While most people flock to Guatemala for its dramatic landscapes, bright colonial buildings, and friendly locals, the country’s underrated cuisine offers yet another compelling reason to plan a visit. Incorporating a mix of Spanish, Afro-Caribbean, and Indigenous influences, typical Guatemalan fare is wide-ranging and represents the many groups that have called the country home throughout its history, from colonizing Spaniards to direct descendants of Afro-Indigenous groups.
However, while it may have many dishes in common with its Central American neighbors—like tortillas, tamales, and tostones—Guatemalan cuisine is in a lane of its own. Dishes are typically meat-forward (pork, beef, and chicken) but call for punches of flavor from peppers, chiles, and even chocolate. And you can bet that a basket of warm handmade tortillas will be there to accompany your meal.
Earlier this summer, I visited the country and spent extended time exploring Lake Atitlán (located about a four-hour drive from the capital, Guatemala City) by launcha (a small speedboat) and climbed both volcanoes and the cobblestone streets of Antigua, the country’s old capital located in the center of Guatemala.
Throughout the trip, I sampled a wide array of dishes and learned that to find a taste of real Guatemalan cuisine, you’ll have to stray away from touristy areas and wander into cozy comedors—local restaurants that serve traditional food, and evoke the feeling of sitting in a stranger’s dining room—food markets, and cooking classes to enjoy symbolic stews, traditional breakfast and dinner plates, and desserts with unexpected flavor profiles.
1. Pepián de pollo (chicken stew)
- Where to try it: You can find pepián in most restaurants that serve dinner in Guatemala or you can learn to make it yourself at Cuscun cooking school in Antigua, Guatemala.
Pepián is the quintessential Guatemalan dish, one you’ll hear locals and tourists raving about. Typically a stew served over rice and with tortillas on the side, it’s had multiple iterations since its humble beginnings as a dish served during Mayan celebrations. Although the chicken version is arguably the most popular, pork and beef variations are also available for those looking to spice up the classic. To create the dish, a mix of red and black chiles, sesame seeds, cilantro, tomatoes, and tomatillos are roasted individually to build a complex flavor profile and are then blended into the beloved creamy stew. I was lucky enough to try homemade pepián in Antigua and found it to be rich in flavor, with soft carrots, potatoes, and tender chicken that stole the show.
2. Chiles rellenos (stuffed chile peppers)
- Where to try it: La Fonda de la Calle Real, Antigua, Guatemala
Typically enjoyed during family gatherings and celebrations, chile rellenos are bell peppers that are stuffed with a mixture of pork and vegetables and served over a bed of tomato-based red sauce. This dish is also enjoyed in Mexico, where it’s typically stuffed with a cheese mixture inside of jalapeño peppers instead of bell.
3. Jocón (chicken stew with green sauce)
- Where to try it: Arrin Coan, multiple locations in Guatemala City and Antigua
Well-known for its vibrant green color, this chicken stew is made of a blend of green ingredients: green onions, green tomatoes or tomatillos, green peppers, chives, cilantro, and celery. Jocón originated in the Huehuetenango region in western Guatemala and is known as a traditional Mayan dish dating back to the 1500s.
4. Kak’ik (turkey soup)
- Where to try it: El Peñascal, Coban, Guatemala
Another traditional Mayan dish, kak’ik— a flavorful spicy turkey soup— directly translates to “red and spicy.” The exact rundown of ingredients varies slightly depending on the region in Guatemala the cook comes from, but always includes turkey, tomatoes, and chiles, which give it its classic red color, said to represent the blood shed in ritual ceremonies that were common at the time.
5. Hilachas (shredded beef stew)
- Where to try it: 7 Caldos, locations in Guatemala City and Antigua
This traditional stew typically includes lean shredded pieces of beef, potatoes, and carrots, and has a slight kick of spice in its tomato-based broth, normally served over rice. Hilachas, which directly translates to “rags,” is also enjoyed throughout Central America, where each country has its own spin on the recipe.
6. Desayuno tradicional de Guatemala (traditional Guatemalan breakfast)
- Where to try it: Served on most restaurants’ breakfast menus
A classic Guatemalan breakfast, this protein-heavy plate typically consists of some combination of eggs (scrambled or fried), sweet plantains, black beans, avocado, tomatoes, a small slice of queso fresco, or fresh white cheese, and tortillas on the side. During my trip, I regularly ordered the breakfast plate with scrambled eggs and enjoyed it alongside a cup of tea. I quickly learned to ask for spicy chile sauce on the side, which gives the dish an extra kick.
7. Revolcado (curried pork stew)
- Where to try it: El Adobe, Antigua
A fusion between Spanish and Indigenous cuisines, revolcado is enjoyed throughout Central America. Pig head, liver, and intestines are boiled for three to four hours and are then tossed into a stew of tomatoes, bell peppers, garlic, onions, and annatto, a seasoning known for its bright red coloring.
8. Shucos (street hot dogs)
- Where to try it: At any street food market, including Mercado Central (Guatemala City), and La Merced (Antigua)
The Guatemalan version of a hot dog, shucos are typically served as a quick and easy street food (hence the name translating to “dirties”). However, any similarities with the American hot dog begin and end with the beef sausage, as shucos are wrapped in a toasted bun and topped with guacamole, cabbage, chorizo, pico de gallo, and whatever other toppings the late-night eater is in the mood for.
9. Churrasco Guatemalteco (Guatemalan steak plate)
- Where to try it: Served on most restaurants’ dinner menus
This filling steak plate is typically served during lunch or dinner and usually includes a grilled or barbecued cut of steak also known as churrasco. The plate will also usually include rice, beans, sweet plantains, and guacamole on the side.
10. Rellenitos (fried plantains stuffed with black beans)
- Where to try it: El Adobe, Guatemala City
A curious combination of flavors, rellenitos are a fusion of Spanish and Afro-Caribbean culinary influence. To make the dessert, ripe plantains are boiled, then mashed and combined with cinnamon and sugar and rolled into small balls. After a hole is made in the center of the plantain ball, a sweetened black bean mixture is poured in and then the balls are covered in flour and deep-fried in oil. The result is a crispy, surprisingly sweet dessert.
11. Mole de plátano (sweet plantains in mole sauce)
- Where to try it: In any authentic Guatemalan restaurant
Mole de plátano is another popular sweet plantain–based dessert. To whip up the dish, fried sweet plantain is placed in a thick sauce of chocolate, sesame and pumpkin seeds, tomatoes, and chiles. The dessert is especially popular in its region of origin, San Pedro, a small town on Lake Atitlán in the western part of the country.