When I chose to move to a somewhat remote village on Lago Atitlan in Guatemala, it wasn’t for the food. I was told there was an open-air market where I could find local produce, but not much else by way of grocery stores. We do have un montón de tiendas here, but these aren’t anything like the Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods stores I would shop at as a vegan in Chicago. There are almost no refrigerated items, very few items available canned, and vegan/vegetarian staples like tofu, tempeh, and hummus, just aren’t stocked. When they found out I was moving, people were generally curious about what my diet would consist of, and so was I! But, I was prepared to make some changes (start eating dairy again) and/or live on a diet of plantains, black beans, tortillas, and avocados (which, actually, is still appealing to me!), but I’ve had some very pleasant surprises! So, here is what a (mostly vegan) vegetarian in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala eats.
My first month here, I lived with a local family and ate just about every meal in their home, since I didn’t yet have my own kitchen to cook for myself. They knew I was vegetarian and said – no problem, we’ll all be vegetarian while she’s here! – so our family meals for that month generally didn’t contain meat (or if they did have a bit of chicken, that wasn’t served to me). They were very accommodating in this regard, and everything I ate was quite delicious, most of it cooked by my dear friend and aspiring chef, Yanil, who is a domestic worker in the family’s home.
That first month was a great opportunity for me to get an idea of how locals (albeit, somewhat well-to-do locals) eat in their homes. Breakfast – oatmeal (with a lot more milk than I am used to, so it is more like a milk soup with a little bit of oatmeal in it), fresh fruits (bananas, papaya, pineapple, strawberries), pan frances (basically small rolls of bread) or tortillas, sometimes pancakes, sometimes eggs and beans, very often, fried plantains. Lunch is a larger meal, and sometimes the family would have fish, some form of soup or chicken, or tamales – I generally skipped lunch or ate out for lunch, so my meal usually consisted of something similar to what I had for breakfast (desayuno tipico). And for dinner, we often had eggs and black beans and fried plantains, once again, usually with a vegetable mixture with tomato sauce, sometimes a pasta dish, and generally some rice and more tortillas. So, all in all, not a huge variety of foods, but remember – foods aren’t imported from all parts of the world, so people here cook based on what is locally available/abundant.
Now that I have my own place with its own little kitchen (sadly, no oven), I’ve had the opportunity to venture to the market and the stores to see what I could come up with for cooking on my own. My first week, what I cooked was quite similar to what Yanil had cooked. But since then, I’ve discovered quite a few more options.
My first eye-opening, meal-changing, vegan-affirming discovery was the availability of ALMOND MILK. That’s right – one store on our calle principal stocks almond milk, as well as quite a few other imported foods I thought I wouldn’t be seeing for at least a year. While these foods are quite a bit more expensive, and I’m 90% sure that when I’ve bought all of the boxes of almond milk currently in stock, I’ll never see it again, it is such a comfort to have these options available and offers me a much greater variety of delicious vegan/vegetarian foods I can cook. At this store in town, I’ve also been able to get lentils, chickpeas, pre-packaged tortillas (because the ones I buy off the street go bad in about a day), pasta and pasta sauce, canned coconut milk, and salad dressing.
In addition to this great find, there are two towns across the lake that have health food stores – there were so many products I didn’t think I would be seeing any time soon that I nearly squealed with joy! Most of these imported health foods are out of my price range, but I did buy some tempeh, good tea, dark chocolate, and freshly ground peanut butter. And I will definitely be back.
And finally, there are the restaurants! Here in Santiago, we don’t have many restaurants to choose from, and even less with vegetarian options. So far, I have eaten at
- The Posada – probably our best, but also most expensive restaurant at the nice hotel in town, delicious food, and they always have vegetarian options.
- Kathlyn’s Comedor – a little hole-in-the-wall place that has typical local food, and I generally would get something along the lines of desayuno tipico
- Texas Burger – yep, that’s right. We have a little restaurant called Texas Burger, which is actually quite nice inside, and has some great Tex-Mex standards, like quesadillas and burritos, as well as burgers. You get a LOT of food for very little money.
- Tacos Secretos – another local spot that’s, as the name suggests, kind of a secret as it is basically the front room of someone’s house. They specialize in tacos, which are all of the meat variety, but do offer pupusas de queso, which are more or less fried cheese with some stuff on it, and it’s really tasty and cheap.
- Quila’s – kind of a Gringo hangout with typical cafe fare, I had a caprese panini that was good.
I have yet to try the restaurant at Hotel Bambu (which I hear is pretty good) and Las Lagartijas (which I am dying to try out, because they have vegan options and it smells delicious, but they have somewhat sporadic hours).
And around the lake, I’ve eaten at a few different places as well, mostly in Panajachel, where I have to go to mail our Just Apparel orders. The other day, I had the best falafel of my life (mmhmmm, best falafel ever in Guatemala, of all places!) at a little place called Cafe Kitsch. It was vegan, gigantic, spicy, and amazing.
Oh, and I had some chocolate peanut butter pie – duh!
On a previous trip, I found a place that offered tofu – breaded and fried, similar to tofu chicken nuggets, quite tasty!
And of course, there is San Pedro, which has a host of great restaurants, at least one of which is completely vegetarian. I’ll be hitting that up on an upcoming weekend for sure.
But usually, I just cook at home, with my newfound food products. Here are some highlights:
My usual breakfast – locally grown coffee and a smoothie
Salad for lunch – spinach, onion, apples, strawberry, and tomatoes
I don’t remember if this was lunch or breakfast – could be either here – but I cooked up a veggie omelet with some beans, avocado, and tortilla
Made curry one night! Pretty delicious over rice – my apartment’s previous tenant left a bit of curry powder, so I made this with coconut milk and a bunch of local veggies.
So, all in all, food (and life!) in Guatemala is good!