Semuc Champey: A Taste of Paradise

Natural pools at Semuc Champey, Guatemala

How can I describe this place without using the words unbelievably impressive…  screw it, this place is unbelievably impressive!

Often described as one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala, Semuc Champey is a natural wonder 11km south of the Q’eqchi’ Maya town of Lanquín.  Semuc Champey, which means, “where the river hides under the earth” in Q’eqchi’, is a natural limestone bridge about 300 meters wide under which passes the Cahabòn River. Atop the bridge is a series of stepped natural infinity pools filled with turquoise water where locals and visitors can dip in for a relaxed swim.

Cahabon River at Semuc Champey, Guatemala

Although Semuc Champey is increasingly popular among travelers, going there is a bit of a challenge.  The bus ride from Antigua or Guatemala City takes about 6 to 7 hours to get to Coban, where you change bus to an additional 2 hours bus ride to Lanquín, where the last 30 minutes is on a very steep, desolate dirt road.  Once in Lanquín, you change once again, to stand on the back of a pickup truck (like cattle), for an additional 25-30 minutes ride on an even more desolate dirt road.  Quite a ride, eh?  But totally worth it!

In order to experience Semuc Champey you will have to stay there at least two nights in one of two hostels – El Portal and El Recreo.  I stayed at El Portal, a rustic eco-lodge located right next to Semuc Champey’s entrance.  What is it like staying at an eco-lodge? No electricity in your hut-like room, only 4 hours of electricity in common areas during dinnertime, and the best, clear view of a starry night after blackout.

El Portal Hostel at Semuc Champey, Guatemala

Semuc Champey and El Mirador

This is the main reason why people come here.  The best time to experience the pools is early in the morning before the scorching Guatemalan sun is at its full power.  In order to get there you have to take one of three paths that lead to the pools.  The walking time ranges from 20 minutes to an hour depending on which path you take.  If you feel physically fit, take the “El Mirador” path.  It is the longest and most challenging one since it hikes all the way up to “El Mirador” where you have a bird’s eye view of the natural bridge that makes up the 6 turquoise pools.  I can’t stress enough how beautiful the view is from up there.  In addition, while hiking through these paths you might be able to see and hear howling monkeys, spider monkeys, and other wild animals.

Aerial view of Semuc Champey, Guatemala

Once down at the pools, it is all about relaxing and having fun.  First you can have a view of the cave’s mouth where the mighty Cahabón waters flow under, in contrast to the smooth sounding waters that fill the pools.  In fact, the pool’s water does not come from the river; it is feed by the rainwater that trickles down the small creeks from either side of the valley.

You can lay and relax at the edge of each pool or you can go jumping and diving from pool to pool.  Some have a height difference of just a few feet while other can reach up to 15 feet in difference.  These do make for great jumps.  And then there’s the last drop.  At the end of the natural bridge, the water from the pools forms a series of waterfalls that join the river waters that gushes out of the tunnel below.  Since it is a high drop (about 25 feet), you can only do this jump during the wet season (to make sure there’s enough dept in the river).

Waterfall at Semuc Champey, Guatemala

River Tubing

Yes, there’s more to do in Semuc Champey.  After spending the morning in the pools, you can spend the early afternoon river tubing.  The tubing goes for about one kilometer down the smooth river waters.  It is a passive and chilling experience, especially if you are doing it with friends or new travel friends like in my case.

One of the most memorable sights while tubing was watching local kids dressed in what looked like hand-made clothes, playing on the river, bathing, and cleaning their clothes.

K’an-Ba Caves

And then there are the caves.  The experience is as equally impressive as the pools, but in a totally different environment.  The tour inside the caves is actually one of the most unusual I’ve done so far (if you’ve followed this blog for a while you’d know I’m hardcore when it comes to caving).  First, you go inside a water-filled cave with no life jacket, barefoot or with water shoes, and no head-lamps (unless you have a personal one, like I did).  What you use for lighting?  Candles!

Caves in Semuc Champey, Guatemala

The caves, while not the most challenging, are a great experience thanks to the unusual rustic way it is explored.  The water level varies from ankle deep to deep enough to not touch the sandy bottom.  Now, imagine yourself swimming with only one hand while the other one holds a burning candle dripping hot wax in your hand, while at the same time you’re cautiously paddling with your feet trying to avoid all the stalagmites hidden in the murky water.  Sounds interesting, eh?  Well, it is a good exercise and a lot of fun.

Inside the caves you also get to climb 10-foot high waterfalls through knotted ropes, jump from high rocks into murky pools, and squeeze through tight spaces the size of a car tire.  Yes, that tight!

Overall, the experience in Semuc Champey in one that is al-natural and can be as passive and relaxing or as active and adventurous as you want it to be.  Typically, the easiest way to get there is by buying a tour package that can start at 130Q and can go up to $100+, depending on what you include and where you stay.

When in Guatemala, make sure not to miss this little spot of paradise!

Comments

  1. Jeremy Branham says

    This is beautiful and just the types of places I like to go. I love hiking, rivers, water, and the caves look awesome as well. I think I would take the more difficult El Mirador hike. My wife has been to Guatemala but I haven’t. I am sure I will make it there one day so thanks for sharing this place! It does look like a bit of paradise!

    • Norbert says

      Jeremy, if you love hiking and nature, you will LOVE Semuc Champey! The hike to El Mirador is the most difficult of the paths, but it is still very doable. The view is totally worth it! :)

  2. Jaime says

    I wanted to go here so bad… It was either go here or Agua Azul in Mexico. I choose Agua Azul in Mexico and dont regret it. They are completely different yet very similar. I know one day I will be back in Guatemala and I will for sure go here.

    • Norbert says

      I’ve seen your pictures of Agua Azul and they do look a lot alike. In the future when you go back to Guatemala, make sure not to miss Semuc Champey, as it is amazing! And since you experienced Agua Azul, you know how cool places like these are. ;)

  3. Naomi says

    This place looks absolutely amazing. At the moment, I’m obsessed with plans to backpack SE Asia, but a Central America trip is definitely happening after that…especially after seeing photos like these!! :)

    • Norbert says

      So nice you’re going to backpack SEA!! I’ll be going there next year during my RTW. But yes, I do recommend you backpack Central America as it is a beautiful region, especially Guatemala. Semuc Champey definitely is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been so far!

    • Norbert says

      Ah, I loved the caves!! They were a great experience since you are there literally like a natural explorer. The caves were amazing, and so were the pools! :)

    • Norbert says

      Thanks Jamie! I didn’t jump off the bridge (although I was dying to!) because I was afraid to injure my knee (more than it was) with the fall. That bridge is pretty high! If I didn’t have my knee injured, I would have done it for sure.

      If I have the chance to go in the future, will definitely do it. :)

  4. Carolyn says

    Thank you for sharing such beautiful photos and video – this looks like an amazing experience. I love to get out into nature when I travel. The pools are beautiful and the cave experience looks really cool (although maybe a bit scary!) I went on a sea canoe trip in Thailand through caves into beautiful openings surrounded by lush vegetation, and this reminds me a bit of that. We also went through some tight spots, having to lie flat in our inflatable rafts and deflate them in order to squeeze through tight openings in the cave.

    • Norbert says

      Hey Carolyn! This place is beautiful. Here you can see nature at its best!

      Wow, that sea canoe trip in Thailand sounds like something I would do! Sounds pretty exciting!

    • Norbert says

      I know!! I had a similar reaction when I learned about Semuc Champey! This place is gorgeous, and it is a great place to relax and enjoy the day. Angela, if you go to Guatemala, make sure not to miss Semuc Champey! :)

  5. inka says

    Otherworldy Norbert. What a place. Fortunately, not far from Miami, so another one on my list to visit when I’m back in December.

    • Norbert says

      Inka, I’m filling up your Central America itinerary with great places to go! ;) Guatemala is a great country to visit as it has so many wonderful places to see and experience.

    • Norbert says

      Caanan, I had never heard of Semuc Champey until I was in Guatemala. This place seems to be somewhat unknown to many, but as time passes it has grown in popularity. Yes, go to Guatemala!!!! You’ll love it! :)

    • Norbert says

      I though it was going to be hard for me to stay away from electricity for 3 days… not at all! I loved it!! I was in great company and had time to relax, so I barely felt the need to plug “myself” to any of my regular gadgets.

  6. Jeff says

    Norbert,
    I’m just starting to plan my first trip to Guatemala, and you’ve inspired me. I want to try to see Semuc Champey on route from Flores to Antigua. Couple questions re: 1. Can I do this (hiking, caves, etc.) on my own, or will I need to go with a tour co. in Coban? If so, any recommendations? 2. Will two days be enough?
    Thanks

    • Norbert says

      Hey Jeff!
      So great you’re going to Guatemala!! I believe you will love Semuc Champey, so give it a try. Ok, I see you’re going from Flores to Antigua. When in Flores, you will see a lot of Travel Agencies and Tour operators that will offer to take you to Semuc Champey for a given price. I did it the other way, from Antigua to Flores, but I know it works the same way. I think you can do the hiking/pools on your own (just by paying an entrance fee in Semuc Champey, but the caves have to be done with a guide, as they can be a bit dangerous if you explore them by yourself (plus I would never recommend to go caving on your own). Still, when you set things up to go to Semuc Champey, these activities are automatically included in the price.

      Similarly, if you don’t want to buy your trip from Flores, you can do so from Coban, or Lanquin (the closest town to Semuc Champey), but I personally recommend buying it in Flores/Antigua since there are more agents/operators competing, so you have better chances of negotiating your price. ;)

      I recommend staying two nights there. The first day will be spent mostly traveling from Flores to Semuc Champey, the second day will be full of activities, and then you leave the third day in the morning.

      Hope this helps! Let me know if I can help you with anything else.
      Have a great time in Guatemala!! :)

      • Jeff says

        Thanks for all this really helpful info. Not going until November, but can’t wait.

        On a related note, I’m preparing my own travel blog (finishing up Matador coarse), and yours is so impressive. Congrats on all your success!

        • Norbert says

          Hi Jeff –

          Sorry for the late reply. It must have slipped from me while answering other comments. :(

          November is very close now, so I bet you must be very excited!

          So cool you’re doing your blog along with MatadorU. Feel free to show me your blog once it’s done.

          Thanks! I wish you all the success in your blog too and in your travels!
          BTW, Julie told me you’re in NYC, so hopefully we can catch up at a Matador meet-up. :)

  7. Dalene says

    Just doing some researching for our January jaunt down to C.A., and I think you may have just made our decision of ‘which country?’ for us with this post…

    • Norbert says

      Hi Dalene –

      Semuc Champey is in Guatemala. It is almost in the center of the country. People usually go there when they travel from Antigua to Flores, or viceversa. It’s such a great place to go! :)

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