I have hunkered down this winter in the city of Merida, Mexico. Merida is located in the state of Yucatan, about 4 hours drive west of Cancun and about 30 minutes south of Puerto Progresso on the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a city with a population of just under a million people. We have been here since December 2010.
In my previous article, I talked about my experiences and challenges eating raw and vegan in Cancun, Puerto Morelos and Playa del Carmen. Now that I’ve been in Merida for a couple months, I’d like to share my continued raw food diet adventure in Mexico.
Raw Foodists In Merida
I was thrilled to find out that I was not the only raw foodies in Merida. I met a nice family during my first week here who had my husband and I over for dinner. We chatted about being raw and vegan in Merida and they told us of some potlucks that they have occasionally.
I met another raw foodist during a salsa dance class at the stadium. Raw foodists are out there – even in this carnivorous nation!
A Fruity Adventure
As I found in Puerto Morelos and Playa del Carmen, Merida has no shortage of delicious tropical fruit in supermarkets, neighborhood markets and at fruit stands.
The Yucatan is a perfect destination for anybody on the low-fat, fruit-based or 80/10/10 raw vegan diet. Fresh, ripe tropical fruit is extremely fresh, some of it (mainly citrus) is locally grown and it’s fairly cheap. It is not, however, organic.
I’ve tried some interesting and delicious fruits that I will certainly miss when I return to the US this spring.
Among them are sapotes (sapodillas), a pear-shaped fruit with a thin brown peel and a flavor that is reminiscent of brown sugar and cinnamon. They are candy!
Sapote negro (black sapote) is another fruit I tried which has a faint chocolate flavor and a thick, custard-like texture. It would make an excellent filling for a raw, vegan pie.
I’ve grown attached to mamey fruit, which has a custard-like texture and tastes like sweet pumpkin.
Soursop or guanábana, as they call it here, tastes like tart pineapple. I have a tree growing outside my window next to the sour orange (naranja agria) tree.
Another interesting fruit I’ve had is cherimoya. They call it annona here. The flavor is similar to a blend of apple, peach, strawberry and banana.
Guavas, dragon fruit (pitaya), star fruit – the Yucatan is a luscious fruit haven!
There are about 5 or so types of mangoes in season as I write this and they are all extremely delicious. They are unlike any mango I have ever had in the US. Mangoes at US supermarkets, especially the ones you get in Chicago, are not picked ripe so the flavor is not as good when they ripen in the store, or most likely, your kitchen counter.
The mangoes here are ripe when you buy them and exquisitely delicious.
As I mentioned in my previous write up, papayas and even bananas here taste better than they do up north. Sadly, I’ve tried 4 pineapples (a staple of mine back in Chicago) at different times over the last 3 months and they all have been lacking in flavor. While they look good and ripe on the outside, they just don’t have the flavor that I am used to. I’m not sure if it’s the season or the region where they are grown (they don’t grow locally in the Yucatan).
Sweet Juicy Juices
One thing I really love about the Yucatan is that you can get delicious green juices almost everywhere. Many restaurants have them, neighborhood markets have juice bars and even fruit stands on the side of the street sell “jugo verde” by the liter or half liter (some of them sell it by the bag).
Jugo verde or green juice is usually made with chaya, which is a leafy green native to the Yucatan and grows abundantly here. It is usually blended with nopal (cactus), pineapple, orange, celery and parsley. I love it and it’s pretty cheap, about 22 pesos ($1.83 US) for a liter – where in the USA would you find 32 ounces of freshly-made green juice for that price?
The fresh-squeezed orange (naranja) and tangerine (mandarina) juices are absolutely wonderful too and even cheaper!
I’ve come to really appreciate unsweetened “agua de Jamaica”, which is a sort of iced tea made with Roselle (a species of hibiscus) flowers.
One thing I did not foresee was the lack of certain foods that I take for granted up north. For example, I typically get my daily value of selenium from eating a daily Brazil nut. One nut contains more than 100% RDA of selenium, which is a mineral that is not particularly abundant in a vegan diet. I assumed that a place like Mexico would sell Brazil nuts but it’s not so, at least not in the Yucatan. Even during the holidays, no Brazil nuts at all. Raw nuts are hard to find here.
The other big problem here is sea vegetables, which are my primary source of iodine in my diet. I did bring a bag of dulse flakes with me from the US but it ran out back in November. As a vegan, there are no other iodine options because absolutely no stores carry sea vegetables. There are no real Asian restaurants either, so trying to get sea vegetables in a miso soup (which probably wouldn’t be vegan here) isn’t an option.
They do have iodized table salt, which I’d find appropriate as a short term solution, but the salt here also contains fluoride, so it’s not something I want to take.
The only protein powders here are soy and whey. Forget about finding anything like hemp or brown rice powder!
I’m not meaning to complain. Just be forewarned that if you plan to spend any amount of time in Mexico, or any foreign country, stock up on some of your health food essentials and bring enough with you to last throughout your trip.
If you are in need of supplements, you can find things like vitamins, minerals and protein powder at Nutrisa shops. There are four of them located around Merida. I prefer a shop called ProNat on Calle 59 #506-D, which seems to have more of a selection than the one Nutrisa store I went in. I opted for a kelp supplement I found at ProNat instead of going for the fluoridated table salt.
Where to Buy The Best Fruit In Merida
Merida has many options for buying fruits, vegetables and other foods that a raw foodist or vegan will need.
When I stayed in barrio Santiago (Santiago neighborhood), I bought my fruit from the popular Mercado de Santiago, which is next to the church in the park on Calle 59 and 70.
The market has many stalls where Mayan women sell fruits and vegetables. Everything is very fresh, high-quality and reasonably priced. I’d visit one stall to purchase my fruit (papayas, bananas, grapes, tangerines and sapotes) and visit a vegetable stall for cucumbers, lettuce, radishes, peppers, potatoes, squash, etc…). Nothing here will be organic, but I usually don’t buy organic tropical fruits back home anyway.
After my third visit to one fruit stall, I was given a “frequent shopper” bonus of two tangerines or a sapodilla thrown in my bag after I checked out. I was probably one of her biggest customers since not many other people show up twice each week to buy 300 pesos (about $25 US) worth of fruit. She must have wondered how I ate so much fruit!
Now that I am in a different neighborhood, I purchase my fruit from a fruit stand on the side of Calle 60 across from the stadium where I work out.
In Search Of Organic Produce
One frustrating thing about Mexico, at least in the Yucatan, is that organic produce is almost impossible to find. Interestingly, Mexico has the highest number of organic farms worldwide. However, 85% of its organic produce is exported with only 5% being sold in Mexico as organic.
I missed buying organic produce, especially leafy greens, when I was in Puerto Morelos. I was hoping that a larger city like Merida would have more organic options.
I was right. You can get organic (or “organic-ish”) produce in Merida, but you have to go out of your way to get it.
The Walmart on Paseo de Montejo has a good produce section where you can find a tiny selection of Earthbound Farms organic baby spinach (for the same prices as you’d get them in the US). A company called “Eva” produces high-quality lettuce and other vegetables that do not appear to be certified organic, but they are grown without pesticides. You don’t even have to sanitize them with Microdyne solution like you do with everything else here.
I’ve found Costco to be the best place for organic produce. I get Eva baby romaine and leaf lettuce, tomatoes that are grown without pesticides, as well as certified organic celery, mixed greens, carrots and frozen berries.
I do eat non-organic spinach and Swiss chard so that I have some variety of leafy greens. You won’t find kale, dandelion, collards or much variety here at all. It’s mainly lettuce and spinach and that’s about it.
There are limited selections of organic packaged foods at both Walmart (Paseo de Montejo) and the big, orange Commercial Mexicana (Mega Balcones) off of Calle 60 north of the Salvador Alvarado stadium. However, Mega does not carry any organic produce.
Other grocery store chains such as Superama, Soriana and Chedraui do not have organic produce either, but they do have a good selection of quality fruits and the same limited amounts of lettuce and spinach for greens.
Ya’axtal Eco Tienda & Cafe is a neat little shop on Calle 30 (Prolongacion Montejo) that sells organic shampoo, soaps, cleaning products, bug repellent, jams, nuts and other packaged organic goodies. I had a delicious vegan lunch there too (always ask for no cheese, mayo, etc…)!
Cafe Organico on Calle 33 off of Calle 72 (Reforma) is a great place to get organic coffee as well as limited, packaged organic goodies. There’s not much for the raw foodist here, but it’s a place where you can get a vegan lunch and some organic body care products.
Mercado Fresco de Slow Food Yucatan is as close as you are going to get to walking into a Whole Foods Market in Merida. Every Saturday from 9am – 1pm, the Slow Food Market offers a friendly farmers market atmosphere with offerings from numerous vendors including locally-grown fruits and vegetables (some of which are organic), sprouts, nuts and seeds. There are lots of vegan food options here as well. The prices are pretty much what you would expect to pay in the US, but in pesos.
The market is on Calle 31 #70 between 12 and 14, Col. Chuburna de Hidalgo, a block west of Calle 60 near Costco.
Cost Of Eating Raw and Vegan In Merdia
My food budget is definitely less here in Mexico than it is back in Chicago. Of course, purchasing organic and organic-ish produce at Costco adds up. Eight heads of baby romaine lettuce at Costco costs about 46 pesos. A 1 pound tub of Earthbound Farms organic spring mix is 64 pesos, which is more expensive than it would be in the US. Pesticide-free tomatoes are much more expensive than conventional ones. A 5-ounce container of Earthbound Farms organic baby spinach at Walmart is 36 pesos – about $3 US!
The price difference between organic and non-organic is huge here. A bunch of non-organic spinach or a head of non-organic romaine will cost about 7 pesos – a little over 50 cents US. On Wednesdays, Mega may have spinach on sale for about a peso per bunch.
Fruit is a bargain, usually. Buy local fruit and you get a good deal. If you buy red grapes from Chili, apples from the USA and other non-local fruit, you may be paying US prices.
Always inquire about prices at local fruit stands and markets before you purchase. If you are concerned about being “gringo priced”, pop into a supermarket and see what they are selling their produce for. You’ll almost always get much better quality at local fruit stands, but knowing what produce should cost may help you avoid paying too much.
Vegan Food Options In Merida
Merida is far from a vegan-friendly city. I rarely go to restaurants. Aside from guacamole (ask for it without cheese – “sin queso”) and perhaps a salad, you will be hard pressed to find a raw food meal at a restaurant here.
A couple options for places to go for vegan meals are 100% Natural behind the Sam’s Club and Amaro on Calle 59 near Centro. There’s a nice sorbet (sorbete) place on Passeo de Montejo (south of the Walmart) and another one in Centro along the perimeter of the Plaza Grande. Sorbete is a frozen fruit puree that is delicious. It’s probably sweetened with sugar but it’s a vegan indulgence, and the only ice cream alternative you’ll get here unless you make your own.
A couple things to watch out for here: Black beans in restaurants are not vegan. They are cooked with pork fat. Many things are cooked with lard. Salads and sometimes even guacamole comes with cheese on it. Vegetarianism is a pretty fringe concept here, and veganism is quite alien.
Costco does have some surprising vegan finds. I found vegan veggie burgers in the meat section. Organic tofu is also available and I was floored when I discovered that the Costco apple pie contained no animal products.
So that’s what it’s been like so far being raw foodists and vegans in Merida, Mexico. I’ll let you know if I find any other resources. I’ll be here until mid-April (2010) before returning to Puerto Morelos for two weeks, then back to Chicago. I, for one, am drooling over the thought of restocking my food pantry with some health food staples at the big Whole Foods Market in Lincoln Park!
Read more articles about the raw food diet.
Tracy Russell is the creator of the Green Smoothie Weight Loss Program, the 30-Day Whole Foods Challenge and founder of Incredible Smoothies. She is passionate about helping people improve their health with green smoothies and a whole foods lifestyle.