Guatemala: Culture and Cuisine

by Kim LaPat,
Travel Editor, Emma Spencer Living

The cuisine of Guatemala is heavily influenced by its ancient Mayan roots as well as the period of time when it was under Spanish rule. A typical Mayan diet consisted heavily of corn and black beans, and that tradition remains in modern-day Guatemala. Black beans are a staple of the country’s diet—as they are often eaten multiple times a day. The typical Guatemalan breakfast consists of eggs, tortillas, plantains, and yes, black beans; lunch is often centered around tortillas and refried beans; and for dinner, chicken or beef dishes are popular, again with elements of rice and beans! Tropical fruits like mangoes, bananas, papaya, and avocado are plentiful, and as such, are popular snacks and morning fare.

Food from Mexico, which borders Guatemala, is also quite common throughout the country. Tortillas, nachos, tacos, and guacamole are standards. Guatemala is also famous for its tamales—and there are reportedly hundreds of varieties to choose from! Unlike the kind of tamales many Americans are used to, which are wrapped in corn husks, Guatemalan tamales are typically wrapped in plantain leaves or maxan leaves. They are lovingly prepared with a variety of fillings and different types of masa, or dough. Often, the kinds of tamales prepared and served correspond to days of the week, holidays, or other special occasions, again reflecting the influence of culture on the country’s cuisine.

When you visit Guatemala, it’s easy to find authentic food prepared by local street vendors as you walk around the towns. You can also visit a variety of restaurants and eateries or even better, enjoy a private meal prepared by our in-house cooks, Carmen and Angela, when staying with us at La Casa Colibri! Wherever you decide to dine, just remember that cuisine in Guatemala is more than just food, it’s a taste of a rich, colorful, and diverse culture.

Wild Wheels: Guatemala's Chicken Buses

by Kim LaPat
Travel Editor, Emma Spencer Living

When American school buses retire, they aren’t always put out to pasture—some are auctioned off and given new lives as colorful Chicken Buses. In Guatemala, these Chicken Buses, also called “Camionetas,” are a primary source of transportation for locals and tourists. Most are independently owned and operated by a team of two—the driver and the “ayudante,” who serves as a sort of conductor that’s responsible for collecting money, loading bags and/or livestock, and directing passengers. The whole operation is fast-moving, hectic, and confusing to the casual observer who can only marvel as people and parcels are crammed in with no apparent system or schedule.

The Birth of a Chicken Bus
The first 10 years (or 150,000 miles) of a Chicken Bus’s life are spent as a virtual carbon-copy of every other yellow school bus in America. In this capacity, it dutifully and cautiously moves kids from home to school, stopping at every railroad crossing and halting traffic with its blinking lights and extended STOP sign. Safety is a top concern, naturally, as is a dependable and reliable schedule. But all that changes when it’s deemed too old or mechanically suspect to keep carting around kids. Instead, it’s sold off to the highest bidder, towed to Central America, and retrofitted with a bigger engine, a roof rack, a destination board, and a fancy paint job. It emerges as if it were a butterfly coming out of a cocoon—no longer plain, yellow, and slow, but souped-up, brightly decorated, and ready to fly (around hairpin turns). Now, it’s reborn as a chicken bus.

Are they Safe?
Relatively speaking, Chicken Buses are a safe and fun way to travel around Guatemala. But there are exceptions (avoid them in the inner city), and of course, things to know to make your trip more enjoyable and successful. Even with their colorful, cheerful, and even welcoming outer appearance, Chicken Buses have a reputation for being crowded, uncomfortable, and dangerous—all of which can make visitors skeptical or intimidated about hopping on board. Before you arrive in Guatemala, here are a few facts and tips to help alleviate some of your Chicken-Bus anxieties or curiosities.

  • Keep your stuff in sight. Holding on to your belongings is your best bet, of course. If you have larger items, use interior overhead racks (if available) or stash them under your seat (if you get one). Be cautious about putting your items on the roof rack, because things have been known to disappear from this storage area. If this is your only option, remove anything valuable in advance, just to be safe.
  • Know where you’re going. Ask the ayudante as you board the bus if it’s going to your destination. Say the name of the town or spot and be sure you get a clear and definitive yes.
  • Do your homework. Education and communication are your two best safety tools on a Chicken Bus. Know approximately how much you should be paying (ask a local, research online, etc.) BEFORE you board the bus. Pay the ayudante after you’re already on the bus, not as you’re getting on. He’ll find you, don’t worry!
  • Hang on. If you like roller coaster rides, you’ll really enjoy the thrill of a Chicken Bus. But, like at the amusement park, it’s best to hang on if you’re not strapped in—and on a Chicken Bus, there are no seat belts or harnesses. Chicken Buses are notoriously fast, crazy rides—but that’s half the fun. Just be sure you’re prepared for the journey—and hold on to your seat, and your stuff!

If you’re up for an adventure, and want to experience the local way to travel, give a Chicken Bus a try. But for those of you a bit too chicken to brave the bus yourselves, we’re not judging! Just be sure to get a few pictures of these iconic, colorful, wild wheels as they zip around Guatemala!

Lake Atitlan: By the Numbers

by Kim LaPat
Travel Editor, Emma Spencer Living
  • 3 Volcanoes frame the lake: Atitlan, Toliman, and San Pedro.
  • 12 Indigenous Mayan communities surround the lake.
  • Air temperatures of 70 to 80 degrees are consistent year-round.
  • The lake is 90 Miles from Guatemala City.
  • It is 30 miles from Antigua.
  • Lake Atitlan is 12 miles long and about 6 miles wide.
  • With a depth of at least 1,115 feet, it’s the deepest lake in Central America.
  • Formed in a volcanic caldera, the lake is 85,000 years old.
  • Lake Atitlan is approximately 5,200 feet above sea level.
  • More than 350,000 people live in surrounding communities.
  • 2 groups, the Kaqcchiqueles and the Tzutuhiles, keep their traditions and languages alive.
  • 12 people can comfortably sleep at La Casa Colibri in 5 bedrooms.
  • The lake can be viewed from 2,000 square feet of outdoor deck space at La Casa Colibri.
  • Our innkeeper has traveled to and lived in the area for more than 23 years.
  • There are 0 reasons NOT to love Lake Atitlan!