I just got back from a 2 week stay in Guatemala. I went to study Spanish in Quetzaltenango, the second largest city in Guatemala. It is known locally as Xela (shay-la) and they have beautiful, simple, delicious food there!
I stayed with a host family and some of the best meals I had were cooked by my host mom, Ana. She cooked using the fresh ingredients from the local markets and used them to make Mayan specialties like chicken pepian, which is a chicken stew with a tomato-y sauce that is full of spices that was nice over rice and mopped up with the fresh, handmade tortillas.
I also picked the brains of my Spanish teachers and they told me some of their favorite places to eat and buy food. Here are some of them:
Paches de Papas: the Guatemalan version of a tamale, but instead of masa, they enrobe a filling (chicken, beef, pork) with spiced mashed potatoes. Many restaurants and stores sell them, usually on Saturday. Look for the little red light hanging outside the store, house or restaurant on the days they are being made. What a great little cultural tidbit to learn!
Tienda Los Chocoyos: a tiny little store with the usual sodas and snacks (including a pastry that looks like green slugs covered with sugar but are really figs), that also sells homemade specialties on certain mornings from 8:00 AM until they run out. They sell cambralles (a tamale with sweet masa and a savory chicken filling—my favorite) on Friday and tamales con arroz and paches de papas on Saturday morning. The tamales con arroz used a mashed rice mixture instead of masa to wrap the beefy filling. 7 Calle 13-49 Zona 1
La Tienda de Hermanas Chavez (no sign): In this tiny olive green store that looks like a hardware store, two little old abuelitas sell chocolate for hot chocolate that their family has made for over 100 years. They come in various size bars and in four flavors: almendra/almond, vanilla, canela/cinnamon and leche/milk. The chocolate is in a cabinet behind the counter so don't be confused by the brooms and ropes on the walls when you walk in! To make the chocolate, put a few chunks into hot water and mix well, and you get a gorgeous, fragrant, spicy, creamy cup of hot chocolate! They’re open odd hours so you might have to go back a few times. One of the larger bars was Q15.00 (about $2). 5a Calle 8-38 Zona 1 It’s three blocks east of McDonald’s. It’s on the same block as a shop called Foto’s Vision (yellow building) and the store is two store fronts down from that.
Ut’z Hua (which means “delicious food” in Quiche): a small restaurant that serves local specialties. 12 Avenida 3-02 Zona 1 (near the Parque Central)
Bazar del café: in this small café they sell coffee and drinks, but they will also sell you super fragrant coffee beans that they have roasted themselves. A pound/libre of mescla (a blend of beans) is Q37.00 (about $5). They will grind them for you if you want. It is inside the courtyard of a building that is called La Mansion Marilyn (as in Monroe). There is a sign that says “Bazar del Café Cafeteria aqui adentro” along with a picture of Marilyn Monroe. 13 Avenida 5-38 Zona 1
Cafe Dane's Cake: The two ladies who run this small restaurant have a Q15.00 (about $2) lunch special where you get soup, tortillas, rice and your choice of side and your choice of entrees. The selection changes daily. The food is OK, but their pastel de tres leches is fabulous! It is a spongy, slightly sweet cake that is soaked in evaporated milk. It costs Q10.00, almost as much as a whole lunch! It is a yellow building on the corner of 6a Calle and 15 Avenida Zona 1.
And finally, this is only available if you study at the Spanish school that I did, Casa Xelaju (shay-la-who). There was a lady who lived down the street from the school who would come to the school at our 10:30 AM break and would bring homemade goodies to sell to us for Q5.00 or less (less than $1). She brought tamales, tortas and other treats. My favorite was the crispy, golden empanadas with a chicken and veggie filling. Instead of being made with a crust like the Argentinian and Peruvian empanadas I’ve had before, hers were made with masa flattened like you would for a tortilla, filled and folded, and then fried until crispy. They were the best!
I had an awesome trip and if you are interested in studying Spanish AND eating well at the same time, I highly recommend going to Xela!