Cantinas… ever been to one? We’re not talking about your Brooklynite hip nightspots where your man Sergio sorts you out with the best $15 cuba libres you can find while listening to authentic South American classics like Justin Timberlake’s “Señoritas.” (Fun fact: a cantina in your faithful editor’s hometown Sydney, Australia has a candlelit shrine with photos of Jesus below a giant iron statue of a pig… because that’s Latin American, right?)
No, we’re talking about the salt of the earth bars/room-with-a-fridge-in-it you find all over Xela. If you’re looking for a real Guatemalan experience, you can’t go wrong chatting up the usually colourful crowds you find in these local institutions. As always, we here at the XelaWho HQ have got you covered with a guide to Cantina-land here in the fine city of Xela.
You can’t walk a few blocks in Xela without running into a cantina usually blasting Trova (local sad guitar folk music with hits like Tristezas Quetzaltecas) from a classic jukebox surrounded by tables of men enjoying a Quetzalteca Blanca or seven. The crowds are usually (read: always) all male and can get pretty rowdy after a few drinks, but you’ll hear some pretty wild tales of local folklore if you join in the fun. Word of warning: cantinas can be a bit rough so keep your wits about you and if you feel unsafe at any point, it’s probably time to move on.
The are some pretty famous cantinas in Xela. None more than El Carmen just opposite Mercado Central. Established in 1954, the same year that Guatemala’s President Jacobó Arbenz was assassinated in a CIA sponsored coup, Doña Ana Maria and her mum of El Carmen have outlasted the rise and fall of the Berlin wall, Guatemala’s civil war and the Rolling Stones. Surprisingly enough, while most cantina regulars are male, the proprietors are usually pretty tough ladies who don’t take schtick from anyone making a ruckus in their establishment. Doña Aura Violeta of the Super Chiva Cantina up near La Democracia market remembers passing many jovial Christmas Eves with her regular crowd of festive cantina dwellers who affectionately call her Abuelita (granny). So if you don’t have any plans for next Christmas, we’ll see you at the Super Chiva to neck back some quetzaltecas with granny.
The morning after a big cantina night might see you stepping over people sleeping it off in the street. While this can be confronting and sometimes amusing, it’s evidence of a pretty serious alcoholism problem in Guatemala. That being said, World Health Organization stats show that Guatemala has a rate of alcohol abuse disorders of 5.4% while the U.S. has a rate of 7.4%. So while you might see more people passed out in the street in Guatemala, it’s serious problem everywhere.
So mix up your nights out and stop by a cantina for some pre-gaming. Remember to meet and greet the regulars, the best part about cantinas are the stories and characters.
Órale until next month, Xela!