Coban Marketplace and the Quetzal

Wednesday December 10th ~ Coban, Guatemala

On the road from Semuc Champey toward Coban

On the road from Semuc Champey toward Coban

Just the three of us loaded up our traveling suitcases and backpacks and pointed the SUV toward Coban. Today we get to see the dirt road we had traveled two nights earlier draped in a thick fog. The countryside is lush, green and how you might picture a rainforest.

The road was still wet, slippery, and we once again dodged rock and mud slides. Several times Hugo needed to put our vehicle into 4 wheel drive to make it up steep inclines.

Broken down in the middle of the road

Broken down in the middle of the road

Coban was our destination with approximately 250,000 residents. The city was founded by Dominican friars in 1543 but did not flourish until a significant German population arrived at the end of the 19th century and developed a healthy coffee growing district. 

In 1941, all of the Germans were expelled from Guatemala by then leader, Jorge Ubico. Some suspect this was in cooperation with the US government as many ended up in internment camps in Texas and were later traded for American POW’s held in Germany. Today the remaining Germans or those that returned after WWII, have been assimilated into the local society, mostly through intermarriage.

Church on the central plaza, Coban

Church on the central plaza, Coban

Today we are here to walk through the large marketplace. If one wants to see the backbone and guts of a city, there is no place more authentic than where they go to buy their food.

Colorful, raw, noisy, crowded 

This is a typical market day in the city. Once a street, the dirt pathway is now filled with vendors lined up trying to showcase their wares. There are boxes filled with fruits and vegetables, woven baskets with live chickens or turkeys with their feet tied together, a butcher, a baker and yes, even a candle stick maker.

A large wooden crate housed about twenty young pigs, cramped inside with pink snouts poking out. A man sat on a door sill mending well-worn shoes while another shouted to me to take his picture.

Tim and I were the only gringos wandering through the stalls. I’m guessing some were as curious about us as we were about their lives.

Hugo answered our questions as we moved on. “What is that fruit?” “Is this safe for us to try?” “How do we eat it?” etc., etc.

Wander a bit with us…

Raw meat ready to be weighed and wrapped

Raw meat ready to be weighed and wrapped

Lovingly feeding her chickens a cucumber

Lovingly feeding her chickens a cucumber

Hand made pottery

Hand made pottery (probably containing lead)

Women carry goods carefully balanced on top of their head

Women carry goods carefully balanced on top of their head

Mothers bring their children along

Mothers bring their children along

Baskets of fruit and turkeys

Baskets of peppers and turkeys

In conversation

In conversation

School crossing sign

School crossing sign

Time for a lunch break

Yummy quacamole and chips with lemonade (not sure why it was blue)

Yummy guacamole and chips with lemonade (not sure why it was blue)

We had planned on stopping at the Biotopo Del Quetzal for a walk through the rainforest, hike past a waterfall and try to spot the very elusive Quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala. Hugo had already warned us that the chances were quite slim that we would see one of the birds. It had been 13 years since he had seen one in Guatemala. And since the sun was still playing hide-and-seek with the clouds, our hopes were not high.

The Quetzal is considered one of the most beautiful birds in the world. The male will sport brilliant tail feathers up to three feet in length during mating season, with brilliant green plumage on their back, head and wings, offset by a fire-engine red belly.

Quetzal is also the name of the currency in Guatemala which currently offers an exchange rate fluctuating from 7 to 8 quetzal per US dollar.

Driving into the entrance at the preserve, we were greeted by the park ranger, who nonchalantly mentioned that there was a large, full feathered Quetzal in the tree above the parking lot.  Thinking he was joking, Hugo parked the car and it was not until we saw it fly past us that we realized he just might make up for us not seeing any manatees a few days earlier.

Sure enough, by the time we got out of our car, Mr. Quetzal had circled back around and settled just above our heads. He seemed to be taunting us as he would flit and fly from tree to tree, remaining in the immediate area for over 1/2 an hour as we snapped away. Most of the time he was well sheltered by many leaves, but we did get lucky and captured a couple of kind-of decent pictures.

Since the weather was not optimal, and we had successfully seen the elusive Quetzal, we chose not to take the hike to the waterfall. With some daylight left, Hugo offered to take us to a church on the side of the hill with a nice panoramic view of the area.


Steps leading down the hill


Crosses overlooking the city


Lighting a candle, giving thanks for a wonderful, safe trip

Our time in Guatemala was almost over and we checked into our final hotel, Ram Tzul in Coban. Sadly this turned out to be my least favorite of our hotels. The setting was lovely, and the room had a charming wooden design with large windows overlooking a garden.

Hotel Ram Tzul, Coban

Hotel Ram Tzul, Coban

What was lacking, besides a hot shower, was no mattress cover and a sheet that was cut just the size of the mattress which meant that whenever you moved, the sheet rolled up and you were lying on a bare mattress. I was not excited about that, but made do. Waking up the next day covered in bed bug bites was the breaking point for me.

Man do those things itch!

Not how I wanted to remember my final night in my beloved Guatemala, but hey, we also got bed bug bites once in London…

Gratitude Moment: Today I am grateful for Hydrocortisone cream. Although it does not completely stop the bites from itching like crazy, it does help tame them a little.

About Tim and Joanne Joseph

Hi and welcome! We are Tim and Joanne Joseph and we have just embarked on our latest adventure. We hope you will join us!
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11 Responses to Coban Marketplace and the Quetzal

  1. Pat Dugand says:

    Hi Joanne, I was in beautiful Guatemala back in 1972. At that time, and I’m sure it has not changed in some locales, photographing the natives was frowned upon by the natives themselves……something about robbing their spirits with your camera. None the less, your photos are wonderful and bring back warm memories. I especially like the photo of the beautiful young woman with the clay pots. Thank you for sharing in detail. I never saw the Quetzal – how fortunate you were! We stayed with hosts in Quezaltenango, as part of the sister city program, and toured some of the places you have mentioned. Your blog is a blessing to receive. Safe travels! Pat

    Pat M. Dugand Blog:

    “What the caterpillar sees as the end of the world, God calls a butterfly.”



    • Hi Pat, I’m sure there are many changes since you were there in 1972, but the heart of Guatemala remains strong. Taking photos of people is always a challenge. When I am close, I usually ask permission. I am sometimes turned down, or they will turn or shake their head. When that happens I simply smile, put down my camera, and wave goodbye to them. When shooting a crowd, or many people I just snap away. I find that if I am able to engage then in conversation (often through hand gestures), or through purchasing some small item from them, they become much less shy and willing to have their picture taken. Another thing that works is if you can get one person to agree, take the picture and then show it to them. Others gather around to see the picture and are then much more receptive to also having their picture taken. That sometimes results in overly posed pictures though and I have to wait for them to return to a “natural” moment to try to capture what they were doing when I first arrived. Thank you so much for your comments and insights. By the way, I love your caterpillar/butterfly quote.


  2. christinelaennec says:

    Wow – except for the bug bites at the end, this post was one beautiful and amazing thing after another. My mother went to Guatamala in the 1950s, at a time of extreme political upheaval, as the guest of a plantation owner’s daughter. What she saw happening there really politicised her. I own a few beautiful textiles from her visit to Guatamala.


    • Christine, the 1950’s was a turbulent time in Guatemalas history, leading up to the civil war. I’m sure your mother witnessed, and heard of events that would have been quite frightening. I’m glad you have something beautiful from that time period. Even with all the struggles and ugliness that ensued, the natural beauty of the country as well as the strength of the people has survived. Thank you for sharing.


  3. mike alesko says:

    Interesting that the national bird is so seldom seen, tho not so long go that was the same in the u.s. for the bald eagle, which we almost killed off. Do you know what the story is with the quetsal, Joanne? Also, was the burneed area at that final hilltop church used for burning gifts to the gods? I know that for the Mayans, religion is often a mix of christianity and animistic and nature gods.


    • Mike, the Quetzal is not endangered, at least not yet, but is considered one to watch. Although they are rarely spotted in Guatemala, I understand that they are fairly common to see in Costa Rica. Yes, the burn area is one of several that we saw on this trip. There is still an active belief in offering up sacrifices (both plant and animal) to the gods of their ancestors. It is quite an eclectic mixture of beliefs. The Catholic Church has had to allow members to blend their ancient practices with current teachings in order to strengthen the number of followers.


  4. Beautiful shots but I see they came at a cost. BED BUGS!?!


  5. Aunt Beulah says:

    What a marvelous blog. I’m so glad to have found it. The photographs are spectacular: clear, vivid, colorful, wonderfully composed; and the prose allows your readers to explore with you. You broaden the world for us. Thank you. I’ll be back.


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