Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Cross-country skiing on dry land

While I played a lot of tennis as a kid (and still dabble in that sport and pickleball [aka "geezer tennis"] hiking and bicycling have long been my aerobic activities of choice. I was a runner for a few years too and even completed a couple of 10Ks, but it always felt like drudgery.

A Canadian friend asked my wife and me if we'd ever tried nordic walking, and neither of us had ever heard of it. Is is pretty obscure, though at least 500,000 Scandinavians do it, but it really does deserve to be better known and I predict at least a minor uptick in its popularity once fellow aging Baby Boomers learn of its existence.

Nordic Walking was developed as a summer training tool for avid cross-country skiers. The poles used are very different from regular hiking poles, and the technique is also unique (though it will be very familiar to anyone who's done classic (as opposed to skate) cross-country skiing. Nordic walking poles have a strap that hugs the hand and wrist in a way that reminds me of a nice pair of clipless cycling shoes snapping into a pedal: once you're "in" there's no effort to hold the pole and the technique comes quite naturally. The arm is at almost a 90 degree angle at the top of the poling motion - elbow barely bent at all - and the pole strikes the ground behind you in a natural motion that gets your triceps and indeed most of your upper body very involved.

Here's a brief introductory video that shows the basics well. Studies show 40% more calories burned vs. regular hiking at the same pace as well as a significant increase in muscle mass (starting with the triceps). In my own very limited experience one of the joys of nordic walking is that it turns a brisk flat walk or hike on mostly level ground - which wouldn't ordinarily get my heart-rate up into serious training range - into an actual workout, while going briskly up moderate hills with some vigorous poling gets into a harder cardio range akin to cycling up a 6% grade at a brisk clip.

The poles (there are several brands but the best appears to be Leki) come with sport-specific angled hard rubber feet for use on pavement and that seems to be the best way to initially learn the technique. There are also plenty of instructional videos on Youtube. After a few pavement walks to fine tune pole length and technique we took off the rubber feet and used the carbide tips on flat to rolling hiking trails and that's turned out to be if anything even more enjoyable.

No doubt actual cross-country skiing is a lot more flowing and fun, and if we lived near water I'd just get myself a racing shell or high-tech kayak and get my full-body aerobic exercise fix that way but nordic walking is something you can truly do anywhere. It's certainly worth a try, and many cities have active clubs where you can borrow a set of poles and try before you buy.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Homeless, perhaps country-less, but not joyless

The 4 Great Bodhisattva Vows

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them all.
Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them.
The Buddhadharma is boundless; I vow to master it. 
The Buddha’s Way is unsurpassable; I vow to attain it.

While I'm not a Zen practitioner, one of the sanghas Erin and I have benefitted from sitting with during these past two weeks of election madness and post-mortem is affiliated with Roshi Joan Halifax and the Upaya sangha in Santa Fe. 

Yesterday we sat with the well-known teacher David Loy, a lovely man who has long been at the epicenter of Buddhist engagement with climate change and social justice, as well as local Tucson teacher Sensei Al Kazniak, who while not as well-known as Loy seems to me to be equally accomplished. 

Both of these teachers have a default mode of deep listening and curiosity that's clearly anchored in compassion and a steely determination to not only be of benefit but to bring life's most difficult challenges onto the path of practice and liberation.  

I quoted the four great vows from this tradition because they embody so much of what seems called for at this time. They're all about intention and aspiration - about (one could say) aspiring to do the impossible because it's what's necessary. At a more subtle level, such vast altruistic aspiration also undercuts clinging to outcome - something that was made so much more poignant when listening to Loy (who turns 70 next year) talk about his intention to focus ever more clearly on altruistic activism in his own limited remaining time on earth despite being fully aware of how irreversible catastrophic climate change already is. 

Moving from the big picture to our own very small but still real challenges, we've been confronted lately with just how much clinging to security, stability and control of outcomes we're still invested in. We've really appreciated being back in the U.S. for the better part of three years now, but our ability to do so has been entirely contingent on Obamacare. And while there are far more unknowns than knowns about life under Trump and the Republicans over the next four years, repeal of the Medicaid expansion and slashed subsidies in the individual insurance market are pretty much guaranteed to be among the first things that occur. 

So...having only just recently put so much energy and emotional investment into the early stages of becoming part of the community here in Tucson we're faced with the very real, perhaps inevitable, possibility of resuming expat life in Mexico with no plan to return. The question then becomes how do we embrace that situation joyfully and fully, and how can we structure our lives so as to be of benefit? 

It's really interesting, albeit unpleasant, to walk through our cozy but comfortable 70's mobile home and see the clinging arise as we try to summon the energy for one more move after way, way too many previous ones (and to see how draining and unhelpful it is to hold onto that story/tape loop too!).

In the past we've always hedged our bets at least a little: renting a small storage locker "just in case," stashing a few boxes with relatives for future sorting and schlepping. We're beyond done with that, and are instead seeing what it looks like to give up our deep clinging to real physical books in favor of Kindle-able everything, let everything from home-roasted coffee to microbrews go, and make plans to get on a plane with a couple of checked bags and a carry-on apiece as our sole worldly goods. That's still a hell of a lot more stuff than a Thai forest monk with two sets of robes and an alms bowl, but we do try to keep in mind the liberating potential of the Buddhist definition of homelessness. 

Years ago we did a retreat in Albuquerque with the wonderful vipassana teacher Eric Kolvig, at the height of the '08 financial market meltdown and while there were grave doubts about whether Obama could win. Eric wisely shelved the planned retreat topic and instead made the whole time together about turning towards fear, panic, uncertainty and desire for control while culitivating the mindstates of equanimity, compassion, lovingkindness and empathy that are our true nature and refuge. Early on in the process he offered this teaching from his own teacher Sayadaw U. Pandita:

"Why do we do this practice? To develop a heart-mind that is ready for anything." 

May it be so. 

Monday, July 11, 2016

Mexico at Thailand prices

We're just a few weeks in to what we hope will become a regular annual cycle of 3-4 months in México with the rest of our time spent in Arizona. Given the insanity of U.S. politics and health care that plan has a lot of asterisks associated with it.

We'd just arrived here at Lake Chapala when the Brexit fiasco caused the largest one-day loss in the history of the stock market, and along with it a spike in the already-amazing U.S. dollar:Mexican peso exchange rate to almost 20 pesos to the dollar. Things have settled down a bit since, but we're currently at 18.50 pesos to the dollar.

During our 3+ years of full-time living down here we averaged 11 pesos to the dollar, and felt rich during occasional spikes above 14. Today's exchange rates are an amazing, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for savvy expats and tourists, while they add unwelcome and untimely hardship to the already tough circumstances of everyday Mexicans.

Yesterday one of the trucks that regularly circulates through the villages here offering fresh produce direct from the coast was offering peak-season Paraiso mangoes. They're the ones that look like this:

The price? 3 kilos for 20 pesos. That's US$1.08 for six point two pounds of perfectly ripe, headily aromatic fruit.

Tacos are still 9-10 pesos - not cheap at all for locals earning 40-50 pesos an hour, but with three of them making a full meal for one it's a $1.50 main meal of the day for us.

Seasoned expat friends report being able to buy new and used cars now for thousands less than U.S. prices, instead of paying a substantial premium as is usually the case, and many folks who planned to be renters for the duration of their stay in México are taking a hard look at buying modest places since rents remain high while peso-denominated properties are up to 40% cheaper than normal in dollar terms.

I don't expect this situation to persist long-term (and for México's sake hope it doesn't!) but for anyone who's contemplated a visit or long-term stay here there's never been a better time. Let's just hope Faux News and the rest of the U.S. fear media machine continue to portray México as a scary place to visit (unlike the firearm and violence free country up North) - otherwise we might be faced with the prospect of this amazing country building a wall to keep the gringo hordes at bay.

Monday, March 28, 2016

AriMex: Our Next Chapter

View of Tucson from the front porch of our mobile home

This July will mark two years since our return to the U.S. from Mexico. We've appreciated the easy pace and access to wilderness in our current small town of Cañon City, Colorado, but have also found ourselves spending more and more time away.

A good friend advised me to seriously check out Albuquerque and Santa Fe before we moved here since they have so much more going on in areas like Buddhist study and practise, the arts, local food and other areas of interest but what kept coming up for us instead were things in and near Tucson, Arizona. Arizona, given its politics alone, was never on our radar screen as a place to live, but a couple of Dharma teachers we love live in and around the city, and we've also found ourselves captivated by the subtle beauty and silence of hikes in the desert.

Daytime view from the covered patio

Environment aside, what's really sold us on Tucson is the vibrant, feisty and very welcoming progressive community, from local food and microbrew fanatics to a very diverse and socially-engaged subset of the Buddhist and Christian contemplative communities. Both Erin and I see many opportunities to serve and to make a difference, and after spending years in small towns the chance to be part of thriving, age-diverse communities in the real world (rather than relying mostly on the internet!) is very exciting.

I've written at some length about the financial aspects of what we're doing, in part in hopes of helping others avoid mistakes we've made and in part to give a bit of hope to other folks faced with semi- or full retirement on very modest incomes - knowing that such situations are all-too-common. While Tucson certainly isn't as cheap as Cañon City it's still very affordable by U.S. standards and a good 20% cheaper than Albuquerque (and probably more like 50% cheaper than Santa Fe, given the crazy housing costs there).

The key for us was finding a comfortable, well-maintained 2 bedroom, 2 bath older mobile home in a spectacularly-situated 55-and-over community on the West side of the city. We have miles of great hiking right from our door, yet are an easy (and lightly-trafficked) 8 minute drive (or pleasant 20 minute bike ride) to the heart of downtown. With $15,000 tied up in the home and the monthly lot rent of $455 including access to a year-round salt water pool, gym and clubhouse we'll be able to continue to live a decent lifestyle during the 8 months each year (October-May) we plan on being in town. Given the summer temperatures in Tucson we wouldn't have considered moving there without a viable way to escape, and we're fortunate both in having family in the Pacific Northwest and, decisively, in loving our "second home" of Lake Chapala, Mexico, where we plan on spending at least 3 months enjoying the very best time of year there, the rainy season.

Lake Chapala sunset

Given the crazy political situation in the U.S. and the fact that our ability to be here at all is entirely dependent on the continued existence of always-under-attack Obamacare we know we need to keep our footprint light and our options open. For now and for the foreseeable future spending two-thirds of each year in Arizona and a third in Mexico sounds just right.

Linda Vista trail living up to its name

Monday, February 15, 2016

Oil and vinegar salad basics for discriminating cheapskates

Over many years of entertaining friends and family one of the most consistent pieces of feedback I've received has been praise for salads and requests for dressing recipes. 

The privilege of time spent in France and Italy years ago hammered home the decisive importance of using only the very best ingredients and keeping things simple. Today knowledge of many of those ingredients seems to be almost lost, even among many who consider themselves "foodies." Much of the problem (and I'm writing entirely from a U.S.-centric perspective here) is that the best oils and vinegars are almost unavailable at retail in the U.S. - and will certainly not be found in the places you'd think (by virtue of prices charged) would have them, such as the major natural foods supermarket chains. 

Olive  & Walnut Oils

For the uninitiated, a thorough perusal of the Truth in Olive Oil site is well worth your time. If you want to spend the money to experience at least a few of the oils that set the standards there's no better place to find them than Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, Michigan. You can buy the Romate vinegar (see below) and many other treats there as well. Giuliana Imports in Colorado, in addition to its excellent wines offers a carefully curated selection of organic olive oils that, while not inexpensive, are fresh and offer superb rapport quailty:price. A third option is Tuscan oils specialist The Rare Wine Company

For value and freshness, not to mention supreme affordability and value, the go-to choice is the authentic Tuscan vintage dated oil from Costco. At around $12 for a liter it's less than one-third the price of top small-producer oils, is 80-90% as good, and will certainly be far better and fresher than any famous oil you find at fancy grocery stores, in part because the latter oils are almost certain to be at least a year or two past date. So while it's good to taste the very best Italian and French oils, you can do a lot worse that to do what I do and just lay in a year's supply of the Costco Toscano  (not to be confused with the only-for-cooking generic Costco oil in the huge plastic bottles) when it comes out in the spring and use it for both salads and sauteing. 

The only other oil I recommend keeping on hand for salads is a rich, traditionally-made walnut oil, and here, too, you have a choice between the absolute best product, from French producer J. Leblanc, and a much cheaper oil that's 80-90% as good and requires no special search. 

The Leblanc oils (the walnut being his most famous product, but his hazelnut oil is also exquisite) can be found on Amazon and occasionally at good retailers. They are nothing short of sublime, and make other, more readily-available oils taste so bland by comparison that you quickly realize they're not worth the trouble. 

Second best is a phenomenal American-made oil from Black walnuts that can be found - of all places - at Wal Mart - and for about a third the price of the Leblanc. It's called Hammon's Black Walnut Oil, and the company has an excellent, informative web site. 


I owe Ari Weinzweig from Zingerman's so many debts for his pioneering work and brilliance that I wouldn't know where to start with thank-you's, but high on the list would be much gratitude for him pointing out that the single most useful and versatile vinegar to have on hand is a sherry vinegar - not a red wine one, and certainly not the industrial/commercial balsamics that in all honesty should never find their way past your front door for any purpose. 

There are a number of excellent Sherry vinegars available, but my favorite for consistency and value is the one from Sanchez Romate (who among other things are makers of one of the two best Spanish brandies, the legendary Cardenal Mendoza). It's a full 750 ml. wine bottle's worth, at a great price from Zingerman's, KL wines and a few others. Plus the bottle art is beyond cool!

Sherry vinegar in pantry, the next task is to obtain a truly great red wine vinegar, and here there is one product that towers above all others - the New Orléans method products from the legendary Martin PouretHere's an article on this amazing company from the New York Times. Fair warning though: once you taste the Pouret products you'll never be happy with other vinegars. You can find the full range (along with many other temptations, including hard-to-find Nyons olives, Tarbais beans and duck fat for the best roasted potatoes) at the estimable New York mail order firm French Feast

Balsamic Vinegar

At least once in your life you should splurge and spend $100 on a 100 milliliter bottle of (that's actually the least you can spend) of the real thing from Modena, along with reading the descriptions of how the product is made and the various grades in Lynne Rossetto Kasper's magnificent cookbook The Splendid Table, in which you'll learn that real balsamic vinegar was never intended to be a commercial product, and that the substitutes for the real thing we commonly find in the U.S. are unfit for just about any use.

Here again Zingerman's deserves lots of credit (and your patronage) for being the pioneer in educating us while bringing in the best of the best for decades (and if you live anywhere near Ann Arbor you should simply visit, taste as many oils and vinegars as you can, and spend).

For everyday use perhaps the best choice is the Vecchio Dispensa 8 year old, or for a bit more money you may be able to find the Villa Manodori at a local market or online. While far less concentrated than authentic traditizionale these "balsamic condiments" are the least you can spend for a product worthy of drizzling on (and transforming) a simple rotisserie chicken, local strawberries in season, or dressing a Blacksmith's Salad (raw radiccio dressed with a 2:1 olive oil/balsamico blend with slivers of Reggiano Parmigiano on top.

You'll never see a salad dressed with a "balsamic vinaigrette" in Italy. A few drops of one of the everyday-priced vinegars mentioned above, when added to great red wine vinegar like the Pouret, add a lovely sweet-sour note to dressings for bitter greens.

Ratios and Recipes

While Marcella Hazan and many other authorities on Italian cuisine like to dress their salads to taste in a bowl, I find French precision helpful in achieving consistency.

Insalata means "to salt," and without good salt it's not a salad. Any good fine-grain, non-iodized sea salt will do, though the Sel Guérande grey salt from French Feast is especially good (and very easy to order alongside your Pouret vinegars).

For a subsantial salad for two people, start with a generous 1/8th teaspoon of salt. Always dissolve the salt in the vinegar (it won't dissolve in oil) - and of course the same order applies when using lemon juice in lieu of vinegar. Somewhere between three-quarters of a teaspoon and a full one should be just about right for the vinegar, and the starting ratio for vinegar to oil is always 1:3. With experience it becomes second nature to back off on the vinegar for mild greens like Bibb lettuce, or to add an extra jolt for Spinach or Frisée avec lardons.

Perhaps more important than ratios is restraint. The goal is to just barely coat the salad, with no dressing whatsoever pooled in the bottom of the salad bowl. Mixing thoroughly is just as important: I make sure to toss at least 35 times before tasting for balance, thereby only correcting with more salt, vinegar or oil when absolutely necessary.

Probably 80% of the time I make the simplest of vinaigrettes - or what Marcella Hazan simply called "real Italian dressing:" olive oil, vinegar (or lemon juice), and salt. With a little (but not much) more effort one can make an equally classic French vinaigrette by adding half a clove of minced garlic and a quarter teaspoon each of dried tarragon and sharp Dijon mustard (Amora from French Feast is superb) to your vinegar and whisking these with the oil (olive or walnut work equally well).

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Everyday wines for cheapskates

One of the occupational hazards, if you will, of working full-time as a professional taster and buyer of coffee and tea for many years is that the impetus to taste, compare and evaluate carries right over into all other food and drink. I learned early on to harness that energy into finding wines and spirits offering the same outstanding value-for-money (what the French call "rapport: qualité-prix") I was looking for on the caffeinated side of things. I look for screaming value in both my stimulant and my back-brain depressants!

"Champagne tastes but a beer drinker's budget" is an old cliché that certainly describes me and many friends, but with good beer (thanks to rapidly escalating prices for hops and malt) now costing upwards of $1.50 a bottle it's actually possible to drink good wine for less per serving, provided you know where and how to shop. 

Reading Robert Parker and Steven Tanzer's wine journals was invaluable early on, and Parker's regular features on the world's greatest wine values in particular still make a subscription (or at least a one-time purchase of a used copy of his Wine Buyer's Guide) worthwhile for those unfamiliar with the regions and importers most likely to deliver the best values. Spain, by the way, is such an amazing source of high value wines - many made from grape varieties not found anywhere else - that it richly rewards special study, using the superb Peñin Guide

To cut to the chase, here are the basics as I see them:

1. "Food of the region with wine of the region" is eternally excellent advice. That automatically means European wines - in my case mostly rustic French and Italian reds to go with the foods I cook and cuisines I know best. California, Aussie and other New World wines are mostly excluded, for the following reasons:

a. The varieties planted, with few exceptions, are poorly correlated with soil and climate (Napa and Sonoma would be mostly planted with Rhone varietals rather than Chardonnay and Cabernet had terroir been considered, as Bonny Doon's Randall Graham points out in the excellent movie Mondo Vino). It takes centuries to figure this out and in California that process has just begun. 

As Kermit Lynch pointed out long ago, the most versatile red wine with food is bistro staple cru Beaujolais (made from Gamay), followed by a good Cotes du Rhone (grenache/syrah/mourvedre, mostly), while with whites you'd want either a dry Riesling or one of the crisp, perfumey wines from the Southern Rhone (typically a blend made of some combination of grenache blanc, viognier, rousanne, marsanne or clairette). 

b. Affordably excellent wine comes from countries where drinking wine with meals is an everyday occurrence, not a special occasion. The sweet spot for value for California wines, for example, is in the $100-300 a bottle range where they can and do compete with exponentially more expensive grand crus, but in the $10-12 range New World wines don't hold a candle to European offerings. 

c. Irrigation, which is forbidden in most of Europe but routine in the U.S., increases yield while decreasing concentration and terroir.  Excessive yields from the least food-friendly grape varieties combined with manipulation and additives mean that high-value, crisply acidic and concentrated wines from the New World are very hard to find in the sub-$15 a bottle price range. Cheaper domestic wines are usually dilute, almost invariably too sweet, often filtered to within an inch of their lives and frequently contain additives. 

Vin en vrac to vin en boite

When we first started visiting European vineyards we'd routinely see locals schlepping what looked like 5 gallon plastic gasoline carriers up to the counter, where the employee would fill them with wine with what looked like a gas hose. This is how everyday wine has been drunk for centuries, and of course even with a sizable family and daily consumption with lunch and dinner oxidation dramatically decreased the quality of such vin ordinaire over time. 

In recent decades the wine-in-a-box format has almost entirely replaced the old en vrac cans, improving quality enormously. There's a ton of good-to-great boxed wine in Europe, and in Australia it's over 50% of the total market, but in the U.S. the package is pretty much exclusively associated with rotgut swill. Of course the same is true of canned beer, but Oskar Blues and its many imitators have long since shown that the best way of packaging beer (cans beat bottles for freshness, ecological impact and durability) need not be associated with insipid lagers. 

The boxed wine format is ideal for wines that don't need aging (which is to say over 90% of worldwide production), provided that one understands its limitations. The opened shelf life of boxed wine is 4-6 weeks, but unopened great care must be taken, as the bladder the wine's packaged in in is much more permeable to air than a glass bottle. You only want boxed wine from the most recent vintage (I'd avoid anything older than a 2014 as I write this in mid-August, 2015) and the wine needs to be kept in a cool place. 

Bottles and corks are expensive in and of themselves and much more expensive to ship than 3 liters of liquid thinly covered by a plastic bladder and cardboard. Cost-wise what this all translates into is very good to excellent boxed wines at the high end of the market in the $24-36 per box range, which (since each box holds the equivalent of 4 750ml. bottles) translates to $6-9 per bottle for wine that in conventional bottled format sells for $10-17. 

I'll list some favorite boxed wines below, but bear in mind that there are any number of regional importers bringing in both boxed and bottled wines from small producers that the wine press doesn't rate. Ask around. 

The best importers

We were just out on the West coast and I was reminded again of how many excellent boutique importers there are bringing in awesome small producer wines at great prices. Grape Expectations in Berkeley, Kysela Pere et fils, Riservati in Seattle and so many others with specific specialties (only Alsatians, for example, or obscure high-value stuff from Portugal) are all worth learning about and each region (at least on the coasts) has many folks doing great work. 

On a national basis the standard by which all others ought to be measured is Eric Solomon's European Cellars, which brings in an amazing range of high-value wines from Spain and France. Some of the better-known offerings include Domaine Andezon, Cercius and La Garrigue from the Rhone valley, Evodia garnacha and Solanara monastrell and many others. More than any other importer I know of, Solomon's name on the back of the bottle is a guarantee of outstanding value. 

Robert Kacher is another longstanding superstar importer, as is Kermit Lynch (though the latter's distribution system means even his high-value stuff falls just outside true cheapskate territory). The same is true with the great Neal Rosenthal (memorably profiled in the aforementioned Mondo Vino film). Jorge Odonez is a Spain specialist who gives Solomon a run for his money in the high-value market with his superb Tres Picos Garnacha (Parker's value wine of the year) and the consistently excellent $6 a bottle (in boxed format - also in bottles for $9)Viño Borgia:

A newer entrant to the boxed wine category is large-scale Spanish producer Juan Gil, whose Shania wines (a deeply flavored monastrell/mourvedre and a crisp white made from indigenous varietals) can be found for around $20-22 per box. 

At the higher end of the artisanal boxed wine market From the Tank  wines from Jenny et Francois (around $36-39 per box) seem to be in a league of their own, with a red, white and rosé available that should all be in the 89-93 Parker point range. The red in particular is a show-stopper that's easily as good as a carefully chosen $15-20 bottle of Cotes du Rhone from Solomon or Lynch. 

On the mass-market side of things, Bota Box offers a more-than-decent Old Vines Zinfandel and a serviceable Chardonnay. Big House Wines, now independent but founded by the irrepressible innovator Randall Graham, offers a Big House Red that despite its California provenance offers Rhone-like zippy food-friendly flavors and a Big House White to match. All of the aforementioned wines can be had for $17-20 per box, and while they're not the equal of the boutique stuff they are easily found almost everywhere. 

Black Box Wines is the original American premium product in the category. It used to be 100% California fruit but explosive growth forced them to source in Chile for all but their Platinum reserve offerings. Quality is good but it's a Cabernet and Chardonnay universe, meaning that if your everyday fare is limited to burgers and steak or fish in cream sauce you're okay but otherwise better by far to cast your net towards Europe. 

Wines to avoid

Where to start? All of the truly cheap boxed wines, Yellow Tail and anything else with an animal name or icon on the bottle, anything with a numerical wine rating shelf talker on it from any source other than Parker or Tanzer (not that they're infallible but most other sources are either corrupt or clueless). The hard fact of the matter is that anything under $20 a bottle from California, Oregon, Washington or Australia is almost certainly going to be an industrial not an artisanal product. I suggest saving your dabbling in those areas for special occasion wines, where (as mentioned above) it's easily possible to buy a really great bottle for a fraction of the cost of its European qualitative equivalent. 

Friday, March 13, 2015

Guatemala as a tourism & snow bird destination

Lake Atitlán at dawn
In my years of working in specialty coffee I visited Guatemala more often than any other country - which makes sense, given that it produces a wider range of high-quality regional coffees than all of the other countries in Central America combined. 15+ years later, my trip this year was a chance to experience the country as a tourist rather than for work, for the first time. 

When I first visited in 1990, the civil war was still in full swing. Someone had been machine gunned on the front steps of the swank Camino Real hotel days before my arrival, and every visit to farms entailed riding in a Land Rover with a shot gun under the seat and other weapons in the hands of armed guards. Over a hundred local villagers had just been massacred in the village of Santiago Atitlán, producers of one of the certified organic coffees I'd been buying. The political realities of Guatemala (one of the original Banana Republics), and the U.S. role in undermining democracy and supporting murderous dictatorships there, was impossible to ignore. While still at Starbucks I began a lengthy correspondence with a professor of political science who'd devoted his life to telling the "back story" of life in Guatemala, and he shared with me a quote (I don't know the source) that has stayed with me ever since: 

"Beauty cloaks Guatemala the way that music hides screams."

25 years later the civil war is still a fairly fresh memory. The huge disparity between rich and poor and the oppression of the indigenous majority by a tiny ruling class are the same as ever, and the abundant supply of guns has shifted into private hands, with many in use by gangs involved in drug dealing, kidnapping, extortion and human trafficking. Guatemala continues to be one of the most dangerous and violent countries in the world, as this State Department report makes abundantly clear. 

Having lived in México for 3+ years my wife and I had adapted to living in places where rule of law is essentially non-existent, but there is of course a gradation in actual and perceived risk, from the relative safety of such gringo retirement havens as Lake Chapala or San Miguel de Allende, to the chilling atmosphere of Ciudad Juarez or the wilds of Michoacán. Guatemala City, even in the nicer and safer areas, feels more like the latter Mexican locales. 

As for the beauty of Guatemala, the fact that the country is awash in tourists despite high crime, poor infrastructure, expensive airfares to get there from any country and a strong local currency ought to tell you all you need to know. The natural beauty and cultural riches are off the charts. My wife and I, on the other hand, naturally see Guatemala through a México expat's lenses, and from that perspective it's hard to think of anything, culturally or culinarily, offered by the country that isn't offered by Oaxaca or Chiapas at 30-50% lower cost and with infinitely better food. 

We'd bought the most current guidebooks available for Guatemala prior to departure as well as consulting online resources such as expat forums and found all of the information on costs available to be way out of date. Not only has it been 6-8 years since these books were revised but the real surge in Guatemala tourism has occurred only since 2011 with a significant increase in prices due at least in part to many more European tourists (enough of a factor that almost all tourist-oriented restaurants charge 10% service automatically). 

For anyone contemplating a visit or (like us) thinking of Guatemala as a possible longer-term winter respite location, here are a few observations from our just-concluded trip:

Lodging: while hostelers can do just fine on $7-10 a night, costs for hotels and guest houses in Guatemala are 30-50% higher, apples-to-apples in terms of amenities, than in México. A $25 hotel room in Antigua or at Lake Atitlán is generally going to be like a $15 room in México, which is to say rock-hard bed, not particularly clean, with well-worn polyester sheets, lumpy pillows, marginal security, etc. We (too) often found ourselves spending $40 a night for still very basic but more livable accommodation. 

Anyone contemplating a longer stay (say for language study or volunteering) would clearly be better off renting a furnished apartment or the like, and we saw plenty of these on offer at prices comparable to what you'd pay in touristy areas of México. 

Transport: Guatemala doesn't have anything resembling the deluxe buses that make long-distance travel in México such a pleasure. Chicken buses are an interesting one-time cultural experience but that's it: they're dangerous, hot and crowded and your chances of being permanently separated from your luggage are quite high. Minivans holding up to 12 people are the best option between popular sites and are quite affordable. Once at your destination their are tuk tuks like the one below that can take you anywhere you need to go for a couple of dollars. 

Food: the staples in Guatemala are refried black beans, hand (never machine) made corn tortillas, queso fresco and an abudance of fresh fruits, squash and other vegetables. Indigenous stews such as pepian are worth a try as well, but (again) through a Mexican lens Guatemalan cuisine (like that of Nicaragua, Costa Rica and anywhere else in Central America) is about as bland and boring as small-town dining in the American Midwest - which probably goes a long ways towards explaining the endless choices of foreign cuisine in all of the tourist hot spots. 

While you can find a complete meal for $2-3 in local comedors, it's not likely to be a satisfying long-term choice unless you're truly prepared to "go native" in terms of adapting to local bacteria and getting used to the food-as-fuel reality of eating a dozen or more tortillas in lieu of more diverse but costly cuisine. $5-7 per person per meal is more realistic, and in any place offering international cuisine you should expect U.S. plus prices but with lower quality cooking and abysmally slow service. Don't expect to find anything remotely resembling the paradise of street food one gets used to in México: instead of glorious 75 cent tacos you'll see fried chicken and french fries, at KFC prices but with third world sanitation. 

We did stay at a few places with shared kitchen facilities and bought fruit and veggies at local markets, but here again learned in short order that the only way to avoid paying 2-3 times the actual local price is to shop at a supermarket, where there are fixed prices but of course much lower produce quality. This kind of price gouging for foreigners is certainly something we've experienced from time to time in México but never with the consistency we found in Antigua and at Lake Atitlán. I'd guess a retiree living in such places might eventually be offered the real price - or they could resort (as friends of ours in San Miguel de Allende once did) to having their maid do all of their food shopping!

Recreation: in Antigua there's a nice moderately hilly short walk to an overlook of the city called Cerro de la Cruz, plus some gyms, plenty of dance studios and some yoga classes. At the Lake it's easy to rent kayaks. Of course given the natural beauty and abundance of trails and dirt roads what one really wants to do is hike, but it's dangerous to do so given the rampant petty crime, and both the local and long-term expats we talked to advised either only going with guides or making sure to only carry items one was prepared to lose. This reality alone, in my view, is pretty much the kiss of death for Guatemala as a potential long-term stay or retirement destination. 

Medical care: there are plenty of doctors and dentists catering to wealthy visitors in Antigua but there as at the Lake any serious medical emergency is going to involve getting to Guatemala City (an hour from Antigua, 3.5-4.5 hours from the Lake). In short, it's no country for old (or infirm or handicapped) men. 

On a day-to-day basis, cobblestone streets, sidewalks with metal protruding from them and/or holes that can swallow an ankle and (in Antigua) air pollution from diesel-spewing buses, heavy and entirely unregulated traffic and ash (cineza) from Volcan Fuego are the main hazards.

Lake Atitlán (outside of the tourist trap village of Panajachel) is much less polluted, but Antigua though it only has a population of 50,000 has air quality that doesn't seem like any improvement on Guatemala City, a filthy and dangerous city of 4 million that most visitors do their best to avoid entirely except for the airport. 

I concluded my visit to Guatemala with a day of coffee cupping and conversation with one of the bright young lights of the trade, a wonderful young man who is improving quality and creating export markets for hundreds of small farmers. Tasting great coffees from Antigua, Lake Atitlán, Huehuetenango, Fraijanes, Cobán and up-and-coming regions I'd never heard of was a wonderful experience, and it made me realize that if I ever do return to Guatemala it will be for volunteer work in coffee. Other than that, it's a nice place to visit, but.....