Guatemalans love to eat and you're never far away from a food source. Reservations are pretty much unheard of, except for in Guatemala City's top-end restaurants.
- Comedores Found everywhere but particularly around bus stops and markets, these simple diners dish out set meals at low prices.
- Restaurantes A more formal dining experience than the comedor, you'll get a wider menu, maybe a tablecloth, and probably a selection of wines and beers.
- Carritos Mobile food vendors deal out tacos, hot dogs, churrascos (barbecued meat), pupusas (gilled corn meal with cheese or bean filling), barbecued corn, and other tasty street foods.
What you eat in Guatemala will be a mixture of Guatemalan food, which is nutritious and filling without sending your taste buds into ecstasy, and international traveler-and-tourist food, which is available wherever travelers and tourists hang out. Your most satisfying meals in both cases will probably be in smaller eateries where the boss is in the kitchen themselves.
Staples & Specialties
Guatemalan cuisine reflects both the old foodstuffs of the Maya – corn (maize), beans, squash, potatoes, avocados, chilies and turkey – and the influence of the Spanish – bread, greater amounts of meat, rice and European vegetables.
The fundamental staple is the tortilla – a thin, round patty of corn meal cooked on a griddle called a comal. Many Guatemalans complain that they don’t feel full without putting down at least three or four of these with a meal. In restaurants, tortillas accompanying meals are unlimited – in the unlikely event that you run out, just ask for more (the international symbol for this being waving the empty tortilla basket at your server).
The second staple is frijoles (fri-hoh-les), or black beans. These can be eaten boiled, fried, refried, in soups, spread on tortillas or accompanying eggs. They may come served in their own dark sauce, as a runny mass or a thick black paste. However they come, they are usually tasty and always nutritious.
The third Mayan staple is the squash. Many people complain that it is a flavorless vegetable, and is best served in soups or else combined with other strongly flavored ingredients.
On the coast, seafood is the go (although many coastal-dwellers will prefer a good chunk of steak, possibly for variety). Generally, your fish will come fried in oil, but for a little more flavor you can always specify con ajo (with garlic). These plates come with salad, fries and tortillas. Also good is caldo de mariscos, a seafood stew that generally contains fish, shrimp and mussels.
Desayuno Chapín (Guatemalan breakfast) is a large affair consisting of (at least) eggs, tortillas, beans, fried plantains and coffee. If that’s not enough, you can add steak, fresh fruit, cream and oatmeal to your order. Anywhere tourists are, you’ll probably have the option of desayuno Americano (American breakfast), which will include some combination of bacon, pancakes, cereal, eggs, fruit juice and coffee.
Lunch is the biggest meal of the day. Many small eateries offer a set meal, which will consist of soup, a plate with some sort of meat, vegetables and rice, and potatoes. If you’re on a budget, this almuerzo del día is often a good, filling option. In more expensive restaurants, the menu will be wider.
La cena is, for Guatemalans, a lighter version of lunch, usually eaten between 7pm and 9pm. Even in cities, few restaurants will serve you after 10pm. In smaller villages, dinner will look very similar to breakfast – tortillas, beans, eggs and plantains. In restaurants catering to tourists, it could be anything from pepper steak to Thai curry.
Bus snacks can become an important part of your Guatemalan diet, as long bus rides with early departures are not uncommon. Women and girls usually board the bus yelling “¡Hay comida!” ('there’s food!') – usually offering a small meal of tortillas accompanied by chicken or a hard-boiled egg. Other snacks include fried plantains, ice cream, peanuts, chocobananas (chocolate-covered bananas), hocotes (a tropical fruit eaten with salt, lime and nutmeg) and chuchitos (small parcels of corn dough filled with meat or beans and steamed inside a corn husk). Elotes are grilled ears of corn on the cob eaten with salt and lime.
Vegetarians & 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 fairly nutritious. 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 can be cooked in lard. There are a few dedicated vegetarian restaurants, mostly in bigger cities and tourist haunts. Chinese restaurants are always a good bet, and sometimes offer tofu dishes. Plenty of fruit, vegetables and nuts are always available in markets and supermarkets.
Sidebar: Maya Food
For a fascinating look at the evolution of pre-Colombian foods, check out the study of Maya (along with Aztec and Inca) foods at www.foodtimeline.org/foodmaya.html.
Sidebar: Pig Food
Guavas are so common on the coast that most people don’t even eat them – they just feed them to their pigs
Sidebar: Hot What?
Most Guatemalans who eat cornflakes like to eat them with hot milk. Specify leche fría (cold milk) if you don’t fancy this.
Tortillas come in all shapes and sizes – mostly they’re made from corn meal, but in the south flour tortillas are common. Coastal dwellers like 'em thick, whereas mountain folk like them smaller. A family of eight (not uncommon in Guatemala) eats around 170 tortillas a day.
Sidebar: Maize on the rocks
Look out for lumps of white limestone on sale in the markets. Boiled up with dried maize, it softens the kernels to make them easier to process – a secret known to the Maya for centuries.
Essential Food & Drink
Frijoles Beans, served refried or whole.
Tortillas A Guatemalan meal is naked without a serving of corn tortillas.
Tamal Steamed corn dough served a dozen ways with a dozen names.
Rellenitos Fried plantain meal served sweet as a finger-licking dessert.