Stop and smell the coffee… and the cardamom

Cobán, the capital of the department of Alta Verapaz and seat of some of the best coffee-growing terrain in Guatemala, often gets overlooked as visitors buzz right through on their way to Semuc Champey or in search of the quetzal in the nearby cloud forests. However, the city is worth a closer look — and there is plenty to do along with delicious restaurant fare and local treats to keep you energized as you explore. The highlights in and around Cobán include the coffee and cardamom tours, excellent dining, the orchid nursery and the tea cooperative at Té Chirrepeco.

One of my favorite first stops to recharge in Cobán is Casa de Acuña. When I talk about recharging, I mean it literally as it serves one of the most highly charged coffees I have ever tasted. The house specialty, it is a terrific blend of beans from the neighboring fincas. I always order a slice of chocolate macadamia pie to balance it out. The Casa de Acuña restaurant sits in an amazing garden setting with beautiful orchids perched all around. It is a true little piece of heaven, just a couple of blocks off the main square.

After sampling the local coffee, why not check out the source, either at Finca Santa Margarita, home of Dieseldorff Kaffee, or by taking a short trip out of town to the Coffee Tour Chicoj.

Dieseldorff Kaffee was started by an entrepreneurial German immigrant, Erwin Paul Dieseldorff, in 1888. Enjoy a 45-minute tour about the history of his farms and how the entire coffee process works. The tour ends with a thorough coffee-tasting session, where you will learn to tell the difference between the various grades of coffee.

For another coffee experience, travel down a gravel road 10 minutes out of town to the Q’eqchi’ cooperative Coffee Tour Chicoj. Suddenly, you’ll feel like you’ve landed in another country. On your way, you’ll probably catch a tantalizing whiff of cardamom. At the foot of the cooperative lies an unsuspecting wooden house, where women hand-pluck cardamom seeds out of its pods. As you make the climb up to the cooperative, you’ll see women in the traditional flowing white güipil (traditional blouses) and long flowing skirts on their way home, gracefully balancing containers on their heads while children run alongside. At this cooperative, Q’eqchi’ is heard more than Spanish. The cheerful head guide, Gloria, is happy to show you around and tell you their story.

You can even catch a bird’s eye view of the coffee farm via the four zip lines that dot the landscape. Be sure to check out the local crafts made from coffee beans in their store.

After a full day of exploring, I usually work up quite the appetite and I like to ask the locals for their best recommendation. Just two of a few favorites that I have found include Tropicuba, a great little spot, known best as “the Cuban place,” or my friend Doña Patty’s restaurant, El Merendero, which specializes in Salvadoran cuisine.

At the Tropicuba, be sure to order a mojito or two, and you can’t go wrong with any of the grilled meat platters —chicken, sausage or beef– all accompanied by a delicious blend of rice and beans con queso and tostones (fried plantain chips). The place is small and you’ll soon know your neighbors by name and will be asking for another round of potent mojitos.

Doña Patty has her little restaurant on the corner down the hill just a block off the Central Plaza. She serves up some of the best pupusas I have found in Guatemala. If you aren’t familiar, pupusas are basically two tortillas with a filling of beans, cheese or meat, or any combination of the three. The food here is so good and affordable that you might be making a stop again on your way back through.

Cobán has a number of nice hotels to choose from when it’s time to settle in for the evening, including Hotel Casa Duranta, Hotel La Posada or the Park Hotel just a few minutes out of town; also Casa del Bosque, Hotel Ram Tzul and La Posada de Don Antonio. Be sure to get some rest, as the next day there will still be plenty to do.

Check out the neighboring tea cooperative, Té Chirrepeco, or take a little walk down the old highway to Guatemala City, and check out the orchid nursery, home to over 35,000 plants, including the national flower, the rare monja blanca.

Don’t leave Cobán without stocking up on some good coffee and locally produced cardamom candy. You’ll be planning your next trip back before you even leave.

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