Northeast of Guatemala City, the scrubby landscape gives way to forested mountains drained by wild rivers. You may feel you've stepped into northern Europe. This central section of the country is split between Baja Verapaz to the south and Alta Verapaz to the north, collectively known as Las Verapaces. Smaller Baja Verapaz is drier than Alta Verapaz, but mist-covered mountains are the norm in both. Here, the locals say, it rains 13 months out of the year. But the humidity, including a drizzly rain called chipi-chipi, has made this Guatemala's cardamom and coffee heartland.
Long the haunt of European budget trave lers, the area, with its dense forests, mysterious caverns, and crystalline rivers, is fast becoming Guatemala's destination for ecotourism. The largest city is workaday Cobán, whose comfortable hotels and reliable restaurants make it a good base. In addition, you'll find the rental-car outlets, bus connections, shuttle-van companies, and tour operators you'll need to discover Las Verapaces' natural wonders. The region hasn't yet seen the throngs of visitors that pass through the more touristed parts of Guatemala, so you can usually find last-minute space on organized excursions, especially if you're staying in Cobán. That said, it never hurts to make plans in advance to avoid disappointment if you have specific days in mind for rafting or caving.
If spelunking or hurtling down white-water rapids is not your idea of a vacation, you can also enjoy more tranquil activities such as bird-watching or visiting an orchid farm—or you can take a break in Cobán while you recover from your wilderness adventures. There you can tour a coffee plantation and hike a national park without even having to leave the city limits. You can visit a rustic 19th-century church or a small museum of Mayan artifacts. Or you can just relax in the main square, where you can soak up the local color and, if you're lucky, catch a parade with participants dressed in elaborate costumes, celebrating a local feast day.