Let’s face it. When you think of the great cuisines of the world, Guatemalan food does not immediately pop into your head. At least for me it didn’t before I visited the country. So, I had pretty low expectations of the food when I first arrived. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I could have named even one Guatemalan dish. Can you?
But after traveling in the country, going on a food tour, taking a cooking class, and living with a host family, I can say that the food deserves more recognition than it currently does. The cuisine has some fantastically delicious dishes, some great street food, and some deliciou drinks. You should not leave Guatemala without trying them.
In this post, you’ll find a list of the most traditional Guatemalan dishes, some popular desserts, typical Guatemalan breakfasts, and my favorite–Guatemalan street food. I’ve tried 99% of the dishes on this list, so I can give you an honest assessment of which foods to try, what they taste like, and where to try them.
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Table of Contents
What is Guatemalan Cuisine?
Understanding Guatemalan cuisine is all about understanding the country’s demographics and history.
Demographically, Guatemala’s population is 40-60% indigenous (the government officially says 44%, but when I was in Guatemala, I was told 60%), while 40-56% identify as non-indigenous. The ladder group is a combination of Mestizos (mixed European and indigenous) and European. Some say the Mestizos are around 40% and the European are 16%.
According to the Guatemalan government, of the indigenous population, 41.7% are Maya, 1.8% are Xinca, .2% are of African descent, .1% are Garifuna, and .2% are foreign.
Regardless of the exact percentages, you can see that the dominant ethnic groups in Guatemala are the Maya and the Europeans. Thus, these two groups have influenced Guatemalan cuisine the most.
Before the Spaniards came in the 1500s, the area now known as Guatemala was settled by the Maya. They’d been living on the land for thousands of years and during all that time they developed their own cuisine.
Some of the most popular foods that the ancient Maya ate were corn, beans, squash, chayote, chilies, tortillas, avocadoes, tomatillos, and chocolate.
The ancient Maya got their protein from turkeys, ducks, grasshoppers, iguanas, deer and of course, beans. There were no cows, chickens, or pigs in the Americas before the Spanish arrived.
They also flavored their dishes with achiote (annote), a small reddish-orange seed that makes food red and gives it a bitter peppery taste.
The Maya usually cooked their dishes by steaming (tamales and chuchitos), boiling (Guatemala has many stews and soups), or cooking them underground.
When the Spanish came, they brought the traditions and foods of Spain with them. Probably the biggest contributions were beef, chicken, pork, and goat.
They also brought dairy products like cheese and milk, rice (originally from the Middle East), sugar, oils, garlic, and various fruits and vegetables.
The Spaniards also brought the cooking technique of frying to Central America.
They also brought spices (oregano, coriander, cinnamon, peppercorns, and mint) from the Middle East and Asia to Guatemala.
You’ll find some Caribbean influence in the area around Livingston and Rio Dulce, where the Garifuna people live. These are a group of people of mixed African and indigenous ancestries. The African side originally came from the island of Saint Martin in the Caribbean and settled along the Atlantic Coast of Guatemala. They then married the indigenous people of Central America.
The cuisine involves the use of coconut and seafood in dishes.
Guatemalan cuisine today
Over time the cuisine of Guatemala became a mixture of Mayan and Spanish cuisine. You’ll find a lot of dishes with potatoes, carrots, chayote, onions, and tomatoes. Turkey, chicken, pork, and beef are all ingredients in Guatemalan dishes.
Many of the more traditional Guatemalan dishes like their stews (Pepian and Kak’ik) originated with the Maya and were then modified over time by adding European spices and proteins.
Corn of course is still a staple and you’ll find tortillas eaten at nearly every meal. Fried tortillas are also a main ingredient in many street foods like tostadas.
Is Guatemalan food the same as Mexican food?
There are some dishes like tamales and tostadas, that you’ll find in both countries. But Guatemalan food is different.
The tortillas are smaller and thicker than the ones in Mexico.
The food is not spicy like in Mexico.
Mole is only used in desserts in Guatemala, while in Mexico it’s used with proteins.
There are more stews than what you’d find in Mexican cuisine.
However, just like in Mexico, you’ll find tostadas, tamales, and Chile Rellenos.
Is Guatemalan food the same as food in the rest of Central America?
Guatemalan food has some similarities to the cuisines in the rest of Central America.
The basic ingredients are the same: corn, rice, beans, squash, chayote, chiles, achiote, chicken, pork, and beef. You’ll find tortillas eaten all over Central America, and pupusas in many of the countries.
However, due to geography and demographics, each country has developed its own unique cuisine over time.
According to Copeland Marks in her cookbook, False Tongues and Sunday Bread, the influence of the Maya on a country’s cuisine is relative in proportion to the percentage of indigenous people living in the country.
Out of all Central American countries, the food of Guatemala has been influenced the most by indigenous culture since 40-60% of the people in the country are indigenous and if you count Mestizos it’s more like 74%.
On the other hand, in Costa Rica, only 2.4% of the population are indigenous so their food is influenced less by the native population and more by European cuisine.
Traditional Guatemalan Dishes
For Guatemalans, lunch is the main meal of the day. This is when they’ll eat their most traditional dishes. However, don’t worry. You can also find these dishes at restaurants in big cities and tourist destinations.
For lunch, you usually get a protein that can be anything from a stew or a soup, roast chicken, or a Chiles Relleno.
On the side, you’ll get rice, a salad, sometimes potatoes, and always tortillas or bread.
Dinner is usually a lighter and simpler meal than lunch. Guatemalans usually eat sandwiches, tostadas, or tacos. Basically, these are all street foods. Just jump to the section on street food to see typical foods eaten for dinner.
My host mother would even serve only Doritos for dinner once a week. As an American, I thought it was strange, but I have to admit I was really looking forward to eating them again the following week. Probably the reason I craved the Doritos so much was that they came with lots of dipping sauces like guacamole, cheese, black beans, and salsa.
Guatemalans usually eat lunch from 12:00 pm to 2:00 pm and dinner between 7:00 and 9:00 pm.
Here are the most traditional Guatemalan dishes:
Whenever I asked people to recommend a Guatemalan dish, they always answered “Pepian”. It soon became my favorite dish during my 3 months in the country.
Pepian is a very rich chicken stew. It comes with vegetables, such as potatoes, squash, chayote, and carrots, and rice on the side or in the middle.
I’ve eaten Pepian where the vegetables are huge and the meat is still on the bone (photo above). Then it’s a challenge to eat.
Other times I’ve eaten it, like at Cafe Sabor Cruceno at Lake Atitlan, where the vegetables and chicken are small chunks and very easy to eat.
I think the former is the more traditional way.
Where you can try Pepian at Lake Atitlan: Cafe Sabor Crucenos
Where you can try Pepian in Antigua: La Fonda de la Calle Real
2. Jocon de Pollo
My second favorite Guatemalan dish is Jocon de Pollo. It’s another very rich and flavorful traditional Guatemalan stew.
The main ingredient is chicken. Sometimes potatoes are added. However, the liquid is always green and made from cilantro, tomatillos, green onions, green beans, chayote, and whatever else the cook decides to add.
I made this very delicious dish at a wonderful cooking class I took. You can read about it in my Antigua travel guide.
Where can you try Jocon de Pollo in Antigua: Los Tres Tiempos
Kak’ik is another flavorful and rich turkey stew with strong indigenous roots from the Coban area of Guatemala.
The stew has a mildly spicy red broth (mine was more brownish than red) made with cinnamon, cloves, cilantro, achiote, tomatoes, tomatillos, and chile Cobanero. The main protein is always turkey. Often it’s a turkey leg, but when I had it, the turkey had been chopped up but still on the bone.
There are no vegetables in Kak’ik.
The dish often comes with rice and/or tortillas. You can dip the rice into the stew or tear off chunks of the tortilla and use it to grab pieces of turkey.
Where you can try Kak’ik in Antigua: La Fonda de la Calle Real
Hilachas is a shredded beef stew with a tomatoey base.
Unlike the indigenous dish Kak’ik, this beef stew originated in Spain. Hilachas means “threads” in English and is very similar to the Cuban dish, ropa vieja.
The main meat is flank or skirt steak. It always comes with potatoes and sometimes carrots or chayote.
Where can you try Hilaches: La Cuevita de Los Urquizu.
5. Caldo de Pollo or Caldo de Res
Another common Guatemalan dish that is often eaten at home is Caldo de Pollo (chicken) and Caldo de Res (beef).
Along with the chicken or beef, you’ll also find big chunks of vegetables like potatoes, squash, a small cob of corn, chayote, and carrots. The soup is a thin broth. You usually eat it with rice.
It’s super healthy but also kind of bland as there are no spices beyond salt.
My host mother cooked this soup a couple of times during my stay in Antigua studying Spanish.
Where can you try Caldo de Res or Caldo de Pollo: staying with a host family; it’s not often served at restaurants
6. Chile Rellenos
Very similar to the Mexican dish of the same name, Chile Rellenos is another dish you can easily find in restaurants as well as in a home-cooked meal.
In Guatemalan it’s a bit different—they use sweet red peppers stuffed with rice, vegetables, and sometimes meat. In Mexico, it’s a poblano pepper stuffed with cheese.
My host mother cooked this once, but the pepper was quite small compared to what you get in a restaurant.
Where can you try Chiles Rellenos: Rincon Antigueno (also known as Rincon Tipico)
7. Guatemalan Enchilada
There are 2 types of enchiladas that I had in Guatemala. I call them the Mexican kind and the Guatemalan kind.
The Mexican kind is rolled up tortillas stuffed with cheese or meat and covered in a rich sauce of red or green salsa as well as cheese. Very delicious. Pretty much what you would find in Mexico.
The Guatemalan dish, however, is made of deep-fried corn tortillas topped with beets (yes beets!), cheese, egg, lettuce, onions, and all kinds of veggies. The best one I had was at La Casa del Mundo in Lake Atitlan, but you can find them sold as street food.
Is this even an enchilada?
Guatemalans call them enchiladas, and they are as good as the Mexican kind.
How do you know which one you’ll get in a restaurant?
For the Mexican variety, the dish is usually listed as either verde (green sauce) or rojo (red sauce).
Where can you try Guatemalan enchiladas at Lake Atitlan: La Casa Del Mundo
Guatemalan tamales are just as good as Mexican ones. They’ve pretty much got the same ingredients: corn stuffed with meat and/or veggies. They often come with a red salsa that you can pour over or use as a dipping sauce for your tamales.
Where can you try tamales: street stalls or La Cuevita de los Urquizu
They’re just like tamales but are smaller and wrapped in dried corn husks.
Inside you’ll find chicken or pork and a red sauce called recado. It’s very delicious.
But to be honest, I am not a tamale aficionado so I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the two by taste.
Where to eat chuchitos: street stalls
10. Guatemalan roasted potatoes
Although roasted potatoes are a side dish, I decided to put add them to this list of Guatemalan dishes because they are so damn good!
I’m not sure what Guatemalans do to them to make them so good. They’re just medium-sized roasted potatoes. Maybe they inject them with some magical ingredients because every time I ate them, I thought I was in food heaven. They’re just so delicious.
If you’re in Guatemala during All Saint’s Day, make sure to try the salad of fiambre.
Basically, to make the salad you just throw everything into it except the kitchen sink. Vegetables, sausages, chicken, cold cuts, eggs, pickled relishes, and cheese. Vegetables include lettuce, baby corn, beets, onions, cauliflower, broccoli, beans, peas, pacaya, and olives. There’s no one single recipe for making fiambre.
It’s made the day before and eaten on All Saint’s Day. Traditionally, people would bring foods to the cemetery to honor the dead and also to share amongst themselves. Today, families in cities still visit their loved ones who passed away, but they have a private meal including fiambre in their homes.
Where to eat Fiambre: not usually eaten at restaurants
12. Garifuna Coconut and Seafood Soup
If you happen to be on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala in the cities of Livingston or Rio Dulce, you have got to try the Garifuna Coconut and Seafood Soup. It’s so, so, so delicious!
The Garifuna are a mixture of African and indigenous peoples who came over from the Caribbean islands and settled on the Atlantic coast of Central American countries (from Belize to Costa Rica).
The soup contains a tomato and coconut broth filled with chunks of seafood and fish. It comes with coconut rice on the side that you can put into the soup. My soup also came with a whole fried fish.
So, so, so, so good! The only reason I’d go back to Livingston is to eat this dish.
Where to eat Garifuna coconut and seafood soup: Restaurante El Viajero
More posts on traveling in Guatemala:
Guatemalan Breakfast Dishes
Breakfast is a big thing in Guatemala. The most common foods for breakfast are eggs and tortillas. Breakfast is usually eaten from 7:00 – 9:00 am.
13. Desayuno Chapin
Desayuno Chapin is THE traditional Guatemalan breakfast. You’ll find it on just about every breakfast menu, and it’s often the cheapest item on the menu.
It comes with fried or scrambled eggs, tortilla or bread (no butter or jam), black beans, cheese, and fried plantains. People usually drink coffee with their breakfast. Sometimes the coffee is included in the price, while other times it costs extra.
If you want butter or jam for your bread, it will cost extra.
14. Huevos Ranchero
If you’ve ever ordered huevos rancheros in Mexico or Central America, you’ll know that the dish is different every time. Each restaurant has its own way of making this dish. To be honest, I hate that because I never know what to expect.
Guatemala’s huevos rancheros are about the same as in Mexico. Sometimes the fried egg will be topped with tomato salsa and on just a plain tortilla, while other times you’ll get the black bean paste spread over the tortilla.
Desserts are not a big thing in Guatemala like they are in the U.S. or Europe. In fact, I don’t remember my host mother ever making a dessert.
The following are the two dessert-type foods that I have eaten in Guatemala.
15. Mole de Plátano
I had this amazing dish when I took a cooking class with Cuscun.
Mole de Platano consists of fried plantains covered in a mole sauce. This is a very complex sauce made of chocolate, tomatoes, dried chiles, pumpkin seeds, and various other spices.
Mexicans do mole with meat, but Guatemalans use mole only in desserts.
If there is one dish on here that I could eat one more time before I die, it’s rellenitos. I only had them once—on the food tour when we went to the street food stalls in Jocotenango. But I will never forget them.
They are part street food and part dessert.
They’re mashed-up plantains stuffed with chocolate and mashed black beans. Then they’re deep fried. Finally, they’re sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.
Street Food in Guatemala
Do not be afraid to eat the street food in Guatemala. It is when Guatemalteco food really sparkles. It’s also the easiest and cheapest way to experience this country’s fabulous cuisine.
Just follow the locals. If you see lots of locals partaking in a street stall, then the food in that stall is delicious and clean.
A note of warning: many locals told me to avoid the street food in the Central Market in Antigua as it’s not so clean.
Where to go for street food in Antigua:
- Street food market in front of La Merced Church after 4:00 pm on weekdays and all day on weekends
- Join a street food tour with Cuscun Tours
17. Guatemalan Tostadas
Tostadas are one of the most common street foods in Guatemala and also one of the most delicious. I had them all the time at the street market near La Merced Church in Antigua.
The base of a tostada is always a deep-fried tortilla. Then it’s usually slathered with either guacamole, red salsa, or black bean paste and finally topped with a variety of vegetables and herbs like onions, tomatoes, avocado, cilantro, and sometimes cheese. You can also squeeze some lime on top.
Dobladas remind me of taco dorados in Mexico. They are deep-fried tortilla pockets filled with chicken or pork. But the highlight is the toppings, which include onions, guacamole, cabbage, pickled onion, and sometimes beats.
My classmate and I used to go to the park near the San Pedro church in the evening for them.
Originally introduced to Guatemala by an Argentinian, shucos are one of the most popular street foods in Guatemala.
It’s a sandwich filled with sausage or grilled pork in a long hot-dog bun covered with a chimichurri sauce, avocado, and onion. Then it’s topped with mayonnaise, ketchup, and mustard.
The first stop on my Antigua food tour was to eat a shuco. We were at these food stalls on the main square in Jocotenango, a slightly bigger city next to Antigua (most locals live here as Antigua real estate has gotten too expensive).
My host mother also made them for us one night. They weren’t as good but still uber delicious.
Another popular and delicious Guatemalan street food is another sandwich called a Buffalo.
It contains beef, a fried egg, and lettuce. Then it’s topped with a special red sauce made of mayo, ketchup, and a secret ingredient.
The only time I had a Buffalo was on the food tour where we went to an outdoor food market in the Santa Ana district of Antigua.
21. Tortillas with chicken or pork
To be honest, I don’t think there is a fancy name for this street food dish. On the menu, it was just “tortilla con pollo.”
Basically, it was a tortilla topped with grilled chicken, cabbage, onions, carrots, guacamole, and salsa ans well as some black beans on the side.
I tried this very delicious dish at La Caba Nita Seta restaurant in Ciudad Viejo.
22. Guatemalan Tacos
Although tacos are not as popular as in Mexico, you can still find them at street food markets.
The one taco I had in Antigua was called a gringa. Gringas are made with flour tortillas instead of corn. It also came with chicken, lettuce, and tomatoes. You can add a variety of salsas to it.
23. Guatemalan Empanada
One of my favorite things to eat when I was in a hurry in Guatemala was an empanada. I usually would run into a bakery like Santa Clara Panaderia in Antigua before Spanish class or at break time and grab one or two.
Brought to the Americas from Spain, empanadas are baked pastry turnover stuffed with potatoes and/or chicken, or pork.
The ones filled with pineapple are also worth trying.
Originally from El Salvador or Honduras (both countries claim to be the origin), pupusas can be found all over Guatemala (especially in Panajachel at Lake Atitlan).
But can I tell you a secret? The ones in El Salvador are better.
Still, pupusas make for a cheap and delicious albeit greasy snack or meal for dinner or lunch even.
They’re basically a flat thick bread made of corn or rice (in El Salvador you can choose) and filled with pretty much anything you want, including cheese, mushrooms, chicken, pork, potatoes, etc.
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Guatemala has its share of unique drinks that you shouldn’t leave without trying. Here are some of the most popular ones that I’ve tried myself.
25. Fruit Drinks – Licuados
Licuados are my absolute favorite drink to order when I’m at a restaurant in Guatemala. You’ll find them on just about every menu. They’re refreshing, not overly sweet, and oh so delicious.
They’re basically a fruit drink with either milk or water. You can order them with just about any fruit that you want (as long as the restaurant has that fruit). My favorite was always pineapple.
You’ll find jamaica on just about every menu and at every street stall in Guatemala and throughout Mexico and Central America. It’s one of my favorite drinks in Latin America.
This refreshing drink contains hibiscus flowers, sugar, and water.
It can be sweet and tart depending on how much sugar is in it. Sometimes you’ll find it made with ginger, which is my favorite.
27. Atole de elote
Another must-try drink in Guatemala is atole. They’re a hot and sweet corn drink. You can get them plain, with cinnamon or even chocolate.
Get them from the street stalls at the La Merced street food market in Antigua.
To be honest, I wasn’t overly fond of ponche, a popular hot drink containing dried fruit, cinnamon, and sugar. Guatemalans usually drink it during the winter months.
I wouldn’t go out of my way to get it, but I also wouldn’t refuse it if I was offered it again.
Try it and tell me what you think.
The most popular brand of beer in Guatemala is Gallo (gallo means rooster in Spanish). It was first brewed in 1896.
It’s not the best beer in the world, but it’s cheap and ubiquitous.
Other beers include Victoria, Dorada, Brahva, and Cabro.
The alcohol that Guatemala is renowned for is its rum, especially the brand Zacapa Centenario. In fact, this brand is considered one of the best rums in the world and has won numerous awards.
Zacapa Centenario rum is quite expensive and I have to admit I never tried it, unfortunately. I thought I’d had rum on the food tour I did in Antigua, but it turned out that Quetzalteca is not rum.
The best Guatemalan alcohol that I tried was Quetzalteca. We had some on the food tour. It’s made from cane sugar.
You can get it plain or with different flavors like mango and cinnamon.
It’s supposedly very strong. However, When I was drinking the different flavored ones, they didn’t taste very strong. But it also didn’t take long for me to feel very, very happy after one small glass.
Perhaps the most famous drink in Guatemala is coffee.
Coffee is grown in the regions around Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango, and San Marcos.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to find the good stuff in the country because most of what is grown in Guatemala is shipped overseas.
In Antigua, the best coffee was at a coffee farm. You can read about it in my blog on things to do in Antigua.
33. Hot chocolate
The cacao bean originated in Central America, yet it’s no longer grown in Guatemala. However, you’ll find chocolate drinks on menus.
You’ll also find opportunities in Antigua to do a chocolate workshop where you get to learn about the history of chocolate and make your own chocolate candies. It’s a lot of fun and I highly recommend doing a workshop while in Guatemala. You can read about my experience doing a chocolate workshop with Ek Chuah.
These are some of the most traditional and popular foods in Guatemala.
Sadly, it’s not easy finding restaurants that these serve traditional dishes. Many of the restaurants in Antigua, Guatemala City, and Flores and around Lake Atitlan serve international cuisine with a western flavor.
Fortunately, you won’t have trouble finding street food in Guatemala.
The best way to try these dishes is to sign up for a food tour and/or a cooking class. Better yet, stay with a host family.
You might be interested in…
- Best Things to Do in Antigua: History, Culture, Food & Adventure
- Everything You Need to Know Before Visiting Guatemala
- Where to Stay in Antigua
- Chichicastenango Travel Guide
- Quirigua Travel Guide
- How to Cross the Border from Guatemala to Belize
- How to Cross the Border from Belize to Guatemala
- 15 Best Books About Guatemala
- 16 Best Books on the Ancient Maya
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