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8 Fantastic Experiences for Foodies in Guatemala

Fresh fruits at market in Guatemala.
Fruit stand in Guatemala.

Guatemala has a great culinary history, dating back to the rise of chocolate in Mayan times and the current push into sustainable, fresh, organic crops. If you are a foodie, and especially if you are foodie into getting your hands dirty, Guatemala offers a wide variety of things to sample, such as the best rum in the world, coffee right off the finca, hand-made chocolates "from the bean to the bar," and wonderful collection of organic produce, superfoods, and wholly unfamiliar fruit and vegetables. Here are eight fantastic Guatemalan culinary experiences, in no particular order:

1) Guacamole at Earth Lodge

Earth Lodge is an eco-hotel/avocado farm about five miles outside of Antigua, Guatemala, and for about six months of the year (usually from Dec-Feb and June-Aug), the place is ripe with fruits. Entering the lodge, visitors walk through part of the grove, 400 trees that occupy edges of the walkways, disappear down the mountainside, and have branches heavy with fruit year-round (avocados provide two harvests per year). One enjoyable aspect (among many) about "The Lodge" is that guacamole is off the menu when it's not their avocados. Still, when it is on, it is on. You won't find a more delicious, generous, fresher bowl of guacamol in Guatemala.

2) Coffee from As De La Gente

De La Gente is an NGO in Ciudad Viejo, Guatemala's first and oft-destroyed capital. The organization supports many local projects, but foremost, it centers on a coffee cooperative. The cooperative offers walking tours into their collective plots of farmland, demonstrations of their innovative and simple machinery, and even the chance to help harvest the beans (between Nov-Apr). At the end of the coffee tour, the host farmer brings guests to his house to help roast beans, grind the artisan way, and drink some of the most delicious, body-jittering coffee imaginable. At the end of the tour, you leave with a pound of As De La Gente coffee your tour guide produces.

3) Chocolate at the Choco Museo

Guatemala, a stronghold of the Maya empire, is the setting of chocolate's initial rise to global power as the world's favorite sweet treat. While other countries now do much of the growing and even others much of the processing, there is a robust and inspired movement in Guatemala to make artisanal chocolate. The Choco Museo offers "tours" where guests visit a one-room museum teaching the history of chocolate, which is nice but pales compared to roasting, shelling, and grinding your beans to make samples of Maya hot chocolate and Spanish hot chocolate. Then, the tour guide gives you 70 grams of dark or milk chocolate to design your box or bar.

4) Macadamia Nuts at Valhalla

Guatemala is where the eccentric farming couple that owns Valhalla decided to settle in the 1970s and start growing macadamia nuts. Now, the farm does much more, promoting and providing macadamia trees to local communities as a viable reforestation tree with food benefits, producing natural beauty products from macadamia oil, and housing a rustic restaurant with a macadamia-inspired menu. Lorenzo, the farm's founder, greets visitors, offering them free facials and showing off his incredible farming inventions. People can relax in the garden without pressure to buy anything. Still, the pancakes with macadamia nut butter and homegrown blueberry jam are not to be missed.

5) Organic Vegetables from Caoba Farms

For people who are really enthusiastic about their food, Caoba Farms is a new-wave organic environment that invites interested tourists on guided or self-guided tours of the facility, as well as a chance to volunteer in the garden for a couple of hours in exchange for a bag of fresh vegetables, picked that day. The farm includes chickens, fed from the wedding of the vegetables; a greenhouse, where workers also process the farm's self-created next batch of seeds; and a small store, offering things grown onsite and other products like artisanal sauces and moringa (a superfood) powder. Volunteers work alongside locals, picking up farming tips and exchanging small talk.

6) Maya Nuts at the Bagel Barn

The Maya Nut Institute is another NGO doing great work with reforestation and sustainable food sources. It began reintroducing the Maya nut to indigenous farmers who had seen the once reliable food source give way to farming. Now, the Institute is using the Maya nut tree to reforest the habitats of jaguars, monkeys, and monkeys. The leaves of the trees serve as animal fodder. And for the adventuring lover of good food, Maya nuts (actually seeds of a fig-like fruit) are dried, roasted, and ground to make a powder used to flavor soups and sauces or as the base for cookies and cakes.

7) Mescal at Café No Sé

Mescal is not Guatemalan, and in fact, the brand Ilegal Mezcal is not produced here. However, the owner of one of the hippest little dive bars, Café No Sé, owns the Oaxacan distillery that produces this high-grade beverage. In case you don't know, mescal is very similar to tequila but produced with a different agave plant in a different region of Mexico. At No Sé, the mescal bar, tucked in the back left corner through a false refrigerator door, takes Mexico's true national drink and funks it up by infusing bottles with spicy peppers, herbs, and the like. The owner, John Rexer, is a long-time Antigua resident. He has been importing his mescal since before it was fashionable. The classic way to drink it is sipping a shot interspersed with sips of a Bloody Mary-like mix called sangria (not to be confused with sangria).

8) Ron Zacapa from Duty-Free

Ron Zacapa (Rum Zacapa) is the undisputed champion of the rum world. Produced in the Zacapa region of Guatemala, on the country's eastern side, Zacapa is a serious drink, not to be mixed but rather taken straight or perhaps with an ice cube. Zacapa has won several international rum competitions. It was the first rum inducted into the International Rum Festival's Hall of Fame. Visiting the distillery is possible, but there is no need to make the journey. Zacapa is available in all the nicest hotel bars. Antigua's Panza Verde and other places reflect the appropriate atmosphere for such a fine beverage. Moreover, there will be many opportunities in duty-free to pick a bottle or six to take home. It's a must on Guatemala's tasting list.

That's just a start. Other great culinary adventures in Guatemala include trying pepian, a traditional stew with a rich pumpkin seed broth, and sampling local tamales. As always, a trip to the vegetable market is a must for the real deal of what real people eat, and Antigua, Guatemala City (especially), and Chichicastenango offer fantastic markets to explore. Be sure to check out the myriad of seasonal fruits on offer. Licuados, fruit smoothies, come in fantastic combinations with the freshest produce imaginable. Banana bread and homemade chocolate cakes from baskets are carried on the heads of indigenous women, slinging them out style pupusas from street carts and family-style dinners at most hostels — eating well is never a problem.

Author Jonathon Engels. Jonathon Engels earned an MFA in creative writing. He has lived, worked, and volunteered in seven countries, traveling through nearly 40 countries. His many interests include permaculture, veganism, and ways to live sustainably.

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