Street Food Eating our Way Through Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula

Mobile street food vender in Piste, Mexico

The inclination to grab a bite to eat on the street is not something new.

Most likely the first time two roads crossed, some enterprising chef set up a cart at the new intersection to provide passersby a mobile snack.

The idea of fast food is not a recent development; it’s the culmination of centuries of selling food on the fly. We saw it in Pompeii, where corner cafes had counters right on the curb.

Fruit and vegetable street stand in Valladolid Mexico

Chapulines, or crickets is a street delicacy in Mexico

Across Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, we set out to sample as many street delicacies as possible and got off to a jumping start at a weekend street fair in Cancun.

Before we made it to the mass of vendors in the Parque de las Palapas, we encountered a young man with two buckets. One was obviously filled with spiced peanuts; the other looked to be brimming with bugs.

David eats a cricket in Cancun Mexico

“Crickets,” he informed us. Known as chapulines, these buggers are traditionally found in the nearby state of Oaxaca.

In summer and early fall, the insects are harvested out of the corn and alfalfa fields, cleaned, boiled, and then baked or fried with plenty of spices. Never ones to back away from trying something strange or new, when offered a sample we both popped one in our mouths.

Not bad, the chili overshadowed any bug-like flavor. Not a new favorite or anything, but way better than a silkworm.

WATCH: We eat our way through the Yucatan – calorie count not included, for your guilt-free viewing pleasure!

An elote cart in Valladolid
An elote cart in Valladolid

In the Yucatán, many of the favorite foods can be traced back to Mayan times. In addition to building incredible cities, the Maya people grew corn.

The grain was a staple of their diet, just as it is for their descendants today. Good old corn on the cob, called elote, is one of the most popular street foods all across Mexico.

Elote from a street vendor in Cancun

Elote in a cup in Cancun
Esquites in Cancun

Dressed up with cheese and chili pepper it is a tasty treat, but down in the southern sections of the country we came across a variation we had never seen before.

Esquites is same ingredients, only served in a cup. The corn is cut off of the cob and a wild array of condiments is offered as toppings, and then eaten with a spoon. Not as fun, but definitely not as messy.

Carrying wares on the street in Piste, Mexico

Tamale cart in Valladolid Mexico
Tamale cart in Valladolid

While exploring the inland town of Valladolid, one of the more intriguing offerings we encountered curbside were the charred, leaf-wrapped packets we kept seeing in the Mayan neighborhood.

They looked a lot like the dim sum sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves served in China, but were obviously cooked over fire. Our guess was — even though they were much larger than we had ever seen before — that they were most likely tamales.

Made sense since the Maya people invented tamales, and have continued making them for thousands of years.

Tamale in Valladolid Mexico

Unlike the corn husk wrapping we are used to seeing (or the scary grease soaked paper of the canned versions), these tamales are cooked in banana leaves, which does wonders for the flavor.

The sweetness, mixed with the smoky flavor from fire roasting and the spicy filling, made for the best we’ve ever had. Much of that unique goodness is a result of the cooking over coals in underground ovens known as pibs.

That is so much a part of the process that pib has become the slang term for tamales across the Yucatán.

Conchinita pibil street food stand in Valladolid Mexico
Conchinita cart in Valladolid


Another regional dish that can be traced back to the ancient Mayans, and is also cooked underground, is conchinita pibil.

Cochinita means baby pig, and pibil is the Mayan word for buried, which perfectly describes the dish.

While it has become less common to roast a whole suckling pig, the method remains the same; marinate pork in the juice of bitter oranges and achiote, wrap the meat in banana leaves, and slow cook it over coals underground.

Panuchos conchinita pibil in Piste Mexico on the Yucatan Peninsula
Panuchos conchinita pibil in Pisté
Conchinita pibil sandwich in Valladolid Mexico on the Yucatan Peninsula
Conchinita pibil as a sandwich

The end result is tender, flavorful pulled pork that instantly became our new favorite.

Not a day went by that we didn’t have some conchinita, several times at breakfast!

It is almost always served with pickled onions, and often on bread, but we also had it on tortillas and even saw it advertised as a pizza topping.

Lime soup or Sopa de lima in Piste, Mexico
Sopa de lima in Pisté

At a sidewalk café in Pisté, the small town that serves as the gateway to the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, we were introduced to one of the most popular dishes of the region, sopa de lima.

Being soup, it is not generally served on the street, but lime soup is available pretty much everywhere else in the Yucatán. As the name implies, lime is a key ingredient, but this is more of a traditional chicken soup, with tortilla strips taking the place of noodles. Freakin’ YUM.

Cooking street tacos in Cancun Mexico

Speaking of tortillas, we certainly cannot overlook the importance, and abundance, of tacos to the street food scene in Mexico.

There are variations common to the different parts of the country, but they have all permeated the entire land and beyond.

The name taco is thought to come from silver miners in the 1800s, who thought that the explosive charges of gunpowder wrapped in paper they used to blow holes in rock looked similar to their lunch. The food had been common for centuries before that, but no one seems to know what it was called.

Street tacos in Cancun Mexico

Nameless or not, tacos were around well before the Spanish arrived.

In fact, in his 1568 book, A True History of the Conquest of New Spain, Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote a first-hand account of a 1520 dinner party where conquistador Hernán Cortés ate tacos with the Aztecs.

He went on to repay their hospitality by double crossing them.

Tacos dorados in Cancun Mexico

Ground corn, cooked into tortillas, is still the delivery system of choice for almost any filling imaginable.

We may not know what the Aztecs or Mayans called them, but they go by many names now.

From the basic tacos al carbon, where the meat is grilled over live coals, to tacos dorados meaning golden tacos, because they are deep fried to a golden brown.

Tacos al pastor in Cancun Mexico

One of the most popular taco types in all of Mexico is not descendent from the ancient natives at all, but from Lebanon.

In the first half of the twentieth century many Lebanese immigrants came to Mexico to escape the Ottoman Empire and brought with them their traditional foods.

However, some of the ingredients were not readily available in their new home and dishes had to adapt. Tacos al pastor is a perfect example.

Tacos al pastor in Cancun Mexico

The lamb used for shawarma, the spit-grilled meat common throughout the Middle East, just wasn’t around in the Yucatán, so pork replaced it.

New seasonings, including pineapple were incorporated, and when served on tortillas instead of pita… presto, tacos al pastor.

Tacos Rigos in Cancun specializes in tacos de cabeza or head tacos
Tacos Rigos in Cancun specializes in head tacos; David needs a moment to adjust to the idea.

After a few days of taco tasting we were feeling pretty adventurous, so we decided to try the possibly disgust… rather, shall we say, somewhat exotic tacos de cabeza, or head tacos.

The process involves steaming a whole cow’s head and removing certain parts to use inside of tacos.

The most common portions are Sesos (brains), Trompa (lips), Cachete (cheek), Lengua (tongue), and Ojo (eyes).

Cheek, tongue and eyeball tacos in Cancun Mexico!

We went for the cheek, tongue, and eyeballs, after all, there’s only so much cabeza a person can take… and we wanted to save some to try later… yeah, right.

The cheek was fairly normal meat, perfectly good, and the tongue was not too unusual either. We had tried it through the years on sandwiches and other dishes. But the eyes… let’s just say it was not a pretty sight.

Eyeball taco in Cancun Mexico!
Are you looking at ME?!

The eyes are chopped up after steaming, and then braised on a grill, which helped slightly.

In fact, had we not known what we were eating we may have thought it was just a really fatty, grisly cut of meat.

But we did know, which brought new meaning to the saying watch what you eat.

We were diligent though, and managed to consume a fair amount of the bovine peepers, until it hit us… what if they were watching us back?!?!

It was easier to get past eating a bug than thinking about that.

Gory taco in Cancun, Mexico
We were, however, somewhat petrified to try our luck in this place!

David & Veronica,

Thanks to the folks at Ensure we felt secure that we could venture into this epicurean episode without risking any nutritional repercussions. They were kind enough to sponsor our video, and provided a supply of their new Ensure Active, which kept us hydrated throughout our escapades. All opinions are our own.

See all of our adventures in Mexico!

YOUR TURN: Fire away! What looks good and what wouldn’t you eat in a million years (we would never ask that you are as crazy as we are!)?

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41 thoughts on “Street Food Eating our Way Through Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula”

  1. As for street food, Brazil is one of the countries with my favorite street food, followed by Thailand and Korea.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to write this up. I am returning the Yucatan in a few months to travel a little more slowly.

    I didn’t have the chance to try much street food last time. And now I know what I am looking at thanks to you. I will have to stay away from the ojos taco but I’m curious about the cheek taco.

    Did you ever make it to El Camel in Tulum? The best octopus and squid I ever head but the portions are insanely huge.

    1. The cheek is good, very tender. If you make it to the area around Valladolid be sure to try the conchinita pibil. It is pork slow cooked buried in the ground, unbelievably good! We were in Tulum a few years ago, but only for the day off of a cruise ship.

  3. I think you guys were pretty brave! No repercussions? Or was that because you had all those good things in your system from the Ensure? The corn looked delicious, and I will admit to trying the crickets, but only after I had smuggled them back home with me. I figured if I got sick, at least i’d be in my own bed. Great, fun video-what kind of camera did you use?

  4. You are brave indeed! I like to think I’m adventurous and pretty much manage to convince myself – until I read posts like this one! Bugs and eyes – no. But shawarma with pork and pineapple? Bring it on!

  5. The last time I was in Mexico was 19 years ago, and I loved the food. My favorite was definitely the tacos. I’m sure I ate them everyday. Now, I’m starving for Mexican, and I live in a city where Mexican food is almost nonexistent!

  6. Awww – Yucatecan food! The food may very well be the reason we remember our months in that area so fondly (as well as the numerous and amazing ruins!). Sopa de lima and tacos al pastor were among our favorites also as well as ANYTHING cooked in banana leaves and we loved watching the women hand make the tamales with the rhythmic pat-pat-pat!

  7. OMG, I should never have started reading this post about the foodie yummies on the Yucatan Peninsula so close to dinner time! I am now starving and lusting for these delicious items and don’t want to settle for what I have in the fridge! 🙁

  8. Having been known to eat and drink our way through entire regions ourselves, this post resonates. I doubt I’d have been as adventurous with the chopped eye taco, so thanks for doing your part and letting us know. Otherwise, mega yums!

  9. I *love* Mexican food (except, as a vegetarian, the insects!) and always felt safe eating from street stalls there. They seem to get inspected regularly. To me Mexican cuisine, the one you find IN Mexico, is one of the best and most varied in the world.

  10. Yum! I would try it all! Maybe. I’m not sure about eyeballs either. But, overall it sounds delicious and makes we want to hop on a plane to Mexico!

  11. MMMMMMMMMMMMMM Pacifico and tacos de pastor @ Taco Rigos in Cancun and MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM to ANY kind of cochinita pibil in ANY part of the Yucatan 🙂

    Glad you guys got your meat on! Best part of the Yucatan is the food, for sure.

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