Halfway between Guatemala’s capital and its border with Belize lies
the small mountain town of Cobán and the national park, Samuc Champey. Located in the mountainous Alta Verapaz province, Samuc Champey was a holy site for the ancient Kekchi Mayans and means, ‘Sacred Water.’ Praised for its picturesque beauty, the park’s main attraction is a natural limestone bridge of lagoons that sits atop a mighty mountain river tumbling down a sub-tropical valley. It has always been one of the Guatemala’s hidden gems, but recently it has become a popular tourist destination and a must-see for many who travel into the countries heartland.
On my trip to Cobán, I traveled from Guatemala City in the back of a minibus for four heart-wrenching hours along a narrow, winding road that traverses the mountainous interior. For added kicks our driver, either an escaped mental patient or looking to be committed, decided to play chicken with oncoming traffic by overtaking slower cars through blind corners and small straight-aways. This was usually about the same time a huge logging truck would be coming in the other direction and he’d have to quickly slam on the breaks and verve back into our lane just as the 18-wheeler whizzed past. To top it all off it was pouring rain, increasing the likelihood of an accident and of me having a heart
By some miracle I survived the trip and made it to Cobán by early afternoon. I checked into Casa D’Acuña, an affordable hotel with clean rooms, warm beds and an excellent Italian restaurant. The hotel also doubled as a tourist agency where I booked a tour to the park for the following day and spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring the city.
Cobán is a chilly sub-alpine hamlet tucked into the folds of jagged countryside as well as a transportation hub for the local farmers living in the surrounding hills. However, when I was walking its drizzly, colorless side streets, I found it lacking in charm and cultural vibrancy both of which you come to expect from small mountain towns in Central America. It was as bleak and sullen as a migrant town during the Great Depression and after an hour of fruitless wondering I gave up and returned to my hotel. I took an early dinner – exquisite beef ravioli and a smooth noted glass of Chianti next to their fireplace. After my meal, I decided to call it a night, knowing full well that I wasn’t going to be missing anything in the way of excitement out on the town.
Arising at 5am, I was greeted by our English-speaking guides and the rest of our tour group, a collection of locals and other internationals. After a short briefing and a warm complimentary breakfast we all boarded a small tour bus and made the two hour drive to
the entrance to the park. Again, we traveled along a rough, curving road but this time however, the driver had taken his prescription medication and the ride was much more pleasant.
We slowly descended from the crisp smell of pine forests and dry mountain plains to humid palm-covered lowlands and moist river valleys, stopping along the way to view the beautiful countryside from amazing vistas. Desolate olive green hills, sprinkled with coffee and cardamom farms, rolled back toward the horizon like ripples in a pond. Seeing the expanse, I truly got a sense of just how vast the Guatemalan interior actually is.