Category Archives: Gautemala

A Good Cup o´ José

img_3550.JPGAs Pedro, our proprietor at Posado El Arco, told us; or as Dave Browne, espresso maker/seller to the stars; or Laura Lindsey, sommelier to many of us in Santa Barbara might say – coffee is like wine. We’ve found this to be very true in Guatemala. Of course, it all starts with the beans, but then there’s the roast and the water and the brewing method, and often the time of day when it’s a complementary cup at the end of some tour that also makes a difference.

img_3543.JPGLa Azotea has the corner on the market in Antigua. It’s everywhere. Every shop and restaurant sells the colorful bags of beans or grounds, and presumably uses only La Azotea in their machines which range from heavy duty Italian espresso machines to giant percolators and “Bunn” type drips.

img_3539.JPGWe took one of the many free bus rides to the La Azotea vinca (farm) and then paid more than the most expensive drink at Starbuck’s per person for a tour of the music museum (well worth the price of a good latte), a video about regional dances of Guatemala (worth a decent cup of coffee), and another guided tour through the coffee museum and surrounding gardens (worth a couple of Krista’s lattes). We actually stayed on a beautiful coffee plantation a few years ago so the process of cultivation and processing wasn’t terribly new to us, but it was very interesting to learn about some of the economics of coffee exportation. Fun fact: Viet Nam, in the last 6 years, has become the third largest producer of coffee in the world, behind only Brazil and Columbia.

img_3922.JPGPedro’s coffee in Chichicastenengo was by far the best and he said it was just something from the grocery store. The mocha Alan ordered at The Bagel Barn (swear to Dios, that’s the name) was very good. The free stuff at the jade museum was horrific. There’s no way to predict who brews a good cuppa and it’s not particularly inexpensive, so coffee has become, for us, another daily curiosity. How will we like it today…?

Link for Antigua  Album

Pacaya Volcan

img_3627.JPGAll the guide books make the 2-hour hike sound like a stroll in the park, and besides, we’ve climbed the 4-day Inca Trail over Dead Woman’s Pass. So we donned our good hiking boots and hopped in the van with a gaggle of mostly twenty-somethings – all of whom seemed to be at least 6 feet tall – for a ride to the base of Volcan Pacaya.

Irving, our guide, made sure we all had good torches (flashlights), told us our group name was “Tigres” and urged us to stay close together. He also made a point of telling me, no one else, to let him know if I had any problemos. Ha! I walk the dogs to the top of Calle Cerro everyday. Granted, it’s not a long walk and we move at old dog pace, but it’s steep, and, afterall the guidebooks all said this was an easy hike…

Horse’s Ass

The trail was immediately steep and rocky. We lost sight of the 6’4” Austrians within minutes. Suddenly it seemed as if I had done that Inca Trail 30 years ago. (It was only 3 years ago.) But I knew if I could just keep a slow, steady pace, breathe deeply and rest when necessary, I would be fine… It wasn’t fine. It was fricken’ HARD, by any standard. To add to both my relief and humiliation, young men on horseback rode along at the back of the group and called out – taunted, really — “taxi, taxi, lady you want nice taxi caballo?” I’m sure these guys take bets every day as to how many overly confident hikers will succumb to their equine offers. So now my goal was to just stay ahead of the pack of horses snorting hot air at my ass. Eventually, the trail became too steep and narrow for the horses and it was clear that lack of oxygen had prevented me from making the less painful decision to ride the remainder of the way.

Jewish Mothers are Everywhere

Midway to the top, we happened upon a group of middle-aged Israeli women, resting at the side of the trail. I made some comment about how this was a more appropriately paced group for me and we all had one of those moments of instant bonding and understanding. Then one of the women said, “What, you don’t have a (hiking) stick?” I replied that I was fine as long as I went slowly. “No,” she said, “you should have a stick. Get yourself a stick already.” At this point, the little boys selling flashlights and bamboo hiking sticks and horse taxis are long gone, but now I’ve got Jewish mothers on my ass. Oy.

img_3622.JPGVery Hot and Very, Very Cool

img_3600.JPGFinally reaching the summit, we looked across the field of pumice to see great falls of magma streaming down the mountainside. Then we carefully made our way along the black waves of cooled lava to the slow flowing rivers of molten lava. How close were we? As close as we could stand without being incinerated. (Click on the picture at right to see more photos.)

We were on a LIVE VOLCANO for godssake!!! It doesn’t get much cooler (or hotter) than that.

img_3626.JPGNext up: Coffee

Album Link

Comidas y Bebidas

This is the blog entry you’ve been waiting to read, the one where we usually drone on about fantastic food for pennies a meal, the one that makes you jealous.

img_3491.JPGEarly on, we explored the large outdoor market brimming with mounds of fresh fruits and vegetables. It looked like all the makings of many great meals ahead. Nothing looked unfamiliar, but I was still tempted to sign up for a class (which included a tour through the market) at a well regarded cooking school. Now I just needed to taste some great Guatemalan dishes in order to decide which class to take.

We began our culinary exploration in a nice restaurant near the center of town, by ordering a plate of nachos especial, some carne asada, and, since it was Monday, a chile relleno. (I miss you, Ken and Ed. More than you, I miss Isador.) The platter of nachos was huge, the chips were fresh, there was lots of chicken and a mild, but tasty side of pico de gallo. And since this was “el especial,” it came with melted queso. Alan insists on calling it “queso Amarillo” because that’s what it was called on the menu, but it was a runny Cheez Whiz. And it was pretty much downhill from there.

We ate at one of the most highly recommended (by locals and guidebooks alike) places in town and ordered the house specialties, two of Guatemala’s favorite dishes. Dull. We tried another well regarded place and again ordered the chef’s recommendations. Boring. We tried smaller places off the tourist path. Bland. No spice. No heat. No flavor.

It was time to try something other than Guatemalan food. Guatemala still thinks Southern Mexico is theirs so it didn’t feel like “cheating” to go Mexican. We broke down and dragged ourselves into the hopelessly hip Frida’s in the heart of the tourist area. Thank Dios. They had some of the best mole we’ve tasted ever, anywhere.

Then we figured Italian might be okay too since it seems to be very popular, so we tried a little pizza and pasta place that looked promising. The only saving grace was the Gallo beer, which was very good – much like Corona. In hindsight, perhaps if we had ordered muchos mas cervezas, the pasta might have been more palatable. We even got desperate enough to try Chinese, reasoning that even bad Chinese food would at least have some flavor. Total disaster.

Our day trip to Santiago Sacatepequez (more on that in a later post) was slightly more successful. We inhaled a platter of grilled chicken and green onions – still not particularly interesting but at least it was fresh and cheap. We also had great, fresh-from-the-oil churros there.

We tried. We really tried. And we’ll try again, but sadly, so far, Guatemalan food just isn’t wowing us. And today, I hate to admit it, but we broke down completely and ate lunch at Subway and dinner at El Pollo Campero. We are a tad embarrassed to admit it, but both meals were better that anything else we’ve had so far – except that mole at Frida’s.

Needless to say, I’m not signing up for cooking classes.

img_3944.JPGNext up: The Trip Heats Up

Viejo y Nuevo

Harriet continues to commandeer Alan Irwin’s Blog…

As we strolled several blocks south of Antigua central on our way to the Cultural Center, the chi-chi boutiques became scarcer and gave way to more residential areas, fewer tourists and an occasional Colonial ruin.

The Cultural Center was created by an agreement between one of the universities and the 5-star Casa Santo Domingo Hotel. The hotel — about which Sue Benasso and I would say, “Our parents would stay here” – and several museums are installed in what was once the church and convent of Santo Domingo and the St. Thomas Aquinas College. Soft, sacred music lofts through the “lobby,” tropical, parrot- populated gardens and the broad hallways which are flanked by ancient stone walls complemented by contemporary reinforcements and halogen lighting. It is an exquisite blend of old and new. . . and there is no doubt this is a cinco estrellas place.

img_3524.JPGAmong the museos were two with the greatest appeal for us. The “Hall of the Artist” houses temporary exhibits and currently has a show by contemporary artists paying homage to Frida Kahlo. This is the 100th anniversary of her birth so we’re certain the there will be many more Frida tributes and retrospectives throughout the art world.

img_3528.JPGThe Museum of Pre-Columbian Art and Modern Glass is just that. But the display is what is quite brilliant with Pre-Hispanic objects made of ceramics and stone, sharing space with contemporary art glass pieces of similar themes and forms. And again, the space is a beautiful marriage of ancient stone walls, newly constructed walls in rich hues, iron supports and gigantic wooden beams overhead, and halogens to bring it all together. Way cool. This rates as one of my favorite museums of all time. (Note from Alan: I overhead the curator asking Harriet for an opinion about something and thought “that’s like asking a tsunami for some water.”) Okay, yes, well I did get a little thrill when the curator wanted to know which style of display placard I preferred . Me? Have an opinion? Graphics? You betcha.

Following through on the Frida Kahlo theme, we returned to the main tourist drag for lunch at the pricey, trendy Frida’s restaurant, where we were overjoyed to at last have our first good meal in Guatemala.

Next up: Food and Coffee

Hola Antigua

The approach into Guatemala City International Airport is one of the most dramatic (a close third after Hong Kong, where you seem to fly between the high rises, and LAX where the city seems to sprawl forever) and most beautiful. The city is ringed by magnificent volcanos with just a few halos of mist for a little extra impact. A driver was waiting to take us to our little hotel in the heart of Antigua, 45 minutes away.

Antigua is extremely touristy and admittedly quaint. We decided it isn’t “charming” for that would imply some greater emotional draw, which for us, is lacking. There are more than 60 language schools here so a large majority of the population is about 23 years old, English-speaking (mostly from the U.S. but with plenty of Aussies, Brits and a few Europeans to round out the mix) and doing their homework in Starbuck’s –like cafes. There are also LOTS of older (older than us, that is) people who seem to like hanging out in the very pricey restaurants and shopping in the very chi-chi boutiques that line the main streets and ring the town plaza. (Note to T: C’s shop looks like it belongs on Coast Village Road to clothe and accessorize the beautiful, après-Botox session crowd. She’s going to make a bundle.)

img_3566.JPGWe stumbled upon a lovely little, mucho upscale shop one afternoon. The savvy, American ex-pat owner has all sorts of expensive items artfully displayed – including Trader Joe’s vinegar, Trader Joe’s pad Thai (all three flavors) and Trader Joe’s red pepper sauce – and not at TJ prices. This is a good example of where this city is headed.

img_3499.JPGWeather? They don’t call Guatemala the Land of Eternal Spring for nothing. The skies have looked threatening a couple mornings, but every day we have enjoyed perfect weather in the high 70s.

Antigua is surrounded by lush green hillsides and postcard perfect volcanos. The narrow streets are cobblestone which means little parking and therefore, not too many cars. The single-story cement buildings have colorful facades, formidable wooden doors and some nice iron work over every one of the windows of those chi-chi boutiques, pricey restaurants, as well as everything else with an opening.

Speaking of safety, this feels like a relatively safe place. There are tourist police in the main tourist areas but relatively few state police (the scary guys). There are, however, armed guards in front of every bank and ATM, the expensive jewelry stores, the McDonald’s, the Subway sandwich shop, and Pollo Campero, the Guatemalan answer to KFC (that evidently has franchises worldwide).

That being said, Antigua is clean; it’s easy to navigate; there are some good sights; it has a few gorgeous examples of colonial architecture; and it makes a good base from which to venture out into much more interesting places that we know will feel more like the “real” Guatemala we came to explore and less like a Latin-flavored Solvang.img_3553.JPG