According to anthropologist Sergio Mendizábal, “the enchantment of reality”1 is an essential strategy for the production of knowledge and the construction of a Mayan identity. It can be observed in the social practices of several ethnic communities — the Q’eqchi’ among them — of Guatemala. “We notice — the researcher comments — the quotidian being made sacred as a social practice,” or an “enchantment that is reiterated in every small act of life, which is realized in practices that tie a person to the sacred and connect them with the transcendent in the experience of living.” The complexities of this unique world vision survive in several facets of everyday life. Mayan languages, for example, manage to decentralize the Western emphasis on the subject by “humanizing reality.” They establish equal conditions and origins between existing species and natural elements. This is manifested in recurring expressions like “mother earth, baby moon, the belly button of houses, the waist of territories, the head of the hills, the eyes of the water or the spirit of the rivers,” according to Mendizábal.
The feeling of this sacred-magic quality of culture and territory accompanied me on my journey through the land of the Q’eqchi’s as we ventured into the Sierra de las Minas by way of the departments of Alta y Baja Verapaz, situated in central Guatemala. It’s impossible not to be enchanted by the landscape of the region. It’s also impossible to not feel the peculiar aura of geography that appears to retain and transmit the memory of the territory and its telluric evolution, as well as the history of its inhabitants. During the previous days, we had visited — led by our guide, Nancy Bosarreyes — the virgin jungle of the biotope of the Quetzal and the architecture of the stalactites in King Marcos Cave. The next part of the journey would take us from the turquoise lagoons of Semuc Champey to the Orquigonia ecological reserve. In these places, the enchantment that the anthropologist describes became an experience as real as it was indelible: an immersion in the living space where the infinite beauty of the natural world, and the traditions and life stories of the area’s inhabitants converge.
To get from Coban — the capital of the Alta Verapaz department — to Semuc Chamey, in the municipality of Lanquin, you must drive for an hour and a half through a sinuous road that crossed the tall, green cliffs of the area. In this everchanging geography that nature has worked on for centuries, limestone and karst formations abound because of water erosion on the surface and underground. Hence why the region is known for its underground galleries; amongst which the Lanquin Grottos, only a few kilometers from our destination, can be highlighted.
A welcome stop at the unique Guayahá hotel allowed us to refresh and fill up before embarking uphill. The hotel boasts numerous comforts, including two large pools and a diverse array of leisure areas scattered under the refreshing shade of the region’s lush vegetation. Adventure and camping lovers would especially enjoy the hotel, where traditional cabins have been substituted by elegant tents, equipped with electricity and other amenities you would expect from a regular hotel.
Semuc Champey is located at the top of a cliff, so a double traction vehicle is required to conquer the abrupt drops that appear along the dirt road. This part of the trip — which lasts less than half an hour — is the start of an adventure and a way to immerse into the geography of the region. On the way, you meet its inhabitants, whose houses extend throughout the road. Declared a natural monument in 1999, Semuc Champey — or, “where the river hides beneath the stone” in Q’eqchi’ — is a privileged natural space. This oasis of beauty is hidden between two mountains, at the heart of the subtropical jungle. In an esplanade that extends hundreds of square meters, you’ll find six terraced lagoons or pools. Several meters deep, these lagoons communicate with each other through small waterfalls whose volume and intensity vary depending on the level of recent rainfall. The esplanade also forms a large limestone bridge that goes over the cautious Cahabon river in its restless flow. Its current seems to penetrate the earth through the cesspool’s hole, like a large drill that makes way through the hardness of the rock — hence the place’s name — to come out three hundred and fifty meters away at a lower level. Except at this point, the complemented by the intensity and the force of the water that the lagoons that overflow spill into a thirty-meter waterfall.
From the entrance’s parking lot, a trail through the jungle allowed us to access the pools. The road splits into two alternative paths from which you must choose. The first path also reaches the terraces but borders the margins of the Cahabon River. The path proved impossible for us because recent rainfall had caused water levels to rise. The other path leads to the incredible views of Semuc Champey. Here, you get a bird’s eye view that makes it possible to observe from above the grand natural bridge and its pools. It also makes it possible to enjoy a panoramic view of the immensity of the region’s jungle.
Climbing up to the viewpoint is a challenge. It’s advisable to be in good shape and have high-quality, slip-proof shoes. But any effort is well rewarded. In a figurative sense, Semuc Champey is like a peacock’s mating dance. In this space of quietness and contemplation, nature seems to open its exuberant “tail” to show us, generously, the infinite spectrum of creation. The rare color of the pools is an intense green with turquoise undertones. The concentration of vegetation in the ladders of the terraced cliffs offers an astonishing spectacle with the variety of its shapes, as well as the diversity of its flora’s ocher, green, and yellow tones.
It was impossible for me not to associate the colors of the pools with the jade, the sacred stone of the Mayas and the distinctive ornament of the royals at the height of the civilization’s splendor. This precious stone, whose firmness is only surpassed by that of diamonds — the reason for which it is difficult to work on — was extracted from the neighboring Sierra de las Minas. There are stories about how, in modern times, miners are able to identify the mineral by the singular sound that their chisels made when they bounced off it.
Beyond the similarities, the unusual color of the pools comes from the alchemy of the water with the minerals and microorganisms of the area — the result of patient labor orchestrated by nature for centuries. The carbonated calcium crystals that make up the pools act like natural mirrors, reflecting the luminosity and the colors of their surroundings. It is in this way that Semuc Champey converts into a sort of grand prism that filters sunlight to reflect, depending on the climate, a palette of changing tonalities. On sunny days with an intensely blue sky, the pools shine with titillating colors, accentuating the clearness of the crystal waters. On overcast days, tones acquire more discreet values, offering other levels, no less beautiful, of contemplation.
After the heat and the exercise of the walk, there is nothing better than going into the pools or diving directly into their crystal-clear waters. The initial impact is electrifying because the water is temperate and could be — for someone like me, used to the warm waters of the Caribbean —even cold. But after a few minutes, the body synchronizes the temperatures, making for a pleasant and energizing experience. Within this space of transparency, the visibility is astonishing. Even without a mask, it is possible to see the bottom, made up of clear stones that, curiously, is also at this altitude, the roof of an underground river, the Cahabón. The opportunity served me to try an accessory that my daughter — architect and sports photographer — had lent me for using the trip: an epoxy resin cover that protects the camera, turning it into underwater photography equipment. I photographed, among legions of restless small fish, the sinuous roots of trees penetrating the water to settle on the firmness of the bottom.
Semuc Champey is one of the most beautiful natural spaces I have ever visited in my life. I feel like a part of me is still there, in that place of stillness and wonder, sheltered by the walls of the deep jungle. The unforgettable landscape was accidentally discovered in 1954 — according to that very Western sense of the word in which "discovering" is nothing more than recognizing, many centuries later, the existence of a space habitually traveled by its locals.
The next morning, we would have the opportunity to connect with the inhabitants of the neighboring communities when we visited the Chicoj coffee production cooperative. In Semuc Champey, we saw virgin nature in a protected ecosystem. In Chicoj, we learned about the modes of agricultural intervention on the territory, as well as the desire to turn production into a sustainable exercise, conceived to preserve the values of the environment and simultaneously guarantee the productive well-being of the Q'eqchi's peoples of the region.
The coffee plant is believed to be native to the African Horn and was introduced to Guatemala by Jesuit friars during the Spanish colonization. Today, this country is the main coffee exporter in Central America, but the boom and development of its industry were strongly driven in its beginnings by German immigration that settled in municipalities like such as Alta Verapaz from the late 19th century until the middle of the 20th century. Heirs of the European Industrial Revolution, German settlers and merchants introduced new techniques in the cultivation and production of coffee, creating the necessary infrastructure for its transport, trade and export. The policies of the government at that time — interested in encouraging foreign investment — allowed them to acquire the lands tragically expropriated from the native at favorable prices. Indigenous people then became an “almost free” labor force2 in the cultivation and processing of grain. But the prosperous plantations of the colonists were in turn confiscated years later, because of the alliances and political interests that were established in World War II. Many German citizens were repatriated or interned in camps in the United States, leaving the farms under the administration of the government. In 1944, they were finally rented to farmers and cooperatives in the area3.
"The Germans taught our ancestors to grow coffee in a more sophisticated way," says Álvaro Yat, the manager of this cooperative created in 1969, a few kilometers from Cobán. "We extended and perfected this tradition for the benefit of our own community." Today, the Chicoj farm is made up of small producers of the Q’eqchi’ ethnic group. Their projects include, among others, ecological tourism and the work of reforestation that is urgently imposed, as one of the main challenges in the preservation of the ecosystem in the region.
The tour of the coffee plantations — together with Alvaro’s explanations — allowed us to understand the different moments of a complex process that oscillates from the initial stages of sowing and harvesting to other later phases such as the classification of grains, the "pulping," the fermentation, and the washing and drying techniques. Nature in this mountainous area is exuberant so that a visit to the plantations can be alternated with a tour of the tropical forest seen from above, with the help of sliding systems of cables and harnesses known as “canopy.”
After touring the different areas of the cooperative, there’s nothing better than tasting a delicious traditional-style coffee, prepared by the expert hands of an infusion taster or “barista”. In this space where the history of the country, the culture, and the agricultural traditions of its inhabitants converge, several generations of Q’eqchi’s have worked the same land. They have transmitted orally a legacy of excellence and wisdom in the cultivation and processing of grain. “I learned this profession from my grandfather and father,” says Rogelio Cu Poou, the cooperative's barista. “My grandfather worked for the Germans, and he used to sign the farm records with a symbol because he did not know how to write. Today, I must choose between keeping this profession or dedicating myself to legally represent the cooperative, because I will soon finish my law studies.”
Cu Poou's atelier is that of an alchemist. Behind a large counter populated by glass jars, scales, heaters and containers of the precious grain, this flavor artist patiently prepared different varieties of coffee for us. The flavors and aromas vary remarkably according to the type of grain that is used and the way it is prepared. Once ready, the barista tests them with a small sip, emitting a strident sound with his inhaling lips. The expression on his face instantly shows his agreement — or disagreement — with the result of his concoction.
Another unforgettable space of traditions and family inspiration is located a few kilometers from Cobán — the epicenter of our trip — and was named Orquigonia by the family of its founder, Oscar Archila Euler (1938-2007). Orquigonia opened to the public in 2007 following his death, as a tribute to his many years of work. Today, the space houses one of the largest collections of orchids in Guatemala and is a sanctuary for the rescue and preservation of the country’s more than 1,400 endemic species — many of which are in danger of extinction — along with other varieties that coexist in this protected ecosystem of the Cloud Forest.
“We have planted around 100,000 orchids in the area,” says Francisco Archila, one of Óscar's sons and the administrator of the place. What is impossible for us to calculate is how many exist today because, of course, they multiply. And this is one of the scores we are happy to have lost.” Archila Euler’s love and dedication for these plants found in his family the echo of continuity necessary to carry out his patient work of collecting, studying, and classifying the specimens of this species that coexisted with dinosaurs, and whose origin dates back to the late cetacean period, between 76 to 84 million years ago.
Since the 1970s, Óscar Archila — sportsman, soccer coach, and employee of the Banco de Guatemala until his retirement — collected all kinds of orchids, from the beautiful specimens of vibrant colors to the most common ones, including those tiny varieties that "fit on the head of a pin," as Francisco says. Together with his children, he toured the recently felled forests of his country and in the dejected trees he rescued many of the orchids that were part of his initial collection, located on the grounds of his house. Very soon, this “Noah's Ark” of flora — as the writer Adriana Herrera described it — turned out to be small for such a large collection, so Archila decided to buy an additional piece of land. From this dream, Orquigonia was born. It was also the beginning of a new generation of passionate environmentalists and scientists who today carry the surname Archila, and who have extended the study of this beautiful flower to international levels.
Such is the case of the agronomist Fredy Archila — Oscar's son and associate researcher at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, United States — who currently directs the Archila Family Orchid Experiment Station together with its germplasm bank, the largest in the country. A dedicated scholar and classifier of new orchid species like his father, Fredy Archila worked patiently on the cultivation and reinsertion of a practically extinct specimen in Guatemala: the White Nun or Lycaste virginalis, the national flower of the country. Named for the curious appearance of its inner column that resembles a nun in the act of praying, the White Nun — also known to the ancient Q'eqchi's as Sak ijix or the "princess turned into a flower" — is an albino orchid, whose velvet petals and singular beauty match its rarity and fragility.
“Rescuing and conserving orchids is not only a way to protect them against the dangers of the environment or indiscriminate trade,” Francisco Archila clarifies. “It is also a way to rebuild the biological balance of the cloud forest. While the orchids multiply, they attract all kinds of insects — their pollinating agents — which are a main food source for many birds, reptiles, and small mammals, which now return to live together in this protected space.”
Long before the Hindus, the ancient Maya conceived of and regularly used the concept of zero, as part of a vigesimal and positional numbering system that contained the potential to imagine infinity. This perception of the immeasurable, inseparable from their worldview, allowed them to develop a highly developed abstract thought that encompassed the cyclical and infinite nature of time and space, somehow connected to the unlimited beauty of the natural landscape in the region that today is Guatemala. This is one of the legacies that I take with me from my journey through the land of the Q'eqchi's, together with the endearing stories of its inhabitants — the open parenthesis of an unfinished visit, which will surely come to certify in the next destinations, the phrase of the Hermit Heraclitus of Ephesus, observer of time and the phenomena of the earth: "If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not recognize it when it arrives."
1 Mendizábal, Sergio: “El encantamiento de la realidad. Producción de conocimientos en procesos de construcción de identidad maya, en practicas sociales de K’icheab’, Kaqqhickela, Q’eqchi’eb y Q’eman”, pp. 169-170. Culturas de Guatemala. Los Mayas: historias, discursos y sujetos. Séptimo Congreso de Estudios Mayas, 8-10 August 2007. Universidad Rafael Landívar, Tercera Época, Año XXIX, Volume I, January-April 2008.
2 Caso Barrera, Laura: Viajeros alemanes en Alta Verapaz en el siglo XIX. Su aportación al conocimiento de las lenguas y cultura Maya, p. 141. Revista Brasilera, January 2014.
3 Molina Londoño, Luis Fernando: “Expolios, deportaciones e internamientos: el destino de los alemanes durante la segunda guerra mundial”, p. 18. Oxímora, revista internacional de ética y política, núm. 11. jul-dec 2017, pp. 4-24.