When I first set foot in Mexico I had no idea what to expect. I’d experienced the Aussie version of some well-known dishes like tacos and enchiladas, I thought I’d had tequila in a bar somewhere (it was served as a shot and not very nice), and like most people, I’d heard stories of ancient civilizations like the Mayans. I knew “hola” meant “hello” and “adios” meant goodbye, and that’s about it.
It took me 6 months of traveling the dirt roads, meeting new people, tasting completely foreign foods, and capturing as much of it as we could in SBS Food’s ‘Mexican Fiesta with Peter Kuruvita’ to even scratch the surface of this vast country. Every time I go to Mexico I learn something new, and I look forward to each and every trip.
I returned from my 6 month filming stint in Mexico understanding and appreciating a large number of new ingredients, and how to turn them into a fiesta of rich, Mexican flavours. I spoke pretty good Spanish, I had developed a passion for Tequila and not only sip it, but appreciate its characteristics like you would a fine wine, and I’d experienced first-hand the majesty of the ancient Aztec, Maya, and Incan sacred grounds.
I fell in love with Mexico and wanted to share it with the world, not only on television, but in person.
I took my first tour group with World Expeditions to Mexico for 15 days in mid-March of 2015. We designed the tour to break new ground in high-end group and culinary travel. The tour takes us so far off the tourist track group members become more used to seeing cowboys and cactus than other travelers. From sustainable coffee farms where the beans are roasted by hand, to cooking lessons with Yucatan Dons, this tour is the only way to truly see Mexico.
It is an astounding, life-changing, and unforgettable adventure.
DAY 1-3 MEXICO CITY: Central de Abastos, the Zocalo, the floating gardens of Xochimilco, Teotihuacan
We arrived into the mega-metropolis of Mexico City on day 1. Mexico City’s population today is over 22 million people making the pace, noise, smells, and sights of this place vibrant and exciting. I was eager to meet my tour group. That night we got to know one another over classic Mexican canapes and cocktails. Members of the group told me the things they were eager to explore in this country, and we talked about the adventures ahead.
The group came from such a wide range of backgrounds and walks of life that to see them come together and celebrate, learn, and explore Mexico because of its food, is an exciting honour.
Waking up on Day 2 of the journey was as electric as Christmas morning for my kids. The Gran Hotel Ciudad overlooks the main Zocalo (central square) of Mexico City giving you the feeling of an entire civilization waiting to be explored just outside your hotel room door.
The first full day of our trip was packed. We first stopped where the rich history of Mexican cuisine starts – a market. Every time I visit a Mexican market I discover something fascinating and new.
The Central de Abastos is the largest wholesale market of its kind in the world. It’s a symphony of tastes, colours, and smells, where almost anything can be found among its winding walkways. Learning the roots and heritage of Mexican gastronomy set the stage for the food we’d be cooking throughout the next 15 days.
Following the market we explored the famous heart of Mexico City, the Zocalo. The tour we took of the buzzing center gave insights into the city’s ancient past, its progression through the Spanish Colonial era, and timeline all the way up to today.
Afterwards, it was time to experience one of my favourite parts of Mexico – the ancient floating gardens of Xochimilco. Mexico City is built on the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, which was populated when the Aztec scouts found the foretold eagle standing on a cactus with a snack clutched in its talons. Although the prophecy detailing the Gods’ intended site for their future city had come true, the eagle was perched in the middle of a lake. This meant the Aztecs had to devise a way to build a city on water. These ancient people prevailed and built their city 1000 years ago. The land which they floated together to create a winding network of waterways contained incredibly rich, fertile soil, ideal for cultivating the cultural staples of beans, rice, and maize, or corn. As we floated through the gardens on the Mexican equivalent of a Venetian gondola, we learned more about the ancient history of Mexico, its culture, and its food.
That night we dined at Pujol, one of Mexico’s most famous, and celebrated restaurants. The 9-course meal chef Enrique Olvera cooked for us was one to be remembered. Afterwards, sitting down to talk with chef Enrique was a highlight of the trip for me, and many of the group.
I told the group to prepare their tastebuds for Day 3, as a host of new flavours and experiences make up the day’s adventurous menu.
First, in the small town of San Martin Las Piramides near the incredible pyramids of Teotihuacan, we met Don Toño, a dear friend of mine who trades in the ancient art of extracting “pulque” sap from the Maguey cactus plant and distilling a delicious alcoholic drink called “Agua Miel”.
We harvested cactus paddles, enjoyed a classic breakfast with our glass of Agua Miel, and surveyed the amazing fields of nopal and maguey cactus. For anyone who has traveled to, or tried to plan a trip to Mexico, you’ll know how truly special this experience really is. Don Toño is a wonderful man and a well respected figure in Mexican liquor. The cactus farm is closed to the public and not only do we have a chance to explore it in depth, but to meet the people who call it home.
The night of Day 3 was time to roll up sleeves and dive into the most magnificent Mexican cocktails you can imagine. After a tequila tasting with renowned mixologist Luis Carlos Iriarte at the Plaza Gribaldi we were set the task of creating 3 agave-based cocktails. Inevitably everyone ended up laughing, sampling eachother’s concoctions, and whacking a piñata with vengeance.
DAY 4-7: Puebla, the rural cuisine of Tlalixtac, moles with Pilar Cabrera
If you’ve seen my series Mexican Fiesta, you know how far we diverted from the tourist track, traveling deep into true Mexico. It was exciting for me to create this tour with World Expeditions to give adventurous food-lovers a taste of the real flavours of this country.
On Day 2 we left Mexico City and headed out into this vast, vivacious country.
To understand Mexico you need to know its history, so on our first stop in the small town of Cholula we met chef José Lazcarro Quiroz and anthropologist Paola Bera Báez for a rich history lesson and tour of a classic Mexican house. Our tour was followed by a magnificent meal of local dishes including Molotes de requeson con rajas rojas, tinga de cerdo, y huitlacoche, enchiladas with mole poblano, classic Mexican candies, agua fresca, and an array of side dishes.
Full of great food and grand stories of the country’s past we explored beautiful Puebla, learning the archaeological history of the city. During the evening everyone was enjoy time on their own in the city.
On Day 5 we explored one of my favourite parts of Mexico, the UNESCO-listed heritage site of Oxaca city center. During the Spanish Colonial era, Oxaca was the heart of the silver mining trade, inhabited by the wealthy Spaniards who brought with them the brightly coloured, intricate architecture of Spain during that period.
After a tour of the Oxaca Zocalo, it was a pleasure to introduce the group to one of Mexico’s finest chefs, and a true ‘mole’ expert – Pilar Cabrera. Pilar is the executive chef and owner of Restaurant La Olla, where we would dine in a few hours. Before we could cook however, we needed to find the ingredients for Oxacan moles in the markets ’20 de Noviembre’ and ‘Benito Juarez’.
Pilar guided us through the markets herself, and after a well-earned rest, we returned to La Olla for a mezcal cocktail on the terrace and a private introduction to Oxaca’s 7 types of moles.
One of the most incredible things about Mexico is the variety of its culinary landscape. As you travel from town to town, the food, just like the culture, changes dramatically. Rural cuisine is a special part of Mexican culture, and the food found outside Oxaca in the Zapotec community of Tlalixtac is world class.
Outsiders are not a frequent occurance in the Valley of Oxaca, in fact few few have ever been allowed a visit into the tight-knit community. We were welcomed by Señora Zefe with open arms and a ready kitchen to create a truly Oxacan meal. Together we learned about local dishes and made a delicious lunch using classic Oxacan ingredients.
The evening’s mezcal tasting was one to remember as the strong liquor was an acquired taste for some, yet an immediate favourite for others.
On the way to one of Mexico’s most picturesque small towns, Chiapa de Corzo where we spent the night, we had a day full of foodie adventures.
Our classic Oxacan breakfast with well-known chef Alejandro Ruiz lasted two hours and included everything from empañadas to tamatilos, orange juice with black sapote to pan dulce de la casa. Full and happy, we headed for the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and the two-storey market of Juchitan where you can find pretty much anything.
DAY 8-12: the Grijalva River jungles, San Cristobal de las Casas, the Mayan ruins at Palenque, a ceremony at the Cenote of Balmil
The indigenous flora and fauna was magnificent to behold on Day 8 as we traveled along the Grijalva River in Sumidero Canyon. The river winds between thousand-meter high cliffs past incredible waterfalls. Everyone was excited to spot spidermonkeys, crocodiles, and a symphony of birds on the banks at the watery edge the jungle.
Day 9 was a truly unique opportunity to experience the lifecycle of Mexican coffee from tree to tasting. We not only saw the production first-hand, but we had the chance to meet the people whose lives are dedicated to producing the best in each coffee cup.
Since the roads are too rustic to allow access by coach, we traveled by van into the coffee plantations in Aldama. I have always been an advocate of sustainable, small-scale farming since it allows artisans and true lovers of their craft to create special, remarkable products. We were welcomed onto these plantations and taken through the many foods and crafts produced by the people who live in the micro-cooperative.
The evening continued our coffee education with a trip to a “tostador” to watch how coffee is toasted, followed by a barista-run class on the proper ways to brew this ancient beverage.
Day 10 may very well have been the most astounding day of our adventure. We traveled through the jungle to the archaeological zone of Palenque, a majestic, sacred Mayan site. The Maya were a mysterious people with a profound knowledge of the cosmos. Their skill and study is evidenced by their ability to build structures like the 1,400 year old The Temple of Inscriptions, where 4 perfect triangles shine onto the ground at each solstice as the moon lines up with Jupiter.
Mexico’s seafood is world-class, and we traveled to the small seaside fishing village of Xpicob on Day 11 to experience some of the country’s best fish, squid, and shrimp, prepared to perfection on the beach.
Many of the group were blown away by the 300 year old Hacienda Uayamon we got to call home for the night. We had the luxury resort completely to ourselves and partied til late at our own fiesta under the ceiba tree. Our meal featured the wonderful mix of European and Mexican flavours that is Campechean cuisine.
Ancient Mayans thought the freshwater sinkholes called ‘cenotes’ were portals to the underworld, and the heavens. To honour and appease the Gods, the Mayans tossed tributes, sacrifices, and offerings into these deep, watery pits.
At the Cenote of Balmil we had the chance to take part in an ancient ceremony called a Jeets’ Lu’um. The ritual is a series of prayers, candles, and foods that ask Mother Earth’s permission to use the land.
The lunch that followed was a feast of Yucatan proportions which we shared with some of the local community.
Day 13-15: learning to make tortillas, succulent Mayan slow-cooked pork, the magnificent Chichen Itza
On Day 13, we cooked one of my favourite dishes called ‘Papadzules’. After assembling the ingredients for this Mayan cultural favourite, we traveled to Santa Elena and met two of my dear friends, Don Hernan and his wife Doña Azaria.
Don Hernan showed us through the Mayan traditional plants used for medicinal purposes that he cultivates in his garden, while Doña Azaria gave everyone a lesson in how to prepare classic Mayan tortillas and the tomato sauce for the Papadzules.
That night we met the amazing Señor Walter who helped us prep and bury our Cochinita Pibil, also knowns as a whole pig, in a traditional ground pit oven. The succulent, slow-roasted classic Mayan dish was the ultimate breakfast on Day 14 before we headed to Chichen Itza. We stepped out of the coach and gazed with awe at the incredible, ancient city.
Chichen Itza was built around 600 AD and has recently been named of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Standing at the base of the towering stone El Castillo at the heart of Chichen Itza, you can almost feel the ancient Maya playing on the Ballgame Court, or contemplating the heavens at the Observatory.
Sadly soon Day 15 dawned and we enjoyed our last day swimming in the stunning Caribbean Sea, then savouring fresh ceviche, classic Mexican rib-eye, and a tres leche cake at our farewell dinner in the Riveria Maya.
In the two weeks traveling, we had shared so many experiences, improvised travel plans when we wanted to, partied, learned, and dined together that we felt like old friends.
Our local coordinator David wished us goodbye, and with tears welling up in his eyes he thanked me for showing the true beauty of his country. David told me how even if he tried, he couldn’t put together as in depth, detailed, delicious, and touching of a tour as this one.
It was an adventure, a journey of dining and discover, and a trip I look forward to hosting for a whole new group of food lovers in February, 2016.
If you would like more information, visit the World Expeditions website on this link: www.worldexpeditions.com/index.php?id=2251127
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