Panajachel to Cobán to the cloud forest

We left Panajachel on Thursday, March 11th around 10:45 with Romuló in tow, who was up for an adventure and had some promotional business to do. Our intention was to take an old road that went from Santa Cruz del Quiché north to Sacapulas and then east to Cobán. According to the guidebook, it is the prettiest road in Guatemala.

Romuló initially intended to only go to Chichi, but he soon asked us if he could stay with us until Cobán as he had some business there promoting a concert, which we readily agreed.  We debated whether to eat lunch in Chichicastenango or in Quiché (further on aka Santa Cruz del Quiché). Romuló convinced us to eat in Chichi.

Picture taken by Marilyn from the restaurant of the Chichi market. Pretty soon after she was down there.

It was also market day, but Marilyn said she did not want to go to the market and swore she would not buy anything. Ha, ha! So we had lunch at a pretty good restaurant suggested by a guide with the waiters in traditional Quiché costumes. While Romuló and I chatted after lunch, Marilyn went down to the market “just to look”. When we went down we found her in deep negotiations and discussion with a neat market woman who was explaining how certain textiles were made.

In the meantime, Romuló had gotten a call about the possibility of a gig that night and the next day with a busload of French tourists. They were supposed to call him back to confirm by the time we got to Quiché. No call in Quiché so Romuló decided to continue with us. We stopped for gas and water in Sacapules, where Romuló got a call asking him to be in Pana that night and on the French bus the next morning at nine. As it was already 4:00 PM, he decided to head back on the bus. We said our good-byes and promised to get together again. He later told us he missed the last bus but he did meet a friend who was going to Chichi, where he met another friend who drove him to Pana. He got to Pana around 11 at night, so he was able to do the gig the next day. This kind of thing sounds really familiar to us Yukoners.

I had figured it would take about 5 hours to drive the 200 kilometres from Pana to Cobán, at an average of 40 km per hour. Ha! No way! We got to Uspantán around 5:30 after six hours of driving and decided to look for a hotel as I was quite tired from driving narrow twisty roads. We finally found the Hotel Don Gabriel. No hot water. Actually no water until 6:30 at night & it got shut off in the morning. But it was relatively clean other than the ants in a wall corner which we tempted with an empty beer can, comfortable, had a beautiful courtyard and a rooftop patio where there was a great view of the town. We had supper and then breakfast at a restaurant next to the hotel. It was run by a young Kaqchiquel from Pana, named Daniel.

Turkey in a basket

The central part of Uspantán seemed to be a permanent market. We walked around both on Thursday night and Friday morning and bought some hot chiles.

Goatskin pack saddles for sale, Uspantan

The next morning, we drove to Cobán. The road turned to dirt and a part of it was destroyed by a huge landslide. We had to go around through a very narrow farm road which switch-backed its way down and then up again around the slide. There were some uncomfortable turns where trucks had to go back and forth a few time.

We got to Cobán around lunch time where there was no one in the tourist information office. We had lunch at the Posada Hotel and decided to stay there. It turned out to be the best hotel in Cobán and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay there as well as the conversations with Patricia the owner.

Cathedral in Copan

I decided to get an oil change, get the brakes checked as the brake light had started blinking rather than being steadily on, and to get the camper chain attachments to the vehicle chassis adjusted. Well, I got the oil changed, but the garage said they did not have time to check the brakes or adjust the camper attachment as the next day was Saturday. It was a pretty big service place, but I had hoped for a smaller place with real mechanics. I missed Carlos in Morelia or Pedro in Mérida. It also turned out that the air filters I had bought in Whitehorse do not fit the vehicle, at least according to the oil change guy.

I must say that the oil change people who were attached to the Texaco gas bar were more than helpful, it was the service centre that was not. On Saturday morning, I went to retrieve the truck and we put it in the hotel parking, trying not to destroy Patricia’s flowers and plants in the process.

We ended up staying in Cobán for 4 days nursing full-blown colds. That cold was going around Guatemala: my friend Lars had it and Patricia, the hotel owner, was just getting over it when we got there. The cold also gave me really serious photophobia in the morning; I can’t stand the sunlight and it takes me a couple of hours before I can take daylight without sunglasses and shading my eyes.

Cobán is a nice small friendly town, people say hello to us on the street even though we are obvious Gringos. The market sellers don’t negotiate much: they give you a slightly lower price, especially if you buy more than one item, but it’s not like Pana, Antigua or the Mexican Mayan Riviera where they usually ask double what they really want. I liked Cobán; it was really authentic with few tourists.

In the Xcape Koban store

Just like Antigua and Pana, the residents of Cobán (Cobaneros) claimed to have the best coffee in Guatemala. And like the other places, the authentic local coffee was superb. We really liked a store/restaurant/coffee shop around the corner from the hotel that sold fair trade foods and artisanal goods: Xkape Koban – Café Cobán in the local Kik’che language. In addition to coffee, chocolate, cacao, they also had cardamom which is grown in the area. On Saturday night, we had Kaq-ik (variously spelled kak-ik, cak-ik, kac-iq, etc. depending on the mood of the writer), a specialty of the Verapaz region. This is a turkey soup with tomatoes, onions, various spices and served with a big hunk of turkey on the bone. It comes accompanied by small plain tamales and rice which one can put in the soup. Really good. On Sunday night, we went to another restaurant, El Peñascal, where I had another superb kak-ik and Marilyn had a totally mind- and taste-bud-blowing steak in cardamom sauce.

Calvario church

Cobán itself does not have many tourist attractions, just a neat little private museum with Mayan artefacts mainly from the Classic period (Museo El Príncipe Maya) and an orchid nursery, the Vivero Verapaz just outside of town. There is also a small informative departmental museum that deals with the history of the region. And there is a continuous market just north of the church. I bought five wooden planes at the market, including a smoother, a rabbet plane and three moulding planes.

Juan Flores

Tree ferns

The Vivero Verapaz was a highlight for me, with hundred of orchids either growing under tree-ferns or in shade structures. Nero Wolf would have been in seventh heaven. Apparently, very few orchids were in bloom, so the place was not as spectacular as it would have been say in October. Nevertheless, I did really not notice the lack of blooms.  Our guide was the appropriately named Juan Flores, who managed the place and the plants.

Orchids growing in wine corks

Some small orchid plants grew in wine corks, but most were in a coir-like material obtained from the roots of the tree ferns. There were also some bonsai trees grown by Juan’s wife that had mini orchids growing on them. I don’t know how they manage to keep the place going as it is forbidden to export orchids from Guatemala, along with birds and mammals. Juan completely agrees with preventing the export of wild orchids, but these were grown in the nursery. Maybe we need some orchid certification program where the money would go to conservation projects, something like the rainforest t alliances uses for certified wood.

Monja blanca - Guatemala's national flower (Lycaste virginalis var. alba)

Ram Tzul dining/bar area

Fern tree with giant fiddlehead that would feed the average New Brunswick village. Our room/cabin in the background

On Tuesday we left Cobán for the Biotopo del Quetzal, a national preserve, about an hour south. Our original intention was to camp but we decided to stay acouple of days in a wonderful bungalow with a great view of the cloud forest to nurse our colds in the cool humid weather. The bamboo “eco-lodge” we stayed at is called Ram Tzul. I originally wanted to do some hikes and try to see the elusive Quetzal, Guatemala’s long-tailed national bird, but my state of health did not permit it and we just lazed around the bamboo lodge for a day and  a half.

This was written in Chiquimula in southern Guatemala and tomorrow will be heading for the Mayan ruins of Copán just across the border in Honduras. We tried going into Zacapa, north of Chiquimula where the best rum in the world is made. We wanted to visit the rum distillery and “soleras”, but Theroux was proved right: “It seemed a terrible place, as hot as any of the miserable villages along the railway line, if a bit larger.”


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2 Responses to “Panajachel to Cobán to the cloud forest”

  1. Tom and Julie Riggle Says:

    Hi! We met at Ram Tzul around a smoky fire. The Biotope was great–we didn’t see a quetzal but did see a rare forest falcon. How was Copan?

    Tom and Julie

  2. Rick Says:

    Hey M & L

    The travelogue is wonderful. Thanks so much for taking the time to share the great experiences you’re having. I wish we could transport ourselves there to share a bit of it with you. Connecting with the people there is really the way to savour the journey.

    It snowed 4 inches here the other day, but Spring is still pushing its way forward. So, be happy to be where you are. Keep up the blogging.

    Hasta la proxima vez.


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