Although we don’t buy souvenirs on every trip, this time we felt moved to acquire mementos of the Yucatán – notably those that would evoke its fascinating Maya culture. Conversations with locals led us to crafted goods unique to the region. These are the three we brought home.
Likened to Drambuie, pastis or ouzo, xtabentún (pronounced ish-ta-ben-toon) is a traditional yellow-green spirit sometimes referred to as “liquor of the Maya.” This liqueur is an amalgam of rum, anise seed and fermented honey made from the xtabentún flower. The conquistadors who created it apparently drew inspiration from balché, a ceremonial drink produced by the Maya that was composed of balché tree bark, honey and cinnamon. Disliking the bitterness of the beverage, the Spaniards omitted the bark and added anise. We like to drink xtabentún, with its distinctive note of sweet honeysuckle, neat or on the rocks, but locals add it to their coffee, and bars often mix it with tequila and lime juice. The largest producer of this spirit is the Casa D’Aristi located in Mérida. Open since 1935, the facility offers fascinating tours that give insight into ancient Maya rituals.
160 Calle 41, Colonia Xmatkuil, Mérida. (52) 999-943-0218
Yucatecan hammocks are quite different than those found elsewhere in the world. Handmade by indigenous Maya on upright wooden looms, these are made of a tight, thick-cotton weave and shouldn’t be confused with the less-supportive — and cheaper — wide-weave versions often made of nylon. Authentic Maya hammocks showcase vibrantly colored traditional patterns, don’t use spreader bars and can often take up to six weeks to complete. They are much wider than most hammocks and are designed for the user to lie crosswise, with the body perpendicular to the hammock, rather than in the more common parallel position. To be sure you are purchasing a genuine local craft, check the tightness of the weave, the thickness of the threads and the width of the hammock as a whole. Rather than purchasing one off the street, we suggest visiting Hamacas el Aguacate in Mérida, an excellent store carrying high-quality products. It is primarily women who create these distinctive pieces, and sales help support them and the small communities in which they live.
Hamacas el Aguacate
Calle 58 esquina con Calle 73, Colonia Centro, Mérida. (52) 999-923-1292. Tel. (298) 315-166
Calabash trees, common in southern Mexico, produce large spherical fruits. When dried, these become a hard gourd. For centuries, artisans have been transforming these woody shells into everything from jícara (drinking vessels) and bowls to vases and lamps. Once a dry gourd is hollowed out, a craftsman carves intricate designs into the shell, often embedding glass into the surface. The patterns are most often inspired by sacred Maya symbols. To procure one of these beautiful handmade pieces, we were directed to Jellyfish Lamps in Playa del Carmen. We reached the store in the early evening and were immediately captivated by the colorful patterns cast on the walls by the hanging gourd lights inlaid with multihued glass marbles and decorated with seeds and seashells. Though a store on Playa del Carmen’s main thoroughfare may seem like a tourist trap, Jellyfish Lamps is worth a visit for its one-of-a-kind creations. That a simple fruit can be transformed into something so beautiful is one of life’s little surprises.
Quinta Avenida entre Calles 8 y 10, Playa del Carmen. Tel. (52) 984-803-2297