Arriving in Santo Tomas de Castilla, Guuatemala was starkly different from what we had seen so far in the Caribbean. Besides the fact that it was an overcast day, we had traveled over 20 miles into the Amatique Bay. The water changed from the Azure blue to the familiar murkiness of an inland port just like the Mississippi River. The green trees of the lush forest seemed to spill into the water. The port itself was also a contrast to the previous ports as it was primarily a shipping port full of large cargo vessels. We had been docked at the very end of the pier behind ships that were being lightened of their cargo. We watched the endless line of trucks with empty trailers being efficiently loaded with giant cranes that lifted containers from the ship. While we ate breakfast. One by one they would pull up empty and drive away full, off to deliver goods somewhere far away. It was evident that a Cruise boat was not a rare occurrence but not an extremely regular one either. Port employees in shorts and flip flops heaved the ropes from the ship, pulling them through the water up onto the pier to secure the large ship. The lack of gloves boots, or any personal protective equipment was oddly obvious. Members of the crew on the closest boat seemed to congregate aft to watch all of the tourist pile off of the boat.
As we finally walked off of the boat the first thing we noticed was the heat and humidity. It hit us like a brick wall. It probably did not help that they had just finished hosing off our section of pier with a large crew and 3 water trucks. We made our way down to the end of the pier and towards a large hall that resembled an old military hangar. The port was surrounded by concrete walls that were 12 feet high with barbed wire on top. Sounds of machinery and some sort of construction could be heard from the other side. Inside the building contained the “circus we have mentioned before. It is the same in any cruise port. Think of a Carnival midway full of people selling you all of the trinkets and souvenirs from their country. It is interesting to see the culture of people through the things they are crafting and selling. Here the tables were filled with handcrafted leather, Hand carved woods and some of the brightest and vibrant colors we had seen to date. It was actually a very small market area and we made it around the whole thing in only about 30 minutes. We still had an hour before we had to check in for the excursion that we had booked and so, with nothing else to see in the immediate area, we choose to get back on the boat to enjoy the air conditioning and a cool beverage.
We had booked this culinary tour excursion before our cruise. We love food and thought this was a great way to learn a bit about the culture of Guatemala. After disembarking the ship, a second time for the morning we were introduced to our guide for the day. His name was Abel and this is where our freestyle spirit and sense of adventure paid off. Abel confirmed that we had signed up for the Culinary tour and noted that we had a total of five hours scheduled with him. He told us to wait while he found out where he was supposed to be taking us because the actual excursion would only be about 1 1/2 hours. Abel returned with what I would describe as a disappointed look on his face. He told us that we were to go with the larger group to Livingston by boat. It was a 45-minute journey and we would have to leave after just a bit for the 45-minute trip back to the shore. After arriving back on the shore we would travel about 30 minutes to the restaurant where the actual cooking excursion would be before returning us to the ship. He then asked a fantastic question. Is all that traveling how you want to spend your limited time in Guatemala? 2 1/2 hours just on transportation is not what we had in mind. That is literally half of the time we had. I asked Abel if he was a local and he answered that he indeed was and had lived there all of his life but the two years he spent in California. I told him that we would like to see some of his country. Maybe some jungle and waterfalls then maybe a local market and town to see a bit of how local life is lived. He smiled big and left us again to talk to the boss, Gus.
After getting permission, we were on our way in a Nissan Xterra, heading up a windy dirt road into the jungle. After a short time, we were brought to a small village in the mountainous jungle where we were introduced to a lady making handmade corn tortillas on a steel plate over an open fire.
The smell of the fire mixed with the corn tortillas cooking was enough to make any mouth water. Exploring the village, a bit more we walked over a well-constructed foot bridge and located the school house for the village. A large single building that had several children playing ball in the adjoining field. It was not a school day and it seemed that we were in a place that not many tourists come. We were Walking back across the foot bridge to our car we saw a mother bathing her child in the slow moving creek twisting through the village. A few chickens scattered about as well. Honestly it felt like we were intruding in the daily lives of another world. People here live very different than most people would even find comfortable. We wished we had more than just a few hours to actually get to experience more. More to come on that in a couple years.
After leaving this village we traveled even further into the jungle to stop at a deserted restaurant and sanctuary. Abel our guide knew of the owner and we were allowed by the grounds keepers to come take a closer look and we had the place to ourselves and it was beautiful. The owner had spent a lot of time manicuring the acres around the creek that ran through his property. There were several waterfalls and pools with suspension bridges across that allowed us to get some great pictures. The highlight was getting Amy up onto one of the sketchy suspension bridges that spanned the creek. The bridge was made from cables and planks secured in trees on either side of the creek. The rickety staircases leading up to each platform were wet and slippery and took some coordination to navigate.
After leaving here Abel took us out of the mountains and into Puerto Barrios, the place where he and his best friend Daniel lived. It was a warm, humid and overcast day. The streets were full of people at shops and markets. Motorcycles and bicycles weaved in and out of pretty heavy traffic. The small streets were burdened by the terminal and airport traffic. The infrastructure looked to be at capacity and it was amazing how the seemingly uncontrolled traffic just seemed to flow. We parked and met Abel’s friend Daniel at Restaurante la Pesca. This is a nice local hangout right on the water where we sat in an open air dock over the water with a thatch roof. We sampled some local cuisine, beers and even some Guatemalan Rum! We chatted with Abel and Daniel for a while just discussing life. Each of them shared some of their background including being educated at university in the States and even a two-year trip to California. We talked about local culture and customs and got to know our new friends.
After relaxing here, it was time to go to our actual Culinary excursion. Steering back through the narrow streets of Puerto Barrios towards our destination we watched the daily life of this beautiful place carry on. We pulled off of the Highway and into a large gravel driveway. At the far end we could see Hacienda El Refugio Restaurante. It was a large open air building with a heavy timbers and a thick thatch roof. All of the furniture was charmingly rustic. Tables were made of large timber slabs with live edges. The High open ceiling gave the space a welcoming feel. We were excitedly greeted by the owner of the restaurant and after smiles, handshakes and introductions, we were escorted past the bar back into a small kitchen. It was obvious that they had been planning our arrival and I suspect that our Guide Abel had kept them informed of our exact arrival time. They were going to show us how to make a traditional Guatemalan seafood stew and just like a cooking show on Television they had everything portioned out and ready to go. The smells of the open flame pit and the freshness of all of the ingredients was so good! The cook started to explain what he was doing and the history of the meal as Daniel began to translate for us. Of course as much as Amy loves to cook, she had a great time interacting and having fun with the chef. We watched as he fried the talapia and added piles of fresh seafood including conch, calamari, a whole crab and more into the steaming coconut milk based stew. After that was going the chef moved over to a couple more whole talapia that he had prepared and explained to two different leaves that he would be wrapping them in. We held and felt the large plantain leaf that looked as it came from a tree just right outside the kitchen. The fish were seasoned and tightly wrapped before placing them in the underground fire going outside the kitchen. At this time, we were whisked away from the kitchen for more Gallo (Guatemala’s National Beer) and more rum. We sat around a large family table with Abel our guide, Daniel his best friend and the owner of the restaurant. We chatted and laughed through translations and broken English. It felt like a night out with a few of your best friends. After a short time, the food arrived and it seemed to just keep coming. Seriously, I felt like they brought us one of everything on the menu! The owner beamed with pride as we enjoyed every bite we could take. The rich flavors were just amazing and I think we sampled just about one of everything on the menu. We were asked for feedback on almost every dish and for a moment we knew what it is like for the likes of Anthony Bourdain. After eating more food than any two people should be allowed Abel, showing us the time informed us it was time to get back to the ship. A few more handshakes, laughs, and even hugs we left Hacienda El Refufugio and wound out of Puerto Barrios and through Santo Tomas de Castillo back to the port.
We spent some time with Abel and Daniel on the pier next to the boat laughing and reflecting on our trip. When the excursion company owner Gus came out and asked how our day was we thanked him, shook his hand and let him know that Abel deserved a big raise. Abel took us beyond the tourist activities and showed us his home. We spent that day making new friends and got a firsthand look at the beauty of Guatemalan culture, it’s people, it’s land and of course the food. Do not underestimate this gem of Central America, for if you do, you will certainly miss out on an experience of a lifetime.