Semuc Champey might be the most popular tourist attraction in Guatemala as well as one of the most famous in all of Central America. Without question I was interested in visiting such a well renowned natural phenomenon while I was in Guatemala, so away I went.
The site of Semuc Champey is situated near to the little town of Lanquin, one of the most inconvenient places to get to in all of Guatemala! While INGUAT tourist shuttles run between Lanquin and a variety of locations, you can expect between 8-15 hours to get to and from this jungle locale. This is not because the mileage is that grand, but because the roads are BRUTAL and the shuttles all leave at 8:00am and no other time. If you do the math, leaving Lanquin at 8:00am gets you into Guatemala City at 4:00pm which is straight rush hour. You guessed it…hours of traffic. Transportation in Guatemala can be a headache, but if you know how you can deal with it, here is how I did. However, going to Lanquin and spending a few days near Semuc Champey is in my eyes worth it if you have the time and patience, or if you decide to volunteer in Guatemala and stay a while. It is pretty cool.
Our tour picked us up at our hostel at 8:00am in the morning via pick-up truck. We climbed into the back of the truck and made our way to an area on the river which had a massive cave system for us to explore before going to Semuc Champey. The ride on the back of the truck to the caves felt as if it lasted an hour because of the brutal road conditions and a serious lack of speed. In retrospect the ride was probably only 30-40 minutes, but it just felt like an hour. Because the roads in and around Lanquin are so genuinely awful it can take 1 hour to drive 10km. As you make your way to the caves, prepare to be tossed around uncontrollably between the metal gates of the pick-up truck, leaving a couple war bruises and battle wounds.
Guilty. I am guilty of believing the caves were best part of the tour. Sorry Semuc, but they were actually awesome. When we arrived at the caves, we were given long, skinny white candles. These candles would be our only source of light as we traversed 1km into the cave system on foot. You will have to sacrifice a pair of shoes here as walking in the caves barefoot is not recommended.
The caves themselves are big, open, and dark, with the water being somewhere between waist deep and swimmable. As you walk/swim deeper into the caves, holding your candle out of the water, trying very hard not to slip on the poor footing which would result in a flameless candle, you start to wonder how long the caves go on. With our candle we climbed up and down little ladders set to help traverse the snake like track of the cave. I won’t lie, initially I was a little nervous being in a deep dark cave, but as I relaxed I had more fun swimming and splashing my way through these secret tunnels.
Eventually we arrived at a waterfall. I asked my guide if we could climb it…he said no, but he did take us underneath it one at a time and up a ladder to the next section. When we finally reached the end of the 1km journey, our guide said we could climb the cave wall and take a 3 meter plunge into a volcanic hole. Ok, so not many of us did this…but I did. I wanted to climb the wall anyways, plus he said if I jumped right in the middle I would be fine…and I was, though my candle did not make it. I took a re-light on the candle and we trudged our way back to the outside world.
After exiting the caves, we had the opportunity to take a swim in the Rio Cabahon. There was a giant swing on the river bank where you could take a seat and swing towards the river jumping off at the top of your swing, splashing into the water below. This is a one and done kind of thing. You have to jump off the swing the first time or else you will definitely get injured. Guatemalan safety.
After enjoying the swing, we moved on to a bridge which stood about 5 meters above the water. As you could guess, this bridge is not only for driving across but also for jumping from. To be fair, I found it pretty fun, but then again I am a sucker for heights.
Finally, the star of the show, the reason I made this unreasonable journey to Lanquin. It was time to visit the natural wonder that is Semuc Champey. We hopped into the back of our trusty pick-up truck and 20 minutes later we arrived at the park entrance.
First things first, the mirador. We had to see the grandeur of Semuc Champey from above. It was about a 20 minute hike up hill to get to the mirador. The path, well it is steep and it is slippery. Be careful and watch your step. Once we arrived at the mirador we were able to look out upon the natural site as our guide explained to us why it was so special. He said that the Cabahon River actually runs underneath the pools of Semuc. The light blue pools we see and swim in are actually formations which catch the natural spring water from the mountains. The Rio Cabahon runs in a tunnel underneath Semuc and out the other end. From the mirador you could see the start and stop of the river around Semuc Champey. We headed down the mountainside to get a closer look and to take a cheeky swim on a hot day.
When we arrived at the actual pools, our guide showed us where the river enters the tunnel underneath. Yup, there it was, the rushing brown water of the Rio Cabahon going underneath us as we walked through pools of clear blue water.
For the next 2 hours we had the opportunity to enjoy ourselves swimming in and around the beautiful natural pools of Semuc Champey. There was a locker provided for us to put our things in as a group so that we could swim without worry.
On this particular day our guide decided to join us for a swim. What a treat, he knew all the best places. We swam around every pool enjoying our surroundings, jumping and sliding from pool to pool. There was one area that had a secret underwater cave which our guide showed us. All you needed to do was take a deep breath and swim underwater until you came to a little opening. Our guide also showed us where natural rock slides were. You know the ones that have been smoothed out by so much flowing water that they become natural waterslides. We enjoyed the pools as a group all day playing in the water, and even getting our feet manicured by skin eating fish, like ones in spas.
Semuc Champey was truly an enjoyable day. The pools were beautiful. The park was well maintained, and our guide was fabulous. I do have to say, the caves were the most impressive part of the day for me. It was an absolute bonus to have 2 amazing moments in 1 trip, caves and pools.