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Yucatan Mexico

The Martha Stewart Show, November 2008

The picturesque Yucatan is one of the most unique of Mexico's 32 states due to its isolated location on the Yucatan Peninsula. Once occupied solely by the Maya people, an indigenous group living in Central America for thousands of years, Yucatan was transformed in the 16th century when the Spanish arrived and established beautiful colonial cities.

There are no rivers, lakes, or other surface waters in the Yucatan Peninsula due to its porous limestone ground. Rainwater filters straight through penetrating cracks, forming caves and underground rivers, many of which are interconnected.

The Yucatan Peninsula is home to North America's largest indigenous population, the Maya. Yucatan has the highest percentage of indigenous language speakers in the country. Maya history started in the Yucatan Peninsula around 2600 B.C., and rose to prominence around 250 A.D. in present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, western Honduras, El Salvador, and northern Belize. There are around 750,000 people who still speak the Maya language in Mexico today. Maya religion was characterized by the worship of nature gods (especially the gods of sun, rain, and corn), but the sun is now associated with God or Jesus, and the moon is associated with the Virgin Mary.

This syncretism between ancient Maya religion and Catholicism can be viewed in modern mortuary practices, cemetery structure, and celebrations of death such as "Los Dias de Los Muertos," or the Day of the Dead. Present-day Maya religion is a colorful hybrid of Catholicism and ancient beliefs and rituals. For example, they identified Roman Catholic saints, whose feast days are scattered throughout the year, with the ancient gods, traditionally honored with agricultural festivals at specific times.

A traditional solar, or "living pantry," surrounds many Maya homes. Solares may house food and herbs that both eaten and used for medicinal purposes. In addition to plants used for food and medicine, solares may include materials grown for building houses, such as sisal, which is dissected by hand and turned into rope, and an area set aside for religious ceremonies.

Yucatan's capital city, Merida, is home to an amazing fresh market covering 156,000 square feet and housing more than 2,000 vendors. Yucatan is among the world's largest producers of habeneros. The xpelon beans, a staple in Yucatecan cuisine, are freshly shelled in the market and sold alongside at least 10 other varieties. Other local produce included tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, cabbage, banana leaves, and chaya -- a leafy green similar to spinach.

Resources
For information on the Los Dos Cooking School, visit los-dos.com. For more information on traveling in the Yucatan Peninsula, visit yucatantoday.com or yucatan.travel/en/.

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