Guatemala Spices Up the Global Food Renaissance
Giving foodies a culinary thrill ride, Guatemalan cuisine reflects a unique fusion of ancient Maya traditions, Spanish tastes, and Afro-Caribbean creations, all with some home-cooking adjustments sprinkled in over the years.
As a must-visit destination for travellers passionate about food and its history, Guatemala also features amazing settings — obscure indigenous villages, a historic city with cobblestone streets, a funky settlement on the Caribbean coast — to complement the local fare.
For example, you can munch on street food and dine in a colonial mansion in charming Antigua; sample a Tz’utujil Maya favorite overlooking majestic Lake Atitlán; try a traditional Ixil Maya dish in a remote Highlands town; harvest a superfood near jungle-covered ruins; and delight in a zesty fish soup near the Caribbean coast.
Your cross-country, multi-menu exploration awakens your taste buds to a new world of flavours while immersing you in authentic Guatemala!
Antigua Offers Delicious Experiences
A UNESCO World Heritage Site surrounded by three towering volcanoes, colonial Antigua offers a fantastic range of palate-pleasing experiences. Start by checking out the street-food stalls lined up outside quaint parks and historic churches, enjoying small plates of standards such as tostadas, dobladas, chuchitos, or chiles rellenos.
For a splendid lunch or dinner, stroll a few scenic blocks to Casa Popenoe, a 17th century mansion and museum. Working in a 300-year-old kitchen, a Guatemalan chef prepares a traditional, three-course meal featuring authentic local flavours and tradition. You’ll also tour the home, which a previous owner meticulously restored to its original splendour.
Just outside of town on the slopes of iconic Agua Volcano, learn all about coffee in a fascinating visit with a farmer and a walking tour of his finca, part of the De La Gente nonprofit cooperative of small growers. At the farmer’s house, you’ll help roast and grind the beans, and top off the experience with a cup of world-class coffee.
Hit the Western Highlands for Maya Favourites
Combine the visual feast of majestic Lake Atitlán with a favourite dish of the Tz’utujil Maya, patín. Part of the Guatemalan diet long before the Spaniards arrived, patín consists of a delicious tomato sauce with dried fish or minnows from the sprawling crater lake. (Some recipes use chicken instead of fish.) The dish is spiced with salt, lime, and chilis, and roasted on a hearth. Commonly packed as a to-go meal or snack by locals throughout villages overlooking the lake, patín comes wrapped in a plantain leaf, and everyone digs in with their tortillas to eat it.
Venture deeper into Guatemala’s scenic Western Highlands to the village of Chajul, part of the Ixil Triangle, to treat your taste buds to another indigenous favourite, boxbol (pronounced bosh-bowl). A vegan dish, boxbol consists of corn dough expertly wrapped inside a soft squash leaf (güisquil squash, to be exact) and boiled for about 10 minutes.
It’s served smothered under a tomato sauce spiced with salt and chilis, and another sauce made from ground squash seeds — a delicious combination! The region is known as the Ixil Triangle because when you draw a line on a map connecting the three primary towns, Chajul, Cotzal, and Nebaj, it looks like a triangle.
Discover a Maya Specialty & an Unexpected Export
It must be a very special dish when the Guatemalan government recognises it as part of the country’s intangible heritage, and kak’ik truly merits the distinction. Dating back to the pre-Columbian era, kak’ik is a bright red, tomato-based turkey soup that reigns as a specialty of the Q’eqchi’ Maya. To experience kak’ik where its tradition runs deepest, there’s no place like the Central Highlands city of Cobán, home to the largest concentration of Q’eqchi’ people in Guatemala.
The soup gets its spicy kick from a variety of ingredients, including Cobanero chilis, cilantro, garlic, onions, and achiote. A meal in itself with a cooked turkey leg in the bowl, kak’ik is commonly served with rice and small tamales on the side, often with a dollop of chili paste for those wanting even more heat.
Shift gears to vastly different cultures and tastes by venturing about 10 minutes from Cobán. Exploring a cool and peaceful estate, you’ll learn about a surprising export that thrives on the forested slopes — black tea, which German settlers introduced to the area in the 19th century.
At 1,311 metres (4,300 feet) above sea level, the Chirrepeco plantation produces Fair Trade Certified organic black tea for export. It’s part of the Chirrepec Tea Cooperative, which includes a number of small farmers who cultivate the tea under technical supervision of the cooperative. Your guide will explain the planting, cutting, and drying of the leaves, and to complete your immersion, savour a delicious, freshly brewed cup.
Harvest Health Foods in the Rainforest
Centuries before nutrition supplements and miracle diets became popular, the ancient Maya knew that the rainforest produced an abundance of foods packed with amazing benefits. Join a modern-day Maya family in the remote village of Uaxactún to venture into the jungle looking for the soaring ramón tree and its berry-like seeds, and for a tropical palm that provides delicious palmito (hearts of palm).
The Maya used ramón seeds as a food staple (boiled like potatoes or dried and ground into a flour for tortillas) and as a beverage (roasted and prepared like coffee or as a chocolate-like drink). The Maya also relied on ramón seeds to survive droughts, mixing the flour with corn meal to increase the food supply.
With no tree allergens, ramón seeds have twice the amount of calcium as corn, quinoa, and oats, and are loaded with fiber, potassium, and antioxidants, amongst other benefits. Your host will show you how to prepare the seeds for the serving you choose.
Maya past and present also find numerous uses of various species of palm trees that thrive in the Petén region. Using the palm trunks, fibres, and fronds for multiple purposes, families also remove tender and delicious palmito (hearts of palm) from the centre core of tree.
Without fat and high in fiber, palmito is a good source of potassium, copper, Vitamin B6, and zinc — and it’s versatile, served as a stand-alone treat or in salsas, stews, and salads. At Uaxuctún, your host family will use palmito, instead of traditional corn, as the base for a tortilla, so dig in!
Save time to explore the nearby Maya ruins of Uaxactún, which feature a cluster of pyramids that serve as an observatory, tracking the sun as its rises on the four season-changing days of the year.
Indulge in Fantastic Fish Chowder at Livingston
Guatemalan cuisine abruptly takes a tropical detour thanks to the Garifuna culture permeating Livingston and nearby settlements in Guatemala’s Caribbean region.
The star of the culinary lineup here is tapado, an out-of-this-world stew of just-caught seafood (lobster, fish, crab, shrimp) swimming in a coconut-milk broth with chunks of potatoes, bananas, plantains, and tomatoes. Garlic, onion, oregano, cilantro, jalapeño, and ginger add to the flavours, while the spice achiote gives the dish a bit of an earthy taste and a reddish hue.
Be sure to snack on traditional pan de coco (coconut bread) as you explore Livingston and environs. If you visit on Garifuna Settlement Day, celebrated annually on Nov. 26 in Guatemala, you can energize your experience with lively drumming, music, and dancing.