Moon Guatemala (Moon Handbooks) - Al Argueta (2015)
on the road to Lanquín.
Collectively known as “Las Verapaces,” the departments of Alta and Baja Verapaz are mostly mountainous, remote, and clothed in verdant forests. Guatemala’s national bird, the resplendent quetzal, and its national flower, a rare orchid known as the monja blanca, inhabit the cool cloud forests of this region.
This is probably Guatemala’s most overlooked area in terms of tourism potential, as it sees surprisingly few visitors. The recreational opportunities and natural attractions are boundless and include spectacular waterfalls, cool mountain forests, mysterious caves, Mayan ruins, turquoise lagoons, and white-water rivers. Perhaps because Guatemala has always had more fame as a cultural destination, its equally splendid natural attractions have been overlooked. This tendency seems to be changing.
Although it might seem the Verapaz Highlands are a continuation of the rugged Western Highlands, they are unique in a number of ways, including their settlement patterns, history, climate, geology, and population. You won’t find much traditional attire being worn in these parts, particularly among the men. The women tend to wear traditional skirts with loose white blouses not nearly as colorful or intriguing as those worn elsewhere in the highlands. Still, Mayan culture is very much alive and well in the mountain towns and villages of the Verapaz Highlands. The stunning mountain scenery is on par with that found in the Western Highlands.
Perhaps most exciting for the visitor is the palpable sense of Las Verapaces being a well-kept secret just waiting to be told. It’s easy to fall in love with all that this wonderful area has to offer. New and increasingly comfortable accommodations with greater sophistication in services make this Guatemala’s ecotourism frontier.
As elsewhere in Guatemala, the main determinant of climate is the altitude. As both Alta and Baja Verapaz are largely dominated by the presence of mountain chains, you can expect to find some chilly weather at high altitudes. The Sierra de las Minas reaches altitudes of 2,375 meters (7,800 feet), while Cobán displays similar temperatures to those in Guatemala City, which sits at the same altitude. It is considerably damper in these parts, as much of the year sees the chipi-chipi, a misty drizzle that often dampens the atmosphere for entire days. Farther north, toward Chisec and the jungle flatlands extending northward, the temperature is substantially warmer, and it can be extremely humid. All of these conditions are further influenced by the seasons (rainy and dry) dominating the entire country, though this area tends to see much more rainfall throughout the year with a shorter dry season (Feb.-Apr.) than elsewhere in Guatemala.
Look for S to find recommended sights, activities, dining, and lodging.
S Biotopo Mario Dary Rivera: Also known as the Quetzal Biotope, this beautiful mountain park conveniently situated along the road to Cobán is the easiest way to explore the cloud forests and spot the resplendent quetzal (click here).
S Rafting the Río Cahabón: Battle rapids with names such as Rock and Roll, Sex Machine, and Corkscrew Falls. You can also explore caves and thermal hot springs along the forested riverbanks (click here).
S Semuc Champey Natural Monument: The turquoise limestone pools and waterfalls of Semuc Champey are among Guatemala’s most exquisite natural attractions (click here).
S Parque Ecológico Hun Nal Ye: One of Guatemala’s best-kept secrets is this private 135-hectare nature reserve where you can swim in pristine rivers, visit a limestone sinkhole, ride horses, and zip across the forest canopy (click here).
S Laguna Lachuá National Park: This exquisite and remote lagoon is thought to have been the site of a prehistoric meteor impact. The surrounding forests and azure Río Ikbolay are worth some exploration (click here).
The history of the Verapaces is also quite different from elsewhere in Guatemala. The region was populated by the Achi’ Maya, who were historically at war with the K’iche’ of the Western Highlands before the Spanish conquest. The Spanish themselves were unable to conquer the Achi’ and eventually gave up on this task, declaring the area a tierra de guerra, or “land of war.” The church eventually succeeded where the conquerors had failed. Convinced by Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, the Spanish military forces agreed to leave the region for five years to give de las Casas and his companions a chance to pacify and convert the Indians. De las Casas and three friars set out for the Verapaz Highlands in 1537, quickly befriending the Achi’ chiefs and learning the local dialects. New converts were made, and the Maya living in scattered hamlets were convinced to move into Spanish-style settlements. After this five-year term, the Achi’ were officially recognized as subjects of the Spanish crown, partially as a result of the passing of the New Laws in 1542 granting Indians basic rights and prohibiting their enslavement. The Spanish crown renamed the region Verapaz, or “true peace.”
The region began to grow and develop with the arrival of coffee cultivation in Guatemala, aided by its proximity to the Caribbean port via the Río Polochic and across Lake Izabal. A railroad would eventually be built along this corridor. In the early 1900s, a flood of German immigrants snapped up large pieces of land and began cultivating coffee and cardamom, thus further altering the regional demographics. By 1915, half of all Guatemalan coffee was grown on land owned by these German immigrants, who sold a large percentage of the harvest to their fatherland. Cobán in particular was greatly altered by this demographic shift, as it took on the appearance of a German mountain town. The vestiges of this old-world influence can still be seen here and there. German economic and cultural dominion over the region was abruptly put to an end during World War II, when the United States prevailed upon Guatemala to deport the German farm owners, many of whom were unabashed in their support for the Nazis.
Today, the Achi’ still inhabit Baja Verapaz in the area around Rabinal, with a largely Q’eqchi’ and Poqomchi’ population inhabiting the lands of Alta Verapaz. The region is still very much rural, much like the rest of Guatemala. Coffee and cardamom cultivation are still at the heart of the economy, with tourism beginning to make some significant inroads.
PLANNING YOUR TIME
You could easily spend your entire Guatemalan holiday in Las Verapaces, and it would be entirely worth it. But, time being the finite entity that it is, you’ll probably have to narrow your stay to your particular interests. North along Highway CA-14, the newly established Cloud Forest Biological Corridor is shaping up as a wonderful spot to explore a variety of natural attractions along the road to Cobán. Among these are the well-preserved cloud forests of the Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve. Cobán still serves as the most convenient base for exploring all that the region has to offer and has some wonderful restaurants and hotels in addition to a pleasing mountain atmosphere.
East of Cobán are the must-see turquoise pools and waterfalls of Semuc Champey and the nearby caves of Lanquín. Archaeology buffs will not be left wanting for attractions here, as the Mayan site of Cancuén, still being excavated and restored, lies north of here just across the border of Petén. Last but certainly not least is the almost perfectly circular Laguna Lachuá, a magnificent azure lagoon in the flat jungles of northwestern Alta Verapaz.
Baja (Lower) Verapaz is the name given to the southernmost of the two departments. It is fringed by semiarid plains at its southern extremes before mountains, most notably the impressive Sierra de las Minas, rise and give way to lush cloud forests. The department is bisected by a number of flat valleys, the most important being the lush river valley that is home to its departmental capital of Salamá. A number of other interesting towns can be found along this corridor extending west toward the department of El Quiché. To the east, the Sierra de las Minas extends into Alta (Upper) Verapaz before descending into the neighboring flatlands of Izabal department. The two regions’ unique ecosystems together comprise the bulk of all biodiversity found in Guatemala.
lush landscape of Alta Verapaz
To the north, Baja Verapaz again meets the department of Alta Verapaz. Its departmental capital, Cobán, lies north of this boundary in a lush valley flanked by green hills and coffee farms at a comfortable altitude of 1,500 meters (5,000 feet). To the north, the mountains give way to smaller limestone hills and flatlands pockmarked by a variety of caves and sinkholes. The jungle flatlands extend west into the Ixcán region of Quiché and northward into Petén.
The entry point for most travelers making their way into this region is from the south via CA-14, which branches off from the semiarid plains west of Guatemala City at El Rancho Junction and climbs its way northward into the mountains of Baja Verapaz. An excellent paved highway also leads south from Petén into Alta Verapaz, from where you can see the rugged limestone peaks off in the distance. It is one of Guatemala’s most wonderfully scenic stretches of highway.
Along the Cloud Forest Biological Corridor
The Cloud Forest Biological Corridor (Corredor Biológico del Bosque Nuboso, tel. 5918-5581 or 5322-8264, www.corredorbosquenuboso.com) is a relatively new creation that encompasses a forested area bisecting the Quetzal Biotope and Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve. Its purpose is to provide a buffer zone for a biological corridor protecting many species of animals living in these cloud forests. The area along the road to Cobán (CA-14) between Km. 142 and Km. 172 is part of this corridor, and it is clearly marked at its beginning and end. The corridor covers 28,640 hectares and includes nine communities and eight private reserves. A number of these private reserves are part of local hotels and restaurants that have begun catering to visitors interested in exploring all that this exuberant highland forest ecosystem has to offer. The result is an emerging ecotourism development area, which may serve as a model for other areas in Guatemala with roads adjacent to protected areas.
The initiative is managed by an association based at Restaurante Montebello, at Km. 164 in the vicinity of Purulhá, which can provide additional resources and information.
HACIENDA RÍO ESCONDIDO
The first stop along this ecotourism corridor is Hacienda Río Escondido (Km. 144, tel. 5308-2440 or 5208-1407, www.rioescondido.net, $25 per person), where you’ll find pleasant wooden cabins on a private nature reserve bisected by the cool, clear waters of the Río San Isidro. There are several kilometers of nature trails, horseback riding, and inner tubing to keep you busy should you not want to just relax and unwind. The best of the cabins are set along the creek. The restaurant here does barbecued meats, pastas, and smoothies you can enjoy in an open-air patio.
Hacienda Río Escondido
SIERRA DE LAS MINAS BIOSPHERE RESERVE
The Sierra de las Minas is a vast, 242,642-hectare mountain park harboring an astounding diversity of plant and animal life and encompassing a motley assortment of ecosystems, including cloud forests harboring several species of endemic conifers, as well as tropical moist forests and rainforests. The park extends 130 kilometers eastward (it’s 30 kilometers wide) into the neighboring department of Izabal, where it meets with the lowland forests and grasslands of the Río Polochic delta. The biosphere reserve ranges in elevation from 400 to 2,400 meters and is composed mainly of cloud forests throughout its mountainous core in Baja Verapaz. Sixty-two permanent streams have their source in the upper slopes of the biosphere reserve, making it an important watershed supplying the Motagua and Polochic Rivers. It is home to healthy populations of quetzals and jaguars, among other exotic species. Together with the adjacent Bocas del Polochic Wildlife Refuge, the parks account for 80 percent of Guatemala’s biodiversity. The biosphere reserve is privately administered by Defensores de la Naturaleza, a well-known local conservation group with ties to The Nature Conservancy, among others.
What Is a Cloud Forest?
Cloud forests are essentially high-altitude rainforests, though the biological characteristics and corresponding classification are much more complicated than a matter of mere altitude. In Guatemala, cloud forests average an annual precipitation of between 2,000 and 6,000 millimeters and are found at altitudes between 1,000 and 2,500 meters. The forests essentially serve as a large sponge, retaining water that is later distributed to surrounding areas by means of evaporation or the formation of small streams. More than 60 small streams originate in Guatemala’s Sierra de las Minas, for example.
A distinct characteristic of these forests is the presence of low-lying cloud banks forming on the mountains, under which the forest is immersed for much of the time. Large amounts of water are deposited directly onto vegetation from the clouds and mist, with the leaves of trees at higher elevations often dripping water. Cloud forests serve as the habitat for many species of plants and animals, including epiphytes, which grow on other plants. You’ll see tree branches thick with bromeliads, orchids, and tree ferns. As for wildlife, the forests support an abundance of rare and endangered species, including quetzals, howler monkeys, jaguars, and wild boars.
The Verapaz Highlands still contain many of these forests, including the largest protected cloud forest in Central America, the Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve. The cloud forests that once covered much of the Western Highlands have been largely lost to subsistence agriculture by indigenous people who seek to make a living by clearing the forests and cultivating crops on steep hillsides. Outside of the Verapaces, there are still some patches of cloud forest left in the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes as well as on the slopes of Guatemala’s volcanoes.
a cloud forest in the Alta Verapaz highlands
San Rafael Chilascó
San Rafael Chilascó is a small agricultural settlement that serves as a gateway for visits into the biosphere reserve. The town has unfortunately been the site of land conflicts (as elsewhere in Guatemala), and its Chilascó Community Tourism Organization has all but dissolved and is no longer the best way to arrange visits to the reserve. Likewise, the trail leading to one of Guatemala’s highest waterfalls is badly deteriorated, along with the signage that once guided hikers. A local landowner has closed off access to the park.
San Rafael Chilascó is reached via a 12-kilometer dirt road branching east from the main highway heading northward toward Cobán (CA-14). The turnoff is at Km. 144, just past Hacienda Río Escondido. There are daily buses to Salamá leaving at 5:45am, 8:30am, 12:30pm, and 3pm, all of which pass by the CA-14 turnoff ($1). You can flag down a northbound bus to Cobán or southbound to Guatemala City from the turnoff.
A five-hour hike from San Rafael Chilascó deep into the heart of the reserve brings you to the farming community of Albores, on the southeastern side of the mountain range. Defensores de la Naturaleza (tel. 2440-8138 or 2471-7942, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, www.defensores.org) has built comfortable cabins ($30 per person) to house visitors at its biological research station nearby. You can also stay in the community with a local family for $5 per person. There are about 70 families living in Albores, most of which have traditionally made a living from cultivating coffee, cardamom, and vegetables. Ecotourism is a relatively new source of income for them, and they welcome visitors with open arms. They can provide you with meals for about $5. There are cooking facilities at the research station and solar panels for electricity.
A park admission fee of $5 applies for exploring this part of the reserve. From Albores, there are two trails into the surrounding cloud forest. The first trail takes you to the magnificent Peña del Angel, an igneous rock formation at an altitude of 2,400 meters, from where you have an incredible view of the surrounding cloud forest and the Polochic and Motagua River Valleys. The rock gets its name from its appearance, like that of two extended angelic wings, thanks to the 1976 earthquake, which broke the rock in two. The second trail takes you to a lookout point built by Defensores to monitor forest fires, from which there are also fabulous views.
Albores is also accessible from the road leading east from Guatemala City to Izabal department (Hwy. CA-9). At Km. 89, a dirt-road turnoff (4x4 vehicles only) in San Agustín Acasaguastlan heads north for 22 kilometers to Finca Trinidad in Los Albores. From there, it’s a 5 kilometer hike to the biological station.
S BIOTOPO MARIO DARY RIVERA
Also known as the Quetzal Biotope, Biotopo Mario Dary Rivera (tel. 5333-6947, firstname.lastname@example.org, 7am-4pm daily, $5) is a 1,044-hectare protected area and one of several biotopes administered by University of San Carlos’s Center for Conservation Studies (CECON). It is conveniently situated along CA-14 at Km. 160.5, about an hour from Cobán. Though quetzals are easier to spot in Sierra de las Minas, the elusive birds are said to frequent the yard of some local eating establishments (Biotopín Restaurant and Ranchitos del Quetzal), where they like to feast on the fruits of the aguacatillo tree. The Quetzal Biotope’s convenient roadside location means that if you’re on your way to or from Cobán, you should at least stop in for a look. You might just get lucky and see one of Guatemala’s most beloved national symbols, with its exotic green plumage, long tail feathers, and bright red breast. Your best chances are between February and September. Plan on being up early if you want to see them.
Exploring the Park
Only a small part of the reserve is open to visitors, though there is plenty to keep you busy. There are two trails beginning at the visitors center, winding their way through the exuberant vegetation. The shorter Los Helechos (The Ferns) trail is two kilometers long, while Los Musgos (The Mosses) trail is twice as long. While you may or may not see a quetzal, you’ll certainly see a dense growth of epiphytes, mosses, ferns, and orchids along the well-maintained trails. Both trails pass by some nice waterfalls where you can swim.
Mario Dary Rivera
Considered by many to be the patriarch of Guatemala’s environmental movement, Mario Dary Rivera was a biologist who served as rector of the University of San Carlos in 1981, the same year in which he was assassinated. Dary succeeded in getting the municipality of Salamá to donate part of the land for the creation of the Quetzal Biotope, which was subsequently named after him; he served as the new park’s director from 1977 to 1981. Dary also founded the university’s Center for Conservation Studies (CECON) in 1981, along with its system of protected areas known as biotopes, set aside for the protection and scientific study of endangered plants and animals.
Today there are at least half a dozen of these biotopes throughout Guatemala. Among the animals being protected and studied are quetzals, sea turtles, jaguars, bats, deer, and Petén turkey.
Although the urban militant wing of the leftist Guatemalan Workers Party (PGT) has been attributed with Dary’s assassination, some believe his conservation activities stirred the waters with local logging interests, who may have also played a part. Unlike most political killings at the height of the violent civil war, Dary’s stands out because he was generally perceived to be right of center in his political inclinations.
Trail maps are available for $1 at the visitors center, where there is also an exhibit. A small shop sells snacks and drinks, and there are camping and barbecue areas. Camping is allowed with prior arrangement only.
Accommodations and Food
A number of comfortable lodgings are alongside the road in the vicinity of the biotope. The first place you’ll find, coming from Cobán, is Ranchitos del Quetzal (Km. 160.5, tel. 4130-9456 or 5368-6397, www.ranchitosdelquetzal.com, $33 d), where there are eight comfortable rooms in concrete structures with electric hot-water heater. The restaurant here serves basic, inexpensive meals ($3-6), and there is a trail to a waterfall and swimming hole 40 minutes away. Quetzals are sometimes seen here. Admission to the trail costs $5 for nonguests. It’s also known as Parque Ecológico Gucumatz. Across the street from the biotope is Restaurante Biotopín (tel. 4587-9155, 7am-5pm Fri.-Sun.), serving snacks, barbecued meats, burgers, hot dogs, and other picnic fare in an open-air dining room facing the woods. There are basic accommodations ($7 pp) and a trail leading to a swimming hole ($2.50 admission). Farther along the highway at Km. 158.5 is S Hotel y Restaurante Ram Tzul (tel. 5908-4066, www.ramtzul.com, $48 d), with comfortable accommodations in wooden cabins, all with private bath. A large restaurant tastefully constructed using 3,500 bamboo shoots serves good food three meals a day. The lodge is on a private 150-hectare forest preserve. A 45-minute hike leads to a pretty waterfall. Another lodge on a private forest reserve is Posada Montaña del Quetzal (Km. 156.5 on the road to Cobán, tel. 5800-0454, www.hposadaquetzal.com, $36-46 d), where you have a choice of staying in standard rooms or family-size bungalows. There are firm beds and an on-demand hot-water heater. The rooms can be moldy, which is common in these cold, humid parts. There are two swimming pools, table tennis, and a trail leading to a waterfall 30 minutes away.
Any bus heading along the Cobán-Guatemala Highway can let you off at the biotope, though be sure to let the driver know you’re getting off here. The entrance is at Km. 160.5.
PURULHÁ AND VICINITY
As you continue along the road toward Cobán, the next sizable town is Purulhá. Though the town itself is unremarkable, there are several important stops on the biological corridor along the road in the vicinity of town and farther east from the town itself.
Reserva Natural Privada Montebello
The private nature reserve and restaurant known as Reserva Natural Privada Montebello (tel. 7953-9234 or 7953-9215) sits along Km. 164 of CA-14. The specialties are a tasty chicken stew and traditional pastries. A small shop sells locally made handicrafts, and there are nature trails for hiking amid several pleasant streams crisscrossing the property.
At Km. 166.5, S Reserva Natural Privada Country Delight (tel. 5514-0955, email@example.com, 7am-7pm daily) is a quaint family-run inn and café. The delicious homemade food includes sandwiches, breads, cookies, and cakes. There are also smoked meats for sale. Double rooms in the main house with tiled floor, cable TV, large, firm beds, tasteful decor, and private hot-water bath go for $45. Bungalows range from $30 for a unit accommodating two people to $100 for a large, six-bed cabin. Camping in a covered area with cooking facilities, shower, bathroom, and a common area with table tennis, foosball, and a swimming pool is a great value at $7 per person. Bonfires and nighttime lightning bug shows between April and June are among the fun activities available.
The restaurant and lodge are on Country Delight’s own private reserve, but there are also other reserves adjacent to the property: Reserva Natural Privada Llano Largo and Reserva Privada Santa Rosa. Combined, they are roughly the same size as the Quetzal Biotope. The lodge can arrange visits to both.
CHELEMHÁ CLOUD FOREST PRESERVE
A turnoff at CA-14’s Km. 180 heads east for 22 kilometers to the town of Tucurú, from where it’s another 26 kilometers via a rugged dirt road passable only in a four-wheel-drive vehicle to the fantastic Chelemhá Cloud Forest Preserve. This privately managed protected area comprises 500 hectares of primary cloud forest and is part of the Sierra Yalijux mountain range, said to harbor Guatemala’s highest density of quetzal populations. The reserve forms part of an important migratory corridor to and from the Sierra de las Minas.
On the outskirts of the reserve, the S Maya Cloud Forest Lodge (tel. 5308-5160 or 5303-8708, www.chelemha.org, 2-night package deal for 2 people $367) is a comfortable, well-equipped wooden cabin built right into the side of the mountain in an environmentally friendly manner. Each of its four rooms comes with private hot-water bath and two beds. There are a lounge, dining area, and an observation deck with outrageous views of the forest-clad mountains in the vicinity. Its Swiss-born manager serves delicious European and international dishes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Activities include hikes through the reserve along trails with local Q’eqchi’ guides, visits to a local village, wildlife-viewing, and, of course, bird-watching. This is one of the best places in the country to spot a quetzal.
Maya Cloud Forest Lodge
Volunteer opportunities in the reserve are available through Unión Para Proteger el Bosque Nuboso (UPROBON, firstname.lastname@example.org), which manages the park. It also offers opportunities for scientific study and research.
Pleasant Cobán sits amid evergreen forests and coffee-studded mountains, making an excellent gateway for exploring nearby natural attractions. It has good hotels and food, as well as a tranquil country atmosphere. A small national park lies square in the middle of town. Though it is no stranger to urban sprawl and noise, the tranquility of this small town quickly reveals itself to you as you walk down its quieter side streets away from the noisy central area.
Cobán can sometimes feel a bit dreary, as much of the year sees the presence of a rainy mist known as chipi-chipi, though it’s not nearly as prominent nowadays because of local climate change from deforestation. Still, there’s something upbeat about this place and the abundance of nearby natural wonders gives it an entirely different feel from towns in the Western Highlands.
The town and its surroundings are an important gourmet coffee-growing center and also produce cardamom and allspice for export. The town is often referred to as the “Imperial City,” owing to its charter by Emperor Charles V in 1538. More recently, in the 19th century Cobán saw an influx of German families, who came to dominate the local culture and economy owing to their fortunes made growing coffee for export. The United States pressured the Guatemalan government to remove the Germans from the country during World War II. There are still bits of German influence here and there, giving the city its distinctive air.
Cobán is home to a yearly folklore festival taking place in late July or early August known as Rabin Ajau, in which a Mayan beauty queen is selected from among various hopefuls. Another important event is the annual orchid show held here in December.
A number of excellent outfitters have regular departures for the Lanquín caves and Semuc Champey as well as the Quetzal Biotope and points farther afield. Cobán makes a great place to regroup and get information before heading out on deeper explorations of all that Las Verapaces have to offer.
An excellent resource for planning a trip can be found online at www.cobanav.net.
Cobán’s triangular central park is interesting in that it is on a hilltop from which the rest of the town drops off in all directions. The cathedral contains the remains of a large, cracked church bell. A block behind the cathedral is the town’s market.
Templo El Calvario
For many, this whitewashed church dating to 1810 holds greater significance than the town’s cathedral because of its prominence as a site for Q’eqchi’ religious rituals on altars lining the long staircase leading up to it. Among the themes represented at its different altars are the granting of wishes for love and health, among others. The inside of the temple is virtually covered with votive candles, while hundreds of corncobs hang from the roof. Outside, there are fantastic views of Cobán and the rolling green hillsides all around. To the southeast is Mount Xucaneb, the highest point in Alta Verapaz. To get there, head west from the main plaza up 1a Calle and then north two blocks on 7a Avenida. You’ll see the long, winding staircase heading up to the temple.
Museo El Príncipe Maya
The excellent private Museo El Príncipe Maya (6a Avenida 4-26 Zona 3, tel. 7952-1541, email@example.com, 9am-6pm Mon.-Sat., $2) harbors an impressive collection of artifacts, including carvings in mother-of-pearl and jade, polychromatic pottery, ceremonial objects, tools, and weapons. Among the highlights is a Classic-period hieroglyphic panel from Cancuén and an Olmec crystal figurine with decidedly Asian features. The museum gets its name from a figurine of a Mayan prince dressed in full regalia, including a quetzal-feather headdress.
Finca Santa Margarita
Cobán has some of Guatemala’s best coffee, so it’s only fitting that you might have the opportunity to go behind the scenes and see the process of how the morning elixir makes it from a bush to your Bodum. The Dieseldorff family’s Finca Santa Margarita (3a Calle 4-12 Zona 2, tel. 7951-3067, 8am-12:30pm and 1:30pm-5pm Mon.-Fri., 8am-noon Sat., $5) is a working coffee farm where excellent, 45-minute guided tours are available in English or Spanish. You will get up close and personal with the process governing the planting, picking, roasting, packaging, and exporting of these wonderful beans. At the end of the tour, you’re treated to a cup (or two) of coffee fresh from the roaster and can buy a bag (or several) of the farm’s excellent coffee. The more exclusive “special” selection is a steal at just $5 per pound. You can also enjoy their coffee in a very pleasant café at Plaza Magdalena Shopping Mall.
Lovers of orchids will find nirvana at Vivero Verapaz (Carretera Antigua de Entrada a Cobán, tel. 7952-1133, 9am-noon and 2pm-4pm daily, $1.50). This wonderful nursery is just outside of town and has several hundred species of orchids on display. The best time of year to visit is between October and February, when many of the flowers are in bloom. The national orchid show is held here in December and is reportedly magnificent. A guide is on hand to show you around and will lend you a magnifying glass for viewing miniature orchids. Guatemala’s national flower, the rare monja blanca, can be seen here in season. Otto Mittelstaedt, the original collector of the nursery’s orchids, has died, but the nursery lives on. Vivero Verapaz is about a 40-minute walk from the central plaza, two kilometers southwest. A taxi costs about $4.
Orchid enthusiasts will also love Orquigonia (Km. 206 on the road to Cobán, tel. 4740-2224, www.orquigonia.com, 9am-5pm daily, $4). A guided tour takes visitors along a 1-kilometer trail where they can view over 200 species of orchids, birds, tree frogs, butterflies, and ferns while learning about the history of orchid cultivation in Guatemala as far back as the Maya.
Plaza Magdalena Shopping Mall (1a Calle 15-20 Zona 2, tel. 7952-2124, www.plazamagdalena.com) is where you can go to find goods from industrialized nations you might need while on the road or catch a movie. Its pleasant architecture pays homage to the city’s German roots. Run by a handicrafts cooperative, Aj K’uubanel (Diagonal 4, 5-13 Zona 2, tel. 7951-4152) has a variety of textiles, maize and wax art, and silver jewelry for sale.
Cobán has a variety of nearby attractions that can be visited in one day as well as numerous outfitters that can get you there. Popular day trips include the Semuc Champey pools and the Lanquín caves. Although these can certainly be done in a day, they are worth a stay of at least one night, as there are comfortable accommodations and plenty to see and do. If you have the time, stay overnight in Lanquín.
Another day-trip option includes the Quetzal Biotope, about one hour south of Cobán.
North of town, along Km. 24 on the road heading to Chisec, is the Sachichaj waterfall, another increasingly popular attraction. Most of the following tour operators can get you there.
Since the last edition of this guide, it seems the level of service provided by several local tour operators has gone downhill. Common complaints included issues with punctuality, unsafe driving practices, and involuntary bumping from full shuttles. One reputable company that is recommended is Cobán Travels (5a Avenida 2-28 Zona 1, tel. 7951-3528, www.cobantravels.com), offering day trips to Semuc Champey and the Lanquín caves in comfortable vans with breakfast, lunch, and park admissions included ($45). You can also book transport-only options to Semuc Champey ending up in Lanquín. Other options include trips to the Quetzal Biotope, Laguna Lachuá, and adventure activities like white-water rafting and rappelling. They’re also the best option for shuttle transport.
Proyecto Ecológico Quetzal (2a Calle 14-36 Zona 1, tel. 7952-1047, www.ecoquetzal.org) is a local NGO working with indigenous people in two communities near well-preserved areas of cloud and rainforest in Chicacnab (southeastern Alta Verapaz) and Rokjá Pomtilá (near Laguna Lachuá) to offer economic alternatives to deforestation via sustainable tourism. Guides are rural Q’eqchi’ Maya who know the forest intimately and have received thorough training as nature guides. Trekkers to these remote parts stay in the guides’ homes, which have been fitted with beds, toilets, and boiled drinking water, among other basic comforts. It allows for a true cross-cultural experience as well as a means for providing locals with a viable alternative to the destruction of the fragile ecosystem they call home. Your chances of spotting a rare quetzal are also fairly good. A two-night trip to Chicacnab costs about $55 per person, including guide, food, and accommodations with additional nights available for about $15 apiece. A two-night stay at Rokjá Pomtilá also costs $55.
In the budget range is Casa Luna (5a Avenida 2-28 Zona 1, tel. 7951-2922, www.cobantravels.com/casaluna, $7 pp in bunk bed to $16 d), where there are clean rooms, pleasant public areas for lounging, and nice extras like laundry service and free wireless Internet.
West of the central plaza and being renovated at the time of my most recent visit is Hotel La Posada (1a Calle 4-12 Zona 2, tel. 7951-0588, www.laposadacoban.com.gt, $60 d), in a 400-year-old colonial mansion with tiled floors, Guatemalan accents, and attractively tiled private hot-water bathrooms. The main drawback here is its location right in between the town’s two busiest roads. Under the same management as the bare-bones Hostal de Doña Victoria, Alcazar de Doña Victoria (1a Avenida 5-34 Zona 1, tel. 7952-1388, www.hotelescoban.com/alcazar.htm, $40 d) is a much larger, 50-room operation. The spacious rooms centered around a courtyard have firm beds and private hot-water bathroom, though rooms on the first floor can be a bit damp. All have tile floors and cable TV. There are a café and bar as well as banquet halls (which can be noisy). Beautiful S Casa Duranta (3a Calle 4-46 Zona 3, tel. 7951-4188, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.casaduranta.com, $60 d) has 10 tastefully decorated, well-appointed rooms—all with private baths—with Guatemalan indigenous blankets, tiled floors, and wrought-ironworks inside and outside the rooms. There are a TV lounge, a reading area, and wireless Internet throughout the colonial house centered round an appealing courtyard. An on-site café is open for three meals daily.
Outside of town and in a class all by itself on the road into Cobán from Guatemala City is Italian-owned S Park Hotel (Km. 196.5 Carretera a Cobán, Santa Cruz Verapaz, tel. 7955-3600, www.parkhotelresort.com, $40-65). It’s situated on its own 15-acre forest preserve and has many excellent amenities, including a gym, tennis courts, nature trails, and even a small zoo. Its 96 comfortable and well-decorated rooms are an excellent value starting at $40 for a standard double room with all the usual amenities, though they are near the road and tend to be noisy. A better option is a junior suite ($60 d). Try to book one in the Firenze building, where odd-numbered rooms have a view of sprawling gardens and a fishpond under a quaint wooden bridge. Suites with a living room and chimney are also available ($65 d), but these tend to feel smaller than the junior suites. Italian food is the specialty at one of its restaurants, while the other is a Uruguayan steakhouse. The gift shop sells orchids. On the way in to town at Km. 204.5, Casa Kirvá (tel. 4693-4800, www.casakirva.com, $80 d) is set back far enough from the highway so as to be quiet and peaceful. A neocolonial building houses comfortable rooms on two floors overlooking the area’s sylvan landscape. There are flat-screen cable TVs in the rooms and wireless Internet access in the lobby. A restaurant serves three meals daily. A swimming pool rounds out its decent list of amenities. Also outside of town is S Guatefriends Cobán (Km. 205, Aldea Chicuxab, tel. 4013-4687, $15 pp in dorm to $40 d). You’re essentially staying in someone’s home, but the location 10 minutes outside of town overlooking forested mountains, and the host family itself, couldn’t be friendlier. The gorgeous house is made entirely of wood, brick, and stone and quite cozy. You’ll feel right at home.
Arguably offering the best food in town, S Casa D’Acuña (4a Calle 3-11 Zona 2, tel. 7951-0482 or 7951-0484, www.casadeacuna.com, 6:30am-10pm daily) is a bistro-style restaurant in a pleasant garden courtyard. It serves a variety of excellent international dishes, including great pasta ($5-6), pizzas, meat dishes, homemade breads and pastries, salads, and sandwiches. The orchid collection here is exquisite, and there’s a small shop selling farm-fresh eggs and pastries. Another good dining option can be found at Café and Restaurant La Posada (1a Calle 4-12 Zona 2, tel. 7952-1495 or 7951-0588, www.laposadacoban.com.gt), inside the Hotel La Posada. The café (1pm-8:30pm Wed.-Mon.) is at the far end of the building and looks out onto the plaza. The fancier restaurant (7am-9:30pm Mon.-Sat., 7am-11am Sun.) is set in an attractive dining room with a fireplace and two terraces facing a garden. The food at both is excellent, though the service is notoriously slow. The menu includes Guatemalan and international dishes.
one of the many orchids adorning Casa D’Acuña
Another popular dining option is Venezuelan-owned S La Abadia (Calle Belice 3-98 Zona 3, tel. 7952-1782 or 5788-6532, www.abadiacafe.com/gt, $7-13). Set in a cozy colonial-style house, the restaurant serves a unique fusion of Guatemalan and Venezuelan flavors. There’s a good selection of wines to pair with your meal. El Peñascal (5a Avenida 2-61 Zona 1, tel. 7951-2102, 7am-11pm daily, $7-13) is the place to go for regional specialties, including tasty kakik, but the more original cardamom steak steals the show.
There are a variety of decent cafés in Cobán, among them the café at Casa Duranta (3a Calle 4-46 Zona 3, tel. 7951-4188, www.casaduranta.com, 7am-10am and 3pm-8pm daily), where the specialty is crepes (sweet and salty) as well as sandwiches and pastas. Xkape Kob’an (Diagonal 4, 5-13 Zona 2, tel. 7951-4152) does a variety of coffee drinks but specializes in local dishes such as chicken stew, tamales, and kakik in addition to pastries in a pleasant atmosphere with rustic wooden tables in a garden setting. There is artwork for sale and the café is managed by the Artisans’ Association of Verapaz. Finca Santa Margarita has a very pleasant coffee house at Plaza Magdalena Shopping Mall. Diesseldorf Kaffee (1a Calle 15-20 Zona 2, tel. 2381-9393, 7am-9pm daily) serves wonderful coffee, espresso beverages, and pastries in a modern atmosphere.
There are several cheap eats lining the central plaza, the best (and safest) of which is Empanadas Argentinas, on the north end next to Telgua, where you can savor a tasty chicken empanada for just $1.
INFORMATION AND SERVICES
Cobán has an INGUAT office (1a Calle 3-13 Zona 1, email@example.com, 8am-4pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-1pm Sun.) on the north end of the plaza.
The post office is on the corner of 2a Avenida and 3a Calle one block southeast of the main plaza. Telgua is right on the plaza, on the north side, with card phones outside.
Banco Industrial has a Visa ATM at 1a Calle and 7a Avenida, Zona 1. Banco G&T Continental has a branch at 1a Calle and 4a Avenida, across the street from Hotel La Posada, with a versatile 5B ATM. There’s another branch at 1a Calle and 2a Avenida, Zona 3. You can change travelers checks and dollars at all of these.
Lavandería La Providencia (8am-noon and 2pm-5pm Mon.-Sat.) is on the south side of the plaza. It costs about $3.50 to wash and dry a load.
The situation with public bus transport in Cobán is rather chaotic, as different buses heading for different places leave from various parts of town despite the presence of (in theory) a central bus terminal. (You can find complete bus schedules for virtually any place you might want to go from Cobán at www.cobanav.net/bus.php.) That being said, buses to Guatemala City via Transportes Escobar Monja Blanca (tel. 7951-1793) depart from a bus station at 2a Calle 3-77 Zona 4 every 30 minutes between 2am and 5pm. Departures from the so-called “Terminal Nueva” (New Terminal) near the soccer stadium are limited to Tactic (every 30 minutes), the Quetzal Biotope (every 30 minutes), El Estor (six buses daily), and Fray Bartolomé de las Casas via Pajal (five buses daily).
Microbuses to Lanquín leave from 3a Calle near the Posada de Don Juan Matalbatz. Buses for San Juan Chamelco (4a Calle and 4a Avenida Zona 3) and San Pedro Carchá (2a Calle and 4a Avenida Zona 4) leave every 20 minutes. Buses to San Juan Chamelco also reputedly leave from the Wasen Bridge, Diagonal 15, Zona 7, every half hour.
Cobán Travels (5a Avenida 2-28 Zona 1, tel. 7951-3528, www.cobantravels.com) runs shuttle service to Antigua, the Guatemala City airport, Lake Atitlán, Quetzaltenango, and Flores.
Several car-rental companies (though none of international stature) have offices in Cobán. The best of these is Tabarini Rent A Car (8a Avenida 2-27 Zona 2, tel. 7952-1504, www.tabarini.com).
Lanquín and Semuc Champey
Lanquín and its caves, along with the turquoise pools of Semuc Champey, are quickly becoming requisite stops for travelers making their way through Guatemala. Recreational opportunities abound, and you may find yourself spending more time here than you had originally planned. Whether it’s exploring caves, white-water rafting, river tubing, or swimming that suits your fancy, you’ll find plenty to see and do in these parts.
From Cobán, a paved road diverts northeast through coffee and cardamom plantations to El Pajal Junction, where there is a turnoff for a dirt road that twists and turns for another 12 kilometers to the small town of Lanquín. Lanquín is home to some interesting caves and has some comfortable accommodations to use as a base for exploring the nearby countryside.
Lanquín Caves National Park
The Lanquín Caves National Park (8am-6pm daily, $4) lie one kilometer northwest of town. They are several kilometers long, though only a small part is open to visitors. Although there are diesel generator-powered lights, these sometimes fail, so bring a flashlight and good shoes for navigating the slippery, guano-laden surfaces inside. The entire cave system has yet to be fully explored or mapped, so don’t wander too far into the cavern’s core. There are some interesting stalactites to be found here.
along the road to Lanquín
Another highlight of a visit to these caves is the thousands of bats flying out from the cavern at dusk. The Río Lanquín also flows out of this cave and forms a turquoise ribbon meandering through the surrounding jungle. It’s perfect for a refreshing swim.
S Rafting the Río Cahabón
In addition to the caves, Lanquín serves as a departure point for white-water rafting trips down the Class III-IV Río Cahabón. Maya Expeditions (tel. 2366-9950, www.mayaexpeditions.com) pioneered white-water rafting in Guatemala starting in 1987 and was named one of the “Top 20 Eco-Outfitters in the World” by Condé Nast Traveler. The outfit takes groups to both the upper and lower gorges as day trips ($115/155), but it also has various options for 3-to 6-day adventures ($210-678). The complete six-day adventure begins in Guatemala City and includes stops at the Quetzal Biotope, Cobán, Lanquín, Semuc Champey, and the Candelaria caves in addition to rafting both the upper and lower gorges of the Cahabón. A newer option is Rafting Guatemala (tel. 5069-3518, www.guaterafting.com), offering 12-kilometer and 19-kilometer river trips on the Río Cahabón ($35/45). Both trips end in the village of Tamax. They work with a four-person minimum. It’s a community tourism initiative based in the village of Saquijá that employs local guides.
a Class IV rapid on the Río Cahabón
Both outfitters provide basics such as food, transport, and equipment.
Accommodations and Food
One of the hippest backpacker hotels in all of Central America lies 500 meters along the road from Lanquín toward the village of Cahabón. S El Retiro (tel. 3225-9251, www.elretirolanquin.com, $4-46) offers a variety of accommodations for all budgets in a splendid setting beside the Río Lanquín. The new suites are tastefully decorated with private baths and electric hot-water heater ($46 d with a/c). There are hammocks out front for taking in the wonderful vistas toward the river and surrounding hillsides. A bed in one of the four-person dormitories costs $7. Rooms with shared bath are also available, and range $13-20 for a double. You can camp here or sleep in a hammock for $4. The palapa-style bar plays great music and is lined with rope-swing bar seats. The restaurant’s creative lunch menu includes tuna melts, chiles rellenos, and Thai eggplant curry, with dinner being a nightly communal buffet experience. The lodge can arrange a variety of activities for you, including inner tubing on the river for $7 (includes beer and guide), transport to Semuc Champey, and white-water rafting.
Also in this neck of the woods is wonderful S Zephyr Lodge (tel. 5168-2441, www.zephyrlodgelanquin.com, $10 pp in dorm-33 d). The beautiful lodge is housed in several thatched-roof structures and has a fun, feel-good atmosphere along with some amazing views of the surrounding countryside. Shared-bath dorm rooms start at$10 per person but there are also rooms with private bathroom and a deck overlooking the splendid scenery. There’s great food, including delicious pizza made in a wood-fired oven, and a well-stocked bar. Tours include Semuc Champey, the Lanquín caves, river tubing, and a zipline. A swimming pool overlooking the grand landscape rounds out the lodge’s list of wonderful amenities.
On the other end of town as you come in to Lanquín from the El Pajal Junction is Hotel El Recreo (tel. 7823-4069, $20-31), with rooms in a wooden main house or in an adjacent concrete structure. The main house has a lower-level section with shared-bath rooms for $20 (d). The lighting is fluorescent. Nicer rooms with private bath are $31 (d). This lodge is usually empty unless there’s a tour group in town. There’s a restaurant here, too.
Other options for food include Comedor Shalom, near the Hotel Rabin Itzam, with set-menu lunches and dinners comprised of mostly meat and rice dishes for around $2.
El Muro Lanquín (tel. 5413-6442 or 4904-0671, www.elmurolanquin.com, $3 pp in hammock, $6 pp in dorm, $20 d in private room) is a lively hostel that is well located in the heart of town. The restaurant/bar here is a good place to grab a drink or a bite to eat and there’s a nice open-air terrace for taking in the natural surroundings.
The Raging Rapids of the Río Cahabón
Guatemala’s best white-water river is the Class III-IV Río Cahabón. In addition to the exhilarating rapids, the traverse downstream on its emerald waters is interspersed with more tranquil stretches that afford opportunities to view several species of birds and explore caves, waterfalls, and hot springs along its forested banks.
The Cahabón is the same river that flows into a cave under the limestone pools of Semuc Champey, reemerging several hundred meters downstream. Most river trips begin at a put-in point near Lanquín. There are some rather menacing rapids along this stretch of the Upper Cahabón, including Rock and Roll, Entonces, and Las Tres Hermanas, making for an adrenaline-filled ride. The Middle Gorge has some nice jungle scenery and continuous Class III rapids. There are a few more challenging rapids after passing the bridge at a place called Oxec before reaching an obligatory takeout point at Takinkó to portage the Class VI (not possible to run) Chulac Falls. A dam was once planned here, but dam builders seem to have gone cold on the idea after discovering a fault line running right beneath the proposed site. The two-day river trip camps here.
The Lower Gorge is a boatload of fun with titillating rapids such as Saca Corchos (Corkscrew) and Saca Caca. There are stops along the way to explore caves and enjoy lunch at “El Pequeño Paraíso,” a small sidestream with delightful waterfalls and hot springs flowing into the Cahabón. The next rapid is appropriately named Lose Your Lunch, shortly after which the river widens and you are treated to a serene stretch of river with mountainous jungle-clad banks. The takeout is at Cahaboncito, where the intrepid can take a plunge into the river from a 30-foot bridge.
Rafting the Cahabón affords the opportunity to see some remote natural attractions and come in contact with the local people inhabiting the area. As is often the case in Guatemala, the beauty coexists with a sobering reality. In addition to still-forested areas you will see some steep, badly deforested slopes given over to corn cultivation, shedding light on the desperate plight of peasants willing to live and grow their crops anywhere they can.
Cuevas de K’an Ba
Along the road from Lanquín to Semuc Champey, in the vicinity of Posada Las Marías (tel. 4068-3399, www.posadalasmarias.com), you’ll find these rather interesting caves on the lodge’s private property. There are wonderful opportunities for exploring the Cuevas de K’an Ba by floating through on inner tubes ($5 for hotel guests, $7.50 for nonguests). You’ll see several formations and underground waterfalls before emerging onto the clear, turquoise waters of the Río Cahabón. The trek through the caves involves climbing waterfalls with the aid of a rope or ladder and jumping into pools in virtual darkness. It’s not for the faint of heart. El Retiro and Zephyr Lodge also organize trips to the caves.
S SEMUC CHAMPEY NATURAL MONUMENT
The gorgeous limestone pools of the Semuc Champey Natural Monument (6am-6pm daily, $7) lie at the end of a rough dirt road nine kilometers from Lanquín. Although they were once considered a remote attraction far off the beaten path, they are now one of Las Verapaces’s top tourist draws. Accordingly, infrastructure has improved to keep up with the rising numbers of visitors, though the rough road to get here still makes it an adventure. Try not to visit on a weekend, as there are day-trippers in droves from Cobán and vicinity.
A giant, 300-meter-long limestone bridge forms the backbone for the descending series of pools and small waterfalls that make up Semuc Champey. The water that fills the pools is the product of runoff from the Río Cahabón, churning as it plunges into an underground chasm from where it reemerges downstream at the end of this massive limestone overpass.
In addition to swimming in the perfectly placid pools, you can travel a series of trails and hanging wooden bridges to the sites where the river makes its underground plunge and where it reemerges downstream. It is truly awe inspiring to see the force of nature as the raging river is crammed into an underground cavern. A longer, 1.2-kilometer trail heads straight up the side of a mountain to a fantastic lookout point, where you can see the pools from above. It’s worth the substantial effort required to climb on the steep mountainside, sometimes with the help of vines and tree roots. Closer to the park entrance is a walkway that will take you to an observation platform where you can see a pretty waterfall gushing into the Río Cahabón over the point where it reemerges from its cave.
Across from the parking lot and park entry booth, you’ll find a nearly abandoned visitors center with bathroom facilities. Vehicle parking costs $1.30. Guides are available here to take you around, as are plenty of local children looking to sell you trinkets.
Accommodations and Food
There are a few hotels just minutes away from the park entrance. Up the road just 400 meters past the entrance to Semuc Champey is the friendly, Israeli-owned Greengo’s Hotel (tel. 4002-0066, www.greengoshotel.com). There are two sets of dorms ($7 pp) or you can stay in brightly-painted, A-frame wooden cottages next to a rushing river for $33 d. All are on a shared-bath basis, but they do get bonus points for hot-water-showers. There’s a decent restaurant and even a sand volleyball court. One quirk is that you’ll need to leave a cash deposit for towels and sheets upon check-in. Heading back toward Lanquín from Semuc Champey, the first place you’ll come across is Hostal El Portal de Champey (tel. 4091-7878, www.elportaldechampey.com, $7 pp to $30 d) where there are also A-frame cottages set on a hillside overlooking the Río Cahabón. Bring mosquito netting if you’re staying in the dorms, as the cabins housing them are open-ended. An on-site restaurant serves passable fare.
Semuc Champey in moonlight
A better option lies about one kilometer from Semuc Champey. Posada Las Marías (tel. 4068-3399, www.posadalasmarias.com) enjoys a wonderful riverside location and offers accommodations in dorms with shared bath ($7 pp), rooms with shared bath ($10 d), or rooms with private bath ($20 d). The restaurant serves three meals a day ($4-7) and the menu includes sandwiches, nachos, and barbecued steak. Activities include inner tubing on the Río Cahabón and visits to the nearby caves of K’an Ba ($5 for guests), where you can explore an underwater river.
Utopia Eco Hotel (tel. 3135-8329 or 3056-9178, www.utopiaecohotel.com, $4 pp in hammock, $7 pp in dorms, $20 d in shared-bath private room, $49 d in riverfront cabin with private bathroom and hot-water shower) is three kilometers from Semuc Champey and enjoys a splendid location on the banks of the Río Cahabón. Accommodations run the gamut from a hammock lounge to riverfront cabins and include camping or dorm rooms in between. It’s a good place for outdoor adventures, including overnight hikes and camping trips ($30) and extreme inner tubing on the river ($8). More serene options include 700 feet of riverside to enjoy, along with a rope swing and sundeck. There’s a full restaurant and bar. Spanish lessons start at $75 per week.
Most of the local lodges in Lanquín and Semuc Champey offer transportation and guided tours to the park. There are also several tour companies in Cobán operating day and overnight trips to Lanquín and Semuc Champey. Shuttle-only options are available and highly recommended as the best way to get here. From Cobán, Cobán Travels (5a Avenida 2-28 Zona 1, tel. 7951-3528, www.cobantravels.com) runs shuttle transfers and overnight tours. They can also get you there from Antigua.
If you’re driving, you’ll need a four-wheel-drive vehicle for the road from El Pajal to Lanquín. The road onward to Semuc Champey deteriorates badly in the rainy season.
Hourly buses (5am-5pm) from Lanquín to Cobán cost $4. There are six microbuses and at least two shuttles a day to Cobán.
Northern Alta Verapaz
Northern Alta Verapaz is quickly gaining momentum as the site for a varied assortment of ecotourism options thanks to its location along the corridor connecting Alta Verapaz and Petén on a good paved road. Among the highlights in this neck of the woods is Laguna Lachuá National Park. It will be interesting to see how this area grows and develops during the next several years with the ever-increasing presence of international tourism. For now, the scene here is very low-key, but it won’t be that way forever. Get out and explore this part of Guatemala, where there are relatively few visitors, while you can.
LAS CONCHAS POOLS
Near the nondescript town of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas lies Las Conchas, a series of limestone pools and waterfalls on the Río Chiyú, 50 kilometers east toward Izabal. The pools are rather large and great for swimming, though the water is not of the sweet emerald color found at Semuc Champey. There is a small picnic area.
The falls’ remote location means you may find yourself needing to spend the night in the area. This is also an increasingly popular backdoor route to Izabal and Río Dulce. You can easily combine a trip to the waterfalls with a stay at a nearby jungle camp. Oasis Chiyú (tel. 4668-3519 or 4826-5247, www.naturetoursguatemala.com, $20 d) is a 10-hectare (25-acre) working farm and lodge owned by a transplanted American, beautifully situated at the confluence of two jungle rivers. The gorgeous views of the surrounding jungle, rivers, and waterfalls alone are worth the price of admission. The lodge serves delicious vegetarian fare ($5-9). Meals are prepared on a wood-burning stove using fresh ingredients and include vegetarian specialties such as fried rice, pastas, curries, hummus, sandwiches, and salads. Bikes and kayaks are available to explore the surroundings, and guided hikes can take you to nearby waterfalls, mysterious caves, sultry jungles, and cool rivers. This is your chance to really become one with nature: no phones, fax, email, or electricity—truly an oasis of tranquility. The lodge was recently remodeled after 10 years in business.
The closest settlement near Las Conchas is Chahal, which is fairly unremarkable but nonetheless offers at least one hotel worthy of mention. Hotel Villa Santa Elena (Franja Transversal del Norte Km. 365, tel. 4011-6472 or 4032-4053, www.hotelvse.com, $39 d) offers basic, clean rooms with hot water, plastic furniture, and good beds housed in a neocolonial building built around a patio. Some of the rooms have air-conditioning and most have private bathroom. The restaurant here serves very good food.
S PARQUE ECOLÓGICO HUN NAL YE
This eco-amusement park and museum lies down a dirt road turn-off from Km. 259.5 along the road from Cobán to Chisec (RD-09). Parque Ecológico Hun Nal Ye (tel. 7951-5921, www.hunalye.com, 8am-6pm Wed.-Sun., $13 adults, $7 children) is a private reserve sprawling across 135 hectares of tropical rainforest with an abundance of plant and animal life and bisected by emerald green rivers and lagoons. Activities include bird-watching (over 200 species of birds have been recorded), fishing, tubing, kayaking, snorkeling, and scuba diving. There’s a cave, an eight-meter (26-foot) waterfall, a limestone sinkhole (cenote), observation towers, a canopy zipline, and trails for horseback riding, all-terrain vehicles, and mountain bikes. Facilities include a restaurant, archaeology museum, picnic areas, changing rooms, and a swimming pool. You can stay at the comfortable on-site accommodations consisting of five neocolonial tile-roofed cabins ($79 d) with private baths.
a river at Hun Nal Ye
Lest Hun Nal Ye strike you as just another theme park, you should know that it lays claim to the very important discovery of an ancient Mayan box engraved with exquisite hieroglyphs and dating to Early Classic times. It was discovered in 2005 by landowner Leonidas Javier and is thought to have once harbored a Maya codex, or book. The box made headlines when it was stolen by looters in 2006 and returned anonymously about a month after it was reported missing from the cave. The item had been purchased on the black market by a collector who, in an apparent attack of conscience, shipped the item to the Ministry of Culture in Guatemala City after realizing the priceless value of his purchase from widespread publicity of the heist. A replica of the box is housed in the park’s museum; the original is now in Guatemala City’s Museo Nacional de Arqueología in Zona 13.
To get to the park, take the dirt road turnoff heading east from RD-09 at Km. 259.5. From there, it’s about six kilometers to the village of Samanzana, where you’ll head south for one kilometer and then continue east another five kilometers to San Vicente Chicatal. From there, follow the signs another 500 meters to the park entrance. If you don’t have a car, there are buses and pickup trucks heading from the Cobán-Chisec road to San Vicente Chicatal.
PLAYA GRANDE (CANTABAL)
This remote outpost in the northwest corner of Alta Verapaz was once the scene of intense fighting during the civil war, with regular military operations in the neighboring Ixcán jungles, where URNG rebels hid out. All that is now in the past, opening some wonderful attractions that were once off-limits. Heading northwest from Chisec, it’s a 62-mile journey down a rough dirt road to the town of Playa Grande, also known as Cantabal or Ixcán. There is little to see or do here, but nearby is a remarkable natural attraction.
S Laguna Lachuá National Park
This almost perfectly circular turquoise lagoon is its own ecological island, like a square patch of forest floating on a surrounding sea of deforestation. To see it from the air is to get a crash course in tropical forest management and the significance of ecological islands. The razor-sharp park boundaries stand out from the quiltlike fields all around this giant mirror in the middle of nowhere. You’ll probably arrive by land, but this description at least gives you some appreciation for the natural beauty of this park and the need to protect it from those who might further encroach upon its boundaries. Already, logging operations have unscrupulously harvested some of the forest’s giant mahoganies with reckless disregard for what is, on paper at least, a national park. In 2013, indigenous peasants cut down over 3,000 trees in the park next to an adjacent road. But I digress.
The 14,500-hectare Laguna Lachuá National Park (tel. 4084-1706, $7) is still one of the most beautiful places on earth, despite its challenges. Here you can enjoy the refreshing waters and the dense forest all around in an atmosphere of utter tranquility. From the banks of the lagoon, you can see the forested peak of La Sultana. There are more than 300 species of birds found here, including mealy parrots and keel-billed toucans. Jaguars still roam the park, and you can sometimes see their footprints. The lagoon’s Caribbean-like waters contain calcium deposits and high levels of sulfur, indicating the probable presence of petroleum beneath its waters. The lake lies partially below sea level, at an altitude of 173 meters above sea level but also 222 meters deep. One of the more exciting theories concerning the lake’s formation contends the lakebed is an old meteor crater, with the rest of the meteor that created it having fallen near Cobán in an area known as the Nim Tak’a depression.
There’s a visitors center where you’ll find cooking facilities, a campground, a shelter with bunk beds ($7 pp), showers, hiking trails, and canoes for rent ($3). You can string a hammock or pitch your own tent for $3.50.
The park’s main entrance is a few kilometers before Playa Grande as you come along the road from the east. From there it’s a four-kilometer walk to the lakeside through some very nice forest trails. After the first 2.4 kilometers, you’ll come to a pier. The second pier and swimming area (also where the accommodations are) is another 1.8 kilometers away.
Lake Petén Itzá