Visitors to Guatemala can expect to enjoy a wide variety of food and drink, ranging significantly in both price and quality. In modern cities like the capital and Antigua, the sky is the limit – it’s difficult to think of a meal you cannot find. Myriad international restaurants have opened their doors, incorporating foreign dishes and fusing diverse ingredients with local cuisine. Throughout the rest of the country, selection is more limited, but you’ll be surprised where you might find a great burger, tasty pad thai, or even real pizza. Pollo Campero, Guatemala’s only international food chain, is a reliable bet for fried chicken and is found in most large cities throughout the country. Pollo Campero has such a cult following that Guatemalans traveling to the States will often bring their relatives a bucket by plane.
On a national level, the center of the Guatemalan diet is undoubtedly the corn tortilla. If you sit down to a meal in rural Guatemala without an overflowing basket of hot tortillas at the center of the table, something is wrong. Visitors familiar with the Mexican tortilla will notice that the Guatemalan version is slightly smaller and thicker. In certain regions, tortillas disappear in favor of the tamalito, a stout chunk of cooked corn dough wrapped in leaves. Most Guatemalans are subsistence farmers, so food is fresh and filling but not extravagant. Breakfast consists of eggs and beans, tortillas, a spicy picante or chile sauce, and sugary coffee. When available, homemade cheese adds some flavor to the first meal of the day. Lunch is the main meal and the most likely to include meat. Dinner is typically smaller and may be just a few eggs or some bread and a mug of atol (see below).
Not all Guatemalan food and drink is so bland. On special occasions, they make some fantastic cuisine, like pepían, a chicken dish topped in a sauce of toasted seeds, chili peppers, cinnamon, tomatoes, onion, and garlic. Certain foods are prepared at special times of the year, like fiambre, a chilled salad agglomeration of lunchmeat, hard-boiled eggs, and vinegar-coated vegetables made for Día de los Santos on November 1st. Tamales, hunks of corn dough cooked with meat sauce and wrapped in leaves are prepared for Christmas. Regional dishes include kak’ik, a hot red turkey from Alta Verapaz, and boxbol, a plate of cooked corn dough wrapped in dark greens from the Ixil Region.
The common theme in Guatemalan beverages is sugar – lots and lots of sugar. Whether it be a cold fresco at lunch or a hot coffee for dinner, expect 3-4 heaping spoonfuls of the sweet stuff in your drink. The coffee that most Guatemalans drink is laughably bad considering the country’s reputation for some of the world’s best exported coffee. Ironically, because their coffee is so good, most Guatemalans can’t afford to buy it. Instead, they get by on instant Nescafé made extremely weak with a lot of sugar. Due to its color, many jokingly refer to it as agua de calcetines (sock water). Quality coffee is served in more touristy areas.
One of the most important beverages consumed Guatemala is atol, a dense and nutritious hot drink that comes in a variety of flavors, all of them tasty and sweet. Among the ingredients used are elote (yellow corn), plátano (plantain), mosh (oatmeal), arroz con leche (rice milk), trigo (wheat), haba (fava beans), Incaparina (vitamin-fortified), and chocolate. While not unique to the country, Guatemalans love to drink things out of bags. Whether it be water, juice, or even soda, locals aren’t fazed by a shortage of plastic cups – they’ll simply buy some plastic bags from the tienda and insert a straw to quench their thirst.
Liquor, Beer and Wine
In addition to Guatemala’s national beer, Gallo (rooster), you’ll find quality cervezas like Brahva, Victoria, Moza, and Cabro. Dorada Ice is the cheapest of the cheap, and the taste doesn’t hide it. For those looking for something stronger, hard alcohol is sold in liquor stores and most supermarkets. Local varieties range greatly in quality in price, and other than rum, Guatemalan liquor isn’t great. The most common brands are Ron Zacapa, Venado and Ron XL (rum), Botran and Ciroc (vodka), and Olde Friend (whiskey). Finally, brave souls will be curious to try home-brewed alcoholic beverages (moonshine) like cusha and chilca. Be warned – bits of either cow manure are added to speed up the fermentation process.
Quetzalteca and Bolos
Quetzalteca, the preferred Guatemalan aguardiente, is hard to miss – it’s the small glass bottle with a picture of an indigenous woman on the front. Also known as La Indita, its taste is hard to describe, but as a clear liquor its most similar to vodka. Regardless, it will have you seeing stars without lightening your wallet. Aside from the no-frills original, flavors include the sweet tamarindo and the dangerously tasty rosa de jamaica (hibiscus).
Like many developing countries, alcoholism is a serious issue in Guatemala, especially in its rural indigenous communities. Locals flock to cantinas (dive bars) at all hours of the day to throw back Quetzalteca, Dorada Ice, and cheap homemade booze. It is not uncommon for men to drink away their sorrows (and the family savings), then wind up, in various states of undress, face down in the gutter and covered in vomit. These town drunks are affectionately referred to as bolos, and locals joke of them being tomado (drunk) or tirado (literally, thrown, meaning passed out in the street). The reasons for such elevated rates of alcohol abuse include deportation from the States, brutalities witnessed during the armed conflict, and to a smaller extent, a low genetic tolerance for liquor. As a result, drinking with Guatemalans can be uncomfortable for visitors, who may be surprised at how fast locals can put back an octavo of cusha. A surprising number of AA groups operate throughout the highlands, but the problem persists. Visitors should be cautious around cantinas, but most bolos are harmless and will simply ask for a few quetzales to continue their bender.