutella-filled crepes.
Before visiting the islands this year, I had never tried a churro. Shocking, yes, I know. So, as the alluring scent of deep-fried sweet dough, cinnamon, and sugar wafted in the air, I knew I had to have this type of “Mexican donut.”
Churros are deep-fried donut sticks that are coated in sugar and cinnamon. On the islands, you may be offered toppings like sweet whole cream or chocolate syrup, and I highly recommend trying these sweet treats with both.
By far, my favorite dessert was a churro smothered in the thick sweet cream straight out of the shelf-stable box. These vendors also whip up delicate little crepes filled with fruit, Nutella, cream, and other tasty delights.
The street tacos and other quick dishes seem to taste better when served by these little carts, so don’t be afraid to experiment and try a quick bite of food you may pay double for in regular restaurants.
Whatever your tastes are, the restaurants on Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox have something for every taste, even ribeye steaks. If you are a seafood lover like me, then eat all the fish, scoop up all the ceviche, and sink your teeth into a nice fat lobster tail for a true taste of the islands.