Las Verapaces, Part 2: Biotopo de Quetzal y Salto de Chilascó

Biotopo - Musgos Largos

Part of the excitement of being in Guatemala is the ability to do things things that are forbidden in the U.S. While the numerous laws that we have are generally in place to protect individuals and the larger society as a whole, often they are aggravating obstacles and can even serve as barriers to positive human and cultural interaction.

After our time in Cobán, we traveled about an hour to the “Biotopo de Quetzal”. The biotope was a “cloud forest” with such densely moist air that plants can live high in the air without the need for soil. It is an interesting environment where strange speices of plants, animals, and insects live in harmony. It was really breathtaking.

Biotopo - Dried leavesBiotopo - Curly leaves

We checked into a cheap little hostel nearby the nature reserve, and immediately took off for a hike. Despite the physical exertion we had expended the previous two days, we were ready for more nature-packed adventure. It was actually a quite relaxing stroll. We hiked a 4 kilometer loop, ascending 500 meters. We saw lizards; strange looking, brightly colored, spiking spiders; and colorful, twist, exotic looking plants. We chatted with a old Guatemalan version of a hippy, with long curly gray hair and beard, who served in the information booth and was excited to talk about the mystical nature surrounding us, as well as discuss the founder of the reserve who had been murdered during Guatemala’s brutal civil war.

Biotopo - LizardBiotopo - Stream

It was a less intense, yet still tiring hike in the reserve, and when we got out we were ready for dinner. We exited the park back onto the main highway. The hippie dude recommended a restaurant located a good 5 kilometers down the road, and we weren’t about to walk it. At least not the way there. So we decided to do something I have always wanted to do, but have never been permitted due to strict (yet understandable) U.S. law: we hitch hiked. And it was incredible, I will tell you. The breeze felt amazing, the view was nothing you could get behind a glass window, and it felt so incredibly freeing. It was a pretty short ride, but when we jumped out of the bed of the truck I had electricity running through my veins. When we asked the kind gentlemen how much for his services, he told us not to bother and that we should just enjoy ourselves. How refreshing is that? We waved goodbye, and went to enjoy another delicious meal of Kakik. We were so full we ended up walking back int he pitch dark to our hostel, diving into the ditches whenever the 16-wheelers would whiz by. I slept heavy that night.

Chilasco - Sign

In the morning we rushed out of the hostel as quickly as we could, only having a cup of coffee and bananas on our way out. We were headed to El Salto de Chilascó, the tallest waterfall in Central America, but it was going to be a long journey and we wanted to get on our way. We took a bus 30-some kilometers from the hostel to the road entering the small pueblo of Chilascó. We waited at the entrance a good half hour until a pick-up truck make a turn towards the entrance and offered us a ride. We travled a bumpy 12-kilometer ride, lasting about 40 minutes, sharing the truck bed with 1500 eggs, hoping we wouldn’t hit any big bumps!

Verapaz - Hitching a Ride

We were wished happy-hiking when dropped off at a tiny grass hut which served as the towns center for tourism. Don Clemantino, the president of the association of the department of tourism of Chilascó was so excited for visitors, and greeted us with big hugs and lots of information about the history of the town and the waterfall.

Chilasco - Pine View

We were sent along our way with a tour guide, 11 year old Willie who looked about 8. He was quite the talker, discussing all the fruits and vegetables cultivated around his town as we passed them, including corn, potato, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, squash, passion fruit, and probably many I am forgetting. He told us about the town, about his family, as well as humorous stories of past tourists who were not nearly as fast of hikers as we 😉 It was 3 kilometers through the village and surrounding coutryside until we arrived at the trail which descended to where we could view the waterfall. From there it was a 1-kilometer, nearly vertical drop, to the bottom. On the way there we wandered slowly, admiring the surrounding land, the streams, and the nature that we experienced. We stopped at a smaller waterfall which was so pure you could drink from it. There was a crudely-fashioned system to take water from this little falls down to a rest stop below, made from a two-liter soda bottle and some plastic tubing. Willie, the humanitarian he is, noticed some leaves had clogged the mouth of the device, and climbed up the falls to remove them.

Chilasco - Salto

A little further below, but farther than I had wanted being tired and all, we finally got to the destination. The falls were a breathtaking 130 meters high. So its not Niagara, but it felt like an accomplishment arriving. We rested a little while before heading back. We didn’t want to take too long so that we missed the last bus out of the town at 3pm, and be forced to sleep there for the night.

Chilasco - Corn drying

To arrive at the falls took 2 hours, but we made it back much faster. I was impressed with out timing. And when we finally arrived back to the little town we had a delicious hot lunch ready for us. We ate in a tiny little comedor (simple restaurant which is usually part of someones home), which I’m sure gets very little business. Willie had called ahead and ordered out meal for us ahead of time because it takes a little while to catch, kill, and prepare the chicken. People, this food was fresh. And boy were we hungry. I’m not a big meat-eater, but I enjoyed this chicken perhaps more than any chicken I’ve previously had. It was moist, tender, and flavorful, and served along with cooked veggies from the surrounding countryside, a salad, rice, and yellow-corn tortillas made in front of our own eyes. The woman even mills her own flour…the corn was hanging in the rafters, drying above our heads! I was impressed. We scarfed down the pollo asado (grilled chicken) and were so full and satisfied after such a long hike. We thanked Doña Tona, and headed home.

Chilasco - Comida!

This was an exciting journey over all. When it was over I was exhausted, and my entire body was worn out…but it was a very rewarding feeling. I’m ready to go back to those parts, and can’t wait until I am sent on a trip to Las Verapaces with my work!


Las Verapaces, Part 1: Semuc Champey y Coban, and Kakik

Verapaz - Backpacks

The 15th of September is independence day in Guatemala and all of Central America actually. In 1821 they officially split from Spain. I was particularly thankful for the day because Héc got the entire week off! We took advantage of the time and went on an expedition to the highlands of Las Verapaces — the north central part of the country. I had never been to the region but had been yearning to go since the day I saw a photo of the gorgeous green rolling mountains with cascading waterfalls scattered about.
Verapaz - River CohobanVerapa - Cocoa

Left: the Cohobón river running past our hostel. Right: A cacao tree around the park, from where they make chocolate. Some locals were selling a crude, homemade chocolate using the cacao pods and sugar crushed together.

The reason we had waited so long to make the trip was because its not an easy to place to reach. The roads in the past have been poorly maintained, the highways curve tightly around the mountains rather than cut through the base as in Colorado. Therefore, a trip that would perhaps take no more than two hours in the midwest takes an hard and bumpy four.

The first destination on our itinerary was Semuc Champey…or a hostel which lies just outside. Semuc Champey is a natural reserve with beautiful aqua-blue lagoons positioned on top of a “stone bridge”, as it is called. The bridge is a rock formation which makes a type of cap over the Cohobón river. It is truly a paradise….but to get there is quite a journey, as it is located in the middle of nowhere. You first must make the windy journey from the capital to Cobán, which lasts about 4 hours. The only problem is that, even if you purchase your seat a head of time, you will be among 20 or 25 people crammed into a 15 passenger van. Personal borders do not exist here. It didn’t seem to matter that we in the van were already uncomfortably full…if someone on the side of the road hailed us down we came a-screeching to a halt, the ayudante (the bus driver’s helper) would toss the new passenger’s baggage carelessly on the roof, then ask everyone to scoot over a bit more. At one point a poor old man had someone else’s grandma sitting on his lap and I half expected to be handed a stranger’s baby to hold for a time.

Verapaz - microbus

From Cobán you must take another 2 hour microbus to Lanquin. The bus is usually of the same variety as the previous, packed to the max; but it passes through some of the most gorgeous green country I’ve ever seen, so I completely forgot that my legs were numb. I won’t compare it to Ireland or Switzerland as I have heard do others, but only because I heard a Swiss girl drone on and on about how Switzerland is so much prettier than Guate. To me, it was absolutely breathtaking: rolling hills, strangely pointy mountains, everything covered in a lush-mossy green. The two hours passed in a flash as a gazed out the window…despite the little girl getting car sick just in front of us.

Verapaz - Sunsetting in Lanquin

As the sun began to set we arrived in Lanquin, a little pueblo only 12 kilometers or so from Semuc, and where our hostel was located. We relaxed on a stoop outside a tienda and enjoyed a cold beer while waiting for our final transport to arrive. Within a half an hour we were whisked away to our hotel, in the middle of nowhere, and were safely in our little bungalow as the most fierce thunderstorm with a brilliant electric show began. We nestled into our rather hard beds and fell asleep to crashes of thunder and flashes of lightening.

Verapaz - Hiking to MiradorVerapaz - High Cliffs

The next day we awoke quite late, inhaled a very salty breakfast from the sparse menu our little rustic lodge offered, and then ventured into the jungle to explore some lagoons and hike some trails! The entrance to Seumuc was only 200 meters from our lodging, but once in the park we hiked an agonizing 1.2 kilometers nearly vertical. (You Amazing-Race trialthelon types are probably rolling your eyes at me…but this was basically rock climbing people. And that’s not my kind of sport!) The goal was the mirador (or viewpoint) where we got a glimpse of the mystical lagoons and rock bridge. Once we arrived at the top e rested for quite some time, relaxing in the shade, talking with Santiago- one of the many “rangers”, and gaining the courage to descend back down. It was slippery on the way up, and I imagined myself bouncing off the cliffs on the way down. It wasn’t as bad as in my mind, although I bit the dust (or mud, rather) a few times.

Verapaz - Mirador

At the bottom again, we wandered to las pozas (lagoons) where we floated around, protected from the savage heat, for a few hours in the late afternoon. I could have spent an entire week just swimming in the pools…but unfortunately we aren’t children on a summer vacation, nor are we retired like someone I know. (Hint hint…you guys need to check this place out sometime next year!

Verapaz - Pozas

The next day we visited Las Grutas de Lanquin–a large network of caves located just outside the town of Lanquin. We had to hike a shadeless kilometer to get to the entrance, but once there we spent an hour or so wandering around in the damp caverns, enjoying the shelter from the sun. From the caves we caught a bus back to the city of Cobán. We were exhausted from all the hiking and were looking forward to sleeping in a comfortable hotel, hopefully with cable TV, a luxury we don’t enjoy at home. It took us quite awhile to find such a place. I don’t know if I mentioned before, but Cobán is located in a particularly cloudy region of the country. The guides all say it is sunny for three weeks a year — in April — and the rest of the year a gloomy sheet of clouds sits over the city. We were lucky (or perhaps not) because it was very sunny and sometimes unbearably warm. It did provide for beautiful scenery. However…while walking around in the sunny afternoon, the sky opened up and began to pour down rain while the sun remained. How odd…

Verapaz - HallwayVerapaz - Monja Blanca Sign

We finally found a Hotel within our budget: Monja Blanca. It was a beautiful yet strange place. The property was the traditional colonial style with the rooms along corridors surrounding beautiful courtyards filled with fruit trees and tropical plants. The rooms and hallways were lined with beautiful antique furniture, and little details such as a fresh glass pitcher of pure water in each room, took us back in time. But the joint was vacant. We rang the bell and waited so long we almost left before the doorman answered. He led us through one courtyard and into another. The sun was starting to set, and no lights were lit within the residence, and it was eerily silent. I have to admit that I was creeped out, but the doorman was very cheery, and led us to a cozy room with good ventilation, a clean hot shower, and cable TV 🙂 The price was right, so we stayed. He didn’t ask us for a credit card, a name, nothing. He gave us the key and told us we could settle everything in the morning. Such trust you don’t often find these days.

We took a nap, showered, then went in search for K’akik, the meal Cobán is famous for. K’akik is a traditional Mayan recipe of chunto (wild turkey) in a bath of herbs, veggies, and toasted spices including tomato, chile guaque, cinnamon, cloves, mint, and cilantro. It is traditionally served with the simple, sweet corn tamales wrapped in banana leaves. It was a delicious and filling meal after a hard day of hiking and traveling. I have never made the dish, however I have posted the recipe below. It doesn’t seem too difficult, although it surely takes some time to let the bird stew to a tender texture.

Verapaz - Kakik

Kakik. Also Cack-ik, Kac-Ik, Caquik. Serves 4-6.

5 pound wild turkey (or a store bought chicken would work just fine)
One entire bulb of garlic
Two or three sticks of cinnamon
One pound of tomatillos
10 o 15 tomatoes
4 chiles guaques (or spicy dried peppers)
10 cloves
One bunch of cilantro
One bunch of mint
One bunch of green onions (just the greens)
Achiote y sal to taste (I’m not sure if this is easily available in the U.S. Try Mexican grocers, but its ok to skip. It gives the deep red color of the stew, but not much in terms of flavor)

1. Place the turkey in a large pot and just cover with water, bring to a boil, then reduce to suimmer. Add the garlic, cinnamon, and cloves. Cook until the turkey is done.

2. Meanwhile, sautee the tomatoes, onions, tomatillos, and chiles. Once they are all tender, puree them. Pass them through a collendar to remove the chunks and leave only a smooth sauce. Add the achiote to some cold water to dissolve it, then add the the mixture.

3. Add the mixture to the cooking bird and simmer for some time on very low heat, until the bird is tender.

4. Traditionally served with rice or simple corn tamales, as well as cooked carrots, squash, potato, and corn on the cob.

Recipe roughly translated from here:

Tecpan and Iximché

Tecpán - Rolling hills

Sometimes you just need to get away. I really don’t mind Guatemala City, but its nice to take a break from all the traffic and see some green countryside every now and then. After living in a place like Guate, I’ve really come to appreciate the value of green space – both to the human spirit and in dollars. Green is a luxury good, as Prof. Pollack might say. Any well-located, solid plot of green ground in the city is quickly purchased by a major developer who will quickly staple together an apartment complex or a compound of “American-Style” homes, which has lately been the trend. In our neighborhood I can count at least 5 new complexes currently being built. Unless you want to enjoy the grass in the median of Avenida LasTecpán - Farm on the way Americas or Boulevard Reforma on a Sunday afternoon, to find a clean green space where one can go with their family for a picnic, one must drive a little ways outside of the city. In addition to green space, clean air and streets are valuable goods. There is lots of littering, and lots of pollution happening around the city. My guess is that the government has bigger problems to worry about at the moment, such as murder, violence, and corruption; funds are diverted elsewhere.

Just a few weeks ago the United States launched the Cash for Clunkers campaign urging Americans to ditch their old gas-guzzling emissions-secreting hunks of junk for more efficient environmentally friendly cars. Do you know where those cars will end up? Here. Importing used, totaled cars is a huge business in Guate. Entrepreneurs buy ’em, repair ’em so they are road worthy, and sell them for a decent price. And you bet there are still problems with them — like that black smoke coming out of the exhaust pipe. The road is filled with clunkers here. But the truth is people in general can’t afford to purchase that new hybrid, nor  do they have the time and money to fix major problems with their current vehicle (although I see a disproportionate number of Hummers here…but this just speaks to inequality). But for the majority, better just is not an option.

And then there is the city noise…but enough explaination : sometimes I just like to get out of the city for some piece and fresh air…

Tecpán - Tree growing on top of ancient pyramidOn Saturday we took a trip outside the city. We traveled only an hour and a half away — through beautiful farmland and patchwork-adorned rolling hills — to a little pueblo named Tecpán. A little beyond the pueblo is the ancient Mayan city of Iximché (proounced eek-seem-shey) which is now a national reserve. The ruins are not very large, nothing to compare to Tikal — but the history is there nonetheless, and its interesting to walk around, learn what all the structures had been used for, and imagine the ancient people strolling around going about their daily lives.

And most of all, the park was clean and green and well cared for. There were many families there walking around enjoying the space just as we were, others had brought picnics and were grilling carne asada, and children were playing soccer and tenta electrica (literally “electric touch”, but it is what we call tag). There was even a group of boy scouts having some type of ceremony. It was a tranquil place, and the only noise you could hear were the gleeful shouts of children playing. What a nice break it was for us — we who live next to a 24/7 gas station with the noisiest carwash you’ve ever heard. Sometimes I don’t even realize how loud it is until it shuts off and my ears are ringing — as if I am attending a concert.

Tecpán - Flower in the field of ruinsWe walked around the ruins for a little while before we settled under a tree to just rest and watch. The sun was out, blazing hot, but we were safely sheltered by the tree. We were really lucky to catch a sunny day like this in the middle of the rainy season. We just laid there watching a group of indigenous kids playing a very complex version of tenta electrica for quite some time, enjoying the nature and the tranquility.

Tecpán - AlmuerzoBut then our stomachs began to rumble, and we proceeded to our next destination: lunch! Tecpán is esteemed for its restaurants. There are more than a dozen of them, all advertising carne asada, caldo de gallina criolla (a traditional chicken stew), mantequilla lavada and other fresh dairy products — loads of culinary treats you can’t find as fresh in the city. There are a few restaurants we really like, such as Katok and La Cabaña de Don Robert — but my favorite is Rincón Suizo. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t eat a lot of meat, but when we come to Tecpán I cannot pass up the sausages. I even like the pork chops they serve here, and I don’t ever remembering enjoying pork chops. The meats are top of the line, fresh products from the surrounding countryside. Thats hard toTecpán - Rincón Suizo pass up. And the tortillas are made fresh, taken from the komal (cast-iron griddle over a wood-burning fire) seconds before brought to your table. The smell is intoxicating. Here the tortillas are made with yellow corn, versus the white corn tortillas we get in the city. They are different. Not necessarily better, but noticeably different. And because of the freshness, much more enjoyable.

Tecpán - ComidaWe ordered a typical Guatemalan lunch. Héc had pork chops with roasted cebollines in chimichurrie (green onions in a garlic-parsley-parmesean sauce) and Guacamol. I had chorizo and tortillas with guacamol on the side. We also ordered a portion of aged Chancol, a Swiss-style cheese made by people we distantly know, located in Nebaj at least 8 hours away on partially-unpaved roads. I’ve been dying to go there since I learned they had a little bed and breakfast. Plus cheese might be my favorite food. Anyway, in Tecpán we ate well and relaxed throughout the afternoon. It was a beautiful day up until we were within 30 minutes of the capital when it began to rain. And how refreshing it was to be cooled off by a summer shower after a long day in the sun. It truly was a perfect day.

Tostones (Smashed, twice fried plantians)

Not exactly the most healthy food in the world, but they are delicious. And I was recently inspired by an article by Michael Pollan in which he examines American’s growing obsession with cooking shows, but lack of actual cooking, which perhaps is connected to the obesity epidemic. The article ends with an enticing diet plan for Americans: eat whatever you want, but you have to cook it. So, with this new insight, every once in a while I can indulge in a few deep-fried treats.

We first encountered these babies in Livingston Guatemala, located on the Caribbean coast. We were at Buga Mamas, a restaurant/classroom where indigenous adolescents can learn the ins and outs of ecotourism. During our three days on the secluded strip of relatively undeveloped land, I believe we ate there at least 4 times. The ceviche was delicious, the fried mojara (white fish) was stuffed with garlic, and the mojitos were strong. But what we loved were the tostones (also know as patacones in other areas).

The first day when we arrived, after a chilly 30 minute ride on the bumpy lancha (speed boat), and after checking into our little guest house, we were starving. We walked down the main street toward the muelle (dock), where we were told we could find some decent eats. For how many positive things I had heard about Livingston, it was rather dead. Its economy was based solely on tourism, yet there were only a hand-full of sanitary-looking restaurants. Now, Héc will tell you. I’m not afraid of food. I eat street food in Guatemala all the time, and I have paid dearly with all kinds of intestinal treats. But when it comes to seafood I don’t risk it. Buga Mama was a cute little restaurant located right on the water with great atmosphere. It advertised disinfected veggies and the bathrooms were clean. Thats all I ask.

So we arrive to Buga Mama, at the suggestion of our hotel keeper. Immediately we were served a beautiful plate of hot and crispy, yet tender, tostones. In Guatemala City I had had plataninas, which are basically a potato-chip-style fried plantian. But these guys were double duty! First you fry 1″ chunls of green plantians, take em out of the oil, smash em, fry them golden, and sprinkle with salt. We came back for more every day. And as soon as we got home from the trip we recreated them. As well as Pan de Coco, which will be a post for another day.

Tostones:Green Plantains (as many as you’d like!)
Oil for deep frying

Heat the oil, about 4 fingers deep will do, until ready for frying.

Meanwhile, peel the green plantains and cut them into 1 inch chunks. When the oil is ready, carefully put them in. When they begin to brown, remove with a slotted spoon, and place on a flat surface covered in paper towels. Use the back side of a wooden spoon, or something similar, and smash them. Put them back into the oil until they are golden.

Pictures from top to bottom: Tostones served at Buga Mama; Buga Mama menu; Garifuna New Year Celebration; The main drag in Livingston Guatemala