Stomach rumbling and your bus is about to leave? Busy sightseeing and don’t have time to commit to a sit-down meal? Despair not – the Guatemalan street food scene has your back with a whole bunch of sweet, savory and salty options on offer – sometimes all in the same dish!
True street foodies won’t want to miss the simple joy of a freshly barbecued corn cob, or the surprisingly delicate mix of meat, spices and bell pepper in a chile relleno. Wash it down with the tangy fermented pineapple drink known as tepache and top it off with some syrup-drenched buñuelo donut balls and you may just decide never to enter a restaurant again.
Long before the hipsters were battling it out to find the most obscure food truck in town, Guatemalans were snacking – and eating entire meals – from pop-up vendors on wheels. Although they’re most commonly found around the central plaza ('parque central') of towns and cities, any high traffic area is a good place to look for street food in Guatemala – around bus terminals and outside concerts and football matches are other sure bets.
The cart setups themselves vary as much as the dishes available. At their most humble, the vendor will have a basket on their head and simply walk the streets yelling out what they have to offer. The other end of the scale looks more like a roadside restaurant, with tables, chairs and a portable kitchen set up under some sort of canopy to protect diners and cooks from the weather.
Among the offerings listed below are some universal classics and some very distinctly Guatemalan ones. With a bit of common sense and some basic vocabulary under your belt, you should be able to navigate the world of Guatemalan street food like a local, and savor some of the best flavors that the country has to offer.
As delicious as it is simple, corn has to top the list here – ask for it barbecued (asado) or boiled (cocido) and then choose your toppings. If you want one 'with the lot', ask for the elote loco, which comes topped with the beguiling mixture of ketchup, cheese and mayonnaise.
A traditional food eaten both as a quick snack and as a special treat on occasions like Christmas, the tamale comes in many varieties. Generally, its a parcel of corn, rice or potato dough mixed with red bell peppers, onions, olives, raisins and chilies, wrapped in leaves and then steamed. The classic tamale uses corn dough and is wrapped in banana leaves. A chuchito is wrapped in corn leaves, while a pache is a highlands variation made from potato and wrapped in platanillo leaves.
Take a toasted tortilla as a base, top it with anything from refried beans and avocado to beetroot, tomato sauce and fresh white cheese and you’ve got a recipe for straight up yumminess.
There are many ways to prepare these bite-size discs of grilled corn dough, but the classic comes topped with an onion-y, garlicky tomato sauce, minced meat, cabbage and a crumbling of tangy fresh cheese.
Although they’re not exclusively Guatemalan, any discussion of Guatemalan street food would be incomplete without a quick mention of the taco. Sold most often in sets of three, the taco is a soft corn tortilla filled with meat (usually beef or chicken, but pork, tripe and all sorts of other variations are possible) and topped with diced onion and coriander, with a range of sauces (varying in spiciness) available for the customer to add later.
Another ubiquitous foreigner, the pupusa was invented in El Salvador but is available all over Guatemala. A flattened patty of grilled corn meal, you can order them filled with beans, pork rinds, cheese or a mixture of all three. They then come topped with pickled cabbage, a tomato sauce and spicy vegetables.
One of the most delicious items on this list, the chile relleno is a bell pepper stuffed with minced meat, vegetables and spices, which is then dipped in egg batter and fried. They make for a great bus snack and are usually sold with a couple of corn tortillas so you can make a sort of sandwich out of them.
Originally from Spain but found throughout the Americas, ceviche is made from raw fish and seafood that 'cooks' by curing in citrus juices. The Guatemalan variation adds a tomato-based sauce and avocado slices. It’s delicious when done well, but you need to be especially careful with this one. The seafood is uncooked, so the chances of food poisoning are especially high. If you’re going to take the plunge, we suggest avoiding the vendors selling it out of the trunk of their car and the guys who ride around town offering it from baskets attached to their bicycles.
Literally 'little stuffed thing', the rellenito takes one of Guatemala’s favorite foodstuffs – black bean paste – and stuffs it inside a boiled plantain, along with sugar and cinnamon. For extra sweet-tooth goodness, they’re then sprinkled with cream, sugar or honey.
The Guatemalan equivalent of a donut, these sweet little doughy balls are usually deep fried on the spot, then served up in a plastic bag, swimming in a little pool of even sweeter syrup.
Arroz con leche
Literally 'rice with milk', this drink’s name pretty much explains itself, with the addition of cinnamon for a nice little tang. It can be enjoyed as an early morning pick-me-up or as a dessert option.
Made from roasted corn flour, cinnamon and other spices and served hot, this thick, porridge-like drink is especially popular on frosty mornings in the highlands.
Also served hot, ponche (literally, 'punch') is a soupy concoction of diced fruits such as prunes, apples, papaya, coconut, pineapple and plantains, which are all boiled together along with spices like cinnamon.
Sold mostly in the coastal regions, tepache is a deliciously refreshing drink made from lightly fermented pineapple rinds. You’re most likely to see it being sold in little bags on the roadside, but you can also get it straight out of the barrel at the market in most coastal towns.
But won’t all this cheap, readily available deliciousness make me sick?
Well, maybe. In many ways it’s up to you. Staying healthy here is mostly common sense – look for food that’s freshly cooked and hasn’t been sitting out for some time. If you’ve got a choice, go for the busiest vendor; not only are they likely to have the best tasting food, it will be made with the freshest ingredients, too. Avoid uncooked vegetables (particularly lettuce and other leafy greens) that may not have been washed in clean water, and take a look at the cook and setup as well – if they look unclean, it’s likely that their food is too.
Oh, and in case your mom didn’t tell you 9 million times when you were a kid: wash your hands before you eat. If you’re planning on eating on the street where wash facilities are few, a little bottle of hand disinfectant is a great addition to your day pack.