The rocky road to Semuc Champey, Guatemala

Semuc Champey, which means ‘sacred water’ in Mayan, is a massive limestone formation or natural bridge, under which flows the Cahabón River into a series of stepped turquoise pools and waterfalls. It’s a natural monument in Alta Verapaz, near the Mayan town of Lanquín. 

I decided to take an early shuttle (organised by Big Foot travel agency) from San Pedro to Lanquín, via Antigua. It was an early start and the shuttle was so late that I was picked up by another agency who were going to charge me another 50 quetzal to take me to Antigua (I had already paid 160 quetzal for the shuttle), but thankfully down at the dock the driver spotted my van! When we got to Antigua, there was a stopover for two hours before we got another shuttle onwards and between the two shuttles and some delays it took 13.5 hours in total to get there! 

The roads are shockingly (and notoriously) bad on the way to Semuc Champey, our little shuttle van was definitely struggling. I think 4 wheel drives are really a necessity around these parts. It was a rocky, dusty and desolate drive up in the dark and when we finally arrived in Lanquín, our van was surrounded by trucks and lots of men and boys calling out hostel names. I had asked my shuttle driver if there was availability in Zephyr Lodge hostel, which I’d heard great things about, and he said there was space and it shouldn’t be a problem. Sure enough, when I asked the guy calling out Zephyr Lodge, there was no more space! Luckily enough, there was another truck bringing a few others to El Portal hostel which was actually right beside Semuc Champey so I decided to go with it (and the fact that it was my only other option helped me make that decision pretty quickly).

I jumped into the back of the pick up truck with my backpack and, standing up for the 25 minute journey, I held onto the bars for dear life! The roads were in even worse condition and really winding, I was a bit anxious that either I, or my backpack, would get bumped out of the back of the truck! Thankfully that didn’t happen and I started to enjoy the crazy Indiana Jones’ style drive with bats swooping overhead and the noises of the jungle at night all around us. Adventure! When I got to the hostel, in a really beautiful location with lots of little lodges located by the river, I checked in (the mixed six bed dorm cost 40 quetzals per night) and was just about to unpack my pjs when the lights went out! I soon learned that the lodge only has electricity from 6pm – 10pm every day and after that, darkness. I decided to take advantage of the excuse for an early night and was glad to after that long day of travelling.

The next morning, I woke up at the crack of dawn to the sounds of the jungle waking up right outside my dorm. The sound of howler monkeys roaring in the distance really brought Jurassic Park to mind! I woke up and was able to take in the stunning view of where I was (as it had been in relative darkness when I arrived the night before). The hostel lodges are situated overlooking the River Cahabón, lined by trees and pretty much nothing else. The hostel is also situated about 5 minutes’ walk away from Semuc Champey too which was great. I decided to take the tour organised by the hostel as it included a hike to the Mirador overlooking the limestone pools, swimming through the pools and waterfalls and then a tour of the underground caves beside the river. The day tour (from 10am to 5pm, with a break for lunch) cost about 90 quetzals.

It was a small group, only myself and a German couple, and we hiked up to the Mirador overlooking the pools with our guide Darwin pointing out different birds and wildlife in the area. The steep hike up to the top wasn’t the easiest but once we arrived at the look out point, all the huffing and puffing was well and truly forgotten. The view was absolutely magnificent out onto the seven limestone pools below. We hiked back down towards the pools after this and were able to swim and enjoy the beautiful surroundings. We didn’t meet anyone else all along the way and at the pools, there were still only a handful of people there. After a while, our guide brought me down through the seven pools, diving and sliding through the waterfalls along the way! Kind of daunting (and swimsuit bottom ripping!) in parts but really good fun. After a short break for a bite to eat back at the hostel, and a departure by the German couple, it was just me and Darwin for the underground cave tour! We walked the short distance across the bridge to the entry, where we were joined by one of the guides from the cave and the three of us made our way into the darkness with just candles to guide us along the way.

I was a bit apprehensive about going in but the guides made me feel really at ease and helped with relighting my candle when I managed to dunk it under the water many, many times! There were parts of the caves that we had to swim through so it was tough to keep one hand above water! The caves are in complete darkness, with bats flying around constantly and as there were just three of us the light wasn’t that bright so it was pretty dark. Apart from walking and swimming through certain parts, there were also areas of the caves that we needed to climb up almost vertical flimsy rope ladders to get through and many places that we had to watch our heads because of all of the stalactites. At one point, in order to leave the caves, we needed to position ourselves on a rock above a part of the water that gushed down in a waterfall below, and then slide down! It was seriously scary as I had NO idea what I was going into, and after sliding down and being completely submerged in water, I was happy to rise to the surface injury-free and get the hell out of there before they made me do any more climbing, sliding and diving! As always with these kind of things, I felt great afterwards and very proud of myself for surviving it…and I really needed a beer.

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