Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Colors, Caves and Coffee

I´m up in the highlands of Guatemala, in the town of Cobán (not to be confused with Copán in Honduras). Yesterday was a long day: I got up at 5:30 to catch a bus to Semuc Champey, nestled in the hills, where there are caves to be explored and swimming holes to dive into. I was confused by the lack of tourists in Cobán, as supposedly it´s the common stopping point on the way to the Mayan ruins at Tikal. I saw very few in town and none on the bus, leaving me to wonder if I´d be all by myself out there. But when I arrived, there they all were, having spent the night in the quaint village of Lanquin, or in Semuc itself. I even caught up with four people I´d met in other parts of Guatemala. I missed the boat on that one: it would have been much nicer and more relaxed if I´d stayed out there instead of doing it as a day trip. Oh well. The visit to the caves was lots of fun, and absolutely insane--the kind of thing you´d never find in other (perhaps more safety-conscious) places. We went in wearing only our bathing suits and old pairs of Keds handed to us for the occasion, with a candle for light. These we tried to keep lit as we walked, climbed and swam our way through an intricate, and very dark, network of water-filled caves. We saw some bats and stalactites but mostly just followed our guide, who, luckily, knew exactly where to find all the foot- and hand-holds. At the end, with only a few rudimentary instructions he shouted in Spanish (which some in the group didn´t understand) we had to slide on a rushing waterfall through a narrow hole into a little pit, and from there feel our way under a rock wall and out the other side! It was cold in there and I was shivering by the end and had bits of wax dripped on my arms, and several of us had scrapes on our legs or bumps on our heads from unexpected underwater or overhead rocks, but it was lots of fun overall!

Unfortunately (but typically) I forgot a t-shirt in Semuc, the only long-sleeved one I have, so I had to wait for it to come in on a bus today, so I had time to fully explore Cobán. I visited a very interesting Mayan museum, a hilltop church, a coffee plantation (where my free cup at the end came with Coffeemate instant non-dairy creamer, which would seem like sacrelige if it wasn´t so absolutely normal here) and an orchid farm. At the orchid farm, I thought there were very few in bloom, but then met one of the caretakers who began to show me some of the varieties of tiny orchids, some of which could fit easily underneath my smallest fingernail, and which are so small that only the tiniest of insects can get inside to drink the nectar. My shirt was delivered this evening by a Swiss-Australian couple I´ve met in several places so far, and we will be continuing on to Rio Dulce tomorrow together. (Also, they said that today a German guy bashed his head during the cave tour and had to get stitches!)

Click on the White Nun orchid (Guatemala´s National Flower) for more photos:
White Nun Orchid

This past Sunday, I visited the country´s largest indigenous crafts market in Chichicastenango (usually called Chichi for good reason). As I think I´ve well established, I love a good market and I wasn´t disappointed. This one was pretty congested and chaotic but had lots of beautiful goods for sale and colors everywhere: on the fabrics for sale, the Mayan masks, the tablecloths, bedspreads, clothing, bags and various carved wooden objects. It was a successful day, I´d say my Christmas shopping is off to a good start.

Click on this lady for more market photos:
Chichi Woman