For most backpackers, Cobán is no more than a stopover on their way from the Guatemalan highlands to Semuc Champey, Tikal or Rio Dulce. But it’s not the worst place to stay for a couple of days. The capital of Alta Verapaz was our first proper stop in Central America with a slightly bigger city feel – sorry, Belize City, you don’t really qualify. We breathed in the cold mountain air and ended up staying for a week. These are our favourite things to do in Cobán.
1. Fly over coffee plantations at lightning speed
Cobán lies at a height of 1320 metres above sea level. That location doesn’t only offer respite from the blistering heat when coming from the Caribbean side of Guatemala – especially from El Estor, quite possibly the hottest town on Earth. It’s also an ideal height for growing coffee. Venturing out of the city of Cobán, you’ll see plantations everywhere. In the 19th century, coffee was the biggest contributor to Guatemala’s GDP. (Now, for the record, it’s remittances from immigrants in the USA.)
For the Mayan population of Guatemala, coffee is also a symbol of exploitation. Historically, the Maya were forced to work on the fincas of German (and some Belgian) coffee growers. Not only did the Germans pay their Mayan workers a pittance, they also did so in a currency only valid in the company store of their own finca. This way they could make an extra profit on the natives, screwing them from two sides. These German fortune seekers developed Cobán into a proper city and – according to people with more knowledge than I – you can still see the German influence in the buildings of Cobán. On the eve of World War II, Guatemalan dictator Jorge Ubico expelled almost all the Germans on suspicion of having Nazi sympathies, a gesture to the USA and a good excuse to grab the lands for himself and his cronies.
In Chicoj, a village 7 kilometres from Cobán, a Kekchi Maya co-operation recently took matters in their own hands. The villagers now grow their own coffee and teach visitors about it. We learned that bananas and coffee match perfectly, as the shade created by the banana trees offers ideal growing conditions for our favourite introduced species. If you’re bored by the guide’s explanations, you can strap on some gear and fly over the plantation on a zip line. It’s kind of life-affirming to see a lady in traditional Mayan dress fly over coffee plants.
After the tour (Q75) and the zip lining adventure (Q60), you can sample coffee and buy beautiful local handicrafts from a small shop. Be sure to walk around Chicoj, as it offers a chance to witness village life in Guatemala. The Chicoj coffee tour is also your best bet in Guatemala to see some unadulterated Italian drama.
2. Admire miniature orchids
Most orchids bloom between November and February, but don’t let that stop you from visiting Orquigonia (Q50) out of the season. We did and learned that many orchids are so tiny and delicate that the untrained eye would walk by without noticing them. Luckily, our guide pointed many orchids out – some no bigger than a couple of millimetres and nestled between camouflaging leaves. He carried a magnifying glass so we could study them up close. I don’t care much about flowers but still found it interesting. Alas, we didn’t get to see the famous Monja Blanca, the national flower of Guatemala, but we saw many of its family members.
Orquigonia is more than just a pleasant garden to stroll around in and to admire miniature orchids. The organisation does excellent work in conservation. Logging has dramatically decreased the habitat of orchids in Guatemala. The staff members of Orquigonia travel to the furthest corners of the country, to all the areas where forest are being logged, and rescue the orchids growing on cut trees, study and classify them and give them a new home near Cobán. Thus, they have identified many previously unknown species.
3. Spot the quetzal in Purulha’s cloud forests (or don’t)
The resplendent quetzal is everywhere in Guatemala – on coats of arms, coins and banknotes, on bakery walls and pillowcases. Yet, despite its ever-presence, it’s remarkably hard to spot a real quetzal. The protected cloud forest near Purulha might be named Biotopo del Quetzal, but you can still wander around for hours without ever getting near ones of these wild avocado-eating beauties. Don’t let that stop you from visiting. Cloud forests are truly magical fairytale places, with flora off the hook. In an earlier post, I described it as “a forest designed by an architect on LSD.”
Read more about our visit to Biotopo del Quetzal.
4. Check out the views from El Calvario Church
Cobán is hilly, but doesn’t have a proper mirador (viewpoint). El Calvario is the closest it gets. The terrace offers panoramic views of the city and the mountains. According to a Mayan legend, a hunter once encountered two jaguars sleeping on a rock on the site of the church. He didn’t kill them – everyone needs a nap in peace and quiet sometimes. Upon his return the next day, Jesus appeared to the hunter. Enough reason to build a church on this spot. Nowadays, you’ll not run into jaguars in front of El Calvario. But don’t linger after dark, as the church apparently attracts gangsters.
5. Feed chicken to a crocodile
Speaking of gangsters, the ranger of national park Las Victorias advised us against venturing into the park’s interior. Mala gente, he warned us, ‘bad guys’. Better be safe than with a gun against your head, so we did not explore much of Las Victorias. We did make it to the pond near the entrance and contemplated jumping in for a swim. Until two local tourists appeared from the bush with a living chicken they had just brought from the market. They threw the chicken in the water. A small crocodile appeared out of nowhere and snapped up his tasty afternoon snack. If you want to see a crocodile in Cobán, then this is the place to be.
Read more about our adventure in the national park in this post.
6. Go crazy at Cobán’s festivals
Wikipedia says that Cobán has a bunch of festivals. There’s a “festival of Guatemala’s native peoples” at the end of July, “the departmental fair” that begins on the last Sunday in July and “the annual religious festival” on August 4. I’m still not sure which of those we ended up in, potentially all three of them. There were events in the city centre and a huge feria (fun fair) on the outskirts. What a good way to discover how Guatemalans party!
For starters: with firecrackers, lots and lots of them. Guatemalans love bombas. Before Christmas and New Year, we saw dozens of stalls selling them on the streets – no age limits, no questions asked. A birthday cannot pass without endless explosions, preferably in the middle of the night. Even churches mark their events with firecrackers.
Secondly: parades. Every single Guatemalan parade has at least one marching band covering that horrid Despacito (unlike neighbour Belize, where the song of choice is Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds). There might be wagons stepping up against pirated water. We also witnessed a performance in which costumed Guatemalans with white-faced masks, supposedly representing the white coloniser, danced around.
Thirdly: drinking and eating, especially on the fun fair grounds. Fries, churros, pizza by the slice, taco’s, licuados (smoothies), sweet coconut candy – they all found enough buyers. Liquor stalls sold dozens of different shots, beer halls served cerveza in litre bottles. In between snacks or drinks, the Guatemalans enjoyed all kinds of rapid rides, the kinds which would raise eyebrows from security auditors in Europe. On Sunday, we saw a parade of drunken cowboys, drinking cans of Gallo as they galloped through the streets. Good times!
7. Try the best michelada ever
It wasn’t love at first sight, me and michelada. But in Cobán, I finally learned to appreciate this drink, a mix of beer, tomato juice, lime, Worcester sauce and all kinds of spices. In a ramshackle local bar, I ordered a michelada that blew my mind. The barman got all the flavours just right – I was in heaven. Topped with spicy peanuts and pieces of tomato and cucumber, this wasn’t just a drink, it was a whole meal!
(Un)fortunately, the bar isn’t on Google Maps. Adventurous travellers can find it in either 7a, 8a or 9a Avenida (the michelada gave me a memory loss), between 1a and 3a Calle. Let me know if you find it.
Pro-tip for budget-conscious travellers
Casa Tenango, a beautifully decorated, relaxed hostel to escape from the craziness of Guatemalan life. Q110 for a private double (walk-ins), slightly more with reservation. The kitchen is very well equipped for hostel standards. On the nearby market, you can buy cheap and fresh vegetables directly from the Mayan ladies living in the surrounding villages.
Cobán is a great hub. From here, it’s an easy onwards journey to:
-Lanquin and the natural paradise Semuc Champey
-Flores and the great ancient Maya city Tikal