Vegan Backpacker’s Guide to Guatemala

backpacker guide guate

Whether you’re just passing through or plan to stay awhile, you want your $ to last as long as possible. Maybe you plan to volunteer or work as an unpaid intern, or you’re conducting research on cultural attitudes regarding a particular subject. Maybe you’re alone, or perhaps someone else tagged along.

Let’s say you found an apartment living among the locals and a few counter-culture expats such as a family from France. Perhaps one day you realize that expat American journalist who lives next to you is the author of the book the person who lives with you is reading.

It’s a small world, after all. Coincidences happen. Maybe you or backpackers like you have or one day will run into people you met while volunteering on a farm in South America years back, and you decide to travel together. Maybe they’re also vegan. Maybe a friend of yours comes to visit and he or she isn’t vegan but is adventurous enough to explore the vegan culinary bounty that Guatemala can provide with a bit of finesse and persuasion.

*based on a true story

Whatever your predicament: if you’re on a budget or want to travel until the $ runs out, you can’t afford to eat at the restaurants that cater to gringos. Let me pose a hypothetical situation, based on my experience:

You walk past the tourists and ex-pats from affluent western nations such as your own, listening to them gush about how their dinner cost only $5, and drinks only cost $3. You skeptically peruse the comodores and lunch stalls at locals market, silently calculating USD to quetzals; wondering if a plate of cooked vegetables with a side of beans and slice of avocado for 10 Q (approximately 1 USD 30 cents) is really worth it, considering you don’t really want the rice or the Tang, and won’t eat more than one of the tortillas. With a bit of negotiating and mastery of the language and its local dialect, you can sometimes negotiate the price down a few Q—or convince the cook to substitute extra vegetables for meat.

FYI: Unless your stomach has already been strengthened by a case of food poisoning, or if you’ve never had a problem and feel invincible enough to risk it—I don’t recommend the raw lettuce or tomato salad that sometimes comes with a meal from a lunch stall.

That said, the risk is worth it (within reason). The closest thing to a raw salad from street vendors, comedores, and market stall lunch vendors that doesn’t run the risk of food poisoning, or that doesn’t taste of clorox (a common method of sanitizing lettuce when served to gringos), is:

Ensalada de remolacha
pickled beet slaw
Street vendors often serve this as a topping for tostadas or fried potato dumplings. The beets and onions (and sometimes carrots) used in ensalada de remolacha are cooked to a temperature high enough to significantly lower the risk of food poisoning. To score a helping of ensalada de remolacha, minus the tostada or fried potato dumpling, or other toppings i.e. crumbled cheese—a sprinkling of which seems to manifest on everything from a street vendor before you can articulate the words no queso…befriend the vendedora. How? Master the language of street food lingo. If you’ve been backpacking for long, you’ve most likely picked up some basic phrases regarding food. If not, go to an internet cafe and print out the words/phrases you need. You could buy a phrasebook (if you aren’t carting one around in your backpack already), but why add the extra weight? Yeah, the pictures and illustrations of tourists talking to locals might look cool and give the allure of making learning ‘more fun’—but take it from someone who learned the hard way: you will end up doing everything from tearing out pages you don’t need to burning the remains in a ceremonial fire. Just kidding; I didn’t burn any books. I left them at a hostel for someone else to use (and later curse the burden of). Additional benefits to internet-cafe research as opposed to carting around a phrasebook or god forbid Lonely Planet’s Central America on a Shoestring aka the Bible. I can’t deny its credibility as the authoritative text for backpackers traveling in Central America, but it’s redundant, the text is difficult to read without a magnifying glass, and its pages are equally fragile. If you must buy this book, use it for research before leaving your home country. DO NOT bring it with you. Instead, download country guides pertaining only to the regions you plan to travel through to your lightweight laptop or wifi-enabled unlocked smartphone.

In a subsequent article I will provide info based on my experience with tech in Guatemala i.e. jailbreaking your phone, pre-paid cell service aka “go-phone” SIM cards, getting a local number, which service providers to use…as well as how to get around and stay safe without a cell phone…how to turn tour smartphone into an iPad or tablet, and other tech tips.

…But for now, let’s talk about food.

Scenario A

You’re about to embark upon a 4-hour ride on a chicken bus with your travel partner i.e. friend, colleague, life-partner, whatever. I have experience with all of the above.*

*Ask me questions; I’d be happy to answer them. But this is about you, the potential or current backpacker. So,

You’re adamant about keeping costs as low as possible, and want to gain perspective regarding the local culture. You brought along a granola bar or two you picked up in Mexico or brought from the states for emergencies, but want to wait to open it until a truly dire situation presents itself. The bus stops in a small town right before the border, and you spot a tienda with an open door. Despite how early it is even for a panaderia to welcome customers, you try your luck. The owner/clerk begrudgingly sells you an avocado, a tomato, an onion, and a lime. As you walk back to the bus (since your backpack is tied to the top of it, it’s pertinent you return before it leaves) you notice an open panaderia. You yell at your travel partner to hustle back to the bus and to email you from an internet cafe if you should miss the bus; you will catch the next bus and the two of you will meet in the next town.

You buy a loaf of bread even through you don’t normally eat bread, and catch up to the bus just before it leaves. As the bus takes off you lurch forward and nearly face-plant into a family of four with a bag full of live chickens, but your travel partner grabs you by the waist and pulls you into the seat. You are safe. Or maybe you’re alone, and you hold onto the railing above you head until the next stop, when a seat opens up and you elbow your way onto an open seat next to a single mother about your age with a crying toddler on her lap. Either way—with 8 hours to go, you have semi-healthy provisions—thereby avoiding the need to purchase a bag of potato chips featuring a dancing tiger from the next 10-year-old traveling salesman who boards the bus.


No, you’re not hallucinating. That is bread. The times I’ve eaten bread have fallen into categories involving: a) necessity, i.e. I just hiked 10 miles and this is all we have; b) peer pressure in my weaker moments, after accusations of hyper-radicalism (don’t give in to this one; you are you and don’t let anyone sway you otherwise); c) bread cravings I’ve honestly never had bread cravings—but I’ve been hungry enough to eat it in times like this, and felt justified in doing so. Think about it: a lot of people who follow a raw vegan diet will indulge in wine, and a number of those who adhere to a paleo diet also drink alcoholic beverages (all of which contain sugar, unfortunately) yet refuse to eat bread. If you need to refuel on the immediate, and a panaderia next to the bus stop is open—it might actually be wise to eat some refined carbs, especially if you don’t know exactly what your next destination will be.

In a scenario such as this, you will need: 

A knife, or the willingness to use your hands and/or teeth.

If you have a pocket knife, or even a plastic knife, you can cut into both without hassle. You might get some tomato juice on your pants, but if you think that’s a big deal—you shouldn’t be backpacking.

Avocados, when ripe, are easy to eat without a knife. Squeeze it gently to separate the skin from the fruit; when you find the softest (ripest) part, puncture it. Squeeze out the avocado onto the bread, or spoon, or whatever you plan to eat it with. This method also works with ripe mangos.

To be continued…

Next post: cooking your own food, on the cheap

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