OUR FIRST MEXICAN CANTINA EXPERIENCE (COZUMEL, MEXICO)
Updated: Jun 13, 2022
The island life on Cozumel was hard to figure out. There seemed to be very little open around 4:00 pm when we typically went out to explore. On that particular day, we were going to an empanada place we had found earlier in the week that was open until 5:00 pm. We walked up to its doors, and it was closed. It was only 4:00 pm. More proof that we didn't understand the rhythm of the island life.
In case you are new here, we are Will and Katy. We are a travel couple that is traveling around the world. We are on year two of our travel adventures where we try and visit as many states as possible during our time in Mexico. We are currently on the island of Cozumel.
We walked up and down the streets looking for something to snack on. We found a bakery and grabbed a couple of pieces of Mexican sweet bread. The baked goods were tasty. Not too sweet; just the way I like it. However, they weren't savory and didn’t satisfy our craving.
Our search continued. Around we went in our little neighborhood, on the outskirts of town. Just when we decided we were going to give up and just go to the OXXO convenience store to grab a snack from there, I heard music coming from a building to my right. I looked over and it seemed to be a bar. We had seen one similar a few nights ago. This bar, just like the other, had a wall at the entrance to block the line of vision into the space. It sounded like live music was being played. As we made our way closer, I heard people talking; meaning it was busy with people.
We walked up to the entrance and tried to peek in. Just past the wall, I saw people. Lots of people! We walked through the entry and looked around. Tables and tables of locals with bottles and bottles of beer on their tables. Conversations and singing filled the air. The stage was in front of me and the bar was to my left. Written on poster boards, taped to the wall, was what seemed to be a menu. It listed empanadas, frijoles, and most importantly food we would be able to eat! I looked at Will and we decided to give this place a try. I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to wait to be seated or seat ourselves. I looked around and saw one waiter running around. The musician from the stage finally said in Spanish, “there are tables up here.”
We walked over to the open table in front of the room, sat down, and waited for the waiter. It was an open area, with tall walls surrounding. Instead of a regular enclosed roof, there were poles that held up a thatched roof. About 20 sets of outdoor plastic tables and chairs were scattered throughout the restaurant. Nearly each one of them was occupied. A huge mango tree rested in the middle of the space. I noticed painted on the front of the stage the name of the restaurant, Mangalitos. Which derives from the word mango. I felt a breeze blow through and the fans blowing, it kept the space from being too hot. Papel picado, the colorful Mexican paper flags, hung above our heads and throughout the whole bar. Christmas lights were strung around the poles.
The waiter rushed up to our table and asked what we wanted. I asked him if they had a proper menu or just the menu taped up on the wall. He tried to explain to me that those were the snacks that they gave to us once we ordered our drinks. He used words I wasn't familiar with. I was confused and had to ask again. He explained again in a different way. I apologized saying that there are words in Mexican Spanish that I don’t know. He was so kind and just tried to help us understand. I was not only confused due to the vocabulary but because it seemed like we didn’t need to pay for the snacks. Just for the drinks. I asked how much each dish cost. He said nothing. Just pay for the drinks. These snacks were items like empanadas, chicken wings, and ceviche. Still not sure if we would be paying for food or not, we went ahead and ordered two beers. Dos Equis. I turned to Will and tried to explain to him everything that just happened.
"We have $100 dollars on us, let’s hope the bill doesn’t rack up to more than that." Will said.
Our waiter came back with our two beers and then a minute later with our snacks. A small plate of ceviche, 2 plates of fruits with chili powder sprinkled on top, bean dip, 2 empanadas, and chips. We told him we didn’t want any meat so he held off on bringing the meat and chicken dishes.
It seemed too good to be true, but we enjoyed our time there. We sat back and listened to the live music. The musician was a man who seemed to be in his 40s. He played the electronic keyboard and sang into a mic. Each time he finished a song, Will and I clapped. We seemed to be the only ones clapping. He would look over and a big smile would appear on his face. We wanted to give him a tip, but there was no tip jar on stage. Instead, we noticed a big painting of God on the wall right behind the musician, and a painting of Jesus on the wall right behind us. We saw "100% family-owned restaurant" painted at the entrance of the restaurant when were first walking in.
The locals were all having a great time. When our beer and snacks were running low, our waiter brought us a second round. He then attended to a huge group of friends gathered at the table behind us. They were having the best time. One of the guys would get up, dance around, call out to the musician for a song request, and keep on dancing. Their table was filled with so many beer bottles, the waiter brought them a beer box to keep track of how many bottles they consumed. I looked around at the other tables and noticed a few other beer boxes resting on the ground next to them.
“Maybe this is how it works,” I turned and told Will. “The beer costs more than it would be at the grocery store. Maybe they just charge more for the beers to cover the costs of food?”
“Everyone does seem to order a lot of beers so I guess it does balance out,” Will responded.
The time came to ask for the bill and we were about to find out how much damage we had done. The waiter scribbled something on a small notepad, ripped the piece of paper, and handed it to me. 200 pesos. 5 beers at 40 pesos each, which was 200 pesos. We understood correctly, they didn’t charge us for the food. We had 5 beers, 2 rounds of snacks (or botanas as they call them), for $10 USD. We were pleasantly surprised! We paid our bill, waved goodbye to the musician on stage, and headed home.
As soon as we got back to our apartment I hopped onto Google to figure out what kind of restaurant/bar we just experienced. Was this something only this restaurant did? I came to find out that Mexico has a little something called “cantinas.”
The Mexican cantina has been a part of Mexico's culture and history for a long time. Originally the cantina was only for men. It was a gathering place for them to play cards while having drinks and snacks on the house. Present-day it has evolved to now allowing both women and even kids to go into cantinas. Cantinas get the busiest during the lunch shift, which can range from 2-5 pm. What sets these apart from just any bar is the bar snacks come free with drinks. While the portions aren’t huge, there are about 5-6 different dishes. The more drinks you get the more refills on snacks as well.
Now we know what everyone is doing from that 3-5 pm time range where we can’t find any food. They are hanging out at the cantinas. Looks like we will be too!
Until next time... What could possibly be next?