by Kevin Barrett, cocktail director at Foundation
photograph by Nick Pironio
A few months back, when spring and summer were meeting, I took a trip to Central America to visit my friend Lazlo and climb some volcanoes.
He would prefer I not mention which country. He has high demands for anonymity. We’ve known each other a while. Lazlo’s gotten me into and out of more trouble then I’ll ever admit, and he had been pestering me to come see him in Guatemala — whoops! Oh, well, he’s already relocated.
Lazlo and I met up in Guatemala City, because that’s where my plane landed. It’s a mostly charmless city with few redeeming qualities. But at the time – with the promise of travel and adventure in front of me – it held a certain allure.
After salutations, we checked into a hotel and went about the town eating and drinking and catching up. Lazlo’s not much for the phone, and I’m not much for heartfelt emails, so we had a lot to catch up on. We ended up at the hotel balcony drinking Gallo beer and Ron Zacapa rum into the wee hours.
Our original plan to scale several volcanoes got sidetracked immediately because the rainy season started early. Lazlo’s alternative plan seemed reasonable to me at the time: After we spent the night in the capital city, we would do something epic. We decided we weren’t just going to get drunk together in yet another country. Or maybe he let me think we decided that.
First thing the next morning, we caught a chicken bus to Antigua. Yes, a chicken bus, just like on TV, but with an elaborate paint job, and without the animals. The driver whipped around skinny mountain roads while another guy hung out the door yelling, “Antigua, Antigua, Antigua…”
After a few days in Antigua, we took a 12-person shuttle van – basically an express chicken bus – to San Pedro and got a room at a hostel. One of the many endearing things about Guatemala, besides the people, the food, the culture, the climate, and the volcanoes – is the hammocks. They’re everywhere, and it just feels right.
We bounced around San Pedro for a few wet nights, drank Ron Botran rum, and smoked Guatemalan cigarettes. I told Lazlo that this might not be the best way to prepare for our epic feat.
“It’s part of your training,” he told me.
From there, we chicken bussed it to Quetzaltenango, or Xela, 7,500 feet above sea level and Lazlo’s home base. This is where we were going to do something epic.
That turned out to be hiking to Lake Chicabal in the crater of Chicabal volcano. It’s a sacred place to Mam Mayans, surrounded by ceremonial altars. It’s also 9,000 feet above sea level.
Lazlo has a good set of lungs, a long gait, and doesn’t sweat much. I have a hard time keeping up with him on a flat surface at sea level. The steady, gradual climb destroyed my will. Every once in a while, Lazlo would look back and say, “You doing all right?”
Around every corner I suspected we would reach the top. I was disappointed many, many times. None so much as when I dragged my feet past a woman of 80 who wasn’t breaking a sweat.
When we reached the top, I let him know his training regimen wasn’t working for me.
“Doesn’t it, though?” he said.
I asked him how he climbed so steadily.
“It’s the way down that gets you,” he said. “Bad on your knees.”
I couldn’t believe him. The way down was going to be cake. Maybe I’d be ahead of him on the way down. That was my gift, going downhill. I was going to excel at that.
I didn’t. Lazlo was ahead of me the whole way down.
The next day, we made the awful decision to climb Santa Maria, 12,250 feet above sea level. Three and a half hours into the climb, when my hands and feet started tingling, I finally asked how much further. I was pretty sure my body was sending all my blood away from my limbs and to my organs to try to keep me alive a bit longer, thus the tingling. I was drowning in the clouds.
The last stretch was done on my hands and knees. The incline was so steep even Lazlo had to get his hands dirty. The moment it was over, and we had reached the top, and I was sure there was no more climbing, I wondered why I’d done this to myself. Maybe I did it so I could write a story about it. When I finally saw where we were, above the cloud line, I knew. How many people got to see this?
The climb down went a bit faster, but left the soles of my feet bruised and my left big toe swollen and bleeding. I wanted to tell Lazlo that he was right – the climb down really does get you – but he was too far ahead to hear.
This drink commemorates Guatemala and all of Central America, not to mention Lazlo’s epic climb of the Santa Maria volcano. This is a drink you can easily make at home during an Indian summer in Raleigh. I recommend using crushed ice.
2 ounces Ron Zacapa rum
1 ounce pineapple or mango juice
½ ounce fresh lime juice
½ ounce OJ
5 to 7 dashes Peychaud’s bitters or
½ ounce grenadine
Mix all ingredients, except bitters, in a shaking tin and dry shake (no ice). Pour mixture over crushed ice into a tall Collins or swizzle/pilsner glass. Top with Peychaud’s bitters or ½ ounce float of grenadine for a sweeter October.