Thursday, February 08, 2007


From the steamy Peten we went to cooler Alta Verapaz, the "high true peace", which is a mountainous, coffee-growing region. The town of Chisec, promised by our guidebook to be a quaint town with some gorgeous lakes, turned out to be ugly with a bustling frontier-like atmosphere -- perhaps because their main plaza had recently been completely filled in with market stalls. The lakes weren't any nicer than what we had left behind, and Elizabeth managed to get attacked by a nest of fire ants. What's more, the ATM didn't work (this turned out to be a recurring problem on this trip) and we spent a night in fear that we weren't going to have enough cash to pay for the hotel we were staying in or get out of town. Once the cash crisis was resolved, we headed to the larger but much more relaxing town of Coban, which turned out to be a nice place to spend a few days while we prepared for the next leg of our journey.

We enjoyed the market in Coban, which is a major agricultural center. The women and girls in this region dress more traditionally than in Peten, with skirts and loose shirts known as guipils. They're also very adept at carrying large loads on their heads.

Traditional religious practices are also still common, right alongside Catholicism (and, increasingly, evangelical Protestantism). One afternoon we walked up to a church on a hill overlooking town that has many indigenous altars along the stairs you climb to reach it. Even in the church, people leave little offerings of coins and chicken feathers on the back of the box that holds the crucifix.

One of the things that makes Coban so pleasant is that there's a national park right on the edge of town. The forest here is closer to cloud forest than tropical jungle, the highlight being these enormous tree ferns. Also lots of leafcutter ants.

We spent our last afternoon in Coban on a tour of a coffee cooperative outside of town. Work-life wise, this community-owned farm is a major step up from the brutal coffee fincas of the past. However, at the end of the day workers still carry 90-lb bags of coffee on their backs to the processing area. Think of these guys the next time you're trying to decide whether it's worth a little extra to buy fair trade coffee.