Guatemala stop-over

It was the Wednesday night of semana santa, and I’d crossed the Guatemalan border the evening before. I wasn’t sure what I’d find or where I’d stay, let alone how I’d feed myself. It’s official. I’ve become a lazy traveller.

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I landed in Huehuetenango. It’s about 2.5 hours by bus from La Mesilla, the less-than attractive border town beside Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas. And after asking a taxista where to stay and then immediately not taking his suggestion, I tracked down a quiet hotel at the edge of town.

As it turns out, crossing the Guatemalan border at night isn’t the best of ideas. Not knowing the currency exchange rate is even stupider. But that’s a story for another time. And everything’s okay now, right? So after defusing with a 5-hour nap, I woke up starving and desperate for a bite. I trekked back toward the plaza principal, where I’d wandered aimlessly that morning, this time with a better idea of where to eat.

But I didn’t expect to find a full-blown festival. Every woman in Huehuetenango was out with her own stand or tent, grilling, frying, and flipping foods. I sat down for the first thing I could find resembling vegetables.

It’s called chorizquito,” one woman told me, laughing. I’d already finished the tiny styrofoam plate. “But yours is sin carne.” Chorizquito without the chorizo? So that’s what I’d just scarfed down.

A chorizquito sin carne is a thick, small white corn tortilla slathered with refried beans. It’s topped with pickled cabbage, two grilled green onions, a piece of boiled yellow corn, salsa roja, and two halves of a small golden potato. Then it’s closed up like a sandwich with another tortilla– this one covered in mayonnaise. Somewhere in there, there’s supposed to be an enormous serving of sausage. In Guatemala just like in Mexico, food vendors are happy to alter a dish to make it vegetarian. It’s just that on their part, it’s practically required that they laugh at you in response.

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How the hell are you supposed to eat this? It looks like a tortilla sandwich but is impossible to pick up. I’d watched the old guys at the foldable table beside me. They took off the top layer and used that thick tortilla to grab hold of each vegetable, like a utensil in of itself. Full from one, chorizo-free chorizquito, I wandered around the feria while the sun went down and other vendors set up.

Feria isn’t festival, they’ll tell you. It’s just feria: a mix between a block party and a state fair. No government agency has funded it; taxpayer quetzales aren’t at play. Instead, the feria emerges from the community. Anyone who knows how to prepare something out of anything is out here cooking it. Plastic “tupper” containers crowd card table tops. The lids practically burst from too many contents. Roasted potatoes. Slaw. Pickled carrots. Salsa roja. Salsa verde. More salsas. Chicken wings, chicken thighs, chicken feet. Tamales piled so high in wicker baskets that they threaten to burst from the woven blankets that swaddle them and trap heat. Steam sneaks through the cotton folds.

I returned to the same coffee shop I’d visited that morning upon finding myself lost in Huehuetenango. It’s called Monte Alto, and it’s possibly the only reliable source of WiFi in town. It’s a chain pasteleria where the counter servers wear puffy red fabric bakers’ hats.  From the same corner table by the sidewalk, I’d reserved a room at La Chacra de Joel Hotel, and then booked it across town to check-in and immediately take my all-day nap.

The atmosphere in Monte Alto has shifted since the early, boiling morning. Now, the temperature has cooled. The lights dim, rock music blares, and flowers occupy each table where before only existed sugar. The evening counter girl is young. Her eyeliner is winged at the sides, piped with a precision that matches the elaborate cakes in the display case beside her. Delicate dark chocolate slivers are stuck in the edges, leaving puncture wounds when they threaten to fall. The girl rests her elbows on the counter, flirting with an officer. The bright yellow letters on his bullet-proof vest read, PNC.

From the edge of the cafe, I watch the feria emerge like dress rehearsal where only parents are welcome. It smells like fire, gas, oil, grease, and salt. Two grown sisters swat one another with styrofoam plates before they use them to fan the flame. It’s a family affair; business isn’t taken too seriously.

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Women deck foldable tables with cloths: patterns of sunflowers and marigolds, red diamonds like playing cards. A thin woman with a ponytail lifts a green tub onto her head. It’s enormous– large enough to bath a golden retriever. The tub holds another afghan-sized blanked, bundling up something secret and steamy. She dashes off. It’s almost time to go. I anticipate someone parading with a megaphone. But no one arrives to shout ” Lights” nor “Action.”

Guatemala doesn’t observe Daylight Saving Time. It’s nearly 6:30 already– only a half hour of sun remains. Cotton candy clouds blur with the poles that carry sugary treats stacked half a story high. A man selling blue bundles of soft sugar drifts to the far corner of the plaza principal. 

Six teenaged girls line up for photos, pulling selfie sticks from their aprons as they set up their own food stand. Three tables form a frame  around their group. They dance around, unpacking ingredients, already washed, peeled, sliced, and marinated. Pride sifts out. That powerful feeling of creating something that you know is delicious, beautiful, or satisfying. With no mamás in sight to help, they pose for photos in front of their crates and baskets of prepped creations, ready to sell.

Something’s brewing in Huehuetenango, and I only have a moment to taste it.

 

 

Dulces, Postres, y Panaderias

Cacao

Playing with cacao beans in El Museo de Chocolate at Ecuador’s Mitad del Mundo

While in Peru, I expected to eat chocolate with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But just as I’ve recently learned about Colombian coffee, most of Peru’s rich dark chocolates are exported. Cusco’s Mercado San Pedro is a great place to stock up on a few bars to take home. They range in price anywhere from eight – 25 soles for a shareable bar, depending on size and flavor. A small shop in Arequipa, Peru called Chaqchao even sells decadent homemade, fair-trade chocolates, sprinkled with a dusting of spicy rocoto, coconut, or dried fruit for only eight – 10 soles. Otherwise, your chocolate craving solutions are limited to cheap milk chocolate in your average tienda, and sometimes the taste resembles that of leftover Easter candy unwrapped in June: a little aged and not-so-satisfying.

When I wouldn’t splurge on a fancy bar, I got my chocolate fix in panaderias, where bakers top donas (donuts) with frosting and stuff them with dulce de leche, coat moist chocolate trufas with tiny pearl sprinkles for the perfect bite-sized sugar fix, and fill puff pastry with chocolate spreads. There’s no shortage of sweets in Latin America. And when you’re hopping from one bus to another, hiking up a mountain, or converting kilometers to miles on a tour around a new city, it’s hard to look the other way when you pass a panaderia, even if you’re not that hungry. I’ve found that it’s better to give in to temptation in the name of “experiencing the local culture.” Eating chocolates and pastries in another country? Sounds like “study-abroad” to me.

A necessary snack on a rainy day in Cusco, Peru

A necessary snack on a rainy day in Cusco, Peru

A blurry "trufa" overlooking tiny Otavalo, Ecuador

A blurry “trufa” overlooking tiny Otavalo, Ecuador

Mantequilla is a way of life here; everything sweet and savory is buttered-up, whether it’s a chocolate donut or a fried plantain. If you want to avoid animal products like butter all together, you’ll miss out on more than a few delicious snacks, but maybe your body will thank you for it. I temporarily gave in and gave up, because sometimes a backpacking girl requires a bag full of churros. ¡Buen provecho!

Churros

Every smart traveler carries a sixth sense: fried food radar

Llapingacho: Budget Vegetarian 101 in Ecuador

Ecuador changed their national currency in 2000 from the sucre to the US dollar after the sucre’s exchange rate dropped 70% in one year. Now at the whim of the US economy, the currency change can still be a gamble. But most people will say that now, at least, it’s a good thing. Mathematically-challenged estadounidenses traveling to Ecuador are alleviated from any conversion obstacles, and may find that a dollar here goes a bit further. Ecuadorian shopping malls and restaurant menus tend to mirror prices in the States. But if you want to cut costs here, you definitely won’t go hungry. As usual, the mercados centrales deliver the best value, where you can enjoy a fresh juice, soup, and entre for a few bucks. But you don’t have to go to a large city center in Cuenca or Quito to eat cheaply. Small-business food stands line the outdoor bus terminal in Otavalo, and a few chairs and a mobile flat top grill add up to a family-run restaurant on the edges of farmers’ markets in small-town squares. When searching for lunch, I never had to look far before a two-dollar plate of llapingacho became my 3 o’clock savior.

Llapingacho

The dish traditionally includes sausage, but ask for llapingacho vegetariano, and you’ll find a plenty-full plate of fried potato patties, avocado, beets, chopped tomatoes and lettuce, and rice topped with a fried egg. In fancier parillas and cafes, you might even encounter some plantains and a slice of queso casero. Just as one abuela’s recipe differs from another’s, the plate’s typical assortment varies, sometimes with habichuelas (green beans) and other vegetables replacing the heaping scoop of white rice.

I ate llapingacho for five days straight in Baños, a tiny tourist town in central Ecuador. Inside the one-story mercado central, the ladies cooking beside plastic picnic tables all offer identical menus, with llapingacho sin carne as the sworn-by veggie option. South of Baños, in Cuenca, the market reveals a sudden gastronomic shift from neighboring Peru. Sopa de quinoa and ceviche disappear from banner-like menus that hang from the ceiling, replaced by thick, butter-packed tortillas de choclo and uncountable variations of sopa de gallina. Up north, in Quito, the historic center’s market is dominating: a full second floor crowded with restaurant stands and aluminum tables. Full families crowd around to sip soups and fruit juices and dive into piled-high plates.

No matter what you order, every two dollars exchanged mid-day for a packed plate promises a full stomach until late into the evening.

You may strive to find room to squeeze in an enticing sweet empanada or alluring homemade taffy sold on the sidewalk. But it’s always better to wait, stay another day, and then taste even more. Another serving of llapingacho is readily available wherever you’re able to pull up a chair.