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52# Meeting the Chapines

Updated: Jun 5, 2021

We woke up next in front of a large wooden sign indicating a park entrance. According to locals, inside was the most beautiful lake of Guatemala. A lake with pristine waters, so pure that visitors must shower before dipping in. To access it, one has needs high boots to walk two hours through the jungle, a preserved snake nest. The past three days were exhausting and wild emotionally. We were craving comfort, a place to relax, a place to do nothing, and to worry about nothing.

We headed for the city of Coban, 100km away. Around us stood steep green mountains. On the side of the road, a military base spat out a convoy of heavy-loaded trucks moving in line like tanks. One by one, the trucks merged into the main road. Military men with all their artillery were standing in the back. I accelerated and as we passed the third truck, the engine turned off. We stopped abruptly in the middle of the opposite lane. The trucks passed us slowly. We looked at the military men, surprised and confused. La Chichona behaved on her own terms.

The engine kept shutting down every time I shifted gears. We stopped so often that Marco and I turned it into a game: how many times will the engine shut down before we pass the hill? La Chichona blocked the road on every hill, and caused traffic, frustrated drivers, and a cacophony of honks. It took us six hours to drive 100km. After the previous day, we stopped giving a fuck. We were alive and healthy; it’s all that mattered.

Coban was an ugly industrial town. We were amazed by the intensity of their beliefs. We walked in front of a Church during mass, and saw people on their knees, rocking their heads, screaming and crying; others were rolling on the floor. On the main square, a man with a giant speaker was following people around, preaching redemption for the upcoming doom’s day.

Looking for a hostel, we rang at a large garage door. A young and small man came out. He walked us upstairs to the lounge area, where couches were arranged around a TV. Two guys were playing FIFA on the playstation, and the smell of weed floated delicately towards our our way. Marco and I shared the same thought: Say no more.

The hostel was a regular house turned into a hostel and managed by Jimmy, the owner’s son. He had his friends over every other night. Among them was a musician, an architect, a mechanic, and a botanist. We earned their respect by destroying them mercilessly at FIFA. Within the first few games, we shared joints and went on munchies trips with Jimmy’s crew. The hostel felt like a friend’s house.

Thanks to the boys, we learnt about Guatemala’s civil war and the Indigenous genocide. All atrocities were orchestrated by corrupt political leaders and a US-orchestrated coup...for…oh yes, democracy! The corruption was so bad it pushed Guatemalans to elect a comedian as president. Marco and I could not believe it. It seemed too absurd to be true. Sadly, it was.

Jimmy’s botanist friend was doing research in the rain forest. One evening he walked in, ecstatic. He had discovered a new species of orchids. A miniature orchid that will be officially published in the scientific journal. He was passionate about Guatemala’s landscapes. Semuc Champei was his favorite. He gave us a map with marked spots and insisted we went there.

There were also two musicians whom I had the priviledge to jam with. The lead guitarist was hilarious. The more he smoked the less his body functioned. He got so high that he could not keep both his eyes open at the same time. We all bullied him as he struggled to stay conscious. Besides being a funny stoner, his band, Mofetas, was touring the country in the coming weeks. They introduced us to Calle 13, what they considered good Latin music. The song “El Aguante” resonated with us. “El Aguante” was a tribute to our hustles.

Jimmy’s mechanic friend knew a guy who specialized in diesel engines. He might be able to fix la Chichona. In Latin America, mechanics are as common as coconuts, but finding a knowledgeable mechanic is hard. Besides, La Chichona is a capricious princess. She wouldn’t let just anyone touch her.

Time with the boys at the hostel brought us the comfort we needed. The locals, as known as Chapines, welcomed us like old friends. Guatemala shared similar traits with its northern neighbour: A history of bloody violence, corrupt politics, poverty, and mesmerizing landscapes. But above all, we were touched by the warmth, kindness, and incredible generosity of the Chapines.


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