Biotopo del Quetzal,
Cobán & Semuc Champey

Water cascading at Semuc Champey

Friday, 3 August 2007, Panajachel
From Quirigua we continued on along the highway toward Guatemala City until it was time to turn north in the direction of Cobán. This road was in much better condition than the one we had just left. Soon after starting along it we made a short stop and just as we pulled out again we passed a very slow old Mercedes truck. It must have been travelling at about 10 km/h up the hill at the time! He passed us when we stopped for lunch a few km later but we soon caught up and passed him again.
On our journey to Cobán we took a detour into the small town of San Jeronimo where there is an old trapiche, a sugar mill, used by the friars of a Dominican monastery. Some of the buildings have been restored and you can see the old mill in one of them, but you have to guess what equipment would have been in the rest of them. There was once an aqueduct also, but only partial ruins of it remain. The museum is small and has some interesting photos, as well as a very quaint working model of the mill. But the best part of all is the beautiful park they have made in the grounds, with shelters containing fireplaces for a barbecue picnic. We wandered a little through the town but, except for a few chicken buses passing through, it was very sleepy on that Saturday afternoon.
This detour took us at least 1½ hours and, soon after arriving back at the main road, we caught up with our slow moving truck again before reaching the Quetzal Sanctuary. All up he must have travelled only 40-50 kilometres since our first encounter, and including our lunch stop and the detour to San Jeronimo we had taken about 4 hours - there was no evidence to suggest that our friend in the Mercedes truck made any stops in that distance. This certainly wouldn't do for an interstate truck driver in Australia! We stayed that night at Country Delights, a hotel and restaurant that offers camping. They also have there own hillside trail with the possibility of spotting the elusive Quetzal - though we were not to be lucky. The Biotopo del Quetzal has a government funded section which is open to the public every day, but there are also private properties that maintain their natural forest as sanctuaries for the national bird of Guatemala. Country Delights is one of them.
We drove on to Cobán on Sunday and found ourselves at a modern shopping centre - the first of its kind we had encountered in Guatemala. In the Walmart owned supermarket, Paiz, we at last managed to find orange and apple juice with no added sugar! As we packed away our groceries, we were greeted at our camper by a young couple who just wanted to have a chat to us. The guy spoke only in Spanish, although his girlfriend sometimes translated a word or two that we didn't understand into English. He was most interested in what we thought of Guatemala and where we had been so far, and also our plans for our journey. He spoke slowly and clearly and at the end told us that it was very good that we tried to speak his language, and when he visits Australia he would only speak English. We were both sure that his English is probably already fairly good, but that was only an assumption we made. It is nice to be welcomed in such a way.
In the afternoon we sat in a café, with a view of the main square and watched the Sunday afternoon parade of locals. The women mostly wear traditional dress, which is very beautiful, soft and flowing. We had to wait out a heavy rainstorm before being able to head back to the camper. We had found a place to park at a hostel close to the centre of town. It turned out to be a bad choice because it was quite a popular parking lot, with the last vehicle coming in at around 11.00 and the first one leaving around 3.15 (after running his engine for 10 minutes). Not a good night's sleep. The next morning we went to the local Mercado to do a little shopping and then, without hurrying too much, we headed towards Semuc Champey. We were in no hurry because we knew it was less than 60 km. We had heard that part of the road wasn't that good, but didn't begin to imagine how bad it actually was! The first 40 km is a very nice paved road with fantastic mountain scenery. The last 20 km is rough and stony. It goes steeply uphill and downhill, and is very windy with not enough room for oncoming vehicles to pass - so it is also pretty scary! But we arrived well before dark and just before the heavy afternoon rain started.
Semuc Champey is a natural bridge, containing several large pools, where the main river goes underground and emerges from the rocks further downstream. There is some very spectacular scenery and the rainforest is once again lush and green. We had heard that there were nice pools to swim in they were all a bit cold and looked a bit slimy to be very inviting. Once we had walked up as far as possible and back by a different route, we decided it was time to move on. We drove half the rough road, which brought us to Lanquin and a hotel (with hot showers) near the caves that allowed us to camp in the parking lot. We arrived just in time for the first heavy afternoon rain shower - again. We have definitely found the rain season, although it is not so bad if it only rains for part of the day.

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