Hot Tamale! Volunteer Abroad & Savor Guatemala

by Joel Tan

A volunteer abroad trip isn't complete without feasting on local delicacies — and this is as true in Guatemala as anywhere else in the world. Foreigners who are volunteering in Guatemala and staying with a host family are lucky; they get to sample uniquely Guatemalan cuisine from day one. Volunteers who aren’t living with locals are advised to go out and explore Guatemala’s food culture before returning to the land of fast food and take-out.

Mouth watering Pache.
Mouth watering Pache - Photo courtesy Luisfi on Wikimedia

Maya cuisine plays a big part in traditional Guatemalan food. Expect a lot of beans, corn, and chile. What is perhaps the most prominent local food is the tamale: pockets of starchy dough, stuffed with a variety of fillings. Do you know Guatemalans have more than a hundred ways of preparing tamale and just as many variations? Here are a few types of tamales that you will want to sink your teeth into if you’re volunteering abroad in Guatemala:


Also known as tamales de arroz, paches are just like any tamale, filled with mouth-watering meat, olives, plums and raisins. What distinguishes it from other tamales is skin deep: instead of the more familiar maize masa (corn dough), the dough of the paches is made from potatoes. It is customarily prepared and eaten on Thursdays, especially in the Christmas season.

Tamales Colorados

They’re also known as red tamale because of the red tinge from tomatoes and annato seeds. Wrapped in the traditional corn dough, the appropriately colorful tamales colorados are stuffed with chicken, pork or beef, bell pepper and olives in thick tomato sauce.

Tamales Negros

As the name suggests, tamales negros are dark and sweet, thanks to the combination of chocolate, almonds, prunes and raisins as stuffing. Adding to the dark color is the dough made from blue corn or black corn. These make an ideal dessert.

Tamales de Elote

Like the paches, the dough of tamales de elote deviates from the norm. Instead of maize, or non-sweet corn, the dough of this type of tamales is made from sweet corn. Yes, that corn on the cob that you are used to eating is an elote. The stuffing of tamales de elote is also different; there's no meat!

Tamalitos de Masa

Guatemalans are also big on chips and dips! The only difference between your corn chips-and-cheese dip snack and tamalitos de masa is that the latter is lacking in flavor, making it perfect for dipping in hearty soups and piquant Guatemalan fare like spicy beans and salsa.

Tamalitos de Chipilin

This is a variant of the tamalitos de masa where the dips are stuffed in bite-sized tamales.


This is the most typical Guatemalan tamale. Chuchitos, also called small dogs, are smaller tamales seasoned with tomato salsa and traditional salty white cheese and wrapped in dried corn husks known locally as tuzas. Most are wrapped in plantain or banana leaves. Chuchitos are typical because they are commonly served at events.

Besides tamales, there is a wide array of other Guatemalan cuisine you can try while volunteering abroad in Guatemala.

For an appetizer, go for tostadas, or fried corn tortillas, often served with black beans, tomato sauce, or guacamole. The chicharrones y carnitas, or fried pork skin and pork meat, and yuca con chicharron, or boiled cassava served with fried pork chunks, are also highly recommended.

Looking for something heavier? Check out chiles rellenos, a bell pepper stuffed with meat and vegetables and then covered in fried whipped egg whites; or the estofado, a concoction of stewed beef and carrots.

Exploring the Guatemalan food culture is truly a feast for all the senses. If you’re volunteering abroad in Guatemala, break out the cubiertos and go on an amazing gastronomic adventure.