Mexico – Learn to Cook Mayan Cuisine – Fall Travel 2009

DESTINATION: Mexico

CLASS TIME: 4-6 Hours

DIFFICULTY LEVEL: Easy

I’m in the Mexican jungle, in search of food. But this is no reality show, and I’m not headed for a plate of grubs. Instead, at the end of a twisting path, I come to a family-size table, covered in local flowers and shaded by thick palm trees. A glass of fresh, chilled watermelon juice is placed in my hand as the executive chef of the Tides Riviera Maya, Mariana Perez Niño, and her team, all clad in crisp chef’s whites, greet me. They’re about to let me in on the secrets to cooking authentic Mayan cuisine: During an hours-long cooking class in an ancient outdoor kitchen, I chop vividly colored produce and prep fresh fish in banana leaves to simmer in a pit oven (as shown below). We make empanadas, tamales, guacamole and a light lime soup. Then we sit down to eat — chilled white wine flowing — right next to a garden of culinary herbs.

SYLLABUS
The Mayan cooking class in the jungle is for guests of the Tides Riviera Maya resort; reserve a class spot through your mayordomo  for $115 per person; two-person minimum required. The Tides, 866-332-1672, tidesrivieramaya.com.

BUNK
The Riviera Maya may be close to rowdy Cancun, but it feels worlds away. At the ultra-secluded Tides, there are 30 luxury villas; a Royal ­Villa runs around a grand a night but is worth every penny. (This is the kind of place where your mayordomo, or private butler, greets you with soaps that smell like chocolate and thyme.) Each villa is surrounded by lush jungle, so you’re guaranteed privacy while enjoying your private pool, outdoor “moon” shower and hand-crocheted hammock. Stumble out of your vast, rose-petal-­covered canopy bed to find perfect coffee and croissants on your terrace each ­morning. The Tides, 866-332-1672, tidesrivieramaya.com.

STUDY BREAK
Schedule a private outing with K’ul Tours ($830 per person) to venture into the mystical Mayan world. In one afternoon, you can swim in a cenote (a freshwater cave, above), visit ruins, spot monkeys as you canoe and zipline across a lagoon, and make handmade tortillas in a Mayan village. Or participate in any of the Mayan “rituals” at the Tides, such as the attitude-­altering, 90-minute temazcal ceremony ($92), in which your body and spirit are purified through the use of steam and healing herbs, freeing the toxins from your life. (Who doesn’t need that?) K’ul Tours, kultours.com.mx.

MEAL PLAN
You’ll have a tough time finding better Mediterranean, Mexican and Mayan cuisine than at La Marea at the Tides; open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Get the ceviche. The black grouper was scrumptious, too. For a change, grab dinner at the Glass Bar, a fine-dining open-air Italian restaurant, when you visit nearby Playa del Carmen, with its cobblestone streets and European-inspired nightlife. La Marea at the Tides, tidesrivieramaya.com; the Glass Bar, Playa del Carmen, theglassbar.com.mx.

GETTING THERE
Fly nonstop from Philly to Cancun. Book a Royal Villa, and the Tides will reimburse you for your airplane ticket upon arrival (two round-trip tickets at up to $500 per ticket). Once you land in Cancun, the resort can arrange for a personal chauffeur to swoop you up in a luxury vehicle for the 45-minute drive to the Tides.

PACKING
Bring your classic resort wear: Sundresses for ladies and slacks and a breezy button-down for men are perfect for pool- and beach-side dinners. Add sneakers for exploring Mayan ruins.

EXTRA CREDIT
Back in Philly: Sharpen your new culinary skills at the Viking Cooking School (1 Town Place, suite 100, Bryn Mawr, 610-526-9020, vikingcookingschool.com) with a workshop such as “Tapas and Paella.” Three-hour classes begin at $89; the 12-week Master Cooking Techniques series runs $419.

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