The twin departments of the Verapaces harbour some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the country, yet attract only a trickle of tourists. Alta Verapaz, in particular, is astonishingly beautiful, with fertile limestone landscapes and craggy, mist-wrapped hills. The highlands here are the wettest and greenest in Guatemala – ideal for the production of the cash crops of coffee, cardamom, flowers and ferns. Locals say it rains for thirteen months a year, alternating between straightforward downpours and drizzle they call the chipi-chipi. To the south, Baja Verapaz could hardly be more different: a sparsely populated area of deep valleys dotted with fiesta towns and parched hills that see very little rainfall.
In Baja Verapaz, the towns of Salamá, Rabinal and Cubulco are rightly renowned for their traditional fiestas, while San Jerónimo has some interesting historic sights. Guatemala’s national bird, the quetzal can occasionally be seen in the cloudforests of this department: the quetzal sanctuary is one possible and accessible place to seek them out.
However, the hub of the region is Cobán in Alta Verapaz, a fairly attractive mid-sized mountain town with good accommodation and some very civilized coffeehouses and restaurants. Northeast of here, the exquisite natural bathing pools of Semuc Champey near Lanquín are surrounded by lush tropical forest and are a key travellers’ hangout.
North of Cobán, a couple of wonderful natural attractions lie near the town of Chisec: the emerald lakes of Lagunas de Sepalau and the sink hole of Bombil Pek. From Chisec it’s a short hop to the extraordinary Candelaria caves and the nearby ruins of Cancuén. In the extreme northwest of the region, the astonishingly beautiful lake Laguna Lachúa, fringed by rainforest, is well worth the detour it takes to get there.
Long before the Conquest, local Achi Maya had earned themselves a reputation as the most bloodthirsty of all the tribes, said to sacrifice every prisoner they took. Alvarado’s Spanish army was unable to make any headway against them, and eventually he gave up trying to control the area, naming it tierra de guerra, the “land of war”.
The Catholic church, however, couldn’t allow so many heathen souls to go to waste. Under the leadership of Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, the Church made a deal with the conquistadors: if Alvarado would agree to keep all armed men out of the area for five years, the priests would bring it under control. In 1537 Las Casas set out into the highlands, befriended the Achi chiefs and learnt the local dialects. By 1538 they had made considerable progress and converted large numbers of Maya. After five years the famous and invincible Achi were transformed into Spanish subjects, and the king of Spain renamed the province Verapaz, “True Peace”.
During the colonial era the Verapaces remained isolated, their trade bypassing the capital by taking a direct route to the Caribbean along the Río Polochic and out through Lago de Izabal.