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Proyecto Ecológico Quetzal



There is always the possibility when doing a community stay that participants will see little more than the adverse effects of tourism on isolated indigenous groups. Not so with Cobán’s Proyecto Ecológico Quetzal. The inhabitants of Chicacnab (one of two villages the Proyecto works with) have a natural mastery of the art of hospitality. The tiny rainforest village is a genuine treat for those seeking to explore the road less traveled in Guatemala.


The Proyecto was set up in the late eighties to encourage local farmers to preserve primary rainforest on their lands. The principle is simple: don’t cut down the rainforest: make money showing it to nature-hungry tourists. And it works! The traveler arrives in the nearest major town of Cobán, makes some inquiries at the Proyecto’s office and within a few days heads off on a very special journey.


We found ourselves taking buses further and further away from life as we knew it, meeting charming characters along the way. Before we boarded the pickup truck that would bring us to the foot of the trail, a young mother insisted we take some pears so we would not be hungry on our hike. The pickup was crowded with farmers and traders. Our guide was easily the youngest on board, not being more than fourteen. He was endearingly shy and made sure we were as comfortable as could be as we bounced down the muddy road to the foot of the mountains.


Once the walking began in earnest the landscape began to change to resemble what might have happened if Peter Jackson had directed Jurassic Park. As we approached the village we began to meet some of the inhabitants who spoke Q’eqchi to our guide and greeted us in polite Spanish.


While the whole package is marketed as a sort of hike into the wilderness, it is in fact much more of a cross-cultural exchange. Visitors share the family space; usually rustic wooden cabins with bare mud floors and a gorgeous open fire. It is unlikely that the tourist will encounter any wild jaguar but chances are high that he or she will spend ample time with sturdy men and women who work like Trojans and enthusiastic kids who make you feel, genuinely, like part of the family for a few days. Without the slightest reservation we were invited to church and our host’s father’s home where we met many people who shook our hands, smiled warmly and went on their way as if we were just other people living in the area. We were not made to feel at any time as if we were out of place or, worse, just another pair of foreigners.


If you are en route from Tikal to Antigua or Panajachel this little project is well worth the stop. Guatemala overall was an exceptional experience for us but it was this mini adventure to Chicacnab that made it entirely unforgettable.

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