Day 3 Ram Tzul hike, Coban coffee tour, Hotel El Recreo
Wednesday, June 10 – Sergio, Sheree and I had a talk last night about options for activities this morning. There were three possibilities. We are just outside the Biotopo de Quetzal, where the quetzal, the beautiful bird, has a protected habitat. There is farm nearby, where a pair of quetzals are said to visit around sunrise. If we choose to visit that area, we might get chance to see the quetzals.
The second possibility is a hike up the mountain at that Biotopo entrance, just across the road. Again we would get an outside chance of happening upon a quetzal, and the trail goes through beautiful vegetation, regardless of what else we might see.
The third possibility is the hike on the hotel’s property. This hike takes you down the mountain to a waterfall. Again, the beautiful vegetation is guaranteed, but it is unlikely we would see a quetzal on that hike.
We decided to opt for the sure thing and take the waterfall hike. The visit to farm would require us to get up before 5:00 AM, and the hike up the mountain would not have any definite payoff for the effort.
But, it rained very heavily last night, and we awoke with concerns about the conditions we might find on the trail to the waterfall. From the sound of the storm and length of time it lasted, I estimated we had at least 2 inches of rain last night.
We asked about the trail at the front desk, and we were assured that it would not be very muddy. We decided to go forward with the hike on the hotel premises. We grabbed a couple small bottles of water and met with our guide, a local man named Ernesto. Ernesto was wearing rubber boots, which gave us a clue that the hike might be muddier than we were being told.
The trail was supposed to be a 2.8 km loop, but I am certain we traveled much farther than that on the hike. We first walked through a spectacular bamboo forest, from which, I gathered, the hotel had taken its construction materials. It was nearly black inside the walls of bamboo, and I quickly saw why a guide was needed for what I thought was to be a leisurely stroll upon the hotel grounds.
We descended toward the river, passing several small falls. When we arrived at the bottom, we were looking a 180 degree bend in the Rio Cafetal, known as the El Bano de la Luna – the Moon’s Bath. We had seen no large waterfall, but, I surmised the water probably changes with the season, and we had passed the small falls on the way down.
After climbing back to “the top” of the trail, we went to a viewpoint, “El Mirador” from which we could see a large falls seeming to come out of a mountain. Ernesto led us to a split in the trail, and explained that one path led to the base of the waterfalls, and the other was the return. We decided to try to proceed to the base, although I was quite winded from the climb back to the top. After about ¼ mile of hiking, we reached a sign warning us of the difficult terrain to come. Looking back, my instinct should have told me that for Guatemalan’s to post a warning sign, the dangers must be very severe. But, Sheree was doing so well on the hike, I did not want to deprive her of the chance to see the waterfalls, and we decided to travel on.
After a bit, we reached a very steep slope with about a 20 meter descent. It was rocks and mud, and looked like a likely place to die. I asked Ernesto how much more descent we had left, and he estimated we had about 30 minutes more downhill travel to reach the river. I have made many hard long hikes, and the terrain we were on seemed to be at least as steep as the trails I used to cross the Grand Canyon. On that hike, for every 30 minutes we went down, we needed about 2 hours to get back up. I looked at our water situation, and we only had about ¼ of a bottle left. It would not be wise to proceed and then attempt to get out with no water. We decided to turn back and still we faced a brutally difficult climb up the trail. We must have taken at least 10 rest breaks, all of them for me. Sheree wasn’t fazed at all, and I felt great for her. We made our way back to the hotel’s cabin, and we took the time to shower and clean up. We paid for our trail fees and checked out of the hotel. We loaded Sergio’s SUV and headed off toward Coban, the largest city in the Department of Alta Verapaz.
Sergio had never been to the coffee tour that we were to take in Coban. It was at a cooperative just on the outskirts of town. We asked around and found it. It was called Chicoj.
We checked in and were greeted by our guide, Gloria, a very small Mayan woman, who was very articulate in Spanish, and very knowledgeable about her co-op’s coffee operations. We first toured the growing area, learning how trimming and shade are used to produce good beans. We climbed a bit into a pine forest, and learned that pine in an inappropriate shade source, as the pine needles would produce too much acid in the soil.
Maria led us to a zip line, which is a part of the tour. The zip line was billed as 400 meters in length, so I did not expect there to be very many different lines to complete. This was my second zip line experience. The first, in Costa Rica at Canopy Carpinteria, outside of San Jose, had been a great morning long adventure. On the last line of that experience, though, Sheree had injured her hand trying to slow her speed. We had seen several other types of zip line gear on TV since then, and several of the systems appear to have a better designed breaking feature. The set up at Chicoj was the same type of gear that we had used in Costa Rica, and Sheree decided to opt out of the zip line. She hiked ahead with Gloria to a good viewpoint for getting pictures of me.
The Chicoj zip line had 4 lines. Line 1 goes over the coffee farm. Line 2 travels through forest. Lines 3 and 4 travel over water.
One thing I remembered about Canopy Carpinteria was that the lines were quite taut, and did not drop a great deal regardless of the weight of the traveler. Chicoj did not have that much tension on its lines. The lead guide zipped down line 1 and reached the platform at the other end. He had stayed well above the coffee. He explained that I should watch him for a signal to apply the brakes at the right time. When it was my turn, the line drooped enough that my feet were hitting the tops of the coffee plants. This caused me to spin, and I was looking away from the breaking area and the landing platform. I managed to spin myself back around just before reaching the breaking point. I got the signal from the lead guide, and applied the breaks to enable me to stop on the platform. I had twisted my wrist a bit with this maneuvering, but I was fine. The other three lines went fine. The last two, over water provided a certain thrill. On our last trip to Guatemala, we had seen quite a few crocodiles in ponds and lakes, and I keep waiting for one to appear here, to jump and swallow me whole like the shark did to Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea. Fortunately, there was no such excitement.
After finishing the zip lines, Gloria continued our tour, leading us to the coffee processing area. We saw the sorting area, the fermentation vats, the depulping area and the drying area. The machine shop containing the roasters and grinders was locked. We enjoyed a bottle of water and a cup of coffee.
The co-op had a small gift shop, and we bought a bag of coffee and a pair of earrings made from coffee beans. We loaded into the SUV and headed for lunch at Vivero Verapaz. Vivero Verapaz sits at the edge of the developed area of Coban, and is a large orchid nursery. June, however, is not a time for very many orchid blooms. We had a nice lunch, and we walked around the grounds of Vivero Verapaz taking photos of anything we could find in bloom. After a few minutes, we loaded up for our drive to Lanquin and the Hotel El Recreo.
The drive to Lanquin is on a dirt road, traveling about 65 km from the paved road to Coban to the hotels of Lanquin. Crews were working on the dirt road, leveling it.
We arrived at the El Recreo. It has a very nice setting, but it is not the best maintained place. Its pool is unusable, green with algae. It is a shame, because the heat had me looking forward to some place to cool off, and the pool would have been ideal. It was late afternoon when we got into the El Recreo. Of course, it has no TV, as it is set down at the bottom of a canyon. Likewise, there is no A/C, since, I assume, everything here must work off generators. We do have a fan, and there are screens above the windows.
I broke out my guitar and played for a while. This attracted our neighbors who turned out to be an interesting group of characters. They are traveling through the Americas hoping to reach Patagonia, in their Toyota camper. They are making a film as they go. They call themselves Los Cazadores de la Chupacabra. Their leader is from Lubbock, TX. We visited with them for awhile, and gave them some of our hiking food, as they indicated they were running out of money. They talked about filming and interviewing me, but they left for a visit to the hotel down the road, El Retiro, and did not return until after we were asleep.
The heat made it hard to get a good night’s sleep, and it did not cool off very much at night