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Licking Like a Local in Antigua, Guatemala (Ice Cream, That Is)

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Guatemalans love ice cream. Well, at least in Antigua they do. At every turn, the historic city's cobblestone streets seem to be crawling with people licking drippy cones of frozen cream topped with a dollop of syrupy strawberry goodness. And it made me want it -- like really want it -- all the time.

The ice cream obsession became similar to my neurotic cravings for coffee, and it had the same effect. Normally, if I were to see someone cradling a steamy cup of Joe, I would immediately feel the addiction tick go off in my head and, at that point, there would be no turning back: I would have to, somehow, get my hands on a vanilla soy latte. So, when I was taunted with swarms of people buying, selling, sharing and licking -- always licking -- ice cream, well, I had to get in on the licking party too. So I ate ice cream -- a lot of it -- and from almost every vendor and shop in Antigua.

And there were many shops and cart vendors to choose from, all located in walking distance of Parque Central. My top choices (in no particular order) were: Pida Sus Helados Cremosas, Super Esmeralda Helados, Saborealo Helados Chonita, and Deliciosos Helado Emanuel. Each rolling cart produced the same sugary vanilla ice cream plopped on a cone and smeared with strawberry syrup, and all for the fine price of 1 Quetzal (about $0.14). Although almost identical in appearance, the taste did differ from cart to cart. My favorite of favorites was Super Esmeralda Helados because it didn't have an overwhelming frozen yogurt taste, nor did it have a grainy texture like some of the others I sampled.

Helados Sarita and Helados Marco Polo seemed to be the two most popular ice cream shops in Antigua. They were set up more like your traditional mom-and-pop parlors here in the States, complete with a toppings station and a flavors display window. The ice cream at both was good, but I preferred to go the more authentic route and stick to trying as many different street vendors as possible.

All the ice cream eating was going just fine until I started to feel some uncomfortable rumbling in my stomach. As time passed the rumbling turned to pain, then the pain turned to nausea, and, well, you can probably figure out the rest. I began to wonder if I had gone overboard with the ice cream eating, but I rationalized that my consumption had been no more than what I would normally eat during an average week during the summer. No, there had to be more to what was going on. So I did what any savvy traveler would do -- I turned to Google.

It didn't take long to find the warnings. Almost every blog and informational website that mentioned ice cream and Antigua suggested that visitors should avoid eating from the carts on the streets as the sanitary conditions were "unregulated" and "unknown." So there I was, a supposed seasoned traveler, who always prided herself on knowing the "what to avoid" stuff, sick from the mounds of "unsanitary" ice cream I had obsessively shoveled into my mouth.

So the moral to the story here? Lick like the locals in moderation, and preferably in the confines of a mom-and-pop shop.