Selene Nelson is a U.K.-based journalist who is traveling the world for a year, reporting on her search for vegetarian food in each of the locales she visits.
Guatemala: home of towering volcanoes, spectacular Mayan ruins — and the best vegetarian food in Central America?
It’s true. Guatemala has been such a delight to explore and such an unexpected culinary standout that I don’t even know where to begin. Let’s start with the town of Flores on Lake Petén Itzá. Due to its proximity to Tikal National Park, Flores has become a backpacker hot spot, and most of its restaurants are geared toward tourists, with gringo-level prices. If you don’t want to spend a small fortune on decidedly average food, head to Pupuseria Excelente, a modest pupusa café popular with locals.
Pupusas are traditionally from El Salvador, but they’re everywhere in Guatemala, and for hungry travelers, they’re usually a safe bet. Thick corn tortillas are stuffed with a variety of fillings — usually refried beans and cheese but sometimes pork — then fried until the surface is satisfyingly crisp and the inside delightfully squashy. Served with salsa and cabbage, pupusas are deceptively filling and very cheap (two cost just $1), but vegetarians should double-check to make sure they’re definitely meat-free.
The beautiful colonial town of Antigua Guatemala was up next, and its unexpectedly good vegetarian food was just part of the reason why I fell in love with this place. The highlight for me was Samsara, a café I literally stumbled across one morning after a very unpleasant night bus journey from Belize. Samsara may not be for everyone (its motto is “A place to feed your body and mind, to share and learn about the mystery of existence,” and it has panpipe music playing and celestial posters on the wall), but its food cannot be faulted.
The kale scrambled eggs with turmeric, garlic and onion was the perfect early morning pick-me-up, and the hummus, green sauce and pita bread bread also hit the spot (gluten-free bread is available). The other standout Samara breakfast is the desayuno tradicional: scrambled eggs with onion and tomato, avocado slices, mashed piloy beans, stewed plantains and black tortillas.
Lunch at Samsara is also a treat — in particular the great-looking tofu veggie tacos. Chunks of lightly fried tofu come served on a bed of sautéed onion, raw carrot, red peppers, spring onions and avocado sauce on the cafe’s trademark black tortillas. These tacos are seriously delicious, warm and filling with a pleasing fresh snap and crunch from the carrots. The other vegetarian tacos in Antigua worth mentioning are from Cactus Taco, although the portions are not as generous as at Samsara.
Even the meat-oriented places here serve up a good veggie option. Pappy’s BBQ, as the name suggests, is a barbecue joint, but the black bean burger is outstanding. As a staple of the Guatemalan diet, the quality and taste of the beans here is superior to anywhere else I’ve been, and the burger has a rich, smoky flavor and a chewy, firm texture — nothing like the limply bland burgers that vegetarians are sometimes forced to endure. One warning, though: Sometimes meat appears in dishes where you least expect it. For instance, the refried-bean side dish at Pappy’s contains bacon.
Guatemalan Street Food
Antigua Guatemala also delivered the best street food of the trip so far. It can be hard for vegetarians to discern which street treats are safe to eat; in Mexico, I tried the best tacos I’ve ever had, but overall, it was still hard to find much veggie-friendly street food. But Guatemala is different, and the stall owners actually call out “vegetariana!” to entice people over to their food cart. Antigua has several food markets, but the best one is located in the park in front of La Merced church.
Empanadas are things vegetarians often have to forgo, but in Guatemala most are vegetarian, usually stuffed with potato and/or spinach and covered in a variety of toppings. The best stall at the Antiguan food market serves potato empanadas in a crispy, buttery pastry, topped with guacamole, tomatoes, onion and cilantro. Two is enough for lunch or a light dinner, and at less than $1 for a couple, you can’t complain.
The food market here also introduced me to more unusual Guatemalan culinary delights, like noodle tostadas. Large, crispy tostadas are spread with guacamole, tomato salsa, radishes, onions and a large dollop of noodles. What are essentially spaghetti tacos seemed like a slightly odd idea at first, but, never one to turn down any form of pasta, I’m now a convert. With so many different textures and tastes as well as a double helping of carbs, it’s hard to say no.
Away from Antigua, the exemplary vegetarian food continues. The traditional Mayan towns around Lake Atitlan offer up an impressive array of international cuisine, but the highlight is Cafe Atitlan, a small, family-owned restaurant just a few meters from the harbor in San Pedro. The “hippie quesadillas” (filled with broccoli, carrot and bell peppers) here are the best I’ve tried, and I also enjoyed a great tofu mie goreng — an Indonesian fried noodle dish in a peanut sauce — something I didn’t expect to find in such a small town.
Guatemala Sweet Treats
On a sweeter note, the rellenitos at the Guatemala food market were heavenly. Rellenitos are basically Guatemalan donuts: cooked plantains mashed with refried bean paste, sugar and cinnamon and then deep-fried. When mixed with sugar, the beans have a similar taste and texture to chocolate, and the consistency of the rellenitos was perfect; rich but not sickly, creamy but not cloying.
It’s hard to discuss Guatemala’s culinary offerings without commenting on coffee and chocolate. The mountain basin surrounding Antigua produces some of the best highland coffee in the world, and even the most humble cup of local coffee will delight with nuances of spice and smoke.
Considered the birthplace of chocolate, Guatemala has a long history with the cacao bean (the Mayans considered it “the food of the gods”), and the quality here is exceptional. There are dozens of chocolate shops and museums in Antigua, and stopping off for strawberries smothered in smooth dark chocolate is the ideal end to any meal — vegetarian or not.
I didn’t know what to expect from Guatemalan cuisine, but it certainly wasn’t a startlingly diverse range of vegetarian fusion food. But then again, Guatemala has long been the darling of backpackers and travelers, and the prevalence of vegetarian, vegan, raw and gluten-free food here is surely a reflection of that.
With such a wealth of cheap and delicious vegetarian food, as well as unbeatable coffee and mouthwatering chocolate, it’s hard to see how Guatemala can be topped. But not even three months into this yearlong trip, I’ll try to reserve judgement.
Next up: Searching for vegetarian food in Costa Rica.