Monday, June 27, 2011

Guatemala, Part II: San Pedro/Lake Atitlan and Antigua

Read Part I: Coban, Lanquin, Semuc Champey and Xela here

Before we hit the road again, Doug and I started our third day in Xela with a traditional Guatemalan breakfast:

Breakfast usually includes eggs, refried beans, corn tortillas, plantains and a piece of local cheese. The sausage on this plate was a little something special. The tortillas were probably my favorite part. Loved that they were so fresh and thicker than you find in the States.

After breakfast, it was time to start the trek out to the beautiful Lake Atitlan. We had been splurging (if a few extra bucks counts as splurging) on nicer Greyhound-ish buses but Doug thought I needed a true Guatemalan travel experience and decided we should take a chicken bus for the first leg of our travels.

Chicken buses come in the form of school buses that have been given a very colorful coat of paint. They get their name from the fact that Guatemalans often use them to transport live animals, including chickens. Three people to a seat is the usual—Guatemalans don't mind getting a little (or a lot) cozy.

We took our chicken bus to Panajachel (aka Pana), a small town on Lake Atitlan, and then hopped on a boat for a 45 minute-ride across Lake Atitlan to San Pedro la Laguna, another small town.

A touristy town, San Pedro tends to attract the "hippy" brand of traveler. The town is filled with cobblestone streets and winding little alleyways that, though charming, made it difficult for me to get my bearings. Good thing Doug had been to San Pedro several times previously and knew his way around.

After checking into our hostel, it was time for some drinks. First stop, The Buddha Bar for a beer.

The Buddha Bar offers pool tables, bench seating and a large bar downstairs with more seating and big, open windows on the second floor. After Xela's chilly nights, the more tropical climate in San Pedro was a nice change.

Our next stop was a lake-front hotel for sangria on their patio.

Beautiful view but the place was buzzing with little gnats. Let's just say our sangria definitely came with a little extra protein in it... gross.

By then it was time for some dinner at Hummus Ya, an Israeli restaurant also located on the waterfront. Fun fact: many young Israelis come to Lake Atitlan after finishing their mandatory military service, so there are quite a few Israeli restaurants and it's not uncommon for signs to be written in Hebrew. Huh. 

After din, it was back to The Buddha Bar for some very sad attempts at playing pool. Mostly by me.

Our second day in San Pedro started with some kayaking on Lake Atitlan.

Kinda fun but I'm an idiot and forgot to put sunscreen on my left shin. Major burn. Oops.

After all that paddling, we needed some sustenance so we enjoyed some Por Que No-like tacos at a small taco restaurant...

... followed by a freshly-made smoothie from a little street-side stand. 

Since there's not a whole lot going on in San Pedro on a Monday, we spend the rest of the day bumming around the free local public pool which boasted its own full bar. Sweet.

After two days in San Pedro, it was time to hop on yet another bus, this time to our final destination: Antigua.

Doug described Antigua to me as the Disney version of Guatemala and I think that's certainly accurate.

It's the only city where I saw tourists who were pushing 40 and up and though it was certainly picturesque, menus in English and a dearth of dining options offering traditional Guatemalan food do take away from the fun of visiting another country.

We ate a quick lunch at Luna De Miel, a crepe place, and spent the rest of the day walking around the city unsuccessfully searching for souvenirs for my mom (although she does not really deserve them seeing as how she has yet to frame and hang the paintings I got her on Mykonos last summer.)

We stopped for dinner at an Italian place followed by a round at Reilly's Irish Tavern. Yeah, not so Guatemala-y but oh well.

Our final stop of the night was a little bar that featured a secret (kind of) mezcal tasting room. When we entered the bar, I could see through some small windows that there was a second room but there was no obvious way to get into it. Since Doug's all knowledgeable and such, he knew that you enter through an inconspicuous little door that required us to duck down low to get through it. Tricky! 

The next morning it was back on the bus for me for a quick ride to the airport in Guatemala City.

Obviously, the parts of Guatemala that I saw were more touristy areas, but I really enjoyed my visit and hope that I get to see more of Central America in the future!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Alameda Restaurant: Burma Superstar

Guatemala Part II coming soon...

In the meantime, check out this post by Lauren (of Sugar Coated Sisters) about our recent tasty lunch at Burma Superstar.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Guatemala, Part I: Coban, Lanquin, Semuc Champey and Xela.

A few weeks ago I made the trip down to Guatemala to visit my friend Doug (check out his blog here). Doug is interning for Semilla Nueva, an organization dedicated to sustainable agriculture development, but he took the week off to show me around the country.

I should probably let you know from the beginning that we were not very good about taking pictures of our meals. Oops. So this is going to be more of a "look at what I saw" than a "look at what I ate" post.

Let's get started: 

Doug met me at the airport in Guatemala City and, since Guatemala City is not a very safe place for anyone, let alone gringos like ourselves, we immediately set off for our first destination: Lanquin.

Coban/Lanquin/Semuc Champey

Lanquin is about a 6 hour bus ride from Guatemala City. We started out a little bit late so we ended up staying in a city about 2 hours from Lanquin called Coban.

Not much happening there but I was introduced to a unique Guatemalan method of soda consumption: sipping from a plastic bag.

Doug explained that a lot of vendors prefer to put soda or juice in a plastic bag when they sell it so they can then return the plastic bottle for cash. Makes sense to me.

After our quick overnight stay in Coban, we met our tour guide for the day, Tony, and drove out to Lanquin. We dropped our bags off at our hostel and then headed out to Semuc Champey, a series of small pools on a natural land bridge that crosses the Cahabon River.

Before we hit the pools, we first took a tour of the K'anba Caves. I really wish I had pictures of this because it was probably the coolest adventure-type thing I've ever done.

Before we entered the caves, we were instructed to strip down to our swimsuits and tie our flip flops to our feet. Hmm. It made sense later. At the entrance to the cave, we each received a candle to hold and then followed our guide into the darkness. A few feet in, we came to a pool. In jumped our guide, swimming through the pool with his candle raised in one hand. We followed. So went our tour through the various caverns. There were rope ladders to climb up, narrow rocks to squeeze through and even a 14 ft. jump from the rocks into a pitch-black pool. Pretty awesome stuff.

Following our tour of the caves, we took a leisurely float down the river in inner tubes. Super relaxing.

Then it was back in adventure mode as Tony scampered up to El Mirador, a look-out point, with Doug and me in hot pursuit. It was only a 30 minute hike but by the end I could barely catch my breath and was sweating buckets. It wasn't pretty. But the view from the top was: 

After a quick pre-packed lunch at the lookout, we made our way back down the mountain and finally it was time for a (much-needed) swim in the pools of Semuc Champey. So refreshing. I could have stayed there swimming around for hours but, all too soon, Tony said it was time to go.

We headed back to Lanquin and got a little cleaned up before making our way over to Las Grutas de Lanquin caves to do some exploring and try to catch the mass exodus of bats from the cave's entrance at sunset.

We almost gave up but eventually the bats came out in full force. One of the Guatemalan guides leading another group explained that if you caught and ate 100 bats, you would be able to fly. Doug and I agreed that it probably wasn't worth the trouble.

After that, it was time to head back to our hostel, Zephyr Lounge. Not a bad place as far as hostels go. Delicious food and drinks and a great view.

Xela (Quetzaltenango)

Following our big day in Lanquin, it was time to head to Xela, where Doug lives and works. Xela is officially known as Quetzaltenango but is more often referred to as Xela, a shortened version of the city's Mayan name, Xelaj├║.

We took a bus from Lanquin back to Guatemala City and then from Guatemala City to Xela. It turned out to be about 11 hours of traveling. Long day.

Doug and I quickly grabbed some street food for dinner around Parque Central (see below) and then met his boss Darren for tequila shots and a few beers before a group of us headed to La Rumba, a local theater that has been converted to a dance club. There was a lot of good salsa dancing going on (from the locals) and a lot of bad salsa dancing too (me and the other gringos).

Photo by Douglas Franz
The next day, Doug showed me around Xela. Our first stop was the zoo. This lion was my fave (outside of the squirrel, of course.) Regal but so sad. Love him.

Then it was off to the markets...

Photo by Douglas Franz

... followed by a stroll through the very colorful cemetery. 

We also sampled some more street food. Guatemalans love their fried food and mayo.

Doug had been raving about tortas so I obviously needed to try one of those too. Tortas in Guatemala are sandwiches filled with chunks of hot dog, ham, chicken and chorizo topped with mayo, salsa, tomatoes, and jalapenos. The one we got from this cart was not that good but Doug assures that me that it did not accurately represent tortas as whole. 

After snacks and our long walk, we needed some refreshments so we stopped at the liquor store to pick up some Quetzalteca, a super cheap Guatemalan rum, and I whipped us up some drinks using limes we had picked up from the market.

Not the best cocktails I've ever made, but when enjoyed on a rooftop with an excellent view of all of Xela, they certainly weren't bad.

Stayed tuned for Part II: San Pedro/Lake Atitlan and Antigua!

P.S. You might have noticed that two of the pics I included are official "Douglas Franz" photos. Yep, he's super fancy. Read more about Doug's upcoming photo show here.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

DIY: Cilantro-Cucumber Coolers

Check out my Back Bay Patch column from last week for the full story behind this uber-refreshing cocktail.

The version I'm posting here is slightly different from the one posted on Back Bay Patch. This second time around I used cucumber-infused vodka instead of muddling the cucumber with the cilantro and the result was a much smoother cocktail. The drink does look pretty with the cucumbers floating around in it though...

- Several sprigs fresh cilantro
- 1 lime, juiced
- .5 oz simple syrup
- 2 oz cucumber infused vodka
- Club soda
- Ice

Muddle cilantro and lime juice in cocktail shaker. Add vodka, simple syrup and ice. Shake. Pour into glasses and top with club soda.


Friday, June 3, 2011

Washington, D.C.: Good Stuff Eatery, Ben's Chili Bowl, Baked & Wired, DolceZza, Cajun Experience

The roomie and I have been talking about taking advantage of all the travel opportunities around the East Coast since we moved here, but we didn't manage to actually get it together and go somewhere until a few weekends ago when we headed for D.C. 

Before departing, I mentioned our trip to my friend Miranda and she offered to ask her friend Timothy of LA Meets DC for suggestions. We followed Timothy's recommendations closely and, let me tell you, the guy knows what he's talking about. We had a great weekend and ate some great food. Thanks again, Timothy!

On to the good stuff. Literally.

Shan and took the bus down late Thursday night and arrived in D.C. on Friday, just in time to meet up with Shannon's friend Brad for lunch at Good Stuff Eatery. 

What: Good Stuff Eatery
Where: 303 Pennsylvania Avenue SE, Capitol Hill
Honeys Heart: Spike's Sunnyside

Do you remember Spike from Top Chef Season 4? Yeah, this is his burger place. He also owns the pizza place right next door, We, The Pizza.

Good Stuff has counter service only, which I was a little surprised about at first, but it works. For all the people crowded in there during lunch hour, we were able to order and get our food relatively quickly. It's also pretty cheap.

On Brad's recommendation, I ordered Spike's Sunnyside with cheese, applewood bacon, and a fried egg on a brioche bun with good stuff sauce and "lotsa napkins" ($6.89). 

The burger was very rich what with the brioche bun and fried egg plus bacon and cheese but since it was on the smaller side (a good thing in this case), I had no qualms about gobbling the whole thing right up. Would definitely recommend this one. Delicious.

Shan opted for the Good Stuff Melt with melted cheddar & muenster, caramelized onions and mushrooms with good stuff sauce ($6.89).

I'm not a huge fan of mushrooms so this wasn't my favorite but it was still pretty tasty. Shannon did agree though that the Sunnyside was better. So maybe just get that one.

And, because I can never resist french fries, especially when they're rosemary fries, we also ordered Spike's Village Fries topped with fresh thyme, rosemary & sea salt ($3.79).

These were good, but we didn't really have any room left for them after we finished our burgers. Oh well.

After lunch, it was off for some site-seeing before hitting up the (surprisingly happening) bar scene in Arlington. Fun!

We got a bit of a late start on Saturday which worked out just fine since our first plans for the day involved lunch at Ben's Chili Bowl.

What: Ben's Chili Bowl
Where: 1213 U St NW, U-Street
Honeys Heart: Chili Half-Smoke

If you are a fellow appreciator of food, you can't really visit D.C. without making a stop at Ben's Chili Bowl for a half smoke.

Open since 1958, Ben's is famous for it's "half-smoke", a 1/4lb half pork and half beef smoked sausage served with mustard, onions and spicy chili ($5.45). 

Shannon and I both enjoyed our half-smokes, though I would probably forgo the mustard the next time around.

We also liked this sign hanging in the kitchen:

It reads...
List of people who eat free at Ben's Chili Bowl
Bill Cosby
The Obama Family
And no one else.

Following a stroll around the U-Street neighborhood (lots of good antiques shops!), Shan and I headed over to Georgetown.

TLC junkies like my sister might be shocked that Shan and I skipped Georgetown Cupcake (the shop featured on TLC's D.C. Cupcakes), but Timothy advised against stopping there and I'm glad we listened to him for two reasons:

1) Because this was the line at Georgetown Cupcakes:

And you can't even see the end of it...

2) Because the place that Timothy recommended instead, Baked & Wired, was home to literally the best cupcakes I've ever purchased at a cupcake shop. Really.

What: Baked & Wired
Where: 1052 Thomas Jefferson Street NW, Georgetown
Honeys Heart: Cupcakes! All of them!

Also located in Georgetown, Baked & Wired offers several different types of baked goods, including over 20 different flavors of cupcakes, as well as premium coffee. (Get it- baked and wired?)

Love how they display their cupcakes!

Shannon went with the Chai Tea Latte cupcake with vanilla cake blended with chai spices and topped with chai spiced buttercream. I tried the Menage a Trois made with with chocolate cake with cream cheese icing and raspberry filling.

Both were heavenly. The cakes were flavorful and moist and Shannon and I both appreciated that while the frosting was delicious, there was only a thin layer of it compared to most cupcakes at cupcakes shops. That really allowed the cake itself to stand out which I personally think should always be the focus of a good cupcake. Basically, these were pretty much my ideal. Can't wait to take my mom to Baked & Wired in a few weeks to try out some of their other flavors!

After enjoying our cupcakes by a river filled with boats pulled by donkeys (completely true), Shan and I continued our exploration of Georgetown, stopping frequently to proselytize about the joys of Baked & Wired over Georgetown Cupcakes and Sprinkles (sort-of true.) We're pretty sure we convinced a young couple that they should avoid Sprinkles at all costs but you never know about people. Sigh.

What: DolceZza Gelato
Where: 1560 Wisconsin Ave NW, Georgetown
Honeys Heart: Cucumber Vodka Mint Sorbetto

You would think that after finishing off our generously-sized cupcakes Shan and I would be all sweeted-out, but that was not the case. Especially when we eyed the sorbet and gelato at DolceZza.

We decided to share a "small" Cucumber Vodka Mint Sorbetto. This little dixie cup was $5 or something ridiculous like that but it was so, so good. The cucumber and mint combo was very refreshing and the vodka helped bring out those flavors even more. My mouth is watering remembering it.

We walked around Georgetown a bit more (Shannon was kind of obsessed with it) before it was time to make our way over to Dupont Circle for dinner.

What: Cajun Experience
Where: 1825 18th Street NW, Dupont Circle
Honeys Heart: Beans and Rice

Another one of Timothy's recommendations, Cajun Experience is a (you guessed it) Cajun restaurant run by real live Louisianans.  

Shannon and I grabbed a seat on the back patio and ordered some Hurricanes to start. They were really sweet and not very strong... kinda disappointing.

For our appetizers, we started out with the Hush Puppies ($4). Very tasty.

I also decided that I needed some Red Beans and Sausage ($6) served over rice. It was so good that I ate most of the dish. That turned out to be a problem later...

For her entree, Shan chose Shrimp and Grits ($17), which earned her stamp of approval.

I went with the Jambalaya ($17), which was really flavorful and had the perfect amount of spice. Unfortunately, I was so full from the beans and rice appetizer that I could barely force myself to eat it. So frustrating! I tried my best but it just wasn't happening. Too bad we couldn't do doggy bags either. Boo.

Following dinner, we hung out at an Irish bar for awhile trying to drink beer but sadly we were still just too full to really enjoy it. Bummer.

The next morning, we stopped for a quick brunch before heading to the Greyhound station for our endless 9-hour ride (not including the layover) back to Boston.

While the getting there and back part was definitely lame, overall Shannon and I loved D.C. and I wish we had gone earlier so there would have been time for us to make a second trip.

Also, did you know the metro stations in D.C. are like Space Mountain?