The Chirrepeco cooperative is one of those succesful stories of a Mayan community. (more…)
Archive for the ‘Alta Verapaz’ Category
Two days ago I got a phone call from a friend who asked me how to get to Semuc Champey, “I’ve never been there” he tells me.
Well, now I’m going to have to share what I told him, yeah, he is traveling on a Guatemalan budget.
I won’t sin of sugarcoating anything! So here it is, a brief commentary of a two day trip to Northern Guatemala. I arrived at noon at Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, a small town on the northern-most area of Alta Verapaz. I have been to this town a few times before, just as a transit point. I get here with a big appetite and started looking for a decent place to eat regional food. I asked a couple of people and I was suggested to try a fried chicken place (chain restaurant headquartered in Guatemala City), very regional right! Another of the suggestions was a Cevicheria, a place where ceviches are their specialty. Ceviche at a town very far from a coastal area, any ocean, lake or mayor river, I think that’s a sin. I ended up ordering some of that fried chicken. Personally I find nothing interesting here to photograph, after walking the town streets, I put away my camera and in fact, did not take one single photo here. After lunch, I headed to Playa Grande, a town known by many because it was heavily contested by warring sides during our civil war. The town was and still is the headquarters of the regional Guatemalan Army and the guerrilla forces never got to control the town. Ironically: after the signing of the peace accords, Guatemalan guerrilla forces became a political party, and now they have their regional headquarters based in Playa Grande, not more than 5 blocks from the imposing Guatemalan Army military base. I don’t have much positive to say about these two towns. Their food offering is mediocre, messy streets are the norm, no dominant architectural style, no parks (decent ones) or leisure areas, nothing impressive or appealing at plain view. They are merely disorganized supply and commerce centers for locals. People are great tough! Very friendly and welcoming and they make the best of what they got. I just hope they never read what I have to say about their towns! Food here is an aberration (I’m referring to what’s available to the traveler) ! Unless, unless you get invited to a local’s house to eat some of what they eat at home! Under an scorching heat, I get invited to a local’s house. They offered me a pitcher of freshly made lemonade. Delicious! I’m presented with a plate with a serving of cheese and cream, a separate bowl of black beans and another bowl of hot sauce and some tortillas. Wow! I exclaim to my self! I am a cheese lover, on my last trip to Europe, I brought back at least 5 pounds of cheeses from Northern France and the Netherlands. Since I move back to Guatemala, I’ve failed to find any cheese that would make me sigh. I had a small bite of this cheese and I immediately fell in love! “Lo acabamos de hacer”, we just made it, they tell me and out of the porch they point at the cows the milk came from. Soft, not salted like all regional cheese you find in Guatemala, fresh, with a some character, simply delicious. The cream was exquisite as-well, made fresh everyday at the house. I put some of those black beans on my plate and added some of that spicy sauce to them. Wow! I tell myself once again. It is a spicy sauce made with onions, chiltepes, and loroco and some other herbs, a combination I had never seen. Very impressed once again! Is it a regional style sauce I asked them. No, from here no. It happens that this family migrated from the Eastern region of the country, and that’s the way they make hot sauce where they come from. If it wasn’t for that meal I would have not survived! Kite Season. It is kite season here in Guatemala and I found these children flying their kites at a park in Playa Grande. Laguna Lachuá The entrance to Laguna Lachuá is on the road we had to travel back from Playa Grande to Coban. it was around 5pm when we reached the entrance. We stopped and asked if we can go in. No, you can’t, the park closes at 2 and people have to be out by 4, a park ranger tells us. We talked our way in! You have to go fast he tells us, because it is getting dark. Well, I had flashlights, so darkness wasn’t an issue for us, but we decided to go to the lagoon fast. The lagoon is 4 kilometers from the entrance; we ran top speed to the lagoon. The area is beautiful, clean and it is one of the few wild life sanctuaries in the country. In fact, we heard howler monkeys across the lagoon and when we ran back to the entrance we heard a small troop close to the road. While talking to a local attending a small tienda, he tells me they have even seen jaguars in the area. Cobán, Alta Verapaz Cobán is a city you can easily fall in love with. One advice tough: Make sure you book a hotel room early or you might spend two hours driving around finding no vacancy and of course running out of fuel in your vehicle. El Calvario is a Christian church ontop of a hill in the City of Cobán. Well, the site is sacred to mayan people too. I spend no more than ten minutes on the summit and while I was there, there were four Mayan ceremonies under way. The prayers were spoken in a Mayan language, I could not understand much, except for a few words “cardamomo pantiosh” thanks for the cardamon. I assume they were blessing their crops, “ajau ajpu” Hunter God/Lord. I guess I have to work on my Mayan language skills. To end the trip, we stopped at a restaurant on the side of the road. I always try different foods, so I ordered something from the menu I had not seen before: Salchichon Ahumado, smoked salchichon. Oh man, no better way to leave the region than eating that salchichon with fresh tortillas and black beans. If you ever travel to Cobán, you have to try that, trust me, you’ll love it.
Let me be honest with you. I am not a big fan of Urban Guatemala, with just one exception; Antigua. Until now!
Since I moved back to Guatemala, I have been to Cobán, Capital City of Alta Verapaz in several occasions, mostly as a transit point. But every time there was something that captivated my mind.
Walking the streets of Cobán will submerge all of your senses in exquisite fillings. Very early in the morning -or late on an all nighter- you can sense the delicious smell of bread being baked, in fact Cobán is famous for their delightful bread, and trust me, that smell is something you ought to experience. At night there are Churrascos -Grilled meats- around Central Park, their prices are incredible low and quality is great. A friend recommended a Churrasco at Parque San Marcos, the meat there was amazing, their chimichurri sauce really hit the spot. Things here are genuine -forgive me for saying this- not like other places where things have the feeling of being tourist traps or plainly a suck on. Their Architecture still has thing to marvel at, not much of its Colonial Architecture is preserved as in La Antigua Guatemala, but you still find colonial houses and buildings. I am still in love with La Antigua Guatemala, but I have to admit my love affair with Cobán.
This is how we have fun. Outside the caves there is this zipline and a group of Guatemalans from the City were enjoy it.
If you like ziplining: If you have been to Peten, you know that a ziplingin trip costs you $100 to $200 U.S. Dollars. At this location was much cheaper; Q30 for two trips (less than $6.00). But! But! Lets keep this between us: I have a membership to a place in Escuintla, a short 50 minutes drive from Guatemala City and with my membership the Entrance cost is only Q30 for me and 6 more guest and they have a 9 point zipline. You can do it as many times as you like with no extra charge, so if you are up for it, let me know and we can schedule a trip there.
To end my weekend trip to Alta Verapaz we turned to Grutas del Rey Marcos, a cave complex a few minutes drive from Coban. These caves were discovered (or cataloged) in 1998, and still some areas are unexplored due to the water level.
Helmets and boots are required to enter the complex and is better if you bring your own flashlight because the ones they provide are very dim. Photographing at this location was rather difficult because I entered with a large group and they all were moving around, pointing their flashlights to my photos.
More tomorrow: How We Guatemalans have fun.
If I can give you just one advice, just one, it is: Ask the Locals.
Anywhere you go, if you really want to experience the best foods, have the most beautiful vistas, and all the wonders a given place has to offer, just ask the locals.
I met a young boy, not more than fourteen/fifteen years old, on my transport vehicle to Semuc Champey. I engaged with him on a simple conversation and he tells me he could be my guide. How much do I have to pay you I asked. Lo que su corazon le diga -what your heart tells you- he replies. I did not really need a guide, the paths are well marked and there is good signage at this location. But it is always good to bring someone who you can ask questions. Armando tells me about the local Flora, I asked him what animals are there to be seen: howler monkeys, constrictor boas, some whitetail deer, and much much more he tells me. While we are having lunch: hear that? those were howler monkeys. Armando and I reached the Mirador -scenic overview- in thirty minutes. I’m covered in sweat while he has not sweat a drop. After shooting some photographs and battling against moisture on my lenses and the camera’s sensor, we leave for the pools down bellow. This is why you got to talk to locals: Armando tells me of a cavity in the rock. One has to dive and emerges inside this cavity, the water reaches just over your shoulders. The rock reaches just a few inches bellow the waterline, enough for the sun’s light to bounce on the water and illuminate the cavity. I was prepared, I had brought my flashlight and it was so bring inside, there was no need for it. This was recently discovered by a local child and only a few people have been there. Too bad my camera was malfunctioning due to the high humidity up the mountain. I’ve promised myself to return just to photograph this hidden treasure.
Lunch time: I asked my guide where to go and he suggests a place a few minutes walk from the entrance of the park. for less than $4.00, I got two perfectly seasoned, thin sliced (but long) steaks, side of salad, black beans, and vegetables and lots of tortillas and a canned drink. The steak was amazing. I asked the woman attending the place about it; she says it was freshly butchered steak, locally raised. Just perfect!
While we are having lunch, I started talking to locals there too. I asked them if there have been more foreign tourist today. A young boy replies: Yes, a lot. He tells of a group from a hotel named Utopia. Another younger boy next to him raises his voice and corrects him. You don’t say Utopia, it is said Utopía. That exchange is fascinating for those who pay attention. Education has a very bad reputation in Guatemala’s countryside. But here we found a young boy who knows better than many -including me-.
Playing the guilt card:
After a long day of hiking, swimming and exploring the area, it is time to depart. When I’m reaching for my wallet to pay my guide he starts telling me about his working as a guide. “Not long ago, I took three gringos (his word) to El Mirador and showed them around. At the end of the day one of them paid me with a hundred dollar bill (American).” and “Last month I took a group of tourists and they paid me very well too.” “But Guatemalans don’t pay well. Sometimes they would give me a Q20 (less than $3) or Q30.”
More tomorrow: The Caves.
Alta Verapaz is a northern department of Guatemala. The land here is very fertile, corn fields are abundant, the area is famous for its coffee, Cardamon is grown here, cacao which is send to Guatemala City and often ends up in European markets. Besides all that; it’s forests are luscious with life and full of Natural Wonders. One of them is Semuc Champey, which means Where the River Dives or Hides in the Mayan local language Q’eqchi’. Semuc Champey is a complex Natural Water System. The Cahabón River hits the rock and is forced to go underground, some remnants of that water, along with water coming down from the mountains around, accumulates on the surface, forming these pools. The water is cold, perfect for refreshing yourself after a hike to El Mirador, where you have a great view of the Cahabón River and the Karstic formations.
Cobán, Alta Verapaz capital city is a four hours drive from Guatemala City. From Cobán is another hour and a half to the town of Lankin, the last 10 kilometers to Lankin are on a unpaved road. The last leg of the trip is from Lankin’s town center to Semuc Champey, a four kilometers drive, accessible on a four wheel drive vehicle.
More Tomorrow: Ask the locals. Stay tuned.
Let me introduce you Majunche. They are a hybrid between Plantain and Banana. They are very common on the hot climate areas of the country, and if you -as I do all the time- carry a Machete with you, you can cut the bunch out off these short Plantain Palms yourself. Usually they are cooked over charcoal with the skins on, but I do like to eat them just raw.