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 relaxing swim.
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. (Update: Now there are more hostels and hotels in the area. You can check their reviews and deals on TripAdvisor)
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.
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.
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 of 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 gush 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 depth in the river).
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.
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 do you use for lighting? Candles!
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 all-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!