Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Hungry in Guatemala

This Christmas my lazy butt was suppose to be in Malaysia celebrating a friend’s wedding. But by the time I was ready to buy my tickets (Thanksgiving weekend), tickets were at a whopping $1800-2000. Ok…so Malaysia was out of the picture. D asked that I join him and his mother on his eating hunt in HK and Taiwan. Sorry D, $1500 is out of my range for dim sum and beef noodle soup. All I knew was that I was growing fangs from work and I needed to get out of LA. At that moment I was getting desperate. When I say desperate, I'm talking about frantically typing any airport code on hoping to find a ticket out of the country. Buenos Aires, Lima, Madrid, Beijing, Phuket, Bali…everything was completely out of my budget. My hopes to get away from the Christmas busyness and mayhem were dying…until I typed in GUA (Guatemala City).

After I said goodbye to the 23 kids that drove me insane this semester, I quickly packed my Lonely Planets, a pair of jeans, sweats, a waterproof jacket, a couple of tanks and t-shirts and I was set. Underpacking is always the best way to go. Girls, forget any "what if" items. You know what I'm talking about. The "What if we go dancing?" or "What if I want to wear my stilettos?" Forget it. You're most likely not going to use "what if" items and you won't die if you actually do need them. Really, I don't mind wearing dirty clothes. Oops...was that too much information???

Anyways, after landing in Guatemala City I headed straight to Antigua, Guatemala’s former capital and also the oldest colonial city in the Americas. Laid out in a grid system of cobblestone roads and colorful homefronts and cafes under terracotta roofs, Antigua definitely lacked the seediness seen in other backpacker havens like Khao San Road. However, like Khao San Road, there are a good number of budget accomodations ranging from $5-$15 for budget-conscious. I realize now that I'm older, my needs have changed. When I was younger, all I needed was a bed/something to sleep on and a lock on my door. I've showered in red and cold rusty water, I've slept on beds with bedbug blood stains, I've even woken up to a dead frog on my bed and that never bothered me. But now that I'm older, I like clean sheets, maybe a table lamp, and the frills of hot water. I ended up staying at this place called Posada Don Diego. "It's clean. No cockroaches, no bed bugs, no filth." PDD was good enough for me.

After a day of walking around, I realized that Guatemala wasn't a big food country. In fact, most of the street food I've seen were actually tacos and pupusas from their Mexican and Salvadoran neighbors. I was bummed especially after chatting with Dylan while he was in HK bragging about how much he ate. I, on the other hand, wasn't eating much. Yes, Oishii Eats was hungry in Guatemala. Sniff. But don't worry, I managed to find good eats and good fruits to keep my belly plump.

My first meal in Guatemala was at Guatemala born Pollo Campero, Latin America's most successful fried chicken chain. Fresh, juicy, perfectly spiced…Pollo Campero is a delectable treat of fried goodness. Us Angelenos are quite lucky to have local PC's. But I agree with all my Central American co-workers, the chicken in Central America is by far superb compared to the chicken here in the states. Eating Pollo Campero in it’s birth country was definitely one of the highlighs of this trip. Soooo goood!

Another spot that kept me happy in the belly was Tacos Orale, a place that sold three tacos for $1.30-$2.00. Aside from Tacos Orale obnoxious yellow and orange decor and Cartoon Network like logo, I enjoyed my tacos at Tacos Orale. Orale makes an awesome Cobanero salsa. The cobanero, aka Mayan Love Hot pepper was a great local treat.

Antigua does an incredible job dressing up the Parque Central for Christmas. Stylish lights, live jazz and street food put me in awe of Antigua's classiness. I loved all that was going on, but I was sad I had no one to share it with. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were probably the loneliest days on this trip. I missed my family, I missed D, I missed my Powerbook and wireless internet. For the first time, I was homesick. Food couldn't even cheer me up. Gasp...yes, it's true. (Don't feel bad for me though, the trip gets better.)

Every Thursday and Sunday, indigenous merchants from surrounding Highland villages make the journey to Chichicastenango, one of the larget indigenous markets in Guatemala. The sights, scents and sounds of Chichicastenango were like nothing I’ve ever experienced as I was taken back in time. Crowded alleys with textiles, handicrafts, livestock, meat, fruits and vegetables made this market an image that is forever etched in my mind. On my way to Chichicastenango I also befriended two Israeli students who were backpacking their way through Central America. Good company and the overstimulation at Chichicastenango was a great way to enjoy my first Sunday morning in Guatemala.

For Christmas, I treated myself to a nice kick in the butt hike to Volcàn Pacaya. Although Antigua is surrounded by volcanoes, Volcan Pacaya is the only active one. Although we couldn't get to the mouth of the volcano, we had plenty of time to play around and find holes in the earth with flowing lava underneath. Warning: Locals will warn you not to go alone on this hike due to banditos. There has been a number of muggings and thefts towards lone hikers. I didn't mind going with a large group. For $5, I got a ride to the mountain, and a guide/security guard during the hike. Now that more people are going in groups with a local guide, there have been less reports of violence. Overall, Pacaya seemed compeletly safe to me. I'd take some precaution on the return walk after sundown.

After two days of non-stop fireworks, I was ready to move on from Antigua. Seriously, their fireworks are out of control. Visually unpleasing, audibly annoying. The sound of bombs were non-stop and I felt like I was in Beirut. I even ended up taking some muscle relaxants to calm me down because the fireworks were seriously too much. Those Christmas fireworks remained my Number 1 Most Hated Sounds in Guatemala.

After Christmas, I made my way up north to Guatemala's lowland rainforest in a city called Flores. There's not much to do up in Flores unless you're visiting Tikal, The Mayan's largest and most powerful city. What's awesome about Tikal, is that it's set in the middle of the rainforest. So as you're walking and enjoying the sounds of howling and spider monkeys you'll be blown away as you walk into the towering temples.

Although I stayed in Flores which was about an hour away from Tikal, I think the best place to spend the night is inside Tikal National Park. If you are feeling adventurous, have a tight budget and don't mind creepy crawlers, rent a hammock with mosquito netting, and locker at Jaguar Inn for $5. Its best to stay inside Tikal National Park, instead of staying in Flores. Tikal is best enjoyed at when it opens at dawn and at sunset when all the crazy tourists flee back to Flores.

Back in Flores, one of the locals recommended I should enjoy some local game. Armadillo anyone? I ended up eating at a restaurant next to my hostel. At La Mesa De Los Mayas, you can find baked armadillo, deer, and tepezcuintle, a rabbit sized rodent. I asked my waitress which was her favorite and she highly recommended the tepezcuintle. My big rat was delicious. It was braised in a nice tomato based stew. Tons of onions with a mild smoky flavor. Big rat was good stuff. Thank you Alfaro and Lindy at La Mesa De Los Mayas.

My last stop in Guatemala was visiting picturesque Lago Atitlàn. Lago Atitlàn was probably the most beautiful place I've seen since Halong Bay, Vietnam. It's just an incredible sight. I spent a night in Panajachel, a cool hippie town bordering the north side of the Lago Atitlàn. Since I didn't buy anything in crazy Chichicastenango, I picked up some goods from Panajachel. The vendors in Panajachel are a lot more chill and won't hassle you in every step you take. There are actually better goods in Panajachel.

I found these cutie artisan chocolate bars in San Pedro, a small village on the southside of the lake. Locals are proud of San Pedro's own Chocolate Man named Diego. The lady at the store told me that these chocolates are made by hand and are the most popular gifts bought by travelers passing through. I snatched 5 bars for Q35/$5. I think they're quite overpriced for what they are since I could get a bag of fresh Guatemalan coffee for Q15/$2.

Unlike Antigua, I had some fun eats around Lago Atitlàn. In Santiago de Atitlàn, a small village south of Panajachel, I got a hearty Churrasco plate. Garlic grilled beef with rice, beans, guacamole, fresh tortillas and fresh lemonade for Q15/$2! I think this was the best $2 meal I've ever had.

Enjoy some fresh ceviche with Lago Atitlàn locals. Ceviches de camaron (shrimp), conchas (conch), y carne de congrejo (crab meat) for under $5. It was a good deal for what it was. Too bad I couldn't finish it by myself.

Low on quetzales, I had to budget my last Panajachel dinner. On Calle Santander, one of Panajachel's main roads, the street food comes out at night. There was a busy horchata/pupusa stand that I wanted to try but I couldn't make my way past the huge hungry families. Instead I opted for tacos from this guy, Super Tacos Josely. Three tacos carnitas for Q10/$1.3o. Tacos Josely dips their fresh tortillas in their tacos juice which added some extra kick to his already juicy and tender carnitas. They also double their tortillas, ala mulita style, making it super filling. I was full after one taco, but I didn't want to waste food. Downing those last two tacos was incredibly treacherous for me. Food coma followed immediately afterwards.

Seriously, what is up with the lack of cash in Guatemala? Getting cash out of an ATM in Guatemala was like winning the jackpot in Vegas. People would cheer as they came out of the ATM booth. My advice, take travelers cheques. Yes they are old school, but they are a miracle when there's really no other way to get cash. The lines at Western Union are just as insane.

Anyways, I decided to splurge on my last meal in Guatemala. No muggings, minimal bug bites, consistent budgeting, smooth travel plans...good job Jeni. And now I was rewarded with a fine meal at Mesòn Panza Verde, an elegant hotel south of Parque Central. I had an excellent meal under Swiss Chef Christophe Pache. But the highlight of the night was live Cuban jazz...Buena Vista Social Club Project 2. I was so lucky that BVSCP2 was touring Central American at that time. They were an awesome ending to an awesome journey in Guatemala.

Stay tuned for Belize...


BoLA said...

Am so excited to see your photos and read about your holiday adventures! :)

Welcome home!

Anonymous said...

now that your back, dont you dare go to Campanile. they SUCK!

Colleen Cuisine said...

beautiful pic - welcome home! can't wait to hear about your eating adventures

KirkK said...

Ooooh! I can't wait!

Daily Gluttony said...

yaaaaaaay, you're back! welcome home girl! can't wait to hear all about your fabulous trip!

Yuzu said...

Ooh, cool photo! Welcome back. :D

Chubbypanda said...

ED&BM went to Hong Kong and you went to Guatemala? Wow...

- Chubbypanda

Deb said...

Can't wait to see 'the goods'! Glad your home safe!

mary said...

i've been waiting for your return! yay!! hope your first week back went well.

Christine D. said...

...Are those little rat ribs on your plate? Besides that, the other foods look great!

Your trip is looking great so far!! I hope that I can visit this region someday because I am fascinated by ruins and ancient civilizations. The closest I've gotten was driving by one while i was in Cancun, and MayaQuest.

Jeni said...

Thanks's good to be back. I saw MS the other night, but no Kristy. Sigh.

Anonycorea...I won't be heading to Campanile anytime soon. I've gotto catch up on Guatemala bills. Boo!

Colleen Cuisine and Daily Gluttony...can't wait to catch up with you guys too. Must hang out soon!

Kirkk...I just finished my post. It took forever compiling all those pictures. Baaah..gonna take a rest before I post on Belize.

Thanks Yuzu! It's good to be back..D has been doing a good job filling me up with Asian eats. I missed noodles! was a long 3 weeks apart from D.

Deb...Guatamala was really easy travelling. But I was careful like I promised! first week back at work was easy. First, the kids were all still sleeping the first couple of days. Second, they all grew up. I'm hoping that the rest of the year will run smoothly. No more fangs please.

Yes Christine...those are rat ribs and they were delicious. Once you're done with school I highly suggest getting out and seeing all the things that fascinate you! Copan in Honduras is also really easy to get to while in Guatemala. It's good stuff. Did MayaQuest come out before Mapquest?

Hiroki said...

Beautiful photos! And one of them seems to be the one I took in the village of San Antonio Palopo. Lake Atitlan is really beautiful and I had a very pleasant time with you there. I really thank you.
Chichicastenango also appears to be nice from your photos, but I couldn't go there because my time in Guatemala was limited. Instead, I went to Solola, located about 6km northwest of Panajachel, where the large market like the one in Chihicastenango took place. Vendors were friendly and kind to me. Hanging out there was very fun.
Anyway, I'm looking forward to seeing your next food journey report.

The Guilty Carnivore said...

What a great report. You're one plucky gal. Pollo frito! Tacos! Churrasco! Ceviche! Rat??!!! So awesome.

elmomonster said...

Jeni, Dylan's Hong Kong trip was great to read about, but your adventure just captured my imagination. And you did it all by yourself! I'm quite proud that I managed to go from Belgium to the Netherlands without speaking a lick of Dutch or German or Belgian, but what you did here is superhero-like to me. I was seriously biting my nails as you talked about banditos. I am in awe.

EILEEN said...

What a trip! I really enjoy reading this entry. I often thought about backpacking, but I just get scared thinking about traveling on my own. There are too many "what-if" scary situations that I imagine on my own. But reading your entry kinda inspires me. Did you have everything planned out before you leave?

Anonymous said...


KirkK said...

Oh my, what a wonderful post! So much here I had to come back three times to read and savor every part!

Wandering Chopsticks said...

Man, this post made me positively itch to travel again. It's been more than a year since I've left the country. So jealous.

BTW, did the rat taste like chicken? :)

eatdrinknbmerry said...

J, hearing about your trip isn't the same as reading about your account of the trip. The photos are stellar and I feel bad that you had the point-and-shoot while I had D haha. Very nice job and I'm glad you're back here, safe w/ me - away from volcanoes, bandítos, armadillos and leaf-cutting ants. - )

themirthmobile said...

what beautiful vibrant photos! you make me want to pick up and leave right now.

Eddie Lin said...

Looks like somebody got a new camera for Christmas! Haven't read the piece yet but I like the new longer format. It's like a very special episode of Oishii Eats...Oishii Eats Abroad!!! Zoom out as you spin around with your huge ass back pack.

Jeni said...

Hiroki-san! How are you doing? How was El Salvador? It was fun hanging out with you around Lago Atitlàn. Where are you going next??? Keep in touch.

Guilty Carnivore...seriously, I am so thankful I chose Guatemala for my winter retreat. I have no regrets. I do wish I ventured into Guatemala City for better eats. Sigh.

Elmomonster...aaaw..thanks bro. Seriously, Guatemala is pretty easy traveling. I took Spanish in Antigua for the first week I was there thinking that the total immersion would have me speaking fluently. Wrong! ¿Cuànto cuestas? y ¡Uno mas! were all I said. I could of learned that from the Great Taco Hunt! haha. I managed...but it wasn't difficult. People in Guatemala are generally friendly, although some friends from South American say otherwise. Thanks for the compliment...I've always wanted to be a G.I. Joe.

Eileen...I recommend traveling solo to all women. There's such a sense of accomplishment and liberation at the end of a solo trip. I took my first backpacking trip to Thailand at 23. Girl, I was freaking out! But it was one of the best things I did for myself as I was growing up. There are endless "what if" freak situations, but there are also a larger number of great people and sights. Don't let the "what if's" keep you back. There's too much to see! As far as planning ahead, since this was a busy traveling season (Christmas and New Year's) I did email ahead and told certain hostels or guesthouses to save me a room. Most of my trip planning was done when I got there as I talked to locals and other backpackers. I've always used Lonely Planets and they do a great job listing the budget accommodations and sights off and on the beaten track. Email me if you have any questions.

Mom...sometimes you're not funny. Just kidding. Don't get mad. Anyways, I told you I'd be fine. I'll probably be going to S. America in the summer by the way. I'm telling you in advance this time! haha.

KirkK...thanks...I wish you guys can smell the pictures. You probably wouldn't smell the food because in Guatemala all you could smell is diesel fuel from the old buses they use. I am so happy I'm back in LA where the air is sooooo much cleaner. Gross huh?

Wandering Chopsticks...If you have an itch, I must have a Latin American rash! Anyways, the tepezcuitle tasted like rabbit...which some people say tastes like chicken. But I don't think rabbit tastes like tastes like rabbit. Therefore, tepezcuintle tastes like rabbit.

EDNBM...It's good to be back too. I missed your cooking more than anything. I mean, I missed you and then your cooking. And don't feel bad about taking the much as I would have loved to shoot with it...I didn't mind not lugging that big boy around.

I miss Eddie!!! My uncle gave me his Nikon D70 a while ago. But I didn't bring it with me to Central America. I let Dylan borrow it while he was in HK and I used my small point-n-shoot. I missed the D70's definitely a different world. Anyways, I've always wanted to be a travel food writer since the Lonely Planet is lousy when it comes to food. As far as my backpack, I think D nearly had a heart attack when he saw how big it was.

Passionate Eater said...

Everything looks so gorgeous. You really spent a lot of time taking & editing those vivid and stunning pix. Thank you for your wonderful post. I have been looking at your pix in excess of 1 hr!

mikay said...

Wow Jeni, I'm so inspired by your trip! I'm glad you came back safely! Your Mom cracks me UP!

Jeni said...

Passionate Eater...I'm so glad I'm done with that post. It took me forever sorting through all my shots. I'm just glad that people are enjoying truly is the most interesting country that I've visited.

Mika-chan! It was a really great trip. I can't wait to get out again. Anyways, I have some new mom stories to tell you. Let's hang out soon...mata ne!

keiko said...

Hi Jeni - I got here via Kelli's site and really enjoy reading your gorgeous posts! The trip sounds wonderful (and your pictures are beautiful too), thank you for sharing with us.

Jeni said...

Hi's an honor hearing from such an awesome foodtographer! I looooove your pictures! Thanks for stopping by Keiko!

Jen said...

you are my travel hero. seriously. you should consider doing travel writing for foodies FULL TIME!!! you kick ass!!!!!.

jenny k

Jeni said...

en...I'm blushing (*^o^*)! Seriously, my dream job would be working for a budget travel book company (i.e Lonely Planet, Let's Go!) and writing a special Eating guide for those who want the real deal...ala Bourdain. Come back in the summer...I should have more travel posts...hopefully. Thanks for reading Jen!

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