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Experience Mexico’s Maya culture from home

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                Cochinita pibil is one of the Riviera Maya area’s celebrated dishes. The pit-roasted pork is served at El Bastion restaurant in Campeche, Mexico, but you can experience the cultural dish at home using cookbooks such as “The Essential Cuisines of Mexico.”

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Cochinita pibil is one of the Riviera Maya area’s celebrated dishes. The pit-roasted pork is served at El Bastion restaurant in Campeche, Mexico, but you can experience the cultural dish at home using cookbooks such as “The Essential Cuisines of Mexico.”

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                Ground pumpkinseeds used in sikli’ p’aak in La Rosita, a small restaurant, the Yucatan Peninsula.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Ground pumpkinseeds used in sikli’ p’aak in La Rosita, a small restaurant, the Yucatan Peninsula.

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                A beach in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in Tulum, Mexico.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    A beach in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in Tulum, Mexico.

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                A market in Valladolid, on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Many vendors in area markets are abuelas (grandmothers) who know the old ways of cooking.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    A market in Valladolid, on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Many vendors in area markets are abuelas (grandmothers) who know the old ways of cooking.

It is a land of mangroves along the Caribbean Sea, home to some of the earliest astronomers, and an inviting day trip back in time to ancient cities like Chichen Itza, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Known as the Riviera Maya, the perennially popular vacation corridor south of Cancun to Tulum draws legions of revelers to its white sand beaches. Gatherings, of course, are unsafe these days, but with a bit of imagination you can relish the region’s culture and cuisine from home.

Like many travelers who first visited the area when it was quieter and less crowded, I was taken not only with its natural beauty — the lush jungle, the turquoise and green water-filled sinkholes called cenotes that some Maya believed were portals to the underworld — but also with the remaining traces of a society going back thousands of years. This is the Riviera Maya that instantly captured my attention, the coastal gateway to a great civilization that throughout Mesoamerica built pyramids and tracked the motions of the moon, gave the world striking hieroglyphic script, and left a legacy of captivating myths. And it just so happens that these enduring aspects of the culture are uniquely suited to exploring from home.

Nowadays, I visit those ancient ruins and dazzling cenotes virtually. You can, too. And while you’re at it, you can dive into epic quests with gods and mythical creatures, dance around your house to traditional music by Los Folkloristas and cook up the irresistible flavors of the Yucatan Peninsula. Suddenly, the Riviera Maya is only a book or recipe away.

Get sweet and spicy in the kitchen

One of the area’s celebrated dishes is cochinita pibil, or pit-roasted pork. The Netflix series “Taco Chronicles” devotes an entire episode to it. Lacking a pit? Don’t despair. A heavy lidded pot in the oven does the trick in a New York Times Cooking recipe from Maricel E. Presilla, a culinary historian and chef, and Diana Kennedy, the author of cookbooks like “The Essential Cuisines of Mexico,” who has spent decades studying culinary styles throughout the country and who received the Order of the Aztec Eagle from the Mexican government. Even if cooking isn’t your thing, the documentary “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy,” about her life in Mexico, might be — it’s a meditation of sorts on finding your life’s work.

Add to your shelf chef Margarita Carrillo Arronte’s “Mexico: The Cookbook” for a journey into the country’s culinary history, and more than 650 recipes, including slow-cooked pork and other delectables from the Yucatan Peninsula.

Searching for Maya cuisine beyond cochinita pibil for a New York Times article in 2012, journalist and cookbook author Mark Bittman visited the Yucatan Peninsula, where restaurant owners showed how they make tamales, tortillas, salsa and huevos en torta. Bittman asked to make polkanes, which he describes as Maya hush puppies. Who could resist?

For recipes and stories inspired by the region, reach for chef David Sterling’s “Yucatan: Recipes From a Culinary Expedition.”

Pour yourself a glass of chocolate

The early Maya were skilled at making cacao into a frothy drink. A Smithsonian Magazine recipe from an anthropologist calls for ground cocoa and gets spicy with poblano or habanero chiles.

While you’re mixing things up, also try Xtabentun, a liquor with anise, fermented honey and rum that may have its beginnings in Balche, a Maya ceremonial drink, as the magazine Yucatan Today explains.

Dance to the sounds of Mexico

Add to your quarantine playlist Lila Downs, the Grammy Award-winning musician who has sung in Spanish, English and multiple Indigenous languages like Mayan, Zapotec and Mixtec. Downs, who has written about her mother being from the Mixtec Indigenous group, has “multiple voices,” as Jon Pareles, chief popular music critic at The New York Times, put it, “from an airborne near-falsetto down to a forthright alto and a sultry, emotive contralto.” Her NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert will foil any hopes you have of working — though it will get you up and dancing.

Keep your feet tapping with Los Folkloristas, a group Pareles once described as “rousing preservationists.” Their traditional music hails from various regions of Mexico. Happily, you can stream their albums wherever you are, and catch their lively performances on YouTube.

Embark on an epic adventure

Begin with the Popol Vuh, the Maya creation myth. A verse translation by Michael Bazzett made The Times’ list of best poetry books in 2018.

Or tag along on a quest from the Yucatan to the underworld in Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Gods of Jade and Shadow,” the tale of a young woman who opens a wooden box and inadvertently releases the spirit of the Maya god of death.

For children, “Rise of the Halfling King: Tales of the Feathered Serpent, Vol. 1,” written by David Bowles and illustrated by Charlene Bowles, is a magic-filled graphic novel about a boy from Maya mythology.

Before modern graphic novels, there were Maya hieroglyphics. Yale anthropologist and codebreaker Michael D. Coe had a pivotal role in authenticating and translating a document discovered in a Mexican cave, now considered to be the earliest existing manuscript in the Americas, as The Times reported. Crack open his “Breaking the Maya Code” for more.

Dig into ancient history

In and around the Riviera Maya are remarkable ancient ruins like those at Coba, Tulum and Chichen Itza, which in 2007 was selected as one of the “new Seven Wonders of the World” (the original seven had dwindled to one: the pyramids). Chichen Itza’s monuments are “among the undisputed masterpieces of Mesoamerican architecture,” as UNESCO describes it. And explore more ancient Maya sites with John Lloyd Stephens’ classic “Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan,” first published in the 1840s.

Go diving without getting wet

The sprawling Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve near Tulum is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with tropical forests that are home to vulnerable and endangered species like the black-handed spider monkey, Yucatan black howler monkey and Central American tapir. From your laptop, it’s a breeze to travel there. Discover waters with West Indian manatees and nesting marine turtles on UNESCO’s site, and dive into the blue cenotes of Sian Ka’an in an otherworldly video.

“From the diving with sharks near Playa del Carmen to the reefs near Tulum, the whole region is a divers’ dream,” said Oscar Lopez, a news assistant for The New York Times bureau in Mexico City, where he was born. He has since gone diving all over world, but the Riviera Maya is still one of his favorite places. “And that’s just at sea — inland, you can dive deep underground, sinking into cenotes to explore one of the largest underground river systems in the world, swimming past stalactites or floating gently in a smoky hydrogen sulfide cloud before rising to the surface and walking back through the jungle.”

Be a backyard astronomer

The early Maya were accomplished astronomers and mathematicians. And you? Discover how much you know about the sun and seasons with games and videos on the “Living Maya Time” website from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.

Unwind with a podcast

Climb into a hammock or plop down on a comfy chair, picture yourself on the coast of the Caribbean and listen in as scholars of anthropology and archaeology delve into the history of “The Maya Civilization.” Who were the people who built the great cities, now in ruins, that visitors flock to year after year? Find out in an episode of the long-running BBC radio 4 program “In Our Time.”

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