If you love to cook or have a passion for fruits, vegetables, seafood and more, you’ll be in heaven in Cozumel. In addition to many traditional markets primary among which is El Mercado on 25th and Rosada Salas, there are giant, modern supermarkets on the island. All have in-store bakeries, delis and massive produce departments.
There are two located on Melgar just south of downtown: Mega and Chedraui. The island also has a Sam’s club and other grocery stores on Avenida 30 and Avenida 65 (aka 8 de Octubre). Any of these stores are abundantly stocked and have virtually everything you need whether you’re feeding a family or just dropping by for sandwich makings and beer.
Although in many cases you can find American-made products in these stores, you’ll save a big chunk of change if you stick with the Mexican equivalents.
Here’s some information on food you can buy on the island and our best suggestions on where to get it. Be sure to also check our Food on the Go section and our article on Yucatan Cuisine. You may also want to look into the possibility of a 3-4 hour Cooking Class where you go with the chef to the market, cook up a grand meal and then eat it. A lot of fun and a good way to take a little of Cozumel home with you in the form of some great recipes.
Fruits and Vegetables
One of the greatest delights of visiting Cozumel is the large assortment of fresh, luscious produce that’s available daily and all over town. We eat the produce here every day and never become ill from it. Our secret: We bring everything home from the market and immediately soak it all for 20 minutes in a solution of 1 liter of tap water to 15 drops of the bottled iodine-based solutions that are available at all the groceries and pharmacies on the island. (In the giant Chedraui grocery store, you’ll find a huge display rack of the stuff in the back corner of the produce section.)
It’s well worth the small trouble it takes to follow this procedure. Because then you can relax and enjoy all the great stuff the markets have to offer and usually at prices so low you’ll think you’ve read the sign wrong.
The two best places in town to buy great produce: Chedraui & Mega, both with huge selection and clearly marked prices. El Mercado has the freshest local produce but usually somewhat higher prices (which, however, will still be a lot less than what you’re probably used to if you live outside Latin American.)
The following is an incomplete list featuring the produce we personally use and like. There’s a lot more stuff out there that we haven’t even gotten around to trying yet–a number of kinds of squash we’ve never seen anywhere else, for example.
Small, Italian Roma style tomatoes are the tastiest and most readily available
They’re so good and so cheap in Cozumel that we’re spoiled now and can’t bear to buy any in the states. Pick firm avocados with a slight amount of black on them and they’ll ripen to perfection on your counter in usually only 1 day. Or, if you need it right away, look for firm ones that are black and JUST give a little when you press with your fingers.
They’re practically giving these away so you can even squander two dozen on a big jug of homemade limeade if the mood takes you and they’re great as seasoning for guacamole, sliced tomatoes, fish and, of course, in alcoholic beverages of all kinds.
Papayas and Mangos
Almost always in abundance and of excellent quality. Good with lime juice squeezed on them. If you’re here with the yellow mangos are in. They are to die for.
Really good here. But generally not ripe in the stores. You’ll usually see a small trashcan sitting next to the piles of pineapples in the produce section. You’re expected to twist off the leaves on top and dump them in. That way you don’t pay for unnecessary weight.
That’s what Mexicans call peppers. And at least 30 varieties are grown in the Yucatan on or near Cozumel. If you want a sweet, mild pepper (chile) but with more flavor than a bell pepper, go for the Poblanos-(“peppers of the people”) available everywhere. Want something hotter? Serrano, Pasilla, etc. are also available in both fresh and dried forms.
The fresh leaves of the cumin plant are a marvelous edition to even the simplest dishes. Cilantro is available in the big grocery stores. But we find the freshest at El Mercado-at one of the little outside tables behind the big, two story building on the corner of Avenida 25 and Salas. While you’re back there, take time to stop and watch the ladies rolling up balls of recado spice pastes-red, green and black. Housewives here buy them for flavoring their Yucatecan-style dishes.
It’s so strong and good here you can find your way to the right bin in the market when you’re 4 ft. away! If your accommodations has a gas stove try roasting heads on the end of a fork for a truly authentic Mexican flavoring. Then peel and mash them into anything you’re cooking from guacamole to simple quesadillas. Just outstanding.
Plentiful and, generally about 3 times as sweet as the American versions.
Cauliflower and Broccoli
Often of high quality and always cheap as dirt. We think this is because they’re a relatively new addition to the produce section–not part of traditional Mexican cuisine.
I’ll bet you didn’t know that the Yucatan Peninsula is the world’s second largest producer of honey. (Yep, China is first.) So, as you can imagine, if you’re a honey-bear, you’ve got some taste treats in store in Cozumel with some of the finest honey in the world available in the local groceries. Govinda, Elimiel and Carlotta are all good bets. Watch for it in the market stalls, too. You can sometimes find some out of this world stuff–but take a close look at the quality and demand a taste test first.
Dried hibiscus blossoms are sold by the kilo all over Cozumel. It’s very easy to brew up a delicious jug of aqua fresca de Jamaica that is simply wonderful and crammed full of Vitamin C.
Carrot, grapefruit, orange and something purple we haven’t figured out yet are all available at several places outside the front of El Mercado (25th and Salas) A highly recommended treat–although the orange juice will probably be a little more sour than you’re used to. We personally like it that way. But for the kids you could always add a bit of sugar.
Ditto the above. Small yellow potatoes are popular, too and available for a song compared with American prices.
Dried spices are available at the big grocery stores. For freshly-made recado spice paste balls, a staple of Yucatecan cooking, shop the little tables directly behind El Mercado where you can watch the balls being hand-rolled. Oregano, cumin whole peppers and cloves are readily available locally. Thyme and marjoram are sometimes but not always available. You will not find many herbs you may take for granted like rosemary, tarragon, caraway seeds and fennel. So if you plan to use these while you’re here, bring them with you.
Feel like cooking in tonight and have seafood on the brain? If so, there are pescaderias (fish shops) in abundance in a town where the boats go out daily. Mero (grouper) and a variety of kinds of snapper (huachinango) are the most widely available for sale.
Our favorite pescaderia right now is on the Plaza side of Avenida 30 between Calle 2 and 4.) Get there around 10 AM in the morning and you can often buy small filets of skinned (!) fileted mero (grouper) freshly caught and for about 35 pesos/kilo. (Prices for these and other fish are posted. Remember that a kilo is just a tad over 2 lbs.) No English spoken.
Other times of day, you can buy these same filets individually wrapped in cellophane and frozen. Of course, you can also choose a whole fish and have it filleted for you. Just pick your own out of the big coolers.
Another good pescaderia is on 50 Bis between Calle 3 and Morelos. San Carlos Pescaderia.
Shrimp is also almost always available and of high quality. But you won’t get quite the deal you will on fish.
Squid, octopus and couch are also widely available if you’re feeling ambitious. Lobster is harder to come by at the fish markets. Let us know if you find a good source, would you?
Mega and Chedraui have the widest selection of cheeses in town-and a broad selection it is. With representatives from all areas of Mexico, some mild cheddar and mild “American style” cheese plus a wide assortment of duty-free Danish cheeses. TIP: For best flavor, only buy the cheese that is currently be sliced and packaged by the girls behind the deli counter. It just tastes better and keeps better for some reason. Just point and ask for a “medio kilo, por favor” MAY-de-oh KEY-low, pour fah-BORE and that will get you about 1 lb.
Yogurt is very popular on the island and several national and US brands like Dannon and Yoplait are readily available. Lots of fruit flavors including some like guayabera that you probably haven’t tried before.
As in most of the Yucatan-including Cancun-fresh milk is not always available. Vacuum packed is widely available as is powdered and condensed. You just have to make do on that particular item. It tastes fine on cereal, coffee and chocolate milk but for straight drinking, many people who aren’t used to it, don’t like it the best.
Sour cream is also not available. However, they have something better here — crema. It’s an out of this world hybrid sweeter than sour cream but much more sour and salty than whipped cream. It is out of this world dolloped on just about anything and very inexpensive at the grocery stores here.
Butter (and oil)
The butter they sell in the groceries here is dreadful. The margarine is fine. If you want butter, do what we locals do and purchase Fern brand butter from New Zealand which you’ll find in the refrigerator case at the restaurant supply store Pasquadellis. Pasquadellis which is on Calle 2 between Avenida 45 and 50 (next to a store selling cement) is open to the general public and carries other things that you take for granted in other parts of the world but that are difficult to find on the island. Spanish olive oil is readily available at the Chedraui as is several varieties of corn and canola oil.
Meat and Chicken
In the groceries here is tasty–but very tough. Don’t make the mistake we did once– buying “rib eye steak”, barbecuing it and then finding we could barely bite into it. If you’ve got to have beef, emulate Mexican cooks and either simmer it until tender then shred it with a fork for taco filling or purchase thin slices of skirt steak to pound and quick fry.
Runs about the same as it does in the US. Dark meat, however, tends to be as expensive as white as both are equally popular here. Boneless chicken breast will often be around $2 US/lb and for little more than that you can usually find seriously thin, pounded back to the stone age chicken fillets called ‘milanesa’. Best selection for all meat, pork and chicken is at Mega or Chedraui. There are great deals on a cut of chicken known as “milanesa” which is thin, pounded filet of chicken breast suitable for quick frying or fajitas.
That’s what they usually mean when they talk about ‘meat’ here. Excellent prices — cheaper than the states. You will see many different cuts from almost paper thin ‘milanesa’ to boneless chunks suitable for stewing. They also make a great smoked pork chop which you’ll often find for sale in the deli section of the store. Great with a side of fresh sliced mango, papaya or pineapple. Bacon, sold in the deli section by the kilo, is markedly better than US bacon. Much less fat. This is a great place to make BLT’s.
If you’re a wine drinker, you’ll pay $10-15 US for a decent red or white. Wines come in from Spain, Chile, Argentina mostly. Not a huge but not bad and some labels are pretty good. Chedraui and Mega have a large selection and you may also wish to check the liquor store one block south of Mega, Europa. If you’re looking for really fine wine and don’t mind the expense, head up to Le Chef on Avenida 65, east side of the avenue about 4 blocks after you cross Calle 11 going south.
Large selection of rum from very cheap to expensive. Tequila is readily available also but not particularly cheap. Many varieties of liquors and flavorings are available for tropical specialties.
Sol, Dos Equis, Tecate and Superior all have bottling plants on the island and are your best bet for large-scale consumption as they are tasty and inexpensive. Other Mexican brands are also available at the grocery stores. For smaller labels, try the liquor store mentioned above. For beer that’s similar in taste and quality to European premium beers, try Dos Equis Oscuro or Bohemia. But don’t expect to get great bargains on these. León de Negra is another good but expensive choice if you like strong, dark beer.
By the way, don’t try to buy any kind of alcoholic beverage between 3 PM Sunday and 9 AM Monday. It’s against the law to sell it in Quintana Roo during this time period. Liquor bans also go into effect whenever there is a weather crisis — like heavy flooding or threat of a hurricane. Also unavailable on election days.