‘Close your eyes,” said Chef Alfonso López de Anda as he introduced a group of American and Canadian couples to an array of chiles at Puerto Morelo’s Little Mexican Cooking School.
My husband, Bob, held one beneath my nose, and I focused on guessing the right variety. The scent was grassy green and fresh. “Jalapeño?” Another offered a hint of smoky spice. “Ancho?”
“Each chile has its own personality,” De Anda explained as our collection of 13 students sipped horchata rice or tangy hibiscus drinks on a shaded terrace. We’d all come to learn about Mayan and Pre-Hispanic cuisine, and De Anda was giving us the basics before we tackled hands-on cooking.
Soon we were roasting tomatillos and then grinding them with herbs using a volcanic stone molcajete (mortar and pestle) and pressing masa dough we’d made from scratch into tortillas.
The almost daylong class felt exotic and energizing, yet comfortable to Bob and me, who have happily two-stepped between sink, stove, refrigerator and cutting boards for decades.
The thwack-thwack of chopping onions and garlic, the charring sizzle of vegetables on a griddle, and the heavy thunk of a rolling pin or pestle beat a familiar rhythm while aromas laced with lime, chiles and cilantro wrapped us like a tonic.
“I cannot cook when I’m stressed or angry,” said De Anda, who coached everyone to leave their worries behind, relax and not fret about their kitchen skills. “Just enjoy yourselves. Everything else can be learned.”
Little Mexican Cooking School, part of the five-room hacienda-style Casa Caribe Hotel, sits across the street from the white-sand shoreline and aqua-green water of Puerto Morelos, a city of 10,000 midway between Cancun and Playa del Carmen on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. The school is a five-minute walk from the town square of Puerto Morelos, a city known for snorkeling and diving.
A charming white church still anchors the town square that branches out to a pier and lighthouse, an assortment of small hotels, eclectic cafes and Mexican craft boutiques — all with a dash of Bohemian flair that comes with a mix of locals and expats.
A quieter Yucatán experience
The promise of a less touristy experience drew us as first-timers to Mexico, along with the Cenote Trail — the area’s collection of eerie and enchanted-looking sinkholes and cave pools — and an ocean-facing condo.
We arrived with an almost suffocating crowd at the Cancun airport, and almost every ambition washed away like sand castles in high tide. We shrugged off cenotes, zip-lines and people hawking day trips to temples and Xcaret’s eco-archaeological theme park celebrating Mayan heritage. We reveled in simpler joys of shedding winter clothing and feeling warm breezes on bare skin. We tuned into the soundtrack of waves, tropical birds and warm greetings from locals.
It took three days to let go of at-home worries, downshift from the hectic front lines of parenting, and recharge enough to explore nearby Ya’ax Ché botanical garden, where we saw a replicated Mayan village, chicle (gum) camp, orchids and hide-and-seek iguanas. From its observation tower, we could see across the 150-acre park to the vast mangrove swamp and the village wedged along the thin strip of coastline, bookended by resorts from the north and south.
Snorkeling at the reef
On the calmest day, we took a snorkeling charter to the National Marine Park, which draws people from across the world for its easy-to-reach stretch of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (or Great Mayan Reef) less than a mile from Puerto Morelos’ beach.
Waves gently bobbed snorkelers about 15 feet above an area appropriately dubbed “The Garden,” where midnight damsels, yellow grunts and angel fish flit among ocher tube, elkhorn and monster-sized yellow brain corals like butterflies among flowers.
Lindsay Carswell, owner of Wet Set Diving and Snorkeling Adventures in Puerto Morelos, has dived all over the world with her husband. “We honestly feel some of our dive sites here have more fish at them than anywhere else we’ve been,” she said.
But while snorkeling felt otherworldly, the cooking class felt tangible and grounding, promising the souvenir of tasty memories as we collected recipes for home.
We stirred chocolate and raisins into simmering pots of chicken mole and layered it lasagna-like with tortillas and cheese. We scooped steaming bowls of tortilla soup and dished out creamy almond pudding for dessert. As we joyfully toasted the communal feast with “Buen Prevecho,” De Anda explained the phrase as going beyond “Enjoy your meal.” It signifies a more spiritual wish for the meal to be fulfilling and beneficial to those who eat it.
“It’s about an attitude — love and passion and connection to the senses,” De Anda said. “That’s Mexican cooking.”
Lisa Meyers McClintick writes about travel from her home in St. Cloud. Her books include “Daytrips from the Twin Cities.”