When the Tough Get Going...

El Carbón

Oct 1, 1998
Outside Magazine

A hundred miles farther east, El Carbón is a traditional Pech village that's a microcosm of the region's divergent cultural and topographical elements: an outpost for one of Central America's smallest indigenous groups, surrounded by mestizo cattle ranchers and set in a landscape that's a mix of savanna, pine-forested mountains, and tropical rainforest. The 900 or so Pech villagers are now working to have this area designated an anthropology and ecotourism preserve, and indeed El Carbón makes a convenient base from which to hike out both to mysterious pre-Hispanic ruins and to La Cascada, a 260-foot waterfall that plunges spectacularly into Lago de la Sirena.
Just north of the pueblo's hundred or so thatch-roof adobe huts, along the road to the Caribbean coast, ask the bus driver to drop you off at the colegio. Behind this cement-block building are two newly built hostels with clean, comfortable beds for three dollars a night. Ask here for Linton Escobar, the indefatigable, 32-year-old leader of the local ecotourism cooperative, who'll set you up with a Pech guide for five dollars a day. Escobar can also arrange a botany hike with Natividad García—a wiry, thoughtful curandero of about the same age who can explain the medicinal uses of even the most innocuous-looking plants—as well as a day trip to an unexcavated ruin near the village of Agua Amarilla. Thought to have been built by the ancestors of the modern-day Pech, only the outlines of walls, stairways, and what may have been a ball court are visible under the dense jungle growth.

Better yet, take the overnight trip out to La Cascada. You'll hike for three and a half hours, much of it along a trail that winds 70 feet above the Río Ojo de Agua. The sound of fast-flowing water echoes up from the narrow gorge, but dense surrounding forest often blocks your view. Then the gorge opens up and you see the falls: a 100-foot-wide sheet of water that breaks into scores of rivulets as it tumbles over vine-covered boulders, finally dumping into a pool of water the size of two football fields. Jump in and swim out to the group of rocks in the middle of the lake, which is about as close as you can get to the mist-churning blast: Its sheer force will take your breath away, literally if not figuratively.

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