Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Guat-a-trip ! Scenes and Eats from Guatemala

Hello, there !  I'm sorry it's been awhile.  (Again.)  I have good reason this time though !  Like...

Vacation !
Guatemala !
Adventures !

And to be honest, my mind is still on vacation.  While I was ready to come home to modern-life conveniences like one-stop-shopping stores, I do find myself missing the eternal spring weather, the food, and maybe the 8 to 1 Quetzal to US exchange rate.  Sigh !

Here's the kinds of things I've been reminiscing about !

The first thing I ate in Guatemala was churros from a random vendor at a strip mall-type market in Zone 1 of Guatemala City.

We had heard that Guatemala City was best avoided, since it was the most dangerous city in the country.  What people did not warn me about was how dangerously good their churros are ! Filled with some inexplicably delicious honey cream and rolled in the softest fat sugars, I could eat this whole bag in a heartbeat.

For dinner, we checked out Hacienda Real in Zone 10, specializing in steaks.  The restaurant has great decor (makes you feel like you are sitting in a real hacienda), with a large courtyard in the center, covered by a soaring canopy, as well as more dimly-lit interior seating.

The table sauces for random dish garnishment included lightly pickled carrots, bright chimichurri sauce, addictive habanero sauce and a simple but tasty tomato puree.

Refreshing beverages adorn nearly all Guatemalan menus like this sparkly citrus lemonade.

Complimentary cups of soup broth hit the spot - light and absolutely warming to the soul.

We ordered a plate of guac and beans for an appetizer.  Just giant plops of fun mush.  The beans were the smoothest puree I had ever seen, topped by a funny slab of cheese on top with the texture of tofu.

Every spot in Guatemala serves guacamole up like this - basically just mashed avocados and onions.  No tomatoes, no jalapeno distractions, no nothin'.  While it's fresh and good, I missed the usual spicy punch.

The guacamole was served with hot, thick tortillas.

I ordered the steak pimienta, sirloin steak doused by the most peppery sauce.  The plate comes with one small baked potato, a tiny ol' "salad" composed of tomato slices, lettuce and onion, and some corn on the cob ! 

The steak was good, but the sauce was mighty overpowering.  If you go, you should get this:

The lomito real !

Brilliantly tender.  The lomito had a light touch of citrus flavor enhancing the lovely cut of meat.  I stole so many bites of this steak, and I think about it too much still.

Dessert at Hacienda Real should be skipped - the macadamia pie is basically a dressed up cookie bar.

The tres leches had a maple-tinged whipped cream that didn't work well with the otherwise tasty, moist cake.

The next day, we took a flight to Flores to visit Tikal, one of the largest Mayan ruins in Central America, and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

If you want to stay in the area, there's really only two hotels you can stay at, the Jaguar Inn and the Tikal Inn.   Because the options are so slim, you can't help but think the hotels take advantage of visitors and provide less than satisfactory service because you have no other choice.  I wouldn't recommend the Tikal Inn, but I couldn't say Jaguar would be any better.  

Here's what you can eat at Tikal Inn.  (Options are limited.)

Breaded chicken.

Spaghetti bolognese.

Tikal is about 45 minutes from Flores, and if you have time before your flight out, definitely stop in to enjoy the water and some better cuisine!

Our Yaxta tour guide dropped us off at a random restaurant on the water, and we were too hungry to explore any other options, so we sat ourselves down by the lake, and ordered up some guacamole and burgers.

I don't remember much of this meal outside of these amazing drinks.  After two days of non-stop Mayan jungle trekking, these fresh fruit slushes were the absolute best things in the whole wide world.  We ordered cantaloupe and strawberry, and I could drown myself in a vat of this stuff, and feel entirely accomplished.

Later, we hired a boat (haggle aggressively - we paid 120Q for a round-trip, down from 250Q) to take us to the Petencito Zoo - an animal reserve in the middle of Lake Peten Itza.  Our waiter and tour guide both recommended the place to us, but it was probably the weirdest experience - being on a remote island by yourselves, looking at a random assortment of caged animals, with wild pigs and iguanas running around at your feet.  You can time it perfectly though and grab this kind of view on your way back to shore.

We began our next day in Antigua, brunching at Cafe Condesa - sipping on hot chocolate with surprise frozen, creamy bananas inside.


Blackberry shakes - without seeds ! What a marvel !

Roast beef sandwiches looked sad next to 

My fat and cheesy quiche lorraine !  

There's not much to see in Antigua outside of a few churches (beautiful sand art displays are made on the floors), 

a few ruins (bask in the sun under the flowering tree at the Capuchinas Convent)

And while the sights are limited, the food options are not.  

One of the best meals we had was at Hector's on the northside by the yellow church.  The tiniest ol' thing, with about ten tables wedged here and there, it's a must-visit. 

Pumpkin soup was slightly sweet, earthy and satisfying.

The roasted tomato appetizer, with gouda cheese, basil, balsamic vinegar and olive oil is sublime.  It doesn't sound like much, but goshdarnit were those tomatoes just brilliant - not too tart, not too soft, and herbaceously lovely.

The beef medallions and fried potato disks was a beaut.  The beef was so tender (as is the case with all the beef we had during our trip - I'm smittened with the country's cows!), and the chipotle blue cheese sauce had my companion's tongue positively wagging.

The grilled duck breast was encrusted with crushed peppercorns and topped with creme fraiche.  Though the duck was perfectly cooked with just the right touch of fat, the real stars were the sides.  A potato and carrot gratin that touched me all the way down to my toes !  So mind-meltingly delicious.  And can you just look at those roasted grapes?

Who knew you could roast grapes?  And why isn't everyone doing it?  Brilliantly caramelized, they burst in your mouth a blissful sweetness that puts an instant smile on your face.

With every dish a serious revelation, I regret not ordering any dessert here, but I hope you don't make the same mistake if you find yourself on Calle Poniente!

The next morning, we did a 6am hike up Volcan Pacaya.  You can get a $10 tour from any tour agency around town.  A 45 minute drive later, and ~hour hike up the dusty volcano will yield you beautiful views of Guatemala's amazing landscape and a roasted marshmallow snack, courtesy of a few volcanic fissures.

The guide dropped us off back in Antigua in time for lunch, where we beelined to Frida's, a Mexican restaurant dedicated to Frida Kahlo.  Sangria and strawberry daiquiri drinks are made fresh to order and are especially delicious after a hot hike.

A tiny complimentary appetizer whets the tastebuds with crunchy chips and awesomely spicy salsa.

The burrito supremo platter, with choice of two burritos (lomito, chicken, chorizo) is a delicious choice.  The burritos were the best we've ever tasted - fresh, devoid of filler like rice, and filled with tender cuts of meat.  The lomito is definitely the winner of the meats we tried.

I ordered the popular mango chicken, a light but flavorful option, tangy, fruity and fun.

I loved the surprise spinach and cheese quiche side.  I can totally dig quiche as a side ! 

We enjoyed our food so much, we actually ended up returning to Frida's again for a second meal where I enjoyed their lomito, topped with grilled scallions, accompanied by hearty, saucy beans and a side of mini quesadillas.  Yeah! Quesadillas as sides ! I am definitely be-side myself with Guatemala's fine eats.


We wrapped up our meal with some ice cream that's made locally at La Tienda de Dona Gavi.  It's a weird place that sells bath salts, jewelry, handmade soaps, and somehow ice cream.  About a dozen unique flavors outline the doorway, including carrot, coconut, local jocote fruit and others.

The boy and I grabbed ourselves corn and guava.  The corn comes topped with cinnamon, and I cornnot believe how tasty that combination was ! The ice cream is a bit rich, but that's what vacations are for !

That night, the boy and I embarked on what is the most challenging physical activity of my life - a hike of Volcan Santa Maria under the light of the full moon.  If you are looking for challenging and fun hikes, definitely stop into Xela and look up Quetzaltrekkers - they are a terrific volunteer-run organization that leads hikes and adventures in the area.  

After five excruciating hours hiking uphill on steep, rocky and sometimes slippery terrain, we were rewarded with the most amazing sunrise of my life.  I could barely breathe taking it all in.

The decline took 3 hours, and we found ourselves back in Xela at noon the following day, drinking flavored ice cream floats (lime sherbet with Sprite, orange sherbet with Fanta),

and eating some random fried chicken that was fried and spiced to perfection.  

We ordered these mollejas thinking that meant chicken nuggets, but they turned out to be a giant carton of fried gizzards.  Super chewy, but pleasantly battered and fried, I am just not sure how anyone can work their way through this whole thing.  Fun surprise though, right?

We shuttled back to Antigua for last minute R&R before returning to the states. 

Our first meal the following morning was at Dona Luisa, a bakery popular among the locals.  The courtyard is brightly lit and offers lots of seating.

After enduring two volcanoes in 24 hours, I decided a celebratory slice of tres leches was in order, and Dona Luisa's satisfied all my cravings completely.

Not too sweet, so moist, and just the right touch of condensed milk goodness.  

And heck, yeah we'll take a slice of your honey raisin pie also.  Crispy, buttery crust, creamy center with some chew - basically all kinds of yum in one bite.

And geez, I want to make love to this Cafe Glace in the most violently passionate way - so overwhelmingly, unexpectedly delicious.  At first glance it may appear it's just a coffee milkshake with a healthy dusting of cinnamon, but in reality, it's more like pure, unrefined, unadulterated happiness in a cup.

The boy ordered the traditional Guatemalan breakfast, which is eggs, more beans than you'd ever hope to ingest in one sitting, and some housebaked bread and butter.

I ordered the bacon pancake sandwich topped with sunnyside egg, and it was filled with more bacon than you'd like to admit you'd eat in one sitting, but would do secretly anyway.

The breakfast of champions.  (Watermelon and banana fruit shakes and hot chocolate are nice side drinks also).  If I had to go again, I'd just eat dessert and drink at least 5 Cafe Glaces, then go take a siesta in the shaded garden of Capuchinas.

We did a little shopping in the Artisan and Open Markets on the western edge of town (so fun), and checked out Juan Caravelas for lunch to see what Guatemala offered in the way of Peruvian-inspired sushi.

Refreshing lemonades and orange sodas.

The sushi roll menu was fun and creative, featuring deep-fried rolls with octopus and others dubbed mango madness.

While the ingredients were so fresh and tasty, the Guatemalans do not have the sushi rice perfected.  A bit heavy handed with overcooked rice on the rolls, the sushi is best skipped here.  Word is the sauteed octopus and dumpling dishes is where it's at, so do try those instead.

On the way to dinner, we passed by a vendor making chucos, a Guatemalan type of hot dog.  Options of meat include a variety of sausages; we elected chorizo.

The bread is placed on the grill and slathered with an herb spread and guacamole.

The bread is then topped by slightly pickled onions and lettuce mix and chopped up bits of chorizo.

You could get chuco with the works (ketchup, mayo and mustard in addition to salsa), but we got just the spicy salsa.

And for $1.50, we were handed this beautiful loaf, reminiscent of a banh mi sandwich in terms of freshness and light pickled flavor, but oh was this texture and flavor combination ridiculously addictive.  If only we had more nights allotted for carousing on the town, I could find myself back here eating these by the fistfuls.

Our final dinner in Antigua was at the French-inspired Meson Panza Verde.  The ambience at the restaurant was undeniably beautiful.  We sat in the open courtyard area with a spray of hanging ivy to provide our table with privacy.

Bread accouterments.

Warm, lovely pieces of bread.

The Golden Cadillac cocktail that reminded me of an adult version of the Cafe Glace.  Sweet, sweet candy.

The best thing we ordered was the escargot.  We shoulda ordered two dozen of these succulent little buggers that came in gorgeous pale pink shells that were filled with heavenly herbaceous butter.  I would basically eat the escargot and then pour the crack liquid all over those fine pieces of bread.

The honey roasted beets and avocado plate was fantastic too.  Slightly sweet and earthy.

The boy ordered the linguine and lobster, which smelled fantastic.

I opted for the pesto penne picante with added shrimp kebab, and it was a touch bland, a touch rich, and not very tasty.  I found myself pining for Hector's again, so if you had to pick between the two, opt for the Hect - about half the price and twice the satisfaction !

Guatemala is strange.  I found myself intrigued but not too enamored with the country while I was there, but the minute I left, I can't stop thinking about it.  I miss it, and would recommend anyone looking for some adventure (jungles, Mayan ruins, active volcanoes, and rebels!) to check the country out.  It's definitely a unique experience with the added bonus of delicious food.

Recommended places:

Guatemala City:

Hacienda Real
5A Avenida 14-67 Guatemala City, Guatemala +502 2380 8383


1a Calle Poniente  Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala +502 7832 9867

5a Avenida Norte #29, CALLE DEL ARCO, Antigua Guatemala, Sacatepequez

Dona Luisa
4a calle oriente #12

La Tienda de Dona Gavi
3a Avenida Norte #2, Antigua, Guatemala

Choco La La
chocolate shop near Frida's on 5 Avenida Norte - get the honey ginger ! We stopped by here everyday.


(for adventures) Quetzaltrekkers
Diagonal 12, 8-37, Zona 1, Quetzaltenango
(Note: I wouldn't recommend staying at Casa Argentina, the hostel their office is connected to, but it is cheap ~$15/night)

For shuttle service throughout the country:
Adrenalina Tours was fantastic, timely and the most affordable among places I researched


  1. Wow! Great looking food! Did you ever figure out what kind of cheese was placed over the beans with the guacamole?

    1. It appears to be queso seco, a dry-type of cheese used in Central America

  2. one word: EPIC!!

    can i have everything on this page, please???