Each winter for a number of years Meg and I would get the “Itch” and throw down our heavily used ski poles, sift through our dressers until we found our shorts and dig out our rock climbing gear from the back of the closet. Maybe it was the pain of looking in the mirror day after day in those long cold Wyoming winter months and seeing an alien like pale, cold body staring back at you crying for some Mexican sun. Or perhaps it was skiing deep Jackson hole powder day after day had lost its thrill and we needed some new excitement in life in the form of surfing or rock climbing. For whatever reason we made the transition from entrenched winter mountain folk to free wheeling, sun soaking, Mexico lovers for a couple of months each winter for a number of years.
It was these travel escapades into Mexico that I truly began to feel what travel had to offer; Exotic rock climbing locations, culture, open and happy people in every new town, endless vacant beaches and of course the food. Yes the food, these people knew how to cook. Every little town had its special dish and exciting road side dessert treats. Tables lined with vibrantly colored, homemade sauces, each one capable of offering the mouth a different flavor sensation. The cook typically giving a friendly warning of the sauces capable of scorching our soft gringo tongues. Fresh tortillas made in front of you while generous helpings of stripped barbecue beef or succulent chicken, cooked with pride in order to make a beautifully garnished , heaping 50 cent taco. Yes the food, maybe this was truly the reason we left our winter play ground and migrated to our great southern sister Mexico.
When starting this journey towards the southern tip of South America I had great expectations of exotic food exploration. A new country meant a new exciting array of food dishes for me to over indulge in. I thought surely if the Mexicans can create such wonderful dishes of tasty treats then their Latino neighbors must follow suit, it’s in their blood right. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t know the full extent of my foolish beliefs in Latinos diets or I may have never left Mexico.
It was about an hour after we crossed the border from Mexico to Guatemala that we pulled off the “highway” into our first Guatemalan restaurant. I was excited; what exotic food do they eat here? Will I be grilled up an odd tropical forest beast I have never heard of. Maybe some sort of strange yak milk vodka, or Monkey brains. Whatever it was I was hungry and had an open mind for some weird food.
The mountain of rice and thinly sliced, leathery, steak void of colorful garnish that was served to us seemed bleak at best. Surly we could spice up the dish with our array of sauces we had become accustomed to. Our quick scan of the restaurant reveled no sauce, where are my HOME MADE SAUCES? I asked our “waitress” for our sauces and was given a blind, life less stare in return. After an intense session of spanglish and cave man like hand gestures she gets the idea and returns to the kitchen. Ah sauces everything is ok, deep breaths. I am handed a solitary, generic ketchup bottle. After finishing the saltiest meal I have ever consumed, were talking tongue burning salty, we decide we just picked a bad restaurant, it happens, the next will surely be better. Right?
I curse the person who brought the processing of frying food to Central America. Our luscious taco joints of Mexico have been replaced by streets lined with overly fried chicken stands. One after another, restaurants with a sol menu of two things, sad pieces of chicken flesh dropped into a vat of dirty fry oil called Pollo frito [fried chicken] or Papas fritas, [ pathetically soggy and typically cold French fries]. I can’t claim to be a man scared to eat fried food, I love a good piece of fried chicken, every once in a while. Sure, chicken fried steak, bring it on. Wendy’s french fries, I aint scared. But really these folks love this crap and eat it every day all day. Good thing Meg is a fantastic cook. However, there are only so many ways to cook beans, rice and vegetables before even the best cooks give up in sheer cooking boredom.
It was in beautiful San Pedro, Guatemala that we fully experienced our first Central American Mercado. This is where we found food solace and completely gave up the idea of eating at a restaurants. A Mercado is a large outdoor market with a vast array of products and services offered. The mercado is where local farmers and villagers come to buy and sell all of their earthly needs. There are fresh veggies, amazing and exotic local fruits and my favorite, delicious traditional cooking. This is real food with dirt still on the carrots and none of the apples have little stickers that say “grown in Chile”. All the little sheik hippy markets of the states with the 5 dollar organic red peppers and dread locks have nothing on these folks, this is the real deal, eating local
Every little town we rolled into we would search out the Mercado and see what interesting and sometimes delicious traditional fair was offered up. Incredibly small and typically toothless, smiling women with tables over loaded with large pots of bubbling and simmering food. Plentiful amounts of diverse meat and spices forming a cloud of euphoric food smells would lour us in for a meal that was sure to please our traveling souls. With our plates piled high we would make our way to a typically fly covered over crowded communal table. The locals all excited to see us happily make room so we can sit and eat as friends. It was at these dirt floored, fly infested non refrigerated meat, mercados that I have had some of the best food and people interactions of my life.
We enjoyed the Mercado through many countries and became completely dependent upon them for all of our food needs. We didn’t visit a “grocery store” for months. Unfortunately the Mercado soul was lost when we entered Costa Rica. Instead of local traditional food and useful goods we found hordes of gringos and traditional handmade [in china] tourist crap. This was a new breed of Mercado that offered no use to us. It is sad to see what the tourist dollar can do to the traditions of a country, Pura Vida right!
The journey around the Darien gap had been exhausting to say the least and after three days of not eating anything and throwing up over the side of a boat we were hungry. We had heard rumors of Colombian food from fellow travelers and it sounded like our diet was to about to be on the up and up.
Our first meal was in a small Colombian costal town at the end of the Darien gap. There were about 3 large black women singing and whipping up some delicious stuff in that kitchen. I ordered a carne almuerzo witch simply means “meat lunch”. I typically never know exactly what I am going to get when I order so when the large bowl of soup showed up I was a little disappointed. I like soup but I never call it a meal and I was hungry. I inquired about my order in my typical perfect Spanish and the smiling toothy waitress insured me not to worry there was more to come. The next plate was enormous, piled high with rice, beans, yucca, salad greens and steak. It even came with a large glass of cold fruit juice which is a rarity in such punishing, tropical heat. I finished the meal feeling extremely full and satisfied especially when I paid the 2 dollar bill, Colombia was going to be a great country.
A week down the road in Colombia I had eaten almost that exact meal in every restaurant and I was becoming extremely bored. There was never anything different offered. They don’t even have menus in restaurants because well in Colombia there is only one meal that exists. Each plate contained a grotesque amount of white rice followed by even more starch of the potato or yucca or both and a small poorly grilled rubbery steak or fried/grilled chicken. Every town we drove through offered the exact same meal. A restaurant cook in Colombia has a very easy life; just memorize one plate and you’re good for a life time. Meg and I started splitting a plate because there is no reason for one person to eat that much rice at one meal.
By the time we entered Ecuador I had had enough. The South American’s diet was worse than Central American’s. It was time for something drastic to happen or I wasn’t going to make it much longer. Quito was our savior. We found a grocery store that could come close to being something that you would find in the states. We joyfully cruised down the aisles seeing such delicacies as chips and salsa, mac and cheese, mushrooms, spinach and my favorite cheddar cheese. It was like being a kid in a candy store. We filled up a grocery cart with all these glorious old familiar staples and spent more than we ever had on groceries on this entire trip, however I did have 4 bags of glorious tortilla chips and 5 cans of salsa so I felt it was entirely justified.
Our good food luck continued during our second day in Quito when we found a little gringo restaurant that actually had a menu which meant it had more than one food option. They served up some awesome food and I fell in love with their hamburger. It was like the cook actually cared how the food turned out. They used such exotic ingredients as spinach, tomato, avocado, mustard and real whole grain bread, things that I hadn’t seen used in a restaurant since Mexico. I ate a sandwich every day for a week at that fantastic little place. We were surrounded by restaurants in Quito but I was too scared to stray from my joint, I knew it was only a matter of time before I was eating lots of rice again.
It was In Quito that I realized I had gone full circle in my travel diet. Instead of searching out crazy different local foods like I had in the beginning of the trip, I was in search of familiar good old American fair. When traveling in Asia for two months I would eat anything new and different like bugs and rodents, even though it was typically gross. Now after 6 months of travel I would rather eat a good hamburger then try guinea pig, a supposed delicacy. Was I becoming soft, less adventurous or was it the fact that the food had continually proven it’s self to be dull and poorly cooked? Or maybe, I am just in search of some familiarity in my world of constant change and perpetual travel. Whatever it is I know that I am still a sucker for a really good hamburger, I guess that just another reason I love being an Americano.
P.S I hear rumors from other travelers that the food in Chile and Argentina is amazing. I hope they don’t have rice or pollo frito!!!