A dramatic mix of dry hills and fertile valleys, BAJA VERAPAZ is crossed by a skeletal road network. The small towns of Salamá and San Jerónimo, situated on a flat-bottomed valley, have some intriguing historic sights, while to the west Rabinal and Cubulco boast interesting markets and host deeply traditional fiestas. The other big attractions are the quetzal sanctuary, on the western side of the Cobán highway, and the forested mountains, waterfalls and wildlife inside the Reserva Sierra de las Minas just to the east.
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At the eastern end of a fertile valley, 18km from the Cumbre junction, lies the small tranquil town of SAN JERÓNIMO. In the Conquest’s early days, Dominican priests built a church and convent here and planted vineyards, eventually producing a wine lauded as the finest in Central America. In 1845, after the religious orders were abolished, an Englishman replaced the vines with sugarcane and began distilling an aguardiente that became equally famous. These days the area still produces sugar, though the cultivation of flowers for export and fish farming are more important.
Presiding over the central plaza, the village’s seventeenth-century Baroque church contains a monumental gilded altar, brought from France, which was crafted from sheets of eighteen-carat gold.
Eight kilometres west of San Jerónimo is SALAMÁ, capital of the department of Baja Verapaz. The town has a relaxed and prosperous air, and like many of the places out this way, its population is largely ladino. Sights are slim on the ground, although it’s worth checking out the imposing colonial bridge on the edge of town, and the old church, the gilt of its huge altars darkened by age.
- Rabinal and around
Biotopo del Quetzal
Biotopo del Quetzal
On the highway north to Cobán, just before the village of Purulhá, the Biotopo del Quetzal was established to protect the habitat of the endangered quetzal, Guatemala’s national bird (see The Resplendent Quetzal). The reserve covers a steep area of dense cloudforest, through which the Río Colorado cascades towards the valley floor, forming waterfalls and natural swimming pools.
Two paths through the undergrowth from the road complete a circuit that takes you up into the woods above the reserve headquarters (where maps are available for US$0.75). Quetzals are occasionally seen here but they’re extremely elusive. The best time of year to visit is just before and just after the nesting season (between March & June), and the best time of day is sunrise. In general, the birds tend to spend the nights up in the high forest and float across the road as dawn breaks, to spend the days in the trees below. They can be easily identified by their jerky, undulating flight. A good place to look out for them is at one of their favoured feeding trees, the broad-leaved aguacatillo, which produces a small avocado-like fruit. Whether or not you see a quetzal, the forest itself (usually damp with chipi-chipi, a perpetual mist) is worth a visit: a profusion of lichens, ferns, mosses, bromeliads and orchids spread out beneath a towering canopy of cypress, oak, walnut and pepper trees.
The Resplendent Quetzal
The Resplendent Quetzal
The quetzal, Guatemala’s national symbol (after which the country’s currency and second city are named), has a distinguished past but an uncertain future. The bird’s feathers have been sacred from the earliest of times, and in the strange cult of Quetzalcoatl, whose influence once spread throughout Mesoamerica, the bird was incorporated into the plumed serpent, a supremely powerful deity. To the Maya the quetzal was so sacred that killing one was a capital offence; the bird is also thought to have been the nahual, or spiritual protector, of the Maya chiefs. When Tecún Umán faced Pedro de Alvarado in hand-to-hand combat, his headdress sprouted the long green feathers of the quetzal, and when the conquistadors founded a city adjacent to the battleground they named it Quetzaltenango, “the place of the quetzals”.
In modern Guatemala the quetzal’s image saturates the country: it features on the national flag, and citizens honoured by the president are awarded the Order of the Quetzal. The bird is also considered a symbol of freedom, since caged quetzals die from the rigours of confinement. Despite all this, deforestation threatens the very existence of the bird, and the Biotopo del Quetzal is about the only serious step that has been taken to save it.
There are six species of the bird, but it’s the male Resplendent Quetzal (found between southern Mexico and Panama) which is the most exotically coloured. Its head is crowned with a plume of brilliant green, and chest and lower belly are a rich crimson; the unmistakeable iridescent green tail feathers (reaching some 60cm in length) are particularly evident in the mating season. The females, on the other hand, are an unremarkable brownish colour. The birds nest in holes found in dead trees, laying one or two eggs, usually in April or May.
The Biotopo del Quetzal is also known as the Mario Dary Reserve, in honour of an environmental campaigner who spent years campaigning for a cloudforest sanctuary to protect the quetzal, causing great problems for powerful timber companies in the process. He was murdered in 1988. An ecological foundation, Fundary, has been set up in his name to manage protected areas, including Punta de Manabique on the Caribbean coast.