When I visited Semuc Champey in Gautemala, I did everything wrong. Here’s how not to do it and how to visit properly.
Don’t decide visit without knowing what it is
Semuc Champey was the word on everyone’s lips in Guatemala. I mean EVERYONE! Never mind Antigua or even Tikal, visit Semuc Champey was THE thing to do, apparently A-mazing, and even if that non-description didn’t draw me in, I had realised one things about backpackers – they don’t spend their travel bucks on anything unless it is necessary (arm falling off…cold beer needed for pain) or, well…amazing.
If I’d found out a little bit more about this wonderful destination before simply deciding on a whim to amend my non-existent travel plans and go to Semuc Champey, I’d have realised that it (and neighbouring Lanquin) was not a Champagne district to rival Reims, France, but is instead riddled with stepped turquoise pools, waterfalls, large limestone caves, fast flowing rivers and limestone bridges for jumping into aforementioned fast flowing rivers. Perfect if you like water. I don’t.
Don’t book a ticket to Semuc Champey without knowing where it is
Central America is so tiny, especially if you’ve immediately preceded your visit with a stint in South America, which I had. This can cause the crazy misperception that most places can be got to with relative ease. Not always the case. Semuc Champey is perhaps best described as being in the deepest darkest depths of the middle of Guatemala’s nowhere, otherwise known as the department of Alta Verapaz. Look at it on a map, and it’s easy to sniff at the distance but as this natural beauty spot grows closer, the road presence diminishes and travel becomes infinitely slower as you hit dirt roads. Why don’t maps ever tell you this?
Don’t take the 2pm bus out of Antigua
The upside of the growing popularity of visiting Semuc Champey is that some entrepreneurial Guatemalans have kindly put on a twice daily mini-bus which will take you directly there without having to practice the witchcraft of connecting local bus times. The downside was the patience of the bus driver who was clearly under instructions not to leave Antigua without his full complement of backpackers who, meanwhile, seemed incapable of being in the right place at the right time. Consequently, we circled the main streets of Antigua (of which there are two) for hours before everyone was finally rounded up.
Finally on our way we drove mere miles before hitting traffic – unsurprisingly, approaching Guatemala City at 5pm on a Friday night is not conducive to a quick passage. Three hours later and just beyond the city limits, our driver’s growling stomach (audible through my headphones) indicated a dinner break. Eight pm and we’d travelled a distance we should have nailed in 40 minutes. It was going to be a long ride.
Don’t be lured into an impromptu overnight stay in Town Nowhere
Darkness had fallen as had the sky’s precipitation (cue: silent prayer to the efficacy of the rain cover wrapped around my bag on the bus roof) and 12 bladders were simultaneously triggered. We were still two hours away from our final destination, assuming the road conditions didn’t worsen (cue: denial) and the last thing we needed was an impromptu stop in an unknown town, but bladders can rarely wait…especially when unpaved roads are involved.
A man trained in the magic of Derren Brown materialised from the shadows and, with a devious eye, opened the door to one of his vacant hotel rooms. Presented to the weary travellers was a gleaming, soft, dry, roadless promise of bed. I knew I could get to my emergency credit card in minutes, could almost feel the plastic between my fingers, but I knew I shouldn’t. I’d found that getting to the middle of nowhere that was Semuc Champey was difficult enough. The likelihood of finding public transport from Town Unknown to the middle of nowhere that was Semuc Champey the next day would require more than witchcraft. With a begrudging wave goodbye to the prospect of a dry bed and heaving a heavy heart, I got back on the bus that had become the seventh circle of Hell.
Don’t let the driver turf you out when you get to ‘Semuc Champey’
Dirt and mud took over where gravel had been, acting as a final indication that our destination had been reached. Somewhere en route, the pitch dark and unrelenting rain appeared to have robbed the driver of his remaining patience as he came to a sharp stop and told us to get out.
Now, call me stubborn, but I had paid for a ride that would take me to the door of my hostel and apart from a small spit of stores, no accommodation was in sight. Nor were there any other means of transport. It was 1.30am and flashing with torrential rain. I was mapless and the stretch of road was nameless. It spelt nothing other than a night of ambling lost or sleeping on a doorstep. Fortunately, several years (or decades, who’s counting) of practising persistence paid off as I stayed rooted to my seat. No sign of wavering and refusal to engage in eye contact (key tactic) and the disgruntled bus driver eventually hopped back into Hell-on-Wheels and took me to my hostel…another 20 minutes drive away.
Don’t stay anywhere other than El Retiro
My first experience of El Retiro wasn’t good. I was cold, wet, tired and numb from the road shakes and, bizarrely, managed to turn up at the same time as 30 other people. Late night check in wasn’t uncommon in these parts. However, despite getting to the front desk first, I was left sitting soggy in a corner while the apparently premium guests were processed. I was not happy and vowed an early departure after a long promised sleep.
Sometime between the night ending and the sun rising, the weather had given way to marvellous sunshine and throwing open the door of my dorm I realised that Hell-on-Wheels had transported me to Heaven-on-Steroids. A forest of greenery, twittering birds, foraging wildlife, a flowing river and thatched roof huts filled my panorama. I blinked. I had woken up in something created by Disney meets Attenborough. Bliss. Skipping (for the first time since I was 7) I headed down to the restaurant for breakfast where the magic continued – banana pancakes, river views, hammocks, bathrooms with shell adorned taps. I wanted to question how El Retiro could have dorms, but I didn’t want to jinx the gift of this accommodation.
Alternative place to stay: Zephyr Lodge.
Don’t miss the communal mealtimes
Each time I went to the restaurant, things seemed to get better. Lunch outdid breakfast and dinner beat them both hands down. Yes, the communal evening meal is comprised of a buffet, something I usually associate with the painful dullness of business conferences where chefs reach new lows in serving dehydrated consistency. However, it’s not simply the food that puts me off communal mealtimes. It is the continual game of pass the peas that seems nothing more than a social experiment to divvy-up the diners – the greedy (note: over filled plates), the picky (nothing touching on the plate – get that salad away from my beans) and the depressed (mashed potatoes on one half, trifle on the other).
Somehow, however, the usual buffet practises had been silently outlawed at El Retiro. First: there was more taste to the food than I’ve sampled in many fine restaurants. Second: everyone happily fell into the greedy category. The food simply demanded it, as did the price – the fill up as many plates as you want policy was backpacker Nirvana. An endless supply of food and a capped cost. Communal dining had been redefined.
Don’t take full advantage of happy hour
The other contributing factor that made El Retiro’s evening meals so successful was the good sprinkling of rum based cocktails. As the bell above the bar rang out happy hour…every hour, drinks were purchased in two, drinking buddies were found, travellers’ tales were shared, toilet stories were swapped and new friendships were formed. One happy hour would come to an end marking the start of another and the drinks went down quicker than the stories could come out. Person after person regaled me with descriptions of the AMAZING things I was going to do the following day on my tour of Semuc Champey. My heart beat with excitement…or too much rum.
Suddenly it was 3am, which I had become accustomed to spotting by the quality of the dancing, and I remembered that I had to leave at 7am for my trip to the caves. Unlike Cinderella’s elegant yet dramatic dash at the very strike of midnight, my exit was more of an ungainly, reluctant stagger a few hours too late fearing a lack of sleep and over-indulgence would not spell great things for my day of rushing water that lay not too far ahead.
Don’t expect seated transport when you go to the caves
I woke up to find I had been transported back to hell, but this time it lay within me with a burning sensation in my stomach that reminded me I should steer clear of hard liquor, and a woozy head that was still in the process of gaining full sobriety. I kicked myself twice (once in each shin) for allowing the previous night’s excitement to intrude on the sleep I needed for the day’s activities. Then, with a dullness I hoped would fade, I struggled into my adventure gear for a day of what was potentially going to be filled with pain. Maybe one more hour’s sleep on the bus to the caves was all I needed…
…which would have been fine if the transport to the caves had seats. I was never expecting a limousine, but I wasn’t expecting a cattle pickup truck either. Prodded and herded onboard, I tried to find a safe(ish) spot on the floor near the corner to take my much needed nap but had barely put my cheeks in contact with the dirty metal base when I was shouted at to get up – how else did I think they were going to get 20 people on board?
The safety instructions for the journey were clear – lean forward when going up hill; and hold on tight. With the words and rum ringing in my ears we screeched off on our one-hour journey to the caves. The white-knuckle ride dared my stomach to spill its contents but as I began to relax into the ‘nothing-you-can-do’ approach to my possible impending death, I breathed deeply and found the fresh air start to whip at the edge of my hangover. This could possibly be fun.
Don’t jump off the bridge without knowing exactly where to land
Good old health and safety, or lack thereof, are part of what I love about Latin America, a place where it is solely your own sense of mortality that puts a limit on your activities. Thankfully, my mortality had a chat with me as we neared the first event – hurling ourselves off a disused railway bridge into a fast rushing Cahabon river below. The guide pointed to the miniscule spot in the rushing river that jumpers needed to hit…unless they wanted a close encounter with some pretty aggressive rocks. One by one brave (read: foolish) travellers clambered onto the gymnastics-beam-thin ledge and waivered for several minutes, presumably having their own internal chat with their fear of death, before taking the plunge. The screams could be heard with decreasing clarity until they gave out in favour of a loud splash. Collective breath was held awaiting the safe passage of each jumper back to the surface, and not in the face down, floating dead body way that surely would have ruined the day, and a bit more besides.
The group thinned until the non-jumpers were less than half of the original score, but even teenage peer pressure could have got me to hurl myself off that bridge even if the euphoria of those who’d jumped and conquered was enticing.
Don’t forget your tubing exit strategy
Tubing. I’d seen the videos of the same activity in Vang Vieng, Laos. It was vaguely on my non-existent travel itinerary and albeit many months into a future (that I might not meet if I continued to combine hangovers and extreme sports), but I had to admit that despite the rapids, it was something I wanted to try. I’d already spent the best part of the morning berating myself for not paying greater attention to the significant focus on water based activities in Semuc Champey, it was time to face facts. The day was all about getting wet and it was time to dip my toes into the water.
The thing is, tubing is more about dipping your rear into the water, which is not something that can be achieved with much elegance, at least not for the virgin tuber. It was a little like a first attempt at getting into a hammock but with the hammock in full swing while someone chucks buckets of water on you and the ground moves beneath your feet. Flop and float is perhaps the best description of what I achieved. Not pretty.
With a few veers off-course and a few more near misses with my fellow tubers and a good dose of laughter along the way, I made it to the end of the line. A drop in river level awaited and I flapped my hands without efficacy to try and head left to the banks. However, this was contrary to the river’s intention, which was to take me head on and over a drop to somewhere I couldn’t see. Possibly beyond Guatemala. Or, if I was really unlucky, beyond this world. As I realised my potential fate, I added leg kicking to my futile attempt to get to the banks and, when that didn’t work, I called on my life-saving reserves – closed my eyes and screamed like hell. Rescued by two small boys, I took my shame onto dry land and made a mental note to get more practice before heading to Laos.
Don’t rely on flip-flops *
Another water-based activity was next on the agenda – entering the Lanquin caves. This was the part I was looking forward to the most, a gentle meander through ankle high water, perhaps a pretty boat tour to see the stalactites. It appeared I had forgotten I wasn’t in Disneyland. Within seconds of entering the caves and hitting waist high in water it became clear there wasn’t going to be a boat to sail us through the sights. Meanwhile a couple of slips and twists of the slimy, jagged rocks below send me out for a change of footwear, preferring to waste an old pair of trainers than a few toes (Ometepe volcano climb still present in my mind). Those who didn’t have anything more robust to attach to their feet were offered an alternative – bright pink rope. This unisex addition was used to strap flip-flops* to feet soles, but the scratches, scrapes and broken rubber footwear that was paraded at the end of the cave trip suggested it wasn’t the most effective fix.
*thongs – Aussies, snigger, tut.
Don’t forget a waterproof head torch *
Still not in Disneyland, the Lanquin caves had not been kitted out with all manor and shades of mood enhancing lighting. In fact, save for the main cave, it hadn’t been kitted out with any lighting at all. Fortunately, the trusty guides had the answer. Candles. Of course. One wick per person and a pack of nearly dry matches to keep them lit, we set off, one intrepid cave visitor after another. As daylight was extinguished by the depths of limestone rock, the ground gave way to an abyss of frigid water. Candle in one hand and doggy paddling with the other, I tried to summon a lecture to myself for once again not researching the full extent of the activities I’d signed up to, but the hilarity of the moment was too much. Thirty-odd people (apply both meanings to that phrase), exploring a cave by candlelight. And it was going to get odder.
*I don’t think there is a different Aussie equivalent, but feel free to educate me.
Don’t mind the wax in your teeth
‘Owwwww!!!!!’ The yell came from one of the super-keens up front. Unlike a smoothly paved road the floor of the Lanquin caves could sneak up and hit you at any moment. Happily paddling one-handed one minute and sharing your skin with a rock the next. Taking heed of our team member’s yelp, we slowed our pace, to a crawl. Slow paddle, soft bump into rock, stand and wade until the bottom disappeared again, quick head dunk under water (candle held high so as not to extinguish) then back to one-handed paddling. It was slow going and the water wasn’t getting warmer. I was desperately fighting to stop my teeth from chattering when we reached a cavern. As the ground raised up to meet our feet I noticed a beautiful tumbling waterfall on the far side of the cave with water rushing down from several meters above. It was like a scene out of the Goonies.
After the events of the day thus far, it came as no surprise to me that the guide pointed at a single rope swishing madly in the gushing waterfall that the next step was to climb up the rope. I looked back. Nothing but darkness and cold. There was nothing else for it. Candle transferred from hand to mouth – scaling a waterfall was a two handed job – I stepped into the rushing water and with as much strength and as little finesse as I could muster, I scrambled my way to the top. I removed the dead and damp candle from between my teeth and scraped away at the wax. If only it has been scented.
Seriously, don’t jump off the bridge without knowing exactly where to land
What goes up, must come down, as the saying goes and in this case, the waterfall scaling was all for the purpose of once again having the opportunity to throw ourselves into a pit of icy water that, from height, looked the size of a pin head. Never mind peer pressure, death-threats couldn’t have got me to take the plunge. Instead I passed up the opportunity in favour of shimmying down the jagged, slimy rocks. In all likelihood the more dangerous root, but who said fear of heights and water were rational?
Little did I know that the bigger problem was yet to come. The caves seemed to have reached a dead end, or so I thought. I looked around considering our options when the guide pointed to a slither of a crack between two cave walls that was barely the width of a torso side-on. Encouraging me forward to look, the guide smiled with knowing. I peered through the gap into nothingness as I contemplated the alternative – scaling back up the rock, back down the waterfall and into the dark, lonely water and through a cave system I couldn’t remember. I knew there was little choice. I was going to perform one jump from height into water at Semuc Champey and it would involve slipping through a narrow twisted rock and plummeting into a pool of darkness below. The previous jumps had been mere practice runs that I’d failed to take.
Petrified, I placed my first foot on the exact spot where the guide pointed, then my next. The following move required (I say ‘required’ and do believe this was true) the guide to hold my bikini-clad buttocks and help me twist my body 180 degrees in line with the gnarled rock shape whilst dropping into the nothingness below. With a scream that ran for eternity I eventually hit the water. I was safe, alive and alone in a dark empty cavern. What a rush!
One by one the rest of the group popped through and after much treading water in frigid temperatures we set off on a hike to the exit and the promise of sunshine and dry land, neither of which could have been more welcome.
Don’t forget to relax
The final stop of the day was by far my favourite – the pools of Semuc Champey. These beautiful, shallow (yay), warm (double-yay) turquoise waters were the perfect way to spend the rest of the afternoon without expending any more adrenaline. There was a reasonably short (1hr) trek up to the mirador (look out) to see the pools from above, which was worth the effort, but basking in the lapping waters of Semuc Champey’s pools, I finally realised my hangover had gone and, despite everything, I was confident that this place really was A-Mazing.
Where to stay in Semuc Champey
For hotels: Although both of the above hostels have private rooms, if you’re looking for an alternative, a few hostels have popped up in the area and you can find them listed here. Do double check before you book – some of the hotels are located in Coban, a 60 mile round-trip to Semuc Champey.
Best tours of Semuc Champey Guatemala
If you’d rather book your tour in advance, Viator has three tours that take in Semuc Champey:
Or, if you’re happy to get yourself to Lanquin/Semuc Champey, you can book a day trip to see the caves and stepped pools from Lanquin.
Alternatively, Intrepid Travel has almost 20 trips that take in Guatemala. You can see the tours here.
Although I haven’t taken these specific tour, I’ve used both companies and would happily recommend them.
How to visit Semuc Champey
Semuc Champey is located in department Verapaz Guatemala, in the north central area of the country.
How far is Semuc Champey from Guatemala City? Semuc Champey is about 110 miles/ 180km from Guatemala City and takes around 4 to 6 hours by road, longer depending on traffic and whether you’d in a private car or mini-van.
How much is the Semuc Champey entrance fee – the fee is 50 Quetzales (at time of writing), which is about $7USD..
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