The rain slowed and eventually stopped. The river below us was still swiftly running and a cafe au lait shade of brown. One plastic blue tarp covered shuttle had arrived at the far side of the dilapidated yellow suspension bridge. Three hardy young passengers with back packs trudged across the wooden planks. Apparently the shuttle wasn’t willing to try the last steep and muddy hill before the lodge, El Portal.
The implication of the shuttle bus was that the road in was passable now and therefore we might be able to consider getting out soon, provided that we had extra weight in the rear of the truck. A potential ‘bungle in the jungle’ might be averted.
‘Hill Billy Tom’ made his decision by 1pm: we were leaving and the sooner the better. He’d talked the two ‘Caitlyn’s into coming with us and there were two other local passengers that wanted out. That made six plus our luggage for the rear of the truck, including ‘Alabama Bob’ and the ‘Perfesser’, good enough for a start out and up the first slippery slope until we reached the intersection. If we were lucky there’d be other potential passengers along the way.
The first hill, after the bridge, was powered up and over: the tires slid, slipped and eventually gripped. At the bottom of every grade, HBT would stop and warn everyone to hold on. The big Ford V8 might have been the wrong engine for the job, as the lower powered shuttle busses were either more nimble or perhaps their drivers were more experienced in navigating the ruts and rocks that comprised the so-called road. The engine roared and the tires spun up and over the rocks aka boulders, one hill at a time.
After a mile or so we came to a house where a young school boy was headed to town. He liked the idea of riding with us and his mother laughed as we left. At a bend and a flat area, one of the ‘Caitlynns’ wanted to stop: to the right, in a corn field was a tree with spiked red berries, to which she pulled a branch or two off. Known as ‘Flor del Diablo’, when the branch is broken, it exudes a red-colored fluid. She and the other ‘Caitlynn’ applied this red dye to their faces, with horizontal streaks and stripes…was it primitive eye shadow or tribal markings? Who knew? Who cared? We acquired another couple of passengers along the muddy road, now adding up to nine. They were local ladies, dressed in their Mayan finest fashion of woven skirts and blouses, going to town for shopping.
Lanquin, at last and down the semi-paved street of concrete to the intersection for the road to Coban. I’d asked about my friends who had opened a hostel in town but no one had heard of them, other than the ‘wanted poster’ seen on the bulletin board at the El Portal. Maybe discretion, as they say, was the better part of valor and if they’d wanted to hear from me, they would’ve answered to the two emails and two voice mails that’d I’d left a week before. It was just another mystery, without any clues except for the ‘wanted poster’.
All passengers except the two ‘Caitlynns’ departed in town and we reloaded with cold beer:there was now only 16 kilometers of slightly better road than we had just survived, until we found the main and paved road back to Coban.
With any luck our hotel, Las Terrazas, would have ice and hot water. There was forty kilometers to go and the occasional light showers didn’t dampen the spirits of the two girls and Alabama Bob, all riding in the back of the truck. They covered up as best they could and fortunately the rains were light. Coban drew ever closer, through the lush green valleys, until at last we reached the outskirts. The girls, who didn’t speak Spanish and had no guide book, asked to borrow mine. They chose the least expensive hostel, ‘Chipi-Chipi’ for $3.50 a night and we found the center of town eventually, where it was supposedly located. I tried to explain that it was a 5 year old guide book and often wrong, outdated and sometimes incorrect but they were undeterred.
We shook hands and nominated them as ‘intrepid travelers’ with whom we’d gladly travel again. If nothing else they were ‘colorful’. A shaved head with only a small topknot of brown hair, a face marked with red vertical and horizontal stripes qualifies as ‘colorful’ in any country.
With the ‘Perfesser’ navigating by the small map in the guidebook, despite any indication of the numerous one way streets, we stumbled upon our hotel. I handled the reservations while HBT tried to fit the over-sized Ford into the narrow garage door of the parking area. We checked into our various rooms, which were small but adequate. Was there hot water? Yes! was there ice? Yes! Across the street was a small tienda (store) that carried my particular brand of menthol cigarettes plus a dusty bottle of Kentucky bourbon. Ah, civilization, or as close as it gets in a remote part of Guatemala.
Coban? It’s one of the three largest cities of Guatemala; with a population of some 70000 people as of the date of the guidebook, 2008 and it has been the scene of some recent unrest, for various reasons. It was originally chartered by the Emperor Charles V in 1538, and its’ fortunes increased with the offer by Guatemala’s President Barrios to German immigrants in the late 1800’s. The climate was perfect for coffee growing and they accepted large and free land grants. Unfortunately for them, in the wake of World War II and the pressure of the US, those were expropriated. Coban is a cool and misty city, now and as it was then. The women are exceptionally beautiful, the food is decent and there are various attractions to see. What we weren’t expecting, on a later stroll about downtown, on a Friday afternoon was a parade of ‘coquetas’…..a gaggle of young men, in their late teens to early twenties, wearing make-up and partial pieces of women’s clothing….a ‘Gay Pride’ parade? Apparently so: cars and trucks followed the group of twenty of so, honking their horns in appreciation. Guatemala, as are most Latin American countries, is homophobic. As unusual and unnerving as this was, it was now ‘cocktail hour’ at the Las Terrazas Hotel.
The slow drizzle continued off and on throughout the night. It wasn’t enough to discourage a short walk around the block in the morning, as long as you kept underneath an awning or two. The locals brought their produce and set up temporary stands along the sidewalks and the light sprinkle of mist and rain only brightened the colors of the fruits and vegetables.
By 9 o’clock, I’d only had coffee but the others had filled up with breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant. It was time to pack and load. It was time to hit the road. I thought we’d stop for lunch at our previous road-side restaurant in El Progreso but I was wrong. The right side mirror only got another wrapping of duct tape and I went without. We were back in Antigua by mid-afternoon, in time for some food to cook later for me, a pick-up of clean laundry and a ride home via tuk-tuk. Semuc Champey? Go see it but go by good transportation. Take a flashlight if you stay at El Portal and be prepared for cold showers and no ice.