Sorry for the delay but I just got back from a 10-day excursion in Guatemala (and before that a weekend in San Francisco. I am soooo behind!). It was fun, cheap and super easy to be vegan. Many things intimidate me about traveling abroad, and upholding the ol’ vegan diet thing is one of them. It was really easy to adhere to my diet and I didn’t even have to eat corn and beans the whole time (though lots of times I chose to!!).
I started off by meeting my friend Rae in Antigua. I did some internet research beforehand and saw that there was a place called Samsara that had a lot of veggie options. It was so good that I came back 2 more times before leaving the country. I would recommend their Peanut Bowl. There is also a number of street vendors selling naturally occurring vegan foods, such as a tostado (basically fixings atop a giant corn chip) topped with your choice of beans, guacamole, parsley and/or pickled cabbage. At 4Q each (a little over 50 cents) they were a steal of a deal!
Per the advice of another couple friends who had recently visited the country, we decided we would climb Volcan Acatenango. We booked through a company called Gilmer Soy tours and it was such a wonderful experience. Every time I book one of these things and see that meals are included I of course assume the vegan tax and that I should bring all of my own food. Well, unnecessary! Upon arrival, Gilmer can set you up with a vegetarian lunch and breakfast for the following day. Nearly all of it is vegan, minus a box of milk he provides for your morning corn flakes. I did bring some powdered soymilk with me to the country but unfortunately didn’t pack it along before the volcano… but now YOU know if you ever go. The box lunch included savory rice, potatoes, fresh veggies and a juice box. Rae had picked up an avocado along the way, and adding it to the rice and veggies made for a really great treat!
After an exhausting climb, we finally made it to camp where our guides prepared a vegetarian dinner for all. It included tostados, beans, pasta and mashed potatoes. The mashed potatoes were prepared with milk, but there was plenty else to eat and even enough for seconds. The best part was sitting around the campfire with drinking chocolate, which is essentially a more bitter version of hot cocoa, which also happened to be dairy free! Being vegan often means no dessert at these sorts of things, so it was a real treat to partake in the chocolate. From camp, we could watch the Volcan de Fuego spew smoke and embers into the night, when you could see it’s vivid fiery red display. We had the option of getting up at 4:00am to climb to the peak and see the sunrise, or chill out. So naturally, Rae chilled and I climbed. It was so great! I really want to also add that the tour guides were so kind; I kept falling and our guide Delvin literally held my hand down some more treacherous terrain so I could stop falling for a minute (note: yes it is worth hauling your hiking boots along). The company also gives 10% of its profits to the school across from the tour agency. They recently bought desks and built recreational facilities for the kits to play soccer and basketball.
Our next stop was Pana(jchel). Pana is a bustling city bordering Lake Atitlan, which is surrounded by volcanoes and tiny resort towns. We got there right around dinner time so dropped our stuff off and went to eat. There was a great place called Deli Llama del Fuego, where I ate like a king. I got a yummy smoothing made with chocolate, bananas and coconut milk, a fresh salad topped with a flower that tasted like a peach, and a hearty tempeh sandwich that rivaled many of the ones I’ve eaten in the states.
It was so much food I was able to bag up half my sandwich and save it for our day at the nature preserve where we got to see spider monkeys eat bananas and coatis (a super-cute animal that is like a cross between a cat and a racoon) relax in trees. From here we got on the boat to San Pedro, a touristy hippie/surfer town across the lake. Once off the main strip full of hotels, it was a cute, quiet, relaxing town. We stayed a nice place called Hotel Elena that overlooked the lake and just so happened to have a natural foods store across the street that had hot “empanadas” for sale. While they were good, they were made with a wheat crust and not a corn crust, so they were actually more of a calzone. While this place had a lot of overpriced woo-woo junk, they had some really affordable vegan desserts in the refrigerator case, including a peanut butter & chocolate bar.
After San Pedro we took a long LONG trip over to Coban. There are two options to get there—return to Guatemala City via Chimaltenango, or head north towards Chichicastenango and then head east. Whoops, we took the long way, which wasn’t helped at all by construction. We did, however, get to stop at the craziest mall we have ever seen, which allowed us to get a snack at the grocery store before heading on a “fancy” bus to Coban. Coban was one of the more difficult places to uphold a very varied or interesting vegan diet, but with an abundance of affordable markets and cheap grocery stores, it wasn’t difficult to throw together a tasty meal, so long as your accommodations have amenities for making a home-cooked meal. Luckily, ours at Casa Tenango, did. Coban also had a pretty national Park (Q25 or about $3 entry) with a number of hiking trails and a little lagoon that, according to the warning sign, is home to some alligators! I didn’t get a chance to see any alligators, but did see lots of cool birds and butterflies along the way. The city is also home to a unique Mayan church.
Most folks stop in Coban as a nice layover before heading to the much more popular and touristy Lanquin, which is just a hop, skip and a 45-minute 7 km drive in the flatbed of a pickup truck away from the beautiful Semuc Champey (which translates roughly to “where the river hides under the earth”). For about $20, we took a tour of both the Kamba caves and the infinity pools on the Cohabon river. When you arrive you will be bombarded by people selling all kinds of things, but my favorite was pure drinking chocolate made from cacao pods and spiced with flavors of orange (naranja) and cardamom (kardamomo). Aside from this chocolate and a few fresh fruits (we picked up a cacao fruit) there wasn’t much vegan food to eat near the caves or river, so it’s a good idea to pack a lunch, which thankfully I did. Rumor has it that the food in Semuc Champey gives gringos the poops, so probably a good idea to avoid it, vegan or not. If my mother had seen me in the Kamba cave she likely would have been sent to an early grave; it involved a lot of climbing on wet, slippery rock, wading in water with unpredictable and varying depth, and climbing and descending through full frontal waterfalls. Oh, and you do all this will carrying a candle, which, of course may blow out at anytime because you are surrounded by water and maybe want to use both of your hands at some point. I would definitely not recommend it to someone who can’t swim, can’t understand Spanish at all, is claustrophobic, afraid of the dark or has any kind of anxiety. I jumped off the cave wall like an idiot and it was one of the scarier things I have done in my life. Truth be told, it wasn’t that cool, and I got water up my nose. The tour of the river was much more relaxing, even taking into consideration the 45-minute hike up to the scenic vista of the river and pools below. After hiking back down, you can dip in the beautiful turquoise waters, slip down the mini-naturally occurring waterslides, or get up close and personal with fish and other creatures who live in the river.
Our time after the river back at our Hostel, Vista Verde, was my favorite part of the trip. We sliced open that cacao, ate the sweet flesh (and saved the pods of course) while sitting on the deck of our casita, looking out at the lush green mountainside. After narrowly dodging and unseasonable downpour, we worked our way over to the main restaurant and reception area and had ourselves some dinner. I am happy to report that Vista Verde had a number of veggie options, including a platter with beans, seasoned rice, and steamed vegetables. After dinner I had a nice long chat with Lisa and Gio who work at the hostel who told me that they are a family run company and the only in the area that is owned by locals (the latter part I knew which is why I booked there).
This is basically where my journey came to an end—for ease of travel I left a lot of my stuff in Antigua after climbing the volcano (it’s kind of ridiculous how much crap you need to do it, and I’d recommend bringing stuff you never want to see again in your life so you can abandon it for a less-prepared traveler instead of being burdened by carrying it around or being forced to come back) before heading to the airport in the morning. I spent my last night eating a fresh, healthy meal (my first in about 2 days) and buying all the chocolate and coffee (for my partner, I hate that stuff) I could fit in my bag from the local supermarket.
All in all, I had quite the adventure and didn’t struggle too much with my foodstuffs. I hope to head back someday knowing what I know now to skip the scary stuff and go check out some other parts of this beautiful and humble country.