I get why people don’t eat street food when they visit Guatemala. After dropping hundreds of dollars (or more) on airfare, hotels, and other travel expenses, the last thing you want to do is spend your vacation touring Guatemala’s bathrooms.
The thing is, though, the street is exactly where much of the country’s best food is found. Here you’ll discover smoky grills lined with sizzling meat, señoras hawking homemade eats out of wicker baskets, and vendors pushing carts full of fresh, juicy fruit. There’s arroz con leche (a sweet, cinnamon-y drink of rice and milk that’s served steaming hot in Styrofoam cups), grilled pupusas (corn tortillas filled with melted, gooey cheese), and crispy tostadas (fried tortillas smeared with guacamole or black beans and topped with tomato sauce, crumbled queso fresco, and parsley). Guatemala’s street food is delicious, cheap, and infinitely better than what’s on offer in pricier restaurants with confused international menus.
I eat street food all the time and have been fortunate enough to never get sick. I think it’s partly luck and partly the simple strategy that I use to select the spots where I eat.
My first rule of thumb is to frequent places where the same people set up shop each and every day. Not only are these folks old hats at what they do, but they’d quickly lose their regular customers by serving sub-par food.
Of course, travelers who only spend a few days in a destination don’t have the luxury of knowing who regular vendors are, and so my second suggestion is to head to places with lots of locals—and plenty of conversation. Good vendors develop a rapport with regulars. If you see cheerful exchanges going on at a food stand, head there.
Finally, be observant. Street stands should be near-spotless. Look for an orderly set up: All food (unless cooking on a grill) should be covered, and there should be a designated spot–like a bucket–for dirty dishes, if disposable ones aren’t provided. Vendors who care about presentation will care about their products, too.
Of course, these strategies can’t guarantee that you’ll never cross paths with a mean-spirited microorganism, but they will lessen the odds. And if you’re still wondering if trying that grilled pupusa might come between you and your seeing one more Maya ruin on your Guatemala trip, I say go for the pupusa. I promise it’s worth the risk.