Guatemala | Stepping out of the shade

21 Nov 2017
4 min read
From the coffee culture, rum to ruins; there’s more to this Central American country than volcanoes…

Guatemala is undoubtedly a beautiful country, but it’s one overshadowed by the power of its natural phenomena. Think about it: what springs to mind when you hear the word Guatemala? Ruins, yes, coffee, perhaps, but then, of course, volcanoes. Indeed, earlier this year, at the beginning of February, the world’s attention turned once more to the Republic of Guatemala when Fuego volcano erupted, producing a 400-metre high fountain of lava and ash clouds that threatened to ground flights for weeks. For many, though, the spectacle of the volcano is where their attention span expired and that’s a real shame, because it’s a country in possession of a laidback, easy charm, offset by the sort of scenery you can’t get bored of and a selection of brilliant exports— coffee and Ron Zacapa rum spring to mind—that you can sample here, right at the source.

My flight, direct from Madrid, is a weighty 12 hours but at this time of year you’ll find the weather is warm without being oppressive. Arriving late, we transferred from the airport to Antigua Guatemala, a city in the southern highlands of the country, a former municipal capital, alongwinding roads that cut directly through the country’s mountains and woodland.

Built on the site of a former convent, Hotel Casa Santo Domingois a warren of tree covered passages and exposed, original brickwork that is dark, cool, and wholly romantic.Part museum, part place to stay, you’ll find the walls littered with artifacts and works of art that point to the history of the structure. Atnight your path is lit by tinylights dotted along the pathways and the soothing sound of water bubbling away in the nearby fountains, mixed with the ambient buzz of insects that affords this open plan hotel an other-worldliness that is in stark contrast to the busy roads that carry youhere.During the day, though, things get even better with a view of the mountains to the east that almost appearsphotoshoppedin.We’re pleased to report that it’s not. From the pool you can stare up at the mountains and watch them disappear into the clouds.

The food in Guatemala is not flashy but it is good. Depending on where you go you’ll find either local staples, like corn and beans presented as salads, moreish, crunchy soups or asrefriedbeans alongside braised meats. Elsewhere, thanks to the small but not insignificant influx of visitors, a sort of modern, transatlantic menu has evolved. We ate a lot of excellent steak served with a mix of rice, mashed beans and an approximation of white wine sauce that was rich and creamy. It was satisfying, if not sophisticated, but it’s also easy enough to order a very good seafood pasta dish or fish. The meat and beans theme continues through many of the places we visited, a mix ofwell-cookedlocal meats and rich, carbohydrate based sides like plantain.Delicate? No.Hearty? Yes.

Hotel Santo Domingo is situated a short walk from Antigua Guatemala’s cobbled stone streets, which housetourist magnets like Jade Maya, the jade museum (oncehighlyprized by the indigenous people ofGuatemala) and the town’s former municipal buildings, designed in a Spanish Baroque style and brightly colored in pastel yellows and blues. A guide will show you around and even walk you into some of the buildings—which are still in use—during a mid-morning meeting. Inside you’ll find grand portraits of Guatemala’s former monarchy staring proudly down at you from the walls. Antigua’s secret weapon though is the spectacular collection of colonial churchruinsthat are now designated UNESCO world heritage sites. Wandering though the once majestic arches and fallen walls you’ll find a reverential hush will descend on those around you. It’s quite something to consider the feat of engineering it took to erect them. Antigua Guatemalais a town that demands some walking but you will be rewarded with shops selling locally made goods such as a chocolate that is rich and bitter and of course, coffee.

Most of Guatemala’s best coffee is exported, which if you’re a local must be particularly painful at around 8am,but thankfully there are still some excellent places in town to drinkit. Café Refuge, for instance,is a small, rudimentary shop that serves excellent drip filter blends that taste clean, fruity and full bodied.A world away from the granulated stuff we’re told the locals drink. Maybe they know something we don’t.

The other thing that Guatemala is particularly good at is rum, and specifically Ron Zacapa.Blended and aged up here in the highlands where the air is thinner, Zacapatakes on its rich,caramelflavorsover years spent ruminatingin former sherry and brandybarrels. Before being filled, thesebarrels aremeticulously charred by amechanizedflame thrower and as they are, they confess theirbest kept secrets: the unmistakable scents of chocolate, whisky, caramel and woodsmoke that help make the rum they hold what it is. From the furnace the barrels are cooled, filled and lead to a warehouse where they will sit for decades at a time. The building itself is an odd mix of cool and dark, a Guatemalan theme perhaps, offset by the airiness that any open-plan covered space, naturally adopts. To say that this rum is a national treasure is an understatement. In Antigua Guatemala there’s a Zacapa hotel, at the airport there’s even a ‘Zacapa room’ filled with all of the rum’s incarnations and blends. It’s little wonder though when you consider the jobs they provide for sugar cane cutters,close to the western pacific coast, or theircommitmentto traditional Guatemalan crafts like the weaving of the ‘petate’ band that adorns every bottle. Still done by hand, this process has created an additional 900 jobs for Guatemalan women. There’s a mutual good feeling between the brand and this country, which speaks volumes about its aforementioned easy-going charm. If you want history, architecture and some of the best coffee you’ll drink, it’s worth remembering that Guatemala is more than just volcanoes.