Antigua, Guatemala. A World Heritage site, Antigua is the home to scores of ruins from centuries past. Some are undisturbed in deconstructed slumber, while some have risen from the rubble, reborn many times over. An example of the latter is La Iglesia de La Merced, Antigua’s most striking colonial church. It is, arguably, the most beautiful house of worship in Guatemala, if not in all of Central America. Construction of La Merced commenced in 1548, and since, it has been rebuilt several times due to earthquake damage, most recently in 1976. As you stroll the cobblestones streets in Guatemala’s former capital, the pleasant yellow stucco walls of La Merced beckon you in. Rich in history and religious importance, the main reason to visit La Merced, however, is not to pray or admire the design. These days, people come to eat. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, the church's front lawn turns into an adventurous eater’s paradise – at budget prices. Whatever your reason for visiting -- penance or mango con pepitas -- you will be hard pressed to find a more lovely scene for an impromptu picnic that will leave your belly (and wallet) full!
Around La Merced, if you order an "enchilada," you may be surprised when you are handed something that more closely resembles a Mexican tostada – a crisp shell smothered with creamy guacamole, shredded chicken, a bit of lettuce, onions and tomatoes, and salsa picante. When you attempt to ask the proprietress to confirm your already, she’s already busy making your next course. Not to worry; this is the real deal, even if it's called an enchilada. Just take a bite.
Move farther into the grounds, and you'll find more...enchiladas, only these are more elaborate. This version is built on the same crispy, tostada-like tortilla, but this one consists of lettuce, pickled remolacha (beets), a savory ground pork mixture and finished with a bit of queso, salsa picante and cebolla, and onion.
If you're looking for something lighter, opt for a simple enchilada sold by women on the outskirts of the La Merced’s grounds. Their wicker or plastic baskets hold various containers with black beans, salsa picante, and cheese. For 4 quetzales (about $.50), you can munch on an enchilada without busting the button on your jeans.
Continue and you'll likely encounter what you recognize as tamales. Inquire, and learn they are chuchitos. Semantics! Order one with a healthy portion of guacamole. The springy yet dense masa de maiz is filled with a bit of pollo en salsa rojo and small, creamy white edible flowers called loroco, a common ingredient in Guatemala that burst in your mouth like firm, mildly salty capers.
Craving something hearty and soul-warming? Nothing is better for this than a bowl of atole blanco, a creamy white porridge made from cornmeal. Full ladles round out a bowl that is dressed with salt, salsa picante and beans. If you're on the run, you can ask for atole para llevar. This option is my preference, as with time the atole sets like polenta, making it a little more filling.
No street-eating sojourn at La Merced is complete without pupusa. Unfortunately, these little pockets of corn masa stuffed with either cheese or chicharrón are difficult to find, but they are worth the effort in scouting. Topped with a bit of guacamole, pickled cabbage, carrots and salsa, pupusas are a Latin take on grilled cheese. To find hot-off-the-griddle pupusas, look west to the store Tienda Andrew, which borders the park. There, two pupusa-packing women often set up shop on Sundays.
What’s a street-eating adventure without dessert? You have three solid options here in Antigua, and the first is a heaping serving of plantains or plantanos in thick, chocolate and chile-spiked mole sauce. Topped with sesame seeds that add a nice crunch, this sweet play on mole poblano is sure to delight the chocolate lovers in the group..
Lighter but just as satisfying are rellonitos de plantano stuffed with sweet black beans, and then fried and dusted with crusty sugar. When you take your first bite, the tough sugary exterior gives way to the warm, creamy, and mildly sweet filling. While this could serve as the end of your La Merced smorgasbord...
...a sweet yet tangy scent, floral and citrus, is recognized as mangoes. Served al natural or with a half-mandarin and a dusting of pepita-seed powder, this is the perfect, healthy end to your meal. Wash your hands in the fountain that graces the lawn at La Merced, then contemplate your next grand adventure in Guatemala – a well-deserved nap!