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Celebrating Mexican Cuisine from Maya Forest to Chef’s Plate

By Rane Cortéz, Chief of Party, Mexico REDD+ Program, The Nature Conservancy “You said this was only nine kilometers?” I asked our guide as we emerged from the steamy Mayan jungle into the late afternoon sun. “Nine kilometers through the forest. Now we just have to ride back to the village—but it’s on the road,...

Traditional Yucatecan dishes with ingredients from the milpa and the Mayan garden. © Ivan Lowenberg

By Rane Cortéz, Chief of Party, Mexico REDD+ Program, The Nature Conservancy

“You said this was only nine kilometers?” I asked our guide as we emerged from the steamy Mayan jungle into the late afternoon sun. “Nine kilometers through the forest. Now we just have to ride back to the village—but it’s on the road, so it’s like nothing,” he responds. I shoot him a look as I down the last of my water, wipe the sweat off my face and climb back on my bike. I hadn’t planned on biking that day and now I was in for more than I bargained for.

Luckily the sun was falling behind the trees and the ride had been a joy so far, sweltering temps aside. I was in San Agustin, south of Merida, on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. My local guide was showing me a new bike trail the community had made as a way to attract tourism to the village. Following the bike trail was like riding through a living map of Mayan life—as we rode, the connection between the people, their land, their food and their forest transported me into a simpler world.

This year, Merida is hosting the Kooben Gastronomic Festival, to celebrate this connection between healthy forests, thriving communities and world-renowned ingredients. The Nature Conservancy has teamed up with the Festival and five of Mexico’s top chefs, to share their stories about how the way food is produced has a big impact on Mexico’s world-famous cuisine. Before the Festival, I was able to explore the landscapes that are so central to the chefs participating this year. As a participant in the Festival, it gives me great joy to see that the ingredients that are so central to maintaining a healthy Maya Forest and sustaining the vibrant Mayan communities, are also highly valued by gourmet chefs. My trek through the Maya Forest began like this:

We started the ride in a milpa, a very diverse farming system that combines corn, beans, squash and other crops in the same plot. In this incredibly efficient system, the corn provides stalks for the beans to climb and the squash spreads out over the soil to keep the weeds out. Everything has a function, and the milpa provides the bulk of the calories in the local people’s diet.

As we biked, the milpa slowly gave way to the forest. The Maya Forest in this part of the Peninsula is not much to look at—it’s generally short and scrubby. But looks are deceiving! The Maya Forest, the largest tropical forest in the Americas after the Amazon, is actually teeming with biodiversity. This is one of the few places on Earth that is home to five large cat species, including the iconic jaguar; you can often see their paw prints in the mud. The forest is also home to a dizzying array of migratory birds, which stop here on their long journeys between North and South America. In the mornings, the forest is a cacophony of bird song.

The Maya Forest is also home to unique cultural resources that the local communities still use to this day for their spiritual practice. San Agustin is no exception—their forest hides a small but intricately carved archeological site. Coming upon this site as you move through the forest gives you the unique sensation of seeing something very few others have had the opportunity to see.

A little farther into the forest, we come across a small clearing set up with a dozen or so beehives. Beekeeping is a very important economic activity for the mayan people in this part of Mexico. The Peninsula produces 40 percent of the country’s honey, most of which is certified organic and destined for European markets. It is some of the highest quality honey in the world.

The local communities put their beehives right at the intersection of the milpa and the forest for a reason. The bees can feast on the flowers of the milpa during certain times of the year and the flowers from the forest during other times. This means beekeepers have a continuous production, and steady income, throughout the year. It also means that Yucatan honey has a highly unique flavor—it tastes like the Mayan Forest. In fact, it is so distinctive that people will hold tastings to savor and identify the different floral notes.

We soon say goodbye to the bees and continue on the trail. The forest begins to close in behind us as we move farther from the village. We stop and visit a cave, I accidentally run over a snake, and eventually we come out to the road. As we ride back to the village, we stop at an agro-forestry plot. My stomach is rumbling now as we finish this unexpected leg of the journey and I nearly start harvesting my dinner right then and there. The plot is an impressive mix of fruit trees, nut trees, chiles, and vegetables. They even have moringa, the new superfood I’ve recently started adding to my smoothies every morning. These types of highly diverse agro-forestry systems require fewer pesticides, provide a more complex and nutritious diet, and are more resilient to a changing climate. If one crop fails due to a prolonged drought, the people can still harvest another crop that survived.

Traditional Maya gardens produce a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and legumes. © Ivan Lowenberg
Traditional Maya gardens produce a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and legumes. © Ivan Lowenberg

We finally ride back into the village and go straight to a local restaurant. Surrounding the restaurant is the family’s “solar” or house garden. The garden complements the basic ingredients of corn and beans from the milpa with vitamins and minerals from fruits, vegetable, chiles and spices. The house garden usually also includes a few pigs and chickens for meat and eggs.

Dinner is squash blossom quesadillas and pork empanadas, served with a wide variety of home-made salsas ranging from “gringa mild” to “don’t even think about it habanero hot.” It’s accompanied by an ice-cold hibiscus tea, sweetened with honey. All the ingredients were harvested fresh just a few hours earlier from right beside the restaurant. It is a meal luxurious in its simplicity.

As I eat, the flavors walk me back through the trip I just took and make me think about how different this meal is from what I usually eat. In the city, I have no idea who grew the ingredients that went into my dish, how they were grown, or what impact they had on the landscape. I don’t know when they were harvested or what has been added to them to keep them fresh until they get to my plate. Here, this meal is so much richer because I know that it is not only good for me, but it is good for the landscape and for the people who grew it. This connection, from the forest to the people to my plate, is something that I hope to continue to strengthen when I return back to my day-to-day.

Looking forward to the Kooben Gastronomic Festival, I anticipate enjoying the delicious food even more now that I know where it came from—even if it took a long bike ride to find out.

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The Nature Conservancy
Protect. Transform. Inspire. The Nature Conservancy is uniquely positioned to be a leader in taking on the most complex challenges facing the planet. Our place-based projects in over 40 countries serve as living laboratories where new ideas to protect nature are tested, perfected and adapted for other places. We engage businesses, governments and communities in delivering these on-the-ground results – demonstrating how conservation innovations can transform how our food, water and energy are produced. And by empowering more leaders and communities all over the world with solutions that work, we will inspire action at the scale of the challenge.