Oh, Faithful Readers, you would not believe the day I had today! I can´t quite believe it myself. What an adventure.
I started with a fairly leisurely rise in Nebaj, around 7:30 I´d checked the previous day, at a travel agency, and the woman had assured me that there were plenty of buses to Cobán leaving throughout the day. I had originally planned to head to Antigua to catch a shuttle tour to Semuc Champey, but looking at it on the map it seemed silly to go five hours south only to head another five or six hours north, with an overnight stay in Antigua necessary in the middle. So I headed off to the terminal to find out when the next bus to Cobán might be leaving.
And here is where I had to learn again the lesson I should have heeded in San Pedro la Laguna: when dealing with Guatemalan travel agents, always ask for a second opinion! There was in fact only one direct bus to Cobán and it left at 5am. Right. I checked with another agency to see if there was a more expensive shuttle option, and they said no. Lovely. So this left several options, but the most appealing seemed to be to try for a less direct route to Cobán rather than waiting around here or in Antigua. So I headed back into the agency, and a different person outlined the route I´d have to take:
1. Micro from Nebaj towards Quiché, but ask to be let out in Entronque
2. Catch a bus to Uspantán
3. Bus from Uspantán to Cobán
OK, now we´re getting somewhere. I can handle that! Especially with the route written out on a scrap of paper that I could point to if necessary.
I found a microbus crammed full of people. Cool, that means it´s about to leave. The driver agreed that he would be passing by Entronque, but seemed reluctant to stop there. Never mind, I had to trust that he would, otherwise I´d need to go all the way to Quiché and backtrack. So I was somewhat relieved and somewhat anxious when the bus stopped by the side of the road seemingly in the middle of nowhere and the ayudante shouted out "Entronque!" Guess this is my stop. But where the hell are we? Fortunately three other people got off at the same stop, and one other guy said he was going to Uspantán and that I could just follow him.
We waited by the side of the road, looking down on clouds to a beautiful valley below, until a pickup truck pulled up and someone shouted "Uspantán!" This was apparently our next mode of transport. I hopped in with my pack, and began the second and most fabulous part of the day´s journey. Fantastic! Screw chickenbuses, you haven´t really traveled until you´ve bounced along in the open bed of a pickup truck with a few piles of random goods, three farmers, two old ladies, the farmer´s wife with a papoose strapped to her back, and a 10-year-old girl. The scenery was breathtaking. I know I keep saying that, but this was the most incredible so far. Bright blue sky, fluffy white clouds, eye-popping (and ear-popping!) mountains splashed with every possible shade of green and brown. Really, truly splendid. Made the Monteverde scenery look like child´s play. I would´ve taken a million pics but I was too busy hanging on for my life as we dipped and swung around curves at breakneck speed. At one point we stopped to deposit some of the stuff (and one of the chickens) at someone´s house, and the driver caught my eye with a smile that said "Hey, you won´t get this kind of ride on the Gringo Trail, sister!" Damn straight. Once again, I was so glad not to have taken the packaged convenient way out.
I was almost sad when the ride ended -- and for 10Q, this was the best bargain ride indeed -- and we arrived in Uspantán. I easily found another micro headed for Cobán, and settled in for the long drive. The first half was nice enough, with the same beautiful scenery (not quite as stupendous from inside a closed vehicle, though) and decent paved roads. Then the road got seriously bumpy -- oh, I see, they´re still in the process of paving it! -- and at one point we had to stop for nearly an hour on the hot dusty road, for seemingly no point at all. I guess it had something to do with the big contruction trucks schlepping huge piles of rock up the hill. My brain was too fried to care much.
We eventually arrived in Cobán, a nice enough place with not much going for it besides being the gateway to nearby Semuc Champey and Lanquín caves. The recommended hotel, Casa d´Acuña, was quite nice and had decent dorm rooms for a good price. Huzzah, the book redeems itself after that awful Nebaj recommendation! Tomorrow, a tour to Semuc Champey.