Booze of the World 2: Guatemala and Nicaragua

The second instalment of Booze of the World sees Rob take on Central America, including the world’s best rum

Guatemala

Beer: Back when I first visited in 2003, there were pretty much two beer choices: Gallo (the cockerel logo adorns a million backpackers’ T-shirts) or Moza. Both are made by the Cerveceria Centro Americana, owned by Guatemala’s powerful Castillo dynasty.

Gallo, at 118 years old the country’s first brew, is the archetypal Central American beer: weak, pissy sub-lager with zero flavour and enough gas to power a small industrial city. It resembles Budweiser in that it tastes of nothing, but plasters its name across everything. I was always a Moza man and to this day it’s my favourite of what Guatemala has to offer beer-wise. It’s a dark Bock-style beer, richer and more flavourful than Gallo with a slight brown sugar aftertaste that suits my sweet tooth.

There are a few other brews finding their way onto the menu in most bars and hostels these days though. The first is Brahva, owned by global giant AB InBev who (according to this BusinessWeek article) are keen on buying Cerveceria Centro Americana.

Unsurprisingly, given that AB InBev make Budweiser, Brahva is if anything like a watered down version of Gallo and to be avoided at all costs. AB InBev’s muscle allows them to undercut Gallo on price too, which should worry anyone who values local production over many-tentacled multinationals. Brahva makes me want to drink Gallo and that shouldn’t happen to anyone with tastebuds.

CCA’s Victoria is also growing in popularity. I prefer it to Gallo but it doesn’t offer much in the way of choice given that it’s also a pale lager. Same goes for their Cabro and Monte Carlo brands…different label, same marginally tweaked weak fizz.

I’d stick to the Moza every time but that’s very much a minority view in Guatemala. And ales? Forget it.

Beer with a twist: One odd quirk I was introduced to in Guatemala this year – although I believe it comes from neighbouring Mexico – is the Chelada and its spicier cousin the Michelada. The former involves adding lime to your beer and salting the rim of the glass, as you would with a Margarita. The latter is much the same only with a variety of spices, or tabasco, added as well.

They both sound hideous. Which is because they are, although i can imagine the limey Chelada might work on a very hot day. Still, if you’re drinking Brahva or Gallo, any added ingredient short of cyanide might be an improvement.

Rum: NOW we’re talking. You’d expect the world’s best rum to come from Jamaica or perhaps Cuba. Not according to many rum experts, who put Guatemala’s Ron Zacapa at the top of the tree. Or should I say the sugar cane.

Its success is despite the fact that its history is relatively brief. It was first produced in 1976 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the eastern Guatemalan town of the same name. They say its quality is down to being stored at altitude in the volcanic highlands. I sampled the stuff in a little wine and rum shop in Antigua, Guatemala almost directly under the famous arch of Santa Catalina.

When I was last in Guatemala there was no way I could have afforded a glass of Ron Zacapa. Much the same is true now but I felt I had to do my duty for Booze of the World. Altruistic, right?

I sampled both the 6-to-23-year-old Zacapa Centenario and the XO, the premium option at 6-to-25 years old. Both embrace you with their warmth from the first sniff, the vapours filling your lungs and circulating a fuzzy glow around your whole body. While the XO is the super-premium brand, I found it almost too subtle. It was so smooth that it lost something of the sugary mouth-burn I like about rum.

The Centenario was a revelation though. Multi-layered, nutty and caramelly without being sickly, with a long aftertaste. You’ll pay top dollar for this stuff anywhere outside Guatemala but if you like rum, you need this in your drinks cabinet.

NB: If you even THINK about putting ice in this, please reseal the bottle and give it to someone who deserves it. And if the word ‘Coca-Cola’ enters your mind, seek professional help.

Quetzalteca: Every country has at least one traditional drink of the people and this is the main one for Chapins (Guatemalans). Named for the Quetzal, the colourful bird that also gives Guatemala’s currency its name, this is a bit like an eau de vie. There are several flavours but I tried the Rosa de Jamaica. It packs a punch but not the body-shuddering donkey-kick you get with some traditional hooches of the peasantry. Surprisingly drinkable although i’m not one for neat spirits.

Nicaragua

Beer: Guatemala ain’t great for beer but Nicaragua is worse. On the first night I tried the Toña, which tastes like someone spilled a thimbleful of Budweiser in your Evian. That’s being kind. A step up from that is Victoria, a pilsen which has a bit more character but is still (can you sense a pattern emerging in Latin America) a pretty uneventful pale lager.

Still, in the baking heat after a long hike in the mountains, it might as well be Ambrosia. Ever seen the film Ice Cold in Alex (look it up here)? Extreme heat is the only way to make Nicaraguan beer taste good.

Oh, there’s also one called Premium aimed at the higher end of the market although the only thing premium about it is the name. All three are produced by Compania Cervecera de Nicaragua, which is in serious need of some competition.

Rum: Nicaraguans are proud of their Flor de Caña and you can’t blame them. It’s got much more character than your bog-standard high-street rum and there are some premium versions too. I can’t say I gave this one the same consideration as Guatemala’s Ron Zacapa but then, once you’ve had Ron Zacapa, everything else pales in comparison.

What else?: It’s usually not worth ordering wine with dinner in Guate or Nicaragua unless you want to drink something dreadful or pay top dollar. Franki and I chose to have a few dry meals rather than shell out the same price we’d pay in London for some dodgy ‘vino tinto’ from the part of Argentina they clearly reserve for ‘countries we don’t mind offending’.

As a footnote, no country with a Caribbean coast is ever without the option of a Cocoloco, a coconut sliced in half with a machete and then sloshed with rum to add to the delicious nectar within.

The verdict

Top tipple: It can only be Ron Zacapa. I prefer the Centenario but if you’re the kind of person who likes the most expensive label, give the XO a whirl. Either way, you’ll be feeling more cosy and warm than a Werther’s Original advert.

Gourmet’s choice: Ditto. In this case the most expensive is also the best.

Bubbling under: I’m a sucker for Guatemala’s Moza. Slips down nicely after a day in the limestone pools of Semuc Champey, climbing a volcano or sweating through the jungle of Tikal.

What to slur drunkenly: Arriba, abajo, al centro, pa’dentro (Rough translation: “Glasses up, glasses down, glasses to the centre and down it”, said as you slosh your glass about to the relevant motions. Very touristy but fun.)

Next stop on Booze of the World: Colombia

 

Volcan Fuego, Volcan Acatenango, Volcan Agua

Hello Guate, my old friend: How Guatemala has changed in 10 years

Returning to a country you haven’t visited for 10 years is a bit like catching up with an old schoolfriend. How will you both have changed? Will you be able to recapture the good times of old? Is it still funny to shout out euphemisms for genitalia in class while the teacher’s back is turned?

OK, perhaps not that last one. But flying in to Guatemala, where I spent five weeks in both 2003 and 2004, elicited that same sense of nostalgia tinged with cautious anticipation.

As it transpired, I needn’t have worried. Everything that makes it so easy to fall in love with Guatemala is just as it was. The people are still hospitable and humorous, the food still simple but fresh and nourishing, the towns and villages still a panoply of colour.

The soundtrack to all of this, as ever it was, is provided by the cries of street-hawkers and the roar of the country’s famous ‘chicken buses’, old US school transport converted to carry the maximum number of passengers and tricked out by drivers competing to display the maximum amount of bling.

Most travellers set up home initially in La Antigua, the country’s capital until the mammoth Santa Marta earthquakes of 1773 triggered a move to modern-day capital Guatemala City. Antigua is ‘the place to stay’ for good reason. Its cobbled streets and brightly-painted stone houses are interspersed with ruined but well-preserved churches and monasteries, frozen in time since they were laid low by successive earthquakes.

The backdrop to all of this is the eternal looming presence of Volcan Agua, watching over the city like a strict museum curator ensuring it never loses its ancient charm.

Not only is Antigua far safer and prettier than the capital, but it is almost as well connected for most travel destinations in the country.

On my last visit, I was learning Spanish at the excellent Probigua language school. Antigua boasts an abundance of escuelas where you can learn the lingo but Probigua (PROyecto BIbliotecas GUAtemala) is different. Many of these places are simply out to extract as many Quetzals (local currency) as possible from the gringos but Probigua is a non-profit organisation. Your fees are ploughed into literacy programmes and students join the school’s staff on weekend expeditions in the Probigua travelling literacy bus to deliver books and computers to schools in the region, most of which are sadly lacking in resources.

It was heartening to see the old place that taught me my rudimentary but passable Spanish, apparently thriving as the best place to learn the language in Antigua.

I was even more excited at the prospect of visiting Veronica, the lady with whom I stayed both times I was last here. I used to call her mi segunda mama (my second Mum) and we would joke long into the evening while enjoying her delicious and wholesome cooking, including her excellent guisquil (also known as chayote, a local squash-like vegetable).

Through the haze of a decade’s new memories, I managed to remember where she lived and, totally unannounced, Franki and I made our way up to her house. Cue a very happy reunion as she invited us in to see the upgrades she has made to the family home.

She has acquired five grandchildren since I last stayed with her and most of her extended family now lives in the rooms she once let out to language students like me. I remember well how she and her sons had squeezed into two small rooms to accommodate guests, in order to make enough money to improve their circumstances.

Well here were the fruits of her labours, 10 years on. She had worked hard, opened up her home to people like me, and her growing family was now reaping the benefits exactly as planned. Nothing could make me happier to see her nous and hard graft paying off. Not only that but she was kind enough to pretend that I looked very different with my nascent and still rather pitiful travellers’ beard.

So what else has changed except for Veronica’s grandkids and my ‘beard’? The active Pacaya volcano has changed a fair bit, largely because it has erupted more than once in a pretty major way (check out the video) since I first climbed it. According to our guide, the path I took in 2003 was buried by molten lava earlier this year. In geological terms, that’s a near miss.

Lago Atitlan, the idyllic lake surrounded by volcanoes, has also witnessed some developments. For starters, the lake has risen by about 10 metres in the past decade, meaning much of the dockside infrastructure is now underwater.

On the plus side, the quiet hotels at Santa Cruz de la Laguna (try the uber-tranquil Arca de Noe if you get a chance) now come with added electricity. In 2004 it was candlelight only, which led to me plummeting six feet into an open sewer (thankfully dry) and landing on my knee. I can still tell when it’s going to rain by the twinge under my patella, thanks to that little mishap.

As a coffee lover (addict?), I immediately noticed a big difference in that Guatemala’s largest export is actually available within the country these days. When I first visited, all the good stuff was exported as soon as possible, hardly any of it seeing the inside of a Guatemalan cafe or restaurant. The coffee fincas were dotted around the country but you couldn’t get a decent brew for love nor money.

Now, there are a good half-dozen venues in Antigua dedicated to the art (and it is an art) of serving up the best coffee money can buy. The friendly knowledgeable guys at family enterprise Castellcafe (San Lucas branch pictured here) do a mean espresso and are particularly fond of the Chemex method of brewing coffee. You can find the Antigua branch in the Parque Central.

Don’t expect to find a skinny cinnamon macchiato when you’re in the depths of the jungle or up in the Alta Verapaz though. After all, you wouldn’t expect to find howler monkeys or Mayan ruins in a Shoreditch pop-up coffee house. Sadly.

Without a doubt, Antigua’s nightlife is also livelier than it once was. There are fewer tourists now than in 2004, by some estimates about half as many. But there are more bars than before and they are no longer dominated by tourists.

Whether it’s due to the emergence and growth of the middle class in Guatemala I couldn’t say, but there seemed to be more Chapins (Guatemalans) raving the night away and more places for them to do it.

Coming back to the scene of so many great memories, I was always going to notice what was different about the place. But while much has changed since I was here, there is plenty that hasn’t. For all of its stunning natural beauty and rich cultural heritage, Guatemala still struggles with chronic malnutrition and violence.

Anyway, more on that in the next blog about Guatemala, plus plenty more to come on what to do and see in this stunning country.