Embracing the country through its food and culture
From the moment the plane landed in Guatemala City, all I wanted to do was feast on typical Guatemalan dishes, or as they call them, chapina.
I wanted nothing to do with any of the “safety foods” that most tourists tend to gravitate too. No pizzas, sandwiches, or hamburgers for me, thank you.
Guatemala’s gastronomy is not only delicious but also full of color. Every meal includes something made with corn, such as tortillas, as well as beans, usually refried. The most traditional dishes are heavy on spices and vegetables. Meat is eaten, but not frequently, and it’s usually chicken. Hot stews, no matter what the weather, are popular as entrees, and local fruits are desserts of choice.
I tried everything I could and when hit with a pang of hunger while out and about, I indulged in eating the rich avocados with salt sold by local street vendors.
The rules to eating in Guatemala are the same as the rules anywhere in the world: First make sure the sources are clean and free of contamination. You want to make sure that you avoid drinking water or taking ice with your drinks in places where you are unsure of the water source.
One thing I found to be a constant in Guatemala: Lettuce and other leafy dressings in meals are more for garnish and not meant to be eaten, so the quality is not the best. The good news: Other veggies and fruits, once they are washed, are worth taking a nice big bite out of without fear.
Here are some places to enjoy the best Guatemalan culture has to offer through its food.
Viewfinder Tip: The best way to kick-off your food adventure in Guatemala is through a culinary tour.
It’s often hard when you visit a foreign country to find hotels that feature typical or local food items on their menus. For example, it is easy to go to the Dominican Republic and never once see mangú on a menu, or have the option of ordering real and natural fruit juice.
What I loved about my various visits to Guatemala is that many of the hotels not only offer local dishes, but highlight them as specials in every meal. Some of the best hotel food experiences I had were at the Hotel Vista Real in Guatemala City, where the Sunday brunch is a celebration of Guatemalan fruit juices and savory dishes. Sure you’ll find cornflakes and waffles, too, but it’s nice to know you also can get a taste of where you are.
Porta Hotel del Lago, in Panajachel near Lake Atitlan, served up local dishes with pride and consistency. I loved how easily I was able to order avocado with my eggs and bacon. I also liked the fact that I could order hearty servings of papaya juice.
People would be surprised at how many really good eateries there are in Guatemala, and, in turn, how many creative and passionate chefs come from here.
In Antigua, I had a beautiful dining experience with friends on the rooftop of Los Tres Tiempos, where I indulged in a typical dish of adobo steak, while sipping on Gallo beer. Antigua is magical. But pair the feel of this city with a dish such as this and it’s no wonder why so many expats have made this spot home.
Don’t be turned off by the fact that the trendy Flor de Lis restaurant is located in a mall; the place is worth a try. Chef Diego has taken his family’s recipes and given them a more contemporary touch. His approach is heavy on exploration but extremely loyal to his roots. Each dish deserves admiration and Instagram captures before you dig in.
Head up to the mountains for savory chorizo and crispy bacon from the pigs raised and slaughtered right on the farm of Paseo Xejasmin in Tecpan. And that’s just the good stuff at breakfast. Make sure not to miss the warm tortillas made table-side as well as the coffee or hot chocolate with a side of champurradas, a biscotti-like Guatemalan cookie treat.
Sign up for a Mayan cooking class in Guatemala and you will get real hands-on experience and lessons about the traditions of Mayan culture through food. There are so many dishes that have special significance to this culture, and though preparing items such as pepian and mole can be labor intensive, flavors come to life with each mouthful. I always have said there is no better way to learn about the stories of a people than through food, so when booking your local tours make sure to ask about Mayan cooking classes.
The markets throughout Guatemala are a delight to explore—not just for the food and flowers, but also for the many colorful pieces of artwork handmade by local artisans around the country. The most famous market, in Chichicastenango, is held on Thursdays and Saturdays on sacred land near 400-year-old St. Thomas Church.
There also are some markets dedicated exclusively to artisans’ work; many of them operate as collectives that help to support local Mayan communities.
No matter what else you plan to do when visiting Guatemala, make sure to start that journey with food, and the rest will fall beautifully into place.
What are your favorite food destinations around the world?
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