A January 2004 trip
to Coban by lcampbell
Quote: In Part 2 of 7 of our month-long journey around Guatemala, we learn about food poisoning, car sickness, and the quirks of getting information from well-intentioned locals while exploring a coffee farm, a limestone waterfall heaven, and an ancient cave.
This is also a primary coffee production area. I got my first tour of the entire coffee-making process (plus free samples!) while visiting the Finca (farm) Santa Margarita. Other worthwhile stops around town include a privately-owned Museum of Mayan Art, green and peaceful Parque Nacional Las Victorias, and the panoramic view from El Calvario church located on a hilltop on the edge of town.
Cobán is not overly dirty, but not overly clean either. The people are not rude, but are not terribly friendly – they are just busy with their own lives and will leave you alone. It is a great place to observe daily Guatemalan life. The town is bustling with cars and people. Market, food, bus, and banking needs centered around the main plaza.
Because my husband came down with a stomach bug, we were unable to participate in the one activity we had gone to Cobán for: a homestay with a Mayan family in a remote mountain village. Proyecto Ecoquetzal is is a non-profit organization that arranges these homestays - see my separate journal entry for details.
In Cobán, I learned that Guatemalan people think it is rude to answer a question with "I don’t know" so instead they will make up an answer. So please don’t be frustrated with their attempt at kindness, just avoid asking Yes/No questions, and ask multiple people the same questions, and go with the most popular answer.
For more information on Guatemala and Belize, see my other journals:
Guatemala on per day (will post September/2004)
Great Guatemala Loop Parts 1 and 3-7
Belize on per day
We decided to go via the path less traveled when we left Cobán, taking a two-day bus route through the highlands to go to Huehuetenango:
*Cobán to Uspantan = 4 hours, 10 quetzales(Q)/US.25 per person (pp), leave by Cobán main square 10-10:15am
*Uspantan to Sacapulas = 2 hours, 8Q/US.00pp, leave by Uspantan center square 3:30-4pm
*Spend night in Sacapulas - two main places to stay – Hospedaje Black River (25Q/US.00pp) and Hospedaje Tujaal (30Q/US.75pp). Both would qualify as "sufficient" to spend a night.
*Sacapulas to Huehuetenango = 3 hours, 12Q/US.50pp, leaves at 3am/4am/5am across the bridge from town.
This was our first "chicken bus" experience. We learned to be prepared for:
*Mountain driving – curvy and slow with precipitous dropoffs (think crashed buses at the bottom)
*Crowded conditions – 3 to 4 people per seat is common
*Plenty of locals to get to know!
*Throwing garbage our bus windows is standard
*Keep anything valuable on your person, as it is too crowded to keep your backpack with you on the bus.
Private or Shared Bath?
Rooms with both private or shared bath are available. The showers were at best lukewarm. Because of the high elevation and cool nights, a hot shower would have been nice.
When we first arrived at Hotel La Paz, we did not find the owners or employees to be very friendly. Maybe I had done a social no-no when checking in or something, but we were definitely not greeted with open arms (although they did bring some bottled water up to our room as we were settling in). When I asked to change rooms because of the musty smell and leaking sink, we were visited by the owner and reprimanded for using a bath towel to clean up the water from the leak. But after we got a new room, and after they found out how sick Dan was, and as we stayed multiple nights, I think that a more friendly atmosphere developed. The owners 8 year old daughter LOVED to play the "Memory" card game, and I spent many hours playing with her (and learning Spanish words) while Dan was resting from his illness. I ate some meals in the small restaurant and talked with the family, they told me where the 24-hour medical clinic was, and I shared some pictures from home. I also met a gregarious – and often drunk – businessman from Guatemala City, who was always good for a friendly chat. There is also a nice courtyard with plants and flowers, and small tables and chairs to hang out in to read or write in your journal.
Food and Other Amenities:
There was a limited food offering at Hotel La Paz. I ate there mostly for convenience and for entertainment from the owner’s young daughter. She always wanted to play games and sing songs, which was fun and nice. Otherwise, there was a good and cheap comedor (I had grilled chicken, potatoes, rice, and tortillas for 10 quetzales/US$1.25) on the same street as the hotel, but a couple blocks north, and plenty of other choices on the main busy street and near the town square.
Hotel La Paz is about a 5-10 minute walk from the main town square. I did like that it had a well-stocked and inexpensive corner store next door and that it was a bit removed from the bulk of the car traffic. It was also fairly close to Las Victorias Park and El
This seemed to be a safe place - the building was secured after dark, guests ring a bell to get in.
Room with private bath cost 72 quetzales/US$9
Room with shared bath cost 60 quetzales/US$7.50
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on August 4, 2004
Hotel La Paz
6a Avenida 2-19
Our first stop was a large park called Parque Nacional Las Victorias (entrance fee US$0.75 per person). This is a haven of green solitude right on the very edge of chaos. It was just a short walk from our hotel to the entrance of the park – enter at junction of 9a Avenida and 3a Calle. Once inside, there are many hiking options in the 82-hectare national park. Camping is also available, but I’m not sure of the security of the area.
Directly next door to the park is the best view of Cobán that you can get. Climb the stairs at the junction of 7a Avenida and 3a Calle to the entrance to Templo El Calvario. This humble Catholic church has a not-so-modest view of town and the surrounding mountains. The church itself is also pretty, as is the simple stone cross that seemed to look down on the town, almost guarding it.
On the opposite end of town from the park and the church is Finca Margarita. This farm grows and processes my absolute favorite, dare I say life-saving, beverage of all times: coffee! I never knew what was all involved in getting me may daily dark happy juice. The beans are grown on bushes, and unfortunately the beans do not all ripen at the same time. Therefore, the beans really are picked by hand (like they say in the advertisements). They are also sorted for quality by hand – the tour guide said that just one bad bean can ruin 50 good ones. Before roasting, dry beans are a jade green color. They are normally shipped at this point for roasting in their final destination. We did get to see and sample some roasted beans at the end of the 45 minute tour, and roasted beans are sold for a great price if you have room in your backpack or suitcase to carry them home! Hours: 8am-5pm Monday-Friday, and Saturday mornings. You do not need reservations (English or Spanish speaking guides available). Cost: 20 quetzales (US$2.50 per person) for the tour and samples. Entrance at 3a Calle 4-12, Zona 2.
The final town site that we went looking for was a privately-owned Museum of Mayan Art (6a Avenida 4-26, Zona 3). This was a small but excellent museum. Some of the most interesting carvings were figures posed in Buddhist-style lotus positions. The faces of the figures were also had Asian features. In addition to the figurines, there was Mayan jewelry, molds, tools, pottery, and more. Expect to spend 30-45 minutes. Cost: 15 quetzales (US$2 per person).
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on August 4, 2004
Attraction | "The Cascades of Semuc Champey and Cave at Lanquín"
The forests had been cut for wood for cooking and heating in the small mountain villages, and also for planting corn and coffee. The landscape was slashed all the way up to Semuc Champey, which made me doubt my LP guidebook report that "some people consider this the most beautiful spot in all Guatemala."
So I was pleasantly surprised that the beauty of this limestone, waterfall, and swimming hole oasis was indeed intact. The park is situated in a narrow part of the Río (river) Cahabón canyon. The river thunders under a 300 meter limestone "bridge" while tranquil green pools, with perfect miniature waterfalls cascading into them, occupy the top of the stepped bridge. This is close to paradise, for sure, complete with flitting blue butterflies.
After picnicking, swimming, and exploring for a few hours, we met our shuttle driver in the parking lot for transport to our next destination: the Grutas (caves) of Lanquín.
The cave was interesting, with plenty of formations and up-close looks at hanging bats. Our shuttle ride did not include guide services, but the guide for some of the others on the bus let us tag along in the cave. He didn’t have anything earth-shattering to share, but he did have a few tidbits about local Mayan history pertaining to the cave.
Semuc Champey: 20 quetzales(Q)/US$2.50 per person (pp)
Grutas de Lanquín: 20Q/US$2.50 pp
Unless you are on a guided trip, bring your own lunch, snacks, and drinks (no services available).
How to get there:
These are the main ways to visit the Lanquín area:
1-Public transport. Bus cost 30Q/US$3.75 pp each way. Bus goes to Lanquín town, where it is walking distance to the caves. You will have to find transport somehow to Semuc Champey (another 10km). The last bus to Cobán leaves at 1pm, so stay overnight in Lanquín for the best experience.
2-Shuttle service (unguided). We used this shuttle service, which we booked at Casa D’Acuña hostel in Cobán for 50Q/US$6.25 pp. Leave Cobán at 7am, return approximately 7pm. Shuttle visits both Semuc Champey and caves.
3-Guided days tours are available at Casa D’Acuña hostel or Aventuras Turísticas is Cobán for 260Q/US$32.50 pp. Includes transport, guide, breakfast, lunch, and entrance fees.
4-Renting a car or hitchhiking are other options.
Where to stay in Lanquín:
No matter which mode of transport that you choose, you may want to spend a night or two in the remote and peaceful town of Lanquín. Three options I heard of (but not much about) are Divina Providencia, El Centro, and El Retiro, each priced at 20Q/US$2.50 pp per night. Reservations not likely necessary.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on August 4, 2004
Cahabón River Municipality Of Lanquin, Alta Verapaz
If you would like to hike and protect the Alta Verapaz mountains while at the same time learning about Mayan Q’eqchi culture during a homestay in a remote village, check out the Proyecto Ecoquetzal website for details. Basically, visitors stay in one of two different remote Mayan villages that are only accessible by foot.
The first village is Chicacnab, which is located high in the cloud forest. This area does not have electricity or roads, and the cloud forest remains intact. The guide, usually the head of the family, will pick guests up in Cobán for the ride and hike to the village. He will also lead hikes in the cloud forest.
The second homestay choice is in the village of Rokjá Pomtilá, located next to river in subtropical rainforest. Guests make their own way (directions provided) to Rokjá, where they will be met and taken to their host family.
For both of these programs, expect very basic accommodations. Obviously, because visitors are staying in a family’s home, only one or two people at most can stay with the family at one time. Good fitness is required in order to hike to the villages and on the excursions.
Also in both programs, guests will learn about traditional Mayan life and eat traditional food, maybe help out with daily chores, and learn a few words of the Q’eqchi language. Make sure to learn about Q’eqchi culture, so as not to offend the family accidentally while visiting.
Cost for each program is approximately US$20-25 per person per day.
For either program, contact Proyecto Ecoquetzal 1-2 days before you would like to go. If you drop by the office ahead of time, you will receive an orientation packet that includes meeting time and map/directions, what to bring, what to expect, activity options, wildlife and plant information, and a long Q’eqchi phrase list (so you can try to learn some of the language before you go!)
Proyecto Ecoquetzal also accepts volunteers with agriculture, forestry, biology, or related background for a minimum 3 month commitment.
Proyecto Ecológico Quetzal
2a Calle 14-36, Zona 1
Port Angeles, Washington