El Sin Fin #4: Guatemala and Back in 23 days

Lago de Atitlán


 Firstly, apologies in taking so long to get this edition of ESF out to you.  I admit it was a combination of lack of patience for extremely slow upload speeds combined with an adoption of mañana work ethic to blame.   Hope you enjoy.

When we left off, we were in Oaxaca, generally reveling in the seaside life in Puerto Escondido.    We left the spirtual homeland of the Taco for the wilds of Guatemala the second week of March, our new friend Jamie in tow, on a mission to meet up with Charles and Anna, who were headed down from the US to meet up with us for a Spring Break-like getaway.   After reuniting in the charming colonial city of Antigua and appropriately enjoying beers on the roof of the Posada we were staying at, watching the volcano puffing smoke and ash in the distance, we carefully weighed our options and decided on a plan of action. The next morning we headed off for the Lago de Atitlán.   Atitlán is a spectacular high-altitude lake ringed by mostly small indigenous village, as well as the slightly larger  town of Panajachel.  Supposedly,  Aldous Huxley visited the lake and called it one of the most beautiful places on earth, and that description  is not an exageration.     The curvy descent down the steep valley walls  slowly reveals the spectacular expanse of cobalt-blue water that is Atitlán, dramatically placed in a ring of huge volcanoes and almost perpetually shrouded in mist.  The sub-tropical vegetation that fill the small valleys, impossibly placed crops on the steep ridges, and presence of colorfully dressed indigenous peoples give Atitlan an otherwordly feel .    After spending a relaxing few days exploring the lake and its surrounding towns,  swimming and hiking, we said farewell to the lake  and headed back through Antigua on the way back north to Lanquín, a town near Semuc Champey, a nature reserve known for its underground caves and spring-fed grottoes.

  Unfortunately, my camera ran out of batteries the day we were at Semuc Champey, but you can see some good pictures from the Lanquín website here: http://www.semucchampey.com/es/semuc-champey.html

We spent an unforgettable afternoon swimming in the pools, and then dined on a characteristically Guatemalan lunch of fried chicken, cold spaghetti in ketchup, really bland cole slaw and stale tortillas.   We didn´t, in fact receive an excellent (or even passable) meal in Guatemala until we arrived late one night to Cobán, on the way to Semuc Champey, and ate Churrascos at a late night cart.  The Churrasco is sort of the Guatemalan take on the taco.  You get a few tortillas, a grilled piece of meat, some really bland coleslaw with too much mayonnaise, and you sort of are on your own to negotiate the gristly slab of meat into the tortillas.  If you ask for salsa, the result is almost never spicy enough, and often sweet.   

The only really good meals we ate in Guatemala were eaten during our last two days as  a traveling posse, on the Río Lampara, a tributary of the Río dulce between the town of Río Dulce and the port of Livingston.   Arriving at the tiny, cozy, Hotelito Perdido just before sunset, we were told that we were too late to eat dinner at the hotel, but if we wanted we could take kayaks to the nearby restaurant “El Remanso”.  Arriving at the darkened docks, we briefly panicked, fearing a long night with only the snacks in our backpacks to sustain us.  But after making a bit of noise on the docks, a smiling woman emerged from behind the house and fired up the generator to turn on the lights for us.   We ordered a round of beers, ceviche and a couple whole fish to share.   We knew we were finally in good hands when she brought out a warm basket of Pan de Coco (coconut bread) with the beers and proceded to retreat to the kitchen to prepare the ceviche from freshly caught shrimp.   The ceviche was perfect; the shrimp still sweet with sea water, with lime, red onion, tomato and cilantro.  The fish was squirmingly fresh, simply prepared with garlic and served with lime and salt.  Elegance incarnate.  After eating over-salted, deep-fried, greasy and bland food for the past two weeks, tasting fresh food skillfully prepared was a rare pleasure.  We thanked our hostess profusely and promised to return the next day.    And return we did, to sample the restaurant´s specialty, the recipe for which you can find below.   We knew it was to be an unforgettable meal,  for as we arrived, the teenage daughter of the family was pulling the jaibas (fresh water crabs) out of the traps to give to her grandmother to put in our meal.   And unforgettable it was.  After sharing another huge bowl of ceviche, the main course arrived and took its place as the finest meal of the trip, single-handedly redeeming Guatemalan cuisine for the moment ( but not for long).


We had this dish two different times prepared in two different restaurants, and this recipe was by far the better of the two.   It was generally agreed upon by the group that it was the best food we had eaten in Guatemala, by far.  Tapado is the delicious result of a unique cultural area  in the Caribbean lowlands of Guatemala, where the cuisine is influenced by the Garifuna people,  who are of  African descent and inhabit the coastal areas  of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. 

Special thanks to the ladies at “El Remanso”, on the Río Lampara, near Río Dulce, Guatemala.  You can only get there by boat from Livingston or Río Dulce, but if you are lucky enough to be staying at the Hotelito Perdido,  you can take a quick ten minute kayak cruise at sunset to get there.

The success of this recipe ultimately rests on the freshness of the seafood.  If you can`t get fresh coconuts (most can`t) you can substitute a can of  coconut milk for every two fresh coconuts.

Serves 4

8 young coconuts ( or 4 16oz. cans of coconut milk)

1 cup onion, chopped finely

2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and finely chopped

1 small chile dulce, although a serrano or small jalapeño will suffice

1 Tbl. Achiote, ground or in paste

4-5 bay leafs

3-4 cloves garlic, minced

2 tsps. dried thyme

1tsp. ground coriander

4 Hand-sized, river crabs or blue crabs, or two large dungeness cut in half

4 Medium size whole Tilapia, Redfish or Snapper ( approx. 4-4 1/2 lbs.)

1 lb.  Shrimp

4-5 Tbs. Vegetable, blended olive or tropical (coco or avocado) oil

Salt to season

Flour for breading

If using whole coconuts, halve and scoop out flesh and separate from milk.  In a blender, liquefy coconut meat, adding milk if necessary to achieve the consistency of  heavy cream.  Set aside.  If using canned, just open the cans and take a breath.  In….Out…Good.  Meditate upon how good the soup is going to be.    In a large pot over medium heat,  pour sufficient oil to cover the bottom of the pot and  sautee onions,  garlic, and chiles for 4-5 minutes, add bay leaf, thyme, coriander and achiote,  sautee one more minute until the spices become fragrant, and then add tomatoes.     Turn heat to very low, and add coconut to the pot.   Slowly bring to a very low simmer.  This is essential, as if the coconut liquid breaks, all is lost!  Add all shellfish to the broth and poach slowly.  Don’t hurry! They will cook.   Meanwhile,  Make sure the whole fish  are cleaned and de-scaled, put a heavy pan on high heat with enough oil to shallow fry (1/4 inch).   Heat until very hot, dredge the  fish in flour lightly, and fry approximately 3 minutes, until golden and slightly crispy, and flip.  A good trick for whole fish is to cut three vertical or diagonal slits through the lateral sides of the body, and when the flesh in these slits is white to the center, the fish is done on that side.  If you want to get really fancy here, you can stuff the fish with lemon, sliced onion and cilantro and grill it on a barbecue with a little oil and salt.   Keeping a keen eye on the soup, finish frying up the fish.  Just make sure it doesn’t go above a low simmer and it should be fine.    When the largest pieces of shellfish are pink and firm, it is done.  Season with salt.    No single flavor should overwhelm this dish, it should be sweet, spicy, creamy and the shellfish flavor should really shine through. The achiote gives a nice golden color.  In the  States, it is also sometimes called annato.

To serve, dole out the shellfish equally between 4 bowls, cover with broth, and serve the whole fish on the side with a little lime or lemon garnish.   Serve with white rice, tortilla or if you really want to get crazy, coconut bread.    I couldn’t get a recipe for the coco bread, but any Caribbean bakery serves it.  For those of you on the East coast, it shouldn’t be hard to get.


Published in: on May 3, 2010 at 8:38 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Dang Mike, your getting so tan!! You guys look like your having fun! And I like how your calling yourself “The Author”. It makes you sound like your in charge! Buen Suerte. -lesley

  2. Right now I’m sitting in Denver hungry, contemplating if I should eat a peanut butter “burrito” or go buy something. But all I want is Tapado! The one amazing meal you had in Guatemala sounds to me right now like it could be worth countless horrible meals, so good it sounds.

    I really enjoy reading your blog, friend, and miss you heartily. I’m always wanting to call you for some recipe advice but can’t! And don’t know who to turn to.

    Yuzo and I have been cooking up a storm and recently had our first backyard barbecue, with homemade bbq sauce, my potato salad, corn on the cob and arugula salad from our garden. Wish you & Bert coulda’ been there! Whenever you get back, Yuzo and I hereby promise to cook you and Robert whatever your heart desires, in whatever quantity, from scratch, eaten with good company, and followed by much wine.

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