It felt like we were being smuggled between borders. I was one of around 20 tourists who were packed onto the back of a truck heading from the dusty town of Lanquin to the mythical waters of Semuc Champey. I was holding on for all I was worth as the truck lurched around corners, too busy to appreciate the sun slowly setting behind hazy hills. It was the end of a long travel day – it took over 10 hours to get from Flores to El Portal, the closest hostel to Semuc Champey.
After brutally murdering a potentially innocent cockroach, we settled down for the night in a small room (more of an attic really) with a big hole in the wall– I guess it was to allow the nonexistent cool breeze to keep the heat down, because even though it was one of the hottest places I’ve been there wasn’t even a fan.
The 10 hour bus ride, the bumpy truck trip and the heat of the night all melted away from my memory when I got my first view of the pools – this really is one of the top natural wonders in the world and is a must see if you’re anywhere near the area.
We went on a tour as it wasn’t much more expensive than doing it ourselves (and we thought we’d join the people we met on the bus the day before). Our first sighting of the pools was from El Mirador (the viewpoint) – a sweaty 40 minute climb through the jungle. It was a relief to finally make it and see that amazing view, but all we wanted to do was jump into them in order to cool down, which probably would have ended in tears.
Semuc Champey is a natural limestone bridge across the Cahabón River. I guess you could describe it as a series of tiny waterfalls which empty into crystal clear pools of cool water. There aren’t too many better places in the world to swim, just be careful of the slippery rocks and the fish that sometimes nibble at you. You can explore all of the pools or just hang out and relax in a few – it does get pretty busy so try and go early to beat the crowds.
Caving by candlelight
Aside from the pools, most people who visit this part of Guatemala head to Kamba caves. You’ll receive a candle which you’ll then struggle to keep burning as you walk, crawl, climb and swim through the tunnels and waterways of this intriguing cave system. It’s definitely an adventure and is something you should check out if you’re in the area (I’ve heard it’s dangerous and people have died doing this, so keep that in mind; it seemed safe when I did it though). I’m not a particularly strong swimmer and I was fine, although it was a little stressful when we came to a “drop”; you have to sit on the guide’s knee as he lowers you down a hole and then drops you down into the water below. It was the closest I’ve been to jumping into a body of water and I definitely wasn’t the only one who was a bit scared to do it.
My first tubing experience was in Vang Vieng, Laos and it was quite a different scene. It was all about partying over there, while this tubing trip was just a relaxing roll down a short stretch of river. Enterprising beer salesmen join you and try to sell you beer along the way, and will often splash you if you decline them. It was a lot of fun and a nice way to end a long day. On the way back to the hostel the guide decided to jump off the (pretty high) bridge and quite a lot of the tour group did it as well – there were a few sore bodies after that.
Costs/getting to Semuc Champey
Lanquin is the closest town to Semuc Champey and a lot of people base themselves there. We decided to get as close as we could by staying at El Portal and it was a bit of a mixed experience. The jungle setting and the views of the river were great, but the lack of fans, internet, other restaurants and shops and the fairly basic sleeping quarters meant it wasn’t really that relaxing. We had planned to stay a few extra nights but left after 2 as we couldn’t handle the heat. We paid Q100 for a double room and the food was actually decent value. It’s not the most comfortable place to stay but the location alone makes it worth roughing it for a couple of nights. The tour costs around Q150 and if you did Semuc Champey, Kamba Caves and the tubing separately it’d cost you around Q120, so it all depends if you’d rather go with a group or not. Getting to Semuc Champey is a bit of a pain – it’s a full day’s bus ride from either Flores or Antigua/Guatemala city, the places you’re likely to be coming from.
Have you been to Semuc Champey? What is your favourite natural wonder in Guatemala (or anywhere else in the world)?
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