Eating my way around Central America – street food for vegetarians

So I’m sitting here, twiddling my thumbs at Mexico City airport waiting for my connection to Heathrow. Hmm, what to do to pass the time? But wait, I’m an actual blogger now, so obviously I’ll write a blog post of course!

I was thinking about what I’m going to miss about Central America and the answer is the food (and beer).  My favourite thing about El Salvador (where I began and ended my trip) is definitely the ‘dulces’ street vendors. They’re a prominent feature of every bus journey, hopping on to sell a selection of small packets of sweet treats all for 25 cents. Everything is decanted into small plastic rectangular bags and displayed on a circular metal ring. As they pass through the bus you just rip off what you want and hand over your quarter (known here as a cora). My favourite was caramelised peanuts, but you can usually choose from mints, giant marshmallows, coffee sweets, chewing gum…

Anyway, here’s my street food journey through five Central American countries, in chronological order (naturally).

My first pupusa, San Salvador, El Salvador

Pupusas in San Salvador
Add as much pickled vegetables and salsa as you like!

I had no real idea what El Salvadors national dish, the pupusa, looked like or how to order them. So I just rocked up to the corner comedor (outdoor street canteen) close to my hostel and asked in my best Spanish ‘hay pupusas?’. Later I learnt to recognise the pupusa set up – a massive slab of masa (ground cornmeal dough) and a comal (flat metal grill over hot coals or gas). Despite loathing corn tortillas (it’s the smell), I came to love the molten lava melted cheese pupusas, piled high with a side of pickled veggies. Once I even had carrot and cheese pupusas – that was a treat!

Cheesy chips on El Cuco beach, El Salvador

Patatas Fritas in El Cuco, El Salvador
Papas con queso on El Cuco beach

I was pretty gobsmacked the first time a food vendor hopped on a bus I was travelling on, selling bowls of hot cheese-topped chips. How wonderful! At the beach one day in El Cuco I had the best piping hot greasy chips slathered with cheese and hot sauce, perfect after a bracing swim in the Pacific waters.

A baleada at Copan Mayan ruins, Honduras

Baleada, Honduras
Simple but delicious baleadas

After a morning wowing over stelaes and hieroglyphs at my first Mayan ruins I was starving. Lucky for me the small onsite snack bar offered baleadas to top up my energy levels before tackling the museum. Lonely Planet recommended the baleada as a typical Honduran snack, but I’d probably say fried chicken and chips is the national dish now. I didn’t find baleadas everywhere I went, but when I did the flour tortillas filled with refried beans and cheese were a thankful alternative to the dreaded corn tortilla.

A cup of local coffee in Gracias, Honduras

 

 

After a day hiking the hills around La Campa and Gracias and seeing coffee beans drying on every available surface I was pretty keen to try a cup for myself. Coffee shops aren’t a big thing outside of the richer areas of large cities though – the closest you normally get is a cup of weak, over-sugared instant from a guy with a battered enamel thermos.  So I was really, really happy when I  stumbled upon this little square at the end of the hike and found this appealing coffee kiosk. I sat sipping my coffee as dusk fell, watching two older couples slowly dance to music from a mobile phone.

Crazy corn, Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala 

Elote Loco, Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala
Crazy corn is officially delicious

Elote loco is officially the best street snack ever. No, wait, that’s frozen chocolate bananas. No, it’s crazy corn, arrggh, I just can’t decide… Anyway corn on the cob slathered with mayonnaise, drizzled with red sauce, green sauce and mustard, then sprinkled with dried cheese – sounds disgusting but tastes amazing. I actually went looking most nights in Guatemala for a crazy corn vendor and got most irate if I couldn’t find one. By the way did you know there are four types of corn in Guatemala?  That’s yellow, white, red and black.

Choco banana, Santiago de Atitlan, Guatemala 

Frozen chocolate banana,  Guatemala
What an amazing idea – frozen banana dipped in chocolate. Yum!

Yum, yum, yum. Why aren’t these a thing in Europe? Loads of private houses had signs on their door offering chocolate bananas and sometimes choco pinchos (fruit kebabs). They just keep a freezer full of frozen bananas on sticks, a pot of melted chocolate mix and some crushed nuts and sugar sprinkles. This particular choco banana cost one quetzal, which is nine British pence, although I did pay a whole dollar for a superior choco banana at the beach in El Salvador.

Boxbol cookery class,  Nebaj, Guatemala

Making boxboles, Guatemala
It’s a messy business making boxboles

This was a rather random but fun experience. I saw a sign for local cultural classes at a little cafe in Nebaj and signed up on the spot for a one hour cookery class. The next day a little girl led me along a warren of back streets, deposited me at a door and promptly vanished. Ten minutes later I’m having the intricacies of boxbol making explained. It’s a pretty simple process – smear some masa (ground cornmeal) on a boxbol squash leaf and roll it up, repeat thirty times, then boil for 15 minutes and eat! 45 minutes later I’m back out the door with a stomach full of boxbol. I’m not sure it’s the most delicious thing ever but it was fun to meet a local family and torture them with my horrific Spanish.

Craft beer, San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico 

San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico
Ah, a nice craft ale

So I turn up at my pre-booked b’n’b, after a six hour journey across the Guatemala-Mexico border involving two chicken buses, one shared taxis and two microbuses, only to find it all locked up and no one answering my increasingly persistent bell ringing. The only sensible option was to go to that delightful looking courtyard bar I passed earlier. Surely they have wifi so I can send the owner a message? Oh look, they also have a fine array of craft ale. Three ales later, accompanied by a lot of free popcorn as a bar snack, I finally staggered back round the corner to my guesthouse, the owner having assured me she’d been in the whole time. Hmm, a likely story. I was happy though – it’s never a chore to sample some local craft ale.

My first real Mexican tacos, roadside restaurant on the way to Palenque, Mexico 

Tacos, Mexico
Veggie tacos at a roadside snack stop

I didn’t know anything about Mexican food before my trip and all I really knew about tacos is that they’re crunchy shells that come in a cardboard box, right? Totally wrong! Tacos are soft tortillas served with an array of fillings and if I was a meat eater I’d probably be a lot more excited by them. Taco stands were on every corner in Mexico, usually specialising in one meat-based topping. I’ve no idea what my toppings were in the photo above. I just paid my few pesos, lined up at the buffet stand and said ‘soy vegetariano’. It tasted pretty nice though, even when accidentally smothered it in green hot sauce mistaken for guacamole!

Marquesita on the beach at El Progreso, Mexico

Marquesitas in Mexico
Edam cheese and caramel sauce, mmmmmm!

I had so much fantastic street food in Mexico it was really hard just choosing a couple to go in this blog, but I couldn’t leave out the fabulous Marquesita. As soon as I read about this local favourite I had to go out and try it. I had my first one on the beachfront after a long day cycling around town and swimming in cenotes with racoons and coatis running past my head. It’s essentially a crispy crepe made fresh in front of you on a hot griddle then filled with any number of fillings, from fruit to syrups. The local preference though is for grated Edam cheese with nutella – cheesy chocolate!  I’d also heard that caramel condensed milk with cheese was a winner, and that’s what  I had. It was absolutely delicious and writing this now just makes me long for another one. I’m wondering what it’d taste like recreated in my friends kitchen at home (hint, hint, Jade!)

Belikin beer, drunk on pretty much every beach in Belize

Belikin beer, Belize
Can’t decide which Belikin is your favourite? Buy all three!

In my defence it was very hot in Belize and Belikin was a very refreshing beer, but yes, I drank far too much of it! My favourite, when it could find it, was a sorrell spiced stout left over from Christmas.

Fry jacks, San Pedro, Ambergris caye, Belize

Breakfast Fry jack, San Pedro, Ambergris, Belize
Fried dough with fried breakfast inside

Fry jacks are a typical Belize breakfast, usually stuffed with chicken. Mine had eggs, cheese and beans in, and was about the size of my head. I had half for breakfast, felt a bit queasy and had the rest for lunch.

Bread Pudding, Dangriga bus station, Belize

Bread pudding,  Dangriga, Belize
Afternoon tea at Dangriga bus station

Belizeans definitely have a sweet tooth, along with healthy appetites. After a morning hiking through the jungle in St Hermans cave national park, and about to board my third bus of the day, I rushed to the food kiosk to see what was on offer. Cheese burger – no. Chicken burrito – no. What’s that? A giant slice of bread pudding?  I’ll take it!

And there we are, just some of the many foodie highlights from my trip. I’ll leave you with one last photo, of my absolute favourite beer during my travels. It’s a Mexican stout, but widely found in El Salvador too – the Cadejo Negra. The legend of the cadejo says that this mythical dog will accompany drunken men safely home at night. Er, what about sozzled ladies??

Lago Coatepeque, El Salvador
Enjoying a cold lakeside beer

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