Guatemala food staples include the usual Latin American fare: tortillas, beans, rice, meat, and whatever vegetables and fruit are grown in that particular season – like cabbage, squashes, and more.
Like many Latin American countries, the foods you encounter in Guatemala are a cocktail of indigenous Maya cuisine and Spanish influences. That said, each Central American country (+ Mexico) has its own spin on certain dishes, such as tamales, soups and stews, and enchilades.
While perhaps not as famous as neighboring Mexico, Guatemala food dishes are mouthwatering, affordable, and plenty various, if you know what to look for.
Moreover, different regions of Guatemala have their own traditional dishes: from ceviche on the coast to various versions of tamales to the boxbol in the Ixil region.
While you will certainly recognize staples like beans, guacamole, and tortillas, Guatemala prepares and cooks these staples differently than perhaps you are used to.
If you are planning to visit Guatemala soon, this handy guide to the best Guatemala food will make sure you don’t miss out on any of the best food dishes in Guatemala.
Quick Word on Guatemalan Beans and Tortillas
This guide will break down Guatemala food dishes by meal, but before we get to the best Guatemala dishes I think it is worth pointing out beans and corn are the founding staples of pretty much all Guatemala foods.
Beans are served with almost every traditional meal, but they’re definitely different than your typical Tex-Mex or refried pinto beans. Guatemalans traditionally eat black beans, and more often than not they are pureed with garlic and onions.
Corn tortillas are another staple, but in Guatemala, they tend to be a bit smaller and thicker than say, Mexico’s thinner yellow corn tortillas. Moreover, there are three types of corns: white, yellow, and blue!
While Guatemalans eat sweet corn off the cobb, called elote, most corn is left on the plant much longer to create a dry kernel to make masa (dough).
To make the dough, the kernels are boiled in cal which is lime (calcium). This is the traditional Mayan (and Aztec) way of making tortillas that not only tastes better, but actually allows nutrients in the corn, such as niacin, B vitamins, and amino acids, to be more easily absorbable. The cal also adds calcium into the corn. Pretty cool, eh?
The corn is cooked in a giant metal wok over an open fire. Then the softened kernels are grounded with a hand-stone grinder or machine. This masa is then used to make tortillas, tamales, or even boxbol in Ixil!
Unfortunately, this traditional way of making tortillas may become lost to store-bought tortillas instead. Outside of Guatemala City, however, traditional tortillas are by and far most common, so be sure to keep the tradition alive (and don’t order store-bought flour tortilla quesadillas).
Waking Up: Guatemalan Breakfast
Whilst, in theory, you can eat anything for breakfast (cold takeaway pizza, for example), the best way to start the day is with a traditional Guatemalan breakfast. Trust me, Guatemala breakfasts are simple but very tasty.
Even hostel continental breakfasts make good breakfast in Guatemala (no cereal and burnt toast), so you’re backpacking Guatemala trip should start off right every morning! Generally, breakfasts in Guatemala include eggs, tortillas, beans, and boiled or fried plantains.
You can also expect the tropical fruits in season, like bananas, papaya, mango, and avocado.
Most plates are served with a cup of Guatemalan coffee and/or a licuado, which is usually just one of the fruits mentioned blended into a juice.
Below are some of the best Guatemalan breakfasts to fuel your day.
This is the granddaddy of breakfasts in Guatemala. Chapin is the slang word for ‘Guatemalan,’ so this is the equivalent of a full English or American breakfast, but honestly way better.
A Desayuno (breakfast) Chapin includes a variety of hot dishes, like two eggs revueltos (scrambled) or estrellados (fried), boiled or grilled plátanos, black beans, and seasonal fruit.
Often you also get queso fresco, which is an unaged, creamy cheese. It is usually eaten with the beans. As with pretty much every Guatemalan meal, you also get made from scratch tortillas.
This dish is similar to the one above; however, it is served with homemade salsa. Generally, Guatemalan salsas (and guacamole) are not spicy, unlike neighboring Mexico, where huevos rancheros are quite popular.
Huevos Duros en Tomate
This Guatemala breakfast item is a great choice if you would like a smaller dish, especially if you’re an egg lover. You might have already guessed from the name, but huevos duros are boiled eggs. The tomate part means they are soaked in a mild tomato sauce.
Pan dulce translates to sweet bread, and it’s common throughout the streets and bakeries. The city of Xela is most famous for their bread though, where you’ll find everything from ciabatta, sweet bread, chocolate filled bread, and bread stuffed with frijoles or platanos.
Some types of pan dulce in Guatemala include:
- Besitos — round domes with a drop of jam filling pinched at the top; Spanish for ‘little kiss.’
- Champurradas — Buttery sesame biscuits. Perfect for dunking in Guatemalan coffee
- Chirimuyas — salty-ish dough but sprinkled with sugar. The pattern on top is similar to the skin of fruit also called a chirimuya.
- Lenguas — long baguette
- Molletes — buns topped with swirls of sweet, crunchy-ish dough. Super sweet
These are just FOUR of the incredible amount of pan dulce you can find all around Guatemala. We’re talking dozens and dozens of different kinds, and each one will cost under a dollar.
Guatemala Dishes and Meals
Generally, many typical Guatemala food dishes can be eaten for lunch or dinner, but there are some dishes more appropriate for lunch called almuerzos.
Below are a few of my favorite Guatemala dishes to enjoy…!
Gallina en kaq’ik
Often cited as a “national dish” of Guatemala, gallina en kaq’ik is one of those dishes that will vary from region to region, and even family to family. Sometimes it is spelled kac ik, and other times kak’ik.
Originally native to Verapaz – where you find Coban and the famous Semuc Champey – this Guatemalan dish is a spicy stew centered around a turkey drumstick with cilantro (coriander), achiote, tomatoes, and chile peppers. This is a must-try Guatemalan dish…!
Some variations come with tamales on the side. This dish was officially declared Cultural Heritage by the Guatemalan Ministry of Culture and Sports in 2007.
Also one of the most famous dishes in Guatemala, this spicy stew is usually made with chicken but can be beef, pork, or vegetarian. It is said to be the oldest Guatemalan dish, a perfect mix of Spanish and Mayan traditions.
The stew comes from the sauce of tomatoes, pepitoria (toasted pumpkin seeds) and guisquil (a type of squash that is commonly used in Guatemala). The stew usually consists of squash, yams, cabbage, carrot, potato, and corn with a mix of spices too.
You can get this as street food or you can order it at high-end places; pepián is everywhere! Alongside the soup, you are usually served rice, avocado, and tortillas.
Pacayas Envueltas en Huevo
At the heart of this amazing Guatemalan dish are pacayas, which you will probably see these at the local markets.
Don’t mistake them for ears of corn! They’re basically the pretty big buds of Pacaya palm flowers that can be grilled, used in salads, and also in pacayas: wrapped in crispily fried egg mixture.
It is typical to get these with rice as well as salsa and avocado on the side.
Technically, Pupusas are from El Salvador but have been a part of Guatemalan food for a very long time, and you’ll find them all over Guatemala.
Papusas are thick corn tortillas stuff with a variety of sauces and fillings. Fillings can be beans, cheese, pork, and veggies like squash, etc. After filling, the pupusa is fried until crispy on the outside and still soft on the inside. On top, you serve salsa and fresh cabbage.
Pollo con crema
This means ‘chicken with cream.’ It’s chicken served in a tangy, cream sauce. Chicken is probably the most common meat in Guatemala too if you haven’t already noticed. You’ll find it grilled, fried, in soups, etc.
You may get onions in the sauce, and/or sweet peppers, and possibly even loroco – edible flower buds.
This will usually be served with the usual suspects: beans, rice, tortillas. And if you’ve woken up late but feel like something hearty (maybe because of what you drank last night) then pollo con crema is a good place to start.
This dish is served on pretty any Latin American coast. Ceviche is raw fish, sometimes using shrimp or lobster instead, that is technically less raw because it is marinated in lime for at least 12 hours. The citric acid does what heat does: denaturation.
Ceviche usually encludes cilantro (coriander), tomatoes, and a whole lot of mariscos (‘seafood’ in Spanish).
Speaking of seafood, if you find yourself in a Garifuna area… Definitely try a tapado. This is a fish stew steeped in coconut broth, showing its true Caribbean roots. If you’re lucky, this will come with a side of fried mashed plantains, too.
This is one to add to your quintessential Guatemala dishes list. Hilacha actually means ‘rags’, which – let’s be honest – isn’t very appetizing, but this is because of the shredded beef simmered in a tomato sauce complete with tomatillo and (sometimes) carrots.
As usual, you’ll get this with rice and tortillas, staples of Guatemala food.
This is a nutritious, traditional dish from the Ixil region. It is prepared with ground corn (masa), so similar to a tamale, but then wrapped in squash leaves and served with a squash seed sauce and tomato salsa. The dish includes all the juices that it was cooked in.
Vegetarian Dishes in Guatemala
While most the traditional Guatemala dishes incorporate some type of meat, many can be served vegetarian too. If I didn’t need to point out the obvious, corn is also gluten-free. As always, ask if broth is made with meat.
In many Guatemalan backpacker towns, you can find a range of different multi-ethnic foods. Honestly, Guatemlaa isn’t really known for its international food, though you’ll find good falafel in San Pedro and some decent Mexican fare in Antigua!
Howver, when I am traveling in Guatemala, I usually stick to the typical fare and mix that in with various vegetarian and healthy restaurants.
You can find some great local veggies and dishes throughout Lake Atitlan, Antigua, and even Xela has a few options. A few of my favorite healthy restaurants include the Bambu House on Lake Atitlan, Caoba Farms in Antigua, and most spots in San Marcos.
Guatemalan Snacks: What to eat in Guatemala Between Meals
In Guatemala, snacks are often called antojitos. There is a wide range of snacks, and too many to list, so I’m going to cover some of the best Guatemala snacks below..
These are pretty well known all over Latin America, technically originating back to the region of Galicia in northwest Spain. They were first mentioned in a 1520 cookbook written in Catalan by Robert de Nola.
If you don’t know what they are, well, empanadas are little parcels of buttery pastry filled with… almost anything. And luckily for vegetarians, many are filled with potato and spinach. They get topped with guacamole, tomato, onion, and coriander. Complete yum out.
Dobladas and Tostadas
Dobladas are the SPECIFIC Guatemalan version of empanadas: pastries filled with mainly meat or potatoes. They come with toppings like pickled cabbage (curtido), cheese and salsa. Tostadas are a street food favorite that consists of a flat taco shell topped with a variety of ingredients, like chicken, cabbage, veggies, and cheese.
Unlike those reigning from Mexico, Guatemalan Enchiladas are more like tostadas because they are open-faced. They aren’t served as a wet burrito but rather stacked to the brim with yummy toppings, most notably, beets. You can get enchiladas with meat or vegetarian.
As if there hadn’t been enough frying already, let’s add another Guatemala street food item to the list. Chiles rellenos are basically stuffed bell peppers. The pork is cooked up with green beans, onions, potatoes, and carrots, and then stuffed into a pepper. And then that pepper is covered with egg batter and fried.
There are so many awesome tropical fruits to try in Guatemala, like mango, Pacaya, and banana, as well as lesser-known fruits like red bananas, tree tomatos, and the sapote pictured below.
If you are traveling in Guatemala – especially on a budget – getting fresh fruit is a great way to enjoy the local fare.
Spiced mango and sliced fruits
You’ll find sliced green mango or other fruits, seasoned with chili and lime, and probably doused with sugar, at almost any street vendor or vendor on a chicken bus.
Dish Specialities in Guatemala
The dish specialties in Guatemala are not consumed every day and are often specifically served on special holidays. Of course, as a gringo, if you wanted to try one of these anytime, you probably could…
Another salad, fiambre is the famous main dish for El Dia de Los Santos (Day of the Saints in Guatemala). Fiambre is pretty much just a massive salad of a ton of different ingredients – sometimes up to fifty different items!!
These range from Brussels sprouts and cold cuts of meat to beets, sausages, and cheese. Another popular Day of the Saints dish is empanadas de ayote (squash-filled empanadas).
As the name suggests, this Guatemalan food originates from the city of Antigua. Piloyada Antigueña is cooked with piloyes beans and then vinegar, onion, olive oil, chicken, chorizo, and bell peppers are added.
This Guatemala dish is usually served on Sundays.
There are a TON of different tamales in Guatemala differing from the types fillings and dough used. While many Latin American countries serve tamales, the Guatemalan version has a special touch.
Fans of Mexican food might be used to corn tamales wrapped in corn husks, but in Guatemala, they are usually wrapped in a banana or plantain leaf.
Paches (a type of tamale made of potatoes) are popular on Thursdays, and for Christmas.
Best Guatemalan Desserts
When it comes to the best Guatemala food, there are a ton of different Guatemalan desserts to try too! Below I have listed some of the most popular. Forewarning you: Latin American deserts are nothing short of heart attacks, or at least a sugar high, waiting to happen!
Buñuelos are light and chewy fried dough balls often sold by street vendors. They’re served up in a bowl and slathered with syrup that’s flavored with anise.
Tres Leches Cake (Pastel de Tres Leches)
This is a cold cake soaked in three kinds of milk, including evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and cream, often served as part of a multi-course restaurant meal.
Golden-Colored caramel custard served with liquid caramel on top. Also, a common dessert found in a typical Guatemalan restaurant.
These are like doughnuts, but an egg-shaped ball of cinnamon-flavored plantain dough, filled with chocolate and black bean concoction. Oh and then there’s the sugar sprinkled on top. How’s that for a Guatemalan dessert?
Most people don’t realize that cacao actually originates from Guatemala! While the cacao bean probably came from down south, it was the Mayans who first ate it, or rather drank it.
They would make a cacao drink for special rituals. It then made its way up to the Aztecs in Mexico, who would spice it up. When the Spaniards conquested the region, they brought it back to Spain and added sugar. From there, Nestle from Switzerland turned it into the milk chocolate dessert we know it by.
Try to stop by an artisanal chocolate shop to learn more about the processing, why some chocolate makers separate cacao butter and other don’t, what 80% dark chocolate really means, and what white chocolate is actually made of! (Hint, it’s not cacao!)
You can find hand-made cacao, chocolate, and drinks all over Guatemala, though most of the cacao grows in Cobán and Verapaz. I definitely recommend trying a hot cacao drink as well as the real thing. If you’re in San Juan, Lake Atitlan, make sure to get an amazing dark-chocolate covered banana!
Best Guatemalan Drinks
I mentioned this in the Guatemalan breakfast section, but licuados are served with any meal of the day. This is basically the fruit in season mixed with water. They often add a ton of sugar on the streets, so be wary. You can get anything from lemonade, papaya, mango, and avocado!
Smoothies are made with milk instead.
Atol de elote
It’s barely a drink because it’s so thick, but you CAN drink it. An atol, in general, is a thick drink usually made from corn. It’s pretty popular in Guatemala; the version here is a corn and milk concoction. You can eat it with a spoon, like soup.
Gallo is THE Guatemalan beer that has pretty much monopolized the country. You’ll find it everywhere. Brava is the number 2 beer. For fans of darker beer, there’s Moza.
A no-brainer: if you don’t try the coffee in Guatemala, you’re missing out. You’ll probably get given a very decent cup of STRONG coffee with your breakfast. But if you want to dive more into the world-renowned depths of Guatemalan coffee, take a tour of a small farm and support the locals!
Now we bet you’re hungry…
Hopefully, this article has shined a light on the best Guatemala foods and dishes! Thanks to influences from indigenous cultures, neighboring countries ( Mexico and El Salvador), Spanish methods of cooking and stews, and even Caribbean Garifuna additions, Guatemala cuisine is rich in variety and delicious too!
Let me know if we missed anything in the comments below!