The happiest of happy hours

La Buena Vida – $$
Akumal, Mexico

Expansive open-air sea views, soft sand floors, a live mariachi band and a bar lined with swinging seats make happy hour oh so happy at La Buena Vida.

The only downside was the very American clientele. Very American. We met a group of six from Nebraska at our first happy hour. They were regulars. They knew our condo and its very efficient manager. They offered travel tips, snorkeling suggestions and even demonstrated the bar game – trying to swing a string to get a ring onto a nail. When my friend tried the game, they cheered him on. While I usually like to travel like a local (thanks for that description, Rick Steves), it was a comfortable place to kick off your shoes and try some of the mixed drinks. The margarita was a little bitter for my taste and the strawberry daiquiri was a tad sweet; but the pina colada was a home run – the perfect mix of fruity and sweet.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe real upside was that food was prepped according to American standards – even the salads and fresh fruit were completely edible. That just added to the comfort of an end-of-day beverage. A friend of mine gave me great advice about eating in Mexico. He said to eat with other gringos and don’t eat at places that aren’t clean looking. That simple advice really struck a cord. La Buena Vida won on both counts.

After our first evening – where we opted for a table under the stars only ten steps from the ocean – we shared an appetizer and a couple entrees. Our favorite appetizer was the shrimp patties/fritters, followed closely by the chicken mango empanadas.  The  Botanero Dish, listed as an appetizer, was really more of an entree, similar to our fajitas. It was tasty, but maybe just a little conventional.

The entrees that really hit the spot were the Mayan specialities. Part of what I love about traveling is the new culinary adventures; in my mind, the new flavors are forever associated the people, the views, the feel of a place. On the Riviera Maya, the Mayan and Yucatan foods cemented the experiences in my memory. At La Buena Vida, the regional specialties that hit the spot were the Cochinita Pibil and the Pollo Maya.

The Cochinita Pibil was a Mayan pulled pork, shredded and served with tortillas and sides. The pork had a distinct Mexican flavor that I have come to associate with achiote paste made from ground annatto seeds. The Pollo Maya had similar flavors, but was cooked in banana leaves (yes, we have already visited the Winchester, Va.,  international market to buy banana leaves). The result was a moist, flavorful chicken. The accompanying fried plantains rounded out the Mayan experience. Almost every meal started with a basket of chips and salsas. Every entree (or at least the ones we tried) came with a basket of warm corn tortillas.

It’s hard to separate the food from the pleasant surroundings. Clay light shades and a huge fish skeleton graced the ceiling with backlit bottles of all variety of beverage created walls. Outside, the atmosphere was only slightly less alluring. Our first night we walked back to our condo along the beach, mere steps from our dining table with the glow of Cozumel lighting the horizon. Later, we joined bikers and walkers along the only road leading into the depths of Akumal. The dim lights – subtle at least in part to help the sea turtles maintain a sense of direction  – gave the jungle plants a warm ambiance.

While the food was good, the atmosphere was spectacular. At times, I would slide off my sandals, wiggle my toes in the sand-covered floor and think about all my friends back home in near-zero temperature in Virginia.

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