Sharing a rich Mayan culture with southern Mexico, Guatemala borrows many culinary influences from its neighbor to the north. Like Mexico, Guatemala blends Spanish flavors and Mesoamerican traditions in the kitchen, drawing on celebrity indigenous ingredients such as avocados and the cacao bean. The resulting fusion is everything you’d expect from Central America: lots of chili, lots of tortillas and lots of meaty flavors.
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Of course, it’s possible to travel along Guatemala’s well-trodden tourist trail eating only international food, but you’d be missing out on the best of what the country has to offer. A growing number of restaurants are showcasing the traditional food of the Maya people, and hole-in-the-wall canteens serving blisteringly authentic flavors can easily be found by following the lines of hungry locals.
The pocket-friendly street food carts that congregate wherever people gather only add to the carnival mood. To get you started on the Maya food journey, here are the best things to eat and drink in Guatemala.
Tortillas are the foundation of almost every meal in Guatemala © THEPALMER / Getty Images
Eat your fill of tortillas
The bedrock of any Guatemalan meal is the tortilla – a thin, round patty of corn meal cooked on a griddle known as a comal. Tortillas in Guatemala are normally soft and flat and are traditionally cooked over a wood fire, lending the tortilla a slightly smoky flavor. They range in color from yellow or white to almost purple, depending on what variety of maize was used to make the corn meal.
In restaurants, the tortillas served to accompany meals are unlimited – in the unlikely event that you run out, just ask for more (or wave the empty tortilla basket at your server). Tortillas are served as a ubiquitous takeaway food in the form of tacos, topped with spicy chopped meat or chicken, spicy sauces, guacamole, fish (on the coast) or boiled eggs. You’ll never go short of a snack when traveling in Guatemala – taco vendors board buses at every stop touting their wares.
Then there’s the tostada – a fried tortilla topped with tomato sauce, guacamole, beans and other toppings. Another ubiquitous import is the Salvadorean pupusa – a patty of grilled corn meal filled with beans, pork rinds, cheese or a mixture of all three, topped with pickled cabbage, tomato sauce and spicy vegetables.
The sauces spooned on top of tortillas vary widely – look out for pepian, a thick chicken stew made from tomatoes, chiles, ground sesame seeds and squash seeds, and jocón, chicken stewed in a green tomatillo sauce. Something else you’ll find stuffed into tortillas is chile rellenos – sweet peppers stuffed with beef and vegetables and fried in egg whites.
You’ll also find conventional sandwiches – known locally as pan and made from white bread rolls known as pirujo – prepped to go with all sorts of fillings, from beans to chorizo and spiced beef.
Where to try it: The Guatemalan capital is an excellent place to sample sauces from across the country on top of your tortillas; 7 Caldos is a stew specialist, serving quality pepian, jocón and subanik – a spicy sauce made from mixed meats and chili peppers.
Experience Guatemala’s holy trinity – tortillas, cheese and beans
Alongside the beloved tortilla, the second mainstay of Guatemala cooking is frijoles (fri-hoh-les), or black beans. These can be eaten boiled, fried, refried, stewed, soaked in soups, spread on tortillas as a mash or served as a side alongside tortillas, cheese and eggs. They may come served in their own dark sauce, as a runny mass or as a thick black paste. However they come, they are usually tasty and always nutritious.
The third point of the trinity is queso – local cottage cheese, made from milk and either rennet or an acid such as vinegar or lemon juice. A serving of frijoles, a splodge of cheese and some tortillas form the foundation for many a Guatemalan meal, often supplemented by a variety of meat and vegetable dishes and a bowl of soup.
Where to try it: For a satisfying Mayan meal with all the trimmings, including quality sauces to plop on top of your tortillas, try Arrin Cuan or La Cocina de la Señora Pu in Guatemala City.
Fiambre is a dish with a variety of vegetables and cold cuts usually served on the Day of the Dead and Saints’ Day © Salmon Negro / Getty Images
Vegetables balance Guatemalan meals
Despite the love of meaty toppings on tortillas, Guatemalans add balance to every meal with vegetables, whether boiled up in soups, steeped in stews or chopped into chirmol – local salsa made with tomatoes, onions, cilantro, mint and lime. Salads in Guatemala don’t stop at the vegetables; look out for protein-fortified salads such as fiambre (a mix of vegetables, meat, cheese, pickles and eggs served for the Day of the Dead and All Saints’ Day) and chojín – made with radishes, mint and smoky chicharrones (fried pork rinds).
One veggie that you’ll find almost everywhere is squash, the staple ingredient in many Guatemalan stews and soups. Various types of flavorsome squash are grown in Guatemala, but many places default to the rather bland guisquil (chayote) – nourishing but far from titillating for the palate. Rice is another popular filler-upper – it often comes fried with chopped vegetables.
The avocado may well have originated in Guatemala, and the country’s Hass avocados are pounded into guacamole to top tortillas and tostadas. Another vegetable staple is elote – grilled corn on the cob eaten with salt and lime. Potatoes and plantains also feature prominently, whether fried, boiled or stewed. Plantains may also turn up for dessert as sweet rellenitos stuffed with bean paste.
Where to try it: For the freshest avocados in the country, stay at Earth Lodge in the hills above Antigua, an eco-friendly escape set on a working avocado farm. While you’re in the area, drop into the village of San Cristóbal El Alto, where Restaurant Cerro San Cristóbal makes imaginative vegetarian salads from avocados, nasturtiums and local herbs.
You can always find tamales at festivals in Guatemala © Salmon Negro / Getty Images
Enjoy paches and tamales
A traditional food eaten both as a quick snack and as a special treat on occasions such as Christmas, the Guatemalan tamale is a parcel of corn, rice or potato dough mixed with red bell peppers, onions, olives, raisins and chiles, wrapped in leaves and then steamed to make a cake-like parcel.
The classic tamale uses corn dough and is wrapped in banana leaves, while the chuchito is wrapped in corn leaves, and the pache is a highlands variation made from potato and wrapped in platanillo leaves, often eaten on Thursdays.
Where to try it: Tamales are festival foods, so seek them out on special occasions such as Christmas or the All Saints’ Day celebrations in the villages of Santiago Sacatepéquez and Sumpango near Antigua, where locals create enormous, colorful kites to mark the occasion.
Guatemalan coffee beans are grown at high altitudes, flavoring the drink with notes of chocolate and vanilla © sbrogan / Getty Images
Drink like a Guatemalan
Guatemalans share a love of cerveza (beer), rum and licuados (freshly blended fruit smoothies) with the rest of Central America. Gallo and Cabro are the default beers, but the country has a small but growing craft-beer scene, best exemplified by the Antigua Brewing Company. Rums are many and varied, but almost everyone agrees that long-aged Ron Zacapa is the best brand. More unusual alcoholic drinks include chicha (corn beer) and cusha (a homemade corn spirit).
Guatemala coffee is famous worldwide for its rich aroma and chocolatey and vanilla notes, with the best beans coming from high-altitude plantations around Huehuetenango. Then there’s Guatemalan hot chocolate – perhaps the original and best hot chocolate as the cocoa bean originated here. Also, look out for atol, a thick porridge-like drink made from roasted corn flour, cinnamon and other spices and served hot.
Where to try it: To enjoy Guatemalan coffee in style, head to Antigua’s El Viejo Café and start the day right with tasty coffee and pastries. Chocoholics will find a velvety smooth cup of Guatemalan hot chocolate at Café La Luna in Quetzaltenango.
Vegetarians and Vegans
Given that meat is a bit of a luxury for Guatemalans, it’s not hard to get by without it. The basic Maya combination of vegetables, beans and tortillas is nutritious and healthy; if you request a set lunch without the meat, you’ll still get soup, rice, vegetables or salad, cheese and tortillas. Be aware that some beans are cooked in lard – explain your requirements before assuming that a vegetable dish is also vegetarian.
While it will keep you ticking over, a vegetarian Maya diet can get a little repetitive if you eat the same thing for lunch and dinner every day. This is where traveler food comes into its own; vegetarian and vegan restaurants can be found in bigger cities and tourist haunts, and most traveler cafes can whistle up a pizza, salad or nachos. And tostadas with guacamole are always tasty. Chinese restaurants are always a good bet and sometimes offer tofu dishes.