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Zaytoen Domingo is a content writer and editor based in Cape Town, South Africa. She is currently enrolled in the Masters program in English at the University of the Western Cape. After graduating with an Honours Degree in English and Creative Writing, Zaytoen completed a skills-development program for writers and became an alum of the GVI Writing Academy.

Did you know that while volunteering in Latin America you can sample appetising and nutritious meals based on the food traditions of ancient civilizations?

The Maya, Inca, and Aztec people built prominent civilizations throughout Mexico, and Central and South America. These civilizations form the basis of today’s culinary and cultural traditions in the region. This valuable culinary heritage was based mainly on food they cultivated themselves.

The food traditions of the Aztec and Mayan people were closely related due to their proximity. They were located where Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and northern El Salvador are now. The Incas, on the other hand, emerged in South America.

While volunteering in Mexico, Peru or any other country of Central America, you will most likely come across the culinary traces of these early communities.

Latin American food traditions

Volunteering in Latin America


These communities lived mainly in farming villages. Corn was the basis of their food, along with beans and other vegetables such as squash, and many varieties of peppers. Although conditions were often harsh, these farmers were entirely self-sufficient.

The Inca people also grew potatoes and a small grain called quinoa. The Aztec and the Maya people focused on the production of avocados, tomatoes and a great variety of fruit.

However, for pre-Columbian civilisations, large-scale agricultural production was rather challenging due to the environmental and geographical conditions they faced.

Reduced amounts of rainfall, shallow soil deposits, poor soil quality or, in some cases, lack of land, were some of the obstacles they had to overcome.

Despite inhabiting these rather harsh environments, they adapted and developed the proper agricultural skills that were necessary to sustain their own food culture.

While the Mayan people were jungle inhabitants, the Aztecs lived in many areas surrounded by lakes and water. The Inca populated the mountainous Andes.

These ancient Latin American civilizations became skilful at developing effective techniques like crop rotation for cultivating in large fields or terraces, and steps on the mountainside. In some cases, barges were built around lakes or water surfaces to create more arable land.

Latin American food traditions in medicine and religion

Latin American food culture


To Maya, Aztec and Inca people, food was significant for more than just eating. In some cases, it was considered medicinal.

Herbal remedies were commonly used for rituals, and as medicine. They were either ingested, smoked or rubbed on the skin depending on the specific case. Fresh vegetation was sometimes applied directly on the skin for curing illnesses.

Mayan people also made various kinds of drinks by mixing cacao extract with ground corn and a touch of pepper. They drank this during special celebrations and festivals as part of their food tradition.

How have ancient traditions influenced Central American cuisine?

Mesoamerican people used corn as a main ingredient in their meals. In fact, tortillas (a sort of thin and savoury corn pancake) is a basic traditional ingredient in almost every meal.

The importance tortillas have on a typical Mexican meal cannot be underestimated. Prepared and enjoyed in many different ways since early times, they are a must at every table.

A side of corn tortillas

When prepared as a side dish, tortillas can be served along any main course such as fajitas (a spicy, grilled meat, complete with peppers and onions).

Depending on personal preference, they can also be served along with chillies in nogado, a meat-stuffed pepper bathed with a walnut cream and garnished with pomegranate seeds and cilantro. Frijoles refritos, or refried black beans, is another traditional accompaniment to tortillas.


Maya, Aztec, Inca culinary habits

Original photo: “IMG_3032.jpg” by stu_spivack is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Alternatively, corn tortillas can be prepared as part of a main dish. When preparing Enchiladas, corn tortillas are wrapped around different kinds of ingredients, ranging from seasoned potatoes, to cheese, beans, various meats and other vegetables.

Last but not least, this luscious meal is covered with a spicy homemade tomato sauce, chopped lettuce, and fresh cream. These rich ingredients can be topped off with a soft guacamole.


Maya, Aztec, Inca food traditions

Original photo: “beef tacos and chicken enchiladas” by jeffreyw is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

Tacos are fairly similar to Enchiladas as they are usually folded around a filling. As one of the most popular Mexican dishes, Tacos consist of a corn tortilla rolled around a tasty and warm filling of meat, vegetables or cheese.

They can be topped with a chilli sauce, or even eaten plain as you walk down Av Rojo Gomez in Puerto Morelos and buy one.

Tortilla soup

Original photo: “Cindy had the Tortilla Soup” by Alan Nakkash is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0 

Since the tortilla is the cornerstone of the Maya and Aztec food traditions, you should also try the supreme tortilla soup. Made up of healthy ingredients and fresh herbs, this dish is flavoursome, aromatic and full of character.

The essence of the dish comes from the chillies, beans, cilantro and chicken, which simmer together for a while. Later, avocado, tortilla bits, chopped onions and cheese, are added to the bowl. The result is a real banquet of flavours!

Where do Peruvian delicacies come from?

The Inca Empire arose in the Andean highlands of Peru, establishing their capital in the city of Cusco (where GVI is based). Because of this, the Latin American food culture of the Incas differed from that of Aztecs and Mayans.

Even though all three civilizations regarded corn as an important food, it was only possible for Aztec and Mayan people to cultivate this vegetable in such enormous quantities due to their geographical conditions.

Due to their higher altitude, Inca crops needed to resist low temperatures. That’s why root vegetables became central in their diets.


Mesoamerican food traditions


The Inca people also included various grains in their diet, such as corn and amaranth. Different tubers and potato varieties were also common in their rather healthy dishes.

One variety of potato, the Oca, was particularly popular. Oca is high in protein and has good nutritional value. It was usually boiled in soups, and stews, but was sometimes roasted.

Oca was also used as a sweetener. This ochre tuber is sometimes called “the lost crop of the Incas” as, with time, it became the second most popular tuber after the potato.

According to the strict hierarchy of early Incan society, food was more plentiful and varied for the upper classes than for the lower classes. Along with many plants and vegetables, the Incas raised llamas and alpacas as a source of meat and milk. Being close to the Pacific coastline, which is one of the richest fisheries in the world, they also caught fish and used them as a primary food source.  


Latin American food culture

Original photo: “DSC_0062”by jemather is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

As a fusion of all these ingredients is Ceviche: a popular Peruvian dish. Ceviche is a typical seafood dish made from fresh raw fish. The fish is cured in citrus juice, preferably lime, and spiced with different chili peppers, chopped onions and cilantro. It can also be garnished with diced tomatoes, avocado and popped or roasted corn.

Ceviche contains the perfect blend of textures and flavour: soft from the citrus, with added zest from the cilantro!

The Inca people also had their own kind of drink called Chicha. Chicha is made from grains, corn or fruit. It can contain alcohol, and is prepared in many ways according to region. Chicha morada, which is made with purple corn, is a very popular refreshment in Bolivia and Peru.

What are you waiting for? Dive into a spicy and cultural experience of local cuisine while you volunteer in Latin America.

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