Wherever you are in Guatemala you will hear other travellers raving about Semuc Champey. And they’re right. It’s a place of mesmerizing beauty in the highlands of Alta Verapaz. Semuc Champey is a natural limestone bridge over the Cahabón river consisting of a series of staggering, turquoise pools which are good for swimming. If that’s not enough, the area has some exciting caves to explore and rivers to tube down on. Ready to go?
First let me warn you, Semuc Champey is a bit of a mission to get to…
The Road to Paradise
Together with Sargon, a London-based Australian whom we met earlier in Mazunte and joined us again for the Christmas holidays in San Pedro La Laguna, we leave Lago de Atitlán behind and embark on a 11-hour journey to Lanquín.
Lanquín is a small town that acts as a jumping-off point for Semuc Champey. In order to reach our destination in time we have to leave San Pedro at 5 AM. Three hours later we are in Antigua where we change minivans for the rest of the trip. We stop for a lunch break in Cobán where we also get some cash (no ATM in Lanquín). From Cobán it’s “just” another two hours to Lanquín.
From Cobán to Lanquín is only 60 km. So why does this still takes two hours? Once we branch off the paved main road I see why. We spiral down into the jungle and for the last 10 km we are on a rocky dirt road that make the speed bumps we had to cross so far seem like child’s play. Nevertheless the surroundings are beautiful with some amazing views over jungle clad mountains and lush rolling hills from the road.
With a sore butt we reach Lanquín at around 4 PM. The shuttle doesn’t go any further than this. Your hotel will pick you up from here. Now you have either arrived in paradise or still have an hour of bone shaking travel ahead of you. Depends on where you stay. Read the next section about that.
Like I said, it’s quite a ride. But totally worth it.
Choosing your Base
Depending on what you want to do and see in the Lanquín area it’s important that you choose wisely where to base yourself. There are two options:
- Semuc Champey – 11 km from Lanquín which means another hour on a rocky dirt road. But now you can stay in one of the hostels near the entrance of Semuc and the “candle” cave which gives you the possibility to explore them on your own pace.
- Lanquín – If you want to explore more than just Semuc (and the nearby candle cave) then it’s maybe better to base yourself in Lanquín and do a day tour to Semuc. You have the advantage of being in a village with dining options other than your own guesthouse. And from Lanquín you can do things like tubing/boarding on the Lanquín river or visit the Grutas de Lanquín, another cave (with bats!)
It is important to choose this wisely because you really do not want to do the trip from Lanquín to Semuc more than twice. Unless you love being smashed around in the back of a cattle-truck with another 12 to 20 passengers for about an hour. Ok, maybe this sounds worse than it actually is. It’s sort of fun too. And adventurous. And the views are pretty. But still… it’s far from comfortable.
We chose to stay at Greengo’s which is 400m from the entrance to Semuc. Nice location, cute dogs, good atmosphere and tasty food for reasonable prices. Another good option is El Portal which is right on the spot next to the entrance and has beautiful river views. Utopia Eco Hotel is another option but much further (about 2 km) from the entrance. Good thing about being a bit further down the road is that they offer a tour that includes tubing back to the hotel. So that’s a bonus! For Lanquín I have heard good stories about Zephyr Lodge and El Retiro.
Ok, you’ve made it to paradise, checked into your room and hopefully had a good night’s sleep. Let’s check out what you came here for.
Swimming in the Pools of Semuc Champey
First, it was on to Semuc Champey itself. After paying the 50Q entrance fee we climb up to El Mirador, the viewpoint from where we can look over the area and the turquoise pools. The signpost at the beginning of the climb labels it as “difficult”.
It’s indeed a steep climb on slippery rocks and wooden staircases but it takes less than the 1:15 hrs that the signpost states. Fortunately we were wearing our hiking shoes thanks to the advice from some people the night before. Definitely do not do it on flip-flops!
The viewpoint is a wooden structure hanging over the side of the mountain. From here you can see what Semuc Champey is: the river cuts through the dense forest, but then turns into a 300m wide limestone overpass made up of cascading pools. These pools are filled with overflow from the Río Cahabón, while the main river rushes under the limestone bridge, and reappears further downstream.
After the viewpoint we go down on the other side. This side is slightly easier so I recommend to go down here and not the same way you came up. After we made our way down we are finally at the pools where we have the opportunity to swim. Very welcoming after the sweaty efforts. We lock away our belongings in one of the wooden boxes (bring a padlock!) and take a plunge in the refreshing (or even chilly) water.
The pools are a series of limestone basins, one slightly above the other, through which the water slowly flows down. Some parts of the pools are deep enough to dive into and other ends are very shallow. We swim, dive, jump and slide from pool to pool until we are a few levels further down. In the last pool a fence made of white ropes marks the end of the swimming area. And the beginning of the waterfall!
It’s easy to spend hours splashing and lounging around. Or even the entire day as the Guatemalans do. Specially if you’re lucky to be there on a nice sunny day like we did.
But we have another adventure waiting…
Caving by Candlelight
After our lunch break back at the GreenGo’s hostel we return and cross the bridge to the other side of the river where’s the other main draw of Semuc: the cave. We pay the 60Q admission, get our candle and together with another 8 people and our guide we climb up the stone steps to the cave’s entrance.
This is a wet cave with a river flowing through so it’s best to wear (swimming) shorts, a shirt (the water is even colder than at the pools) and, more important, some kind of shoes. Water shoes or sandals are best otherwise trainers will do. I finally had the chance to use my ever fashionable FiveFingers again 🙂
At the cave’s entrance our guide lights up our candles and leads us into the dark. What follows is an hour and a half long adventure consisting of climbing up and down rocks and ladders, sliding and jumping into water holes or pulling yourself up on a rope through a waterfall.
At points we have to swim through dark waters where our feet couldn’t touch the ground. Swimming with one hand that is, because with the other you need to keep the candle above your head. It’s exciting and hilarious at the same time. Probably one of the best things to do in Semuc.
Be Careful with the Swing!
Having just finished the caving adventure, my body is full of adrenaline. And that’s the moment when things start to become tricky. The guides probably know that too. So that’s why they have built a huge swing next to the river.
Our guide shows us how to do it and jumps neatly off the swing straight into the water. Next is Sargon. A little wilder than the guide but he also lands ok in the river. Now it’s my turn. Never try, never know. Shouldn’t be too difficult.
Unfortunately this swing goes way faster than I expected and launches me about 5 meter above the water. I flounder helplessly around in the air and land sideways on the water. Not good. Not good at all.
There’s a buzzing sound in my ear and for a moment I feel dizzy. Luckily the dizziness disappeared quickly but up to now the buzzing is still there. Probably a perforated eardrum. Shit happens. Should be ok again in a month or two. I hope.
My advice: leave the swing for what it is unless you totally know what you’re doing. Same applies for jumping off the bridge. Have also seen people who got injured doing that. Semuc is a dangerous place 🙂
Despite my little accident with the swing we still went for the river tubing. It’s just 10Q extra with the caving. Together with the guide we walk along the river towards the rapid. No worries, that’s a class 3+ rapid and you will not go through that. Unless you really want to. I don’t think the guide is gonna stop you from doing so. This is Guatemala after all.
We get into the water at the end of the rapid and gently drift back to just after the bridge where we get out. Nothing exciting really but totally fine with me. I’ve had my share already.
For accommodation options see the “Choose your base” section above.
- Shuttle: San Pedro La Laguna – Lanquín = 150Q / 11 hrs
- Shuttle: Semuc Champey – Flores = 150Q / 7 to 8 hrs
- Shuttle: Semuc Champey – Rio Dulce = 175Q / 7 to 8 hr
Shuttles from Lanquín are a bit cheaper. Transport from Semuc to Lanquín = 25Q.
Tours & Entrance Fees
- Entrance fee Semuc Champey: 50Q
- Cave tour: 60Q
- Cave tour + tubing: 70Q
- Swing: free (injuries)
- Semuc Champey day tour from Lanquín: approx. 185Q (transport, entrance fee SC, cave, tubing)
There’s no ATM in Lanquín so stack up on cash before you get there. Last chance to do so would be in Cobán.
Was it worth the effort of getting there? Totally! If it weren’t for my little swing accident I would have stayed another day to do the tubing or river boarding from Lanquín. The whole area is just amazingly beautiful. I honestly think visiting Semuc Champey has been the best thing I’ve done in Guatemala.
Except for the damned swing.