Okay, normally I would say that I’m the only person weird enough to actually go out of my way (twice!) to eat rat soup. But I met a fellow Texan named Jon and explained how I’d hoped to try the rumored local Mayan delicacy and he –for some reason– thought it sounded like a good idea. Weirdo.
I’d tried once before, while riding a rented bike, to visit the Mayan Tzeltlal town of Oxchuc which is only a few hours ride from San Cristobal de las Casas. But after arriving in nearby Cancuc, where I was supposed to turn south for Oxchuc, I found a blocked road. It wasn’t surrounded by Zapatistas, as is fairly common in these parts, but instead was blocked by torn-up pavement and rubble.
A kind local had tried to explain to me how to work my way around the roadblock but with my poor Spanish, time running out, and the complete lack of signage, I’d decided to just return home the way I knew.
But now, two weeks later, I’m swapping beers and lies with Jon on one of the main tourist paths in San Cristobal watching the crowd flow by.
He’s from Houston, based here for awhile. And for some reason, he’s willing — hell, excited– to spend a day searching for a soup made from everyone’s favorite vermin. He has a rented car which, through some fluke of database programming, he’s paying a ridiculously cheap rate. I don’t know how he did it.
The guidebook claims that the best day to find rat soup is Saturday, the biggest market day. Now, I have to admit that this guide is a 2009 edition — this means it’s three years past it’s publication date and probably five years out of date. But still, I’d know nothing about rat soup if not for reading it in the guidebook so I can’t complain.
These are not wild rats — they are raised in pens and fed various medicinal herbs. Rat soup cures a lot of ails. So the story goes.
There are really only four ways to leave San Cristobal, each roughly in one of the cardinal directions. And each is surprisingly different. This route is as mountainous and twisty as the others but much more lush. It’s green and beautiful — I’d make this trip for the scenery alone. Screw the rats.
Steep drops, twisty uneven roads and the ubiquitous speed bumps called topas, which are quite a pain in the ass –literally– keep the speeds down on the way. But I don’t care. The views are astounding, with green valleys hidden behind each turn of the road. Some lie at least 1,000 feet below.
With no guard rails, it’s not the best place to lose your concentration. The occasional passing bus or truck also help to keep you on your toes.
In exchange for the danger, we’re rewarded with amazing views of not only this beautiful rough land, but small town Mayan culture — which is very much it’s own thing.
Women weave intricate designs in their front yards on hand-made looms. Small children walk along side the road with huge loads of firewood on their back, carried by a strap across their forehead. Old men prowl the side of the road with toothless smiles, cowboy hats and machetes. Most people here wear their traditional dress of wool and brightly-dyed fabrics and they don’t do it for the tourists. There are no tourists.
Rarely have two hours gone by so quickly. We soon find ourselves in our destination, Oxchuc, which is a lot bigger and busier than we expected. Finding the market is no problem, as it’s really pretty much impossible to avoid. Finding parking is the trickier part.
Collectivos line the streets, taking up all the free space and we spend a good ten minutes looking for a spot that doesn’t seem to be spoken for. In the end we park in front of a tire shop and hope we won’t get towed. Do they tow here? Or is that just an American malady?
And the market? It’s huge. It’s massive. And being Saturday, it’s packed. It’s the prototypical Latin American market, packed with everything from vegetables to raw fly-ridden meat… grilled chicken, tacos, plastic buckets, shoes, jeans, mops, tools, Hello Kitty umbrellas — everything you need to survive in the modern Mayan world.
But what they don’t seem to have is rat soup.
We ask everywhere (Jon is even more determined than I am). But we’re greeted only with confused looks and sometimes outright shock. “Sopa de raton?! Que?”
Maybe it’s a language issue? Jon’s Spanish is about as good as mine (which means it sucks) but we’ve both forgotten this is a Mayan town. Both of us try desperately, in pidgin Spanish, to ask for clues to finding rat soup from a poor, confused street vendor who only speaks Tzeltlal. He smiles and just shakes his head, either not understanding or just thinking we’re insane.
It’s as if we’re asking for directions in Paris while speaking Russian. Hopeless.
But then again, I can’t help thinking, it’s pretty damned cool to be in a place in Mexico where they don’t speak Spanish. Their local dialect is probably over 1,000 years old and going strong.
We eventually figure out that rat is “rata” in Spanish. “Raton” is “mouse”. It makes no difference. To make things worse, we’re the only two gringos in the market (probably the entire town) and we’re both a foot taller than the average person here. We don’t exactly blend in and we’re asking for rat soup. Tough sell.
We’re about to give up when we see it: a sweet Mayan women has a small blanket spread on the walkway (I started to say “old Mayan woman” but the truth is she’s my age, but with some harder years behind her). And there they are. Rats. Fat ones, too, about ten of them piled high and just freshly dead. Limp.
I cannot attest to the herbal or medicinal qualities but these are, apparently, healthy fat rats.
To the side she has several that are skinned and smoked — dried rat carcasses. I have no idea how you’re supposed to eat those — like buffalo wings? Maybe on a stick? I don’t know.
Four dried rats for 100 pesos. I don’t know what the fresh ones go for. She’s actively stuffing them into a plastic bag for a customer so I assume it’s a good deal — her stock goes from ten to two in just a couple in moments. What do rats go for here, anyway?
I spot them first but Jon is on the scene faster with his point-and-shoot. I’m about to pull out the DSLR when I notice what a crowd we’re drawing. Thirty seconds ago she had five customers — now she has at least fifty. They don’t see many gringos around here and frankly, I think they’re hurting for entertainment. The bigger crowd just makes more people want to see just what the hell is going on over there so it’s growing exponentially.
I wanted the shot (of course) but frankly I can’t reach the scene without stomping on someone about half my size and that’s just not friendly. Seeing how everyone is reacting to his point and shoot, I’m a bit reluctant to break out the SLR and look like a “professional photographer”. In the end, Jon has to pay the lady 50 pesos to take photos. He’s happy with the price.
He finally fights his way through the still-growing crowd to escape and we decide to have lunch at the nearby grilled chicken spot — a full chicken roasted over coals for 50 pesos ($3.50 US).
It isn’t rat soup, but it isn’t bad.
For Jon’s version of this adventure check out LifePart2. And look around his site – he’s a great photographer and graciously allowed me to use his photo for this post.
This post was created on an iPad so please forgive any typos or general goofiness. I blame autocorrect.