The friendly capital of the department Alta Verapaz is situated in the middle of evergreen forests and fields at 1320m altitude.
It is an important agricultural centre. Cobán is Guatemala’s most important coffee-growing region and the world’s most important exporter of cardamom.
Orchids also thrive in great diversity in the mild, humid mountain climate. One of the most important orchid breeds is the Viveros Verapaz, which was founded by the German immigrant Otto Mittelstaedt. The collection comprises around 35,000 plants of several hundred species, including miniatures and Guatemala’s national flower Monja Blanca (white nun, Lycaste virginalis).
Some of the plants can only be recognized with a magnifying glass, others that smell like vanilla or a variant with coconut aroma. One of the species pollinated by mosquitoes stinks like a sweating mammal.
From the late 19th century until the Second World War, mainly German coffee farmers colonized Alta Verapaz, and Cobán became an exclave of European culture in Guatemala.
The Finca Margarita, one of the largest coffee fincas in the area, can be visited as part of a tour. It was founded in 1880 by the German family Dieseldorff, whose descendants are still in business today. Another member of the family, Erwin Paul Dieseldorff, is considered one of the founders of archaeological studies on Mayan culture. The guides explain the history of the cultivation and production of coffee. The tour ends with a tasting session in which you learn to differentiate between the coffee varieties of the lowlands, the midlands and the highlands as well as the different blends.
Thanks to a unique incident during the colonization, the region around Cobán has largely preserved its indigenous culture until today. Alta Verapaz was never “conquered”; rather Juan Matalbatz, the leader of K´ekchi Maya, who were considered to be warlike, voluntarily converted to Christianity and became an ally of the Dominicans. To this day, the dominant languages in Alta Verapaz are K’ekchi and Pocomchí, not Spanish.
El Calvario is Cobán’s most important church. It is reached by a staircase with over 1000 steps where three altars are built. The first of these, Los Tigrillos, serves to fulfill wishes, the second, San Salvador, is the altar of the lovers, and at the third, opposite to the entrance to the chapel, La Calavera, one asks for health. From here you can also enjoy the best view over the city and the surrounding area.
However, for most travellers coming to Cobán, the city is the starting point for a visit to the natural attractions of the area, such as the Lanquín Caves and the Semuc Champey river terraces.