Hugging the Caribbean Sea on the coastline of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula lies Riviera Maya, a well known tourist destination especially among the East Coast set looking for warmer weather. With the rise of wellness travel came the increasingly popular culinary trends of offering vegetarian and vegan options, and the Yucatan is no exception. While it’s easy to find simple, snackable items like guacamole, salsa, and chips, the rise of luxury travel in this region has also given travelers a chance to experience more complex dishes without sacrificing their dietary restrictions. From Tulum’s meditative shores to Mayakoba’s towering labyrinth, these three locations offer an unforgettable vegan meal experience.
Playa del Carmen may not claim the reputation that Tulum has honed (ie a stylish, wellness infused beach getaway populated with big city folk looking for the Manhattan equivalent of Mexico’s beachfront), don’t let the location fool you. Stepping inside the Viceroy Riviera Maya feels like entering another world entirely. The hotel is comprised of individual huts situated in what feels like a private rainforest. The only noise in the distance is the chirping of the jungle birds and the soft hum of the tides.
Dining at the Viceroy is an all day affair, with breakfast and lunch served poolside, or at The Coral Grill, a covered eatery with views of the sea. While the Mexican influenced menu offers the classics including a knockout guacamole and plantain combo, save room for their vast vegan menu beginning with ceviche. A quintessentially non-vegan dish, the Viceroy has turned this seafood classic into a vegan delight. With a base of carrot and pumpkin, the hotel’s signature dish is seasoned with leche de tigre and guajillo chili. The menu continues with other delights from eggplant tiradito (grilled eggplant with carrots, spinach, onion, and leche de tigre), roasted cauliflower with a pumpkin seed dip, and grilled palm hearts with hydrated amaranth. The perfect ending? Satisfy your sweet tooth with a scoop of quinoa ice cream and sweet potato chips for the ideal salty sweet finish.
Thai cuisine may be known for its multiple layers of seasonings with nam pla (fish sauce) chief among these, yet a dining experience at Mayakoba’s Banyan Tree does not sacrifice flavor for accommodation. At the hotel’s signature restaurant Saffron, Thai cuisine is served as authentically as one would expect from the brand’s heritage, and despite the Mexican location, just might have you ordering Thai more often than anticipated in the Riviera Maya.
Before the sampling can begin however, Saffron packs a punch upon first glance alone. The restaurant’s dining room is essentially a wooden dock set out into Mayakoba’s waterway framed by a sweeping arched overhang. The occasional boat will drift lazily by and the background track to your meal is awash in jungle sounds. Although many of the dishes on the menu are vegan, the restaurant handily has a vegetarian menu available so sifting out the obvious restrictions is simplified. The meal begins with an assortment of breads and crackers and five distinct sauces, all vegan and all packing a serious punch. The sweet chili sauce was a particularly welcome spicy bite, particularly followed by the Som Tum papaya salad. An assortment of curries, pad thai and wok tossed vegetables kept the flavors flowing tempered by the essential sticky rice and mango dessert. Without the requisite margarita, you just might forget you’re in Mexico.
To the uninitiated, it should be no surprise that Tulum offers a plethora of vegan dining options. Long favored as a bohemian retreat from city life, this coastal strip is packed with vegan dining options. How do you then stand out among the masses? At Hartwood Tulum the answer is seemingly pare back. The restaurant is definitely not vegan specific, as it focuses on the season’s daily bounty from both land and sea, but the end result is a knockout punch of flavor. With an emphasis on sustainable farming, the restaurant seeks to partner with the best of the local agriculture, and serves each dish simply cooked over an open fire. Do not confuse simple with thoughtless, as the thought behind each dish is evident with every bite.
Each day’s menu changes, so expect a bit of a surprise when you arrive. For my visit, a spread of root vegetables arrived whole with perfectly charred outer skins and the most tender meat inside, packed with flavor. You almost didn’t need the tangy sauce that accompanied as the vegetables truly held their own. Other tantalizing dishes called out with siren songs, but to experience the true potential of a beet, crispy and flaky on the outside and smooth and sweet on the inside, was enough for me.
Leora is a travel journalist and the founder of Persephone Social, a hospitality focused social media agency based in NYC.