How Not to Visit Semuc Champey: Part 2

How NOT to Visit Semuc Champey

This is part 2 of  How NOT to Visit Semuc Champey caves. You might want to check out part 1  first.

Don’t expect seated transport when you visit Semuc Champey’s caves

Visit Semuc Champey

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 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 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.

Booking a tour…

If you’d rather book your tour in advance, Viator has three tours that take in Semuc Champey:

You can visit Semuc Champey as well as Coban on a three-day trip from Antigua. The same trip is also offered from Guatemala City. 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.

Don’t forget your tubing exit strategy

Visit Semuc Champey

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.

Planning your trip

I used the Central America Lonely Planet Guidebook to plan my trip. It’s not the best Lonely Planet guide on the market but it’s decent enough for getting through Central America and if you want something more specific, there is a Guatemala Lonely Planet available.

Alternatively, I’ve also got the Rough Guide to Central America and on this occasion, I think it gives the Lonely Planet a run for its money – plus, it’s a couple of years more up to date.

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*

Visit Semuc Champey

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 meaning 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

Visit Semuc Champey

‘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.

Where to stay in Semuc Champey

On a budget: I stayed at El Retiro, mentioned above but since then I believe Zephyr Lodge has taken over as the backpacker favourite since then.

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.

Seriously, don’t jump off the bridge without knowing exactly where to land

Visit Semuc Champey

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

Visit Semuc Champey

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.

20 thoughts on “How Not to Visit Semuc Champey: Part 2”

  1. Hello! I really loved this article and the way you told the story! Felt like I was there with you (and terrified)!

    I had a similar kind of encounter with caves and darkness and everything like that in a little island called Niue in the South Pacific in 2014. If you’re ever there, try to find a guide to visit Vaikona Chasm. You have to hike from the road a few miles, then go down through a cave, and then on the other side, you have to balance across giant boulders that are stuck in the chasm until you finally reach the ground…or, shall I say water…finally, you can swim under the rock face into the pools in the caves. This was the scariest part for me because I hate being underwater! If you’re up for it and are very limber, you can navigate though different passageways in the caves. The only way back is how you came!

    Anyway, I’m glad I found this as it reminded me of the best day of my life in Vaikona Chasm, I could feel the cold cave water as I read your blog! Hope you get a chance to visit Niue one day and I’d like to visit Guatemala too!

    Best Wishes!

    Reply
    • Hi Tessa, thanks for your comment – I now have my afternoon planned, researching Niue. The South Pacific has been on my visit Leicester too long now and this might just be the prompt I need. I’m sure you’ll get to Guatemala one day too. It really is spectacular.

      Reply
  2. This is a great read , Thank you so much for all the wonderful information . I’m headed of to Guatemala in June and was wondering what would be more beneficial taking the tour from the city or straight from Antigua , I have a week so time is key , Would you reommend taking it straight from the city ?

    Reply
    • Hi Silvia, in terms of time efficiency, I’d go straight from Guatemala City because you have to go through there from Antigua anyway. However, that means you would miss Antigua? Unless you can create some sort of loop, I would try to squeeze in Antigua if you can and go from there. I hope that helps. Have an amazing time and say hello to Guatemala from me.

      Reply
  3. Hi Jo, I am planning a 1-2 month trip to Guatemala this upcoming summer. Your post was very informative, and I would love to hear if you have any other recommendations for places to see/do in Guatemala.
    Thanks in advance

    Reply
    • Hi Jessica, huge apologies but I don’t think I replied to this! I loved Tikal and Antigua but you’ve probably already got those on your list? I didn’t have time for a huge amount of exploring in Guatemala but Panachel and the lakes are very popular. Hope you have an amazing trip!

      Reply
  4. Jo – great post, equal parts enticing and deterring…

    I know it probably wasn’t your intention for readers to get hung up on this one description, but I’ve got to ask: with as much objectivity as you can offer in hindsight, how dangerous was that blind jump through that “slither of a crack between two cave walls”?

    I am finalizing my itinerary for Guatemala now and would really like to do this!

    Thanks in advance

    Reply
    • Hi Tim, ha ha – sorry to have slightly deterred you! In all honesty, the only person who had a little trouble with the crack was a very obese guy so unless you’re twice the size of what you should be, I’d say you’ll be fine! Put it on your itinerary and then come back and let me know how you got on!

      Reply
  5. What a great read! Jo, you’re hilarious, witty and informative. I travel as part of my job (trunkshow host onboard luxury cruise ships) and I was planning on starting a blog, as a hobby at first. Your blog has been so useful and extremely entertaining.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Erick

    Reply
  6. Hi Jo!
    Great post, thanks for sharing your adventure! I am about to leave on a backpacking trip around Central America and will definitely be stopping by Semuc Champey. I was wondering what tour company you used? And would you recommend them? A friend said not to bother with a tour here, to just explore on my own, but I am a bit tentative. I’d love your opinion. Also, is there anywhere in particular you feel I absolutely need to go?
    Thanks!
    Alex

    Reply
    • Thanks, Alex. Oooh, exciting trip coming up – I’m sure you’re going to love Central America. I’m in Mexico myself right now about to head south! I’m not sure whether your friend has been to Semuc Champey and is speaking from experience, but I’m not sure how you’d get the most out of this unique area without a tour…though I should probably be clear on what I mean by tour.

      I don’t mean a package holiday/vacation to Guatemala or a trip with someone like Intrepid or Gap but rather a small local expert adventure tour company. The latter, which I highly recommend you go with, will arrange the transport to and from the caves, will supply a tire for tubing the river and, most importantly, take you on a safe route through the caves (keep in mind Central America doesn’t have the same safety standards as many developed countries). Ordinarily, I’d say explore on your own and cities like Antigua are perfect for that but when it comes to exploring unknown natural wonders that don’t have an established do-it-yourself route, I’d definitely go tour all the way – for ease, enjoyment, cost and safety.

      I stayed at El Retiro lodge and booked the day trip they offered and would highly recommend it. I believe every lodge and accommodation in the area will have a similar option so my best recommendation would be to find your accommodation, stay there a day, ask the current guests about the trips they went on and take it from there.

      Hope that helps. Have an amazing time and do feel free to come over onto my Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/indianajoblogs and post some pics of your trip!

      Reply
  7. Awesome read! Thanks for sharing. I am planning my trip for this upcoming March-April. This will be mine and my husbands first adventure on our own and I am a bit nervous. Is there anything you recommend us keeping eye out for, or anything else that you think is a must do? Also, how long (days) was the trip to Semuc Champey from Antigua?

    Reply
    • Hi Annie, amazing choice for a first adventure for you and your husband on your own. Nervousness is normal but I’m sure once you’re there, you’ll realise how easy everything is. From Antigua, the I left at 2pm and arrived around 1am but there was a lot of mucking around waiting for people and traffic. I think the journey is supposed to be around 6 hours. I’d recommend taking the morning bus, around 9am. There are lots of travel agencies in Antigua selling the minibus transport so that part is very easy. In Antigua, there is an avocado farm up in the hills called Earth Lodge. I stayed there for a few nights – they have tree houses and cool, which I’m sure would add to your adventure. I also believe there is a local lady, Elizabeth Bell, who does tours in Antigua covering all of the history if that is your thing. I didn’t do it but would if I returned. Otherwise, Antigua has a lot to offer – volcano hikes, Spanish lessons, cooking classes. There’s a reason this place is popular to visit – have a fantastic trip and I’d love it if you stopped by my Facebook page and posted some pics of your trip: https://www.facebook.com/indianajoblogs.

      Reply
    • Hey Fabian, glad you find the post useful. I’d love to hear about your experience. I’m planning to revisit Guatemala next year so will try a return trip to Semuc. Excited!!!

      Reply
      • Hey Jo!
        Will gladly tell you about my trip, which will be in mid-January. Any chance you also went to Belize? I am thinking about visiting Caye Caulker but also some Mayan ruins in Belize. Thoughts?

        Reply
        • Hey Fabian, yes I did briefly pop into Belize. I say briefly because I wasn’t a huge fan. I went via Belize City to check out the rumours about the city being sketchy (confirmed – almost robbed twice and actually robbed once, in just 24 hours). I then went on to Caye Caulker. It was pretty and I loved the Caribbean vibes and snorkelling but I thought there were better beaches in the region that cost less money (Belize was a financial shock after Mexico!). I say all this as a non-diver, which is what a lot of people head there for, and I do wish I’d stuck it out to see some ruins…so maybe I’ll go back, but it was probably my least fave place in C. America. That said, I’d definitely visit if you have time because I know plenty of people who fell in love with the place and go back time and time again.

          Reply
          • Hey Jo,
            thanks for the useful heads-up…i have also heard mixed things about Belize. Will decide that spontaneously, i guess.
            By the way, I have just started reading your piece on Urbano – fascinating! That is what I love about Italy – so many random small gems! Went to Palestrina this spring and visited the amazing Palazzo Barberini, and there were no tourists whatsoever.

            Reply
            • Hey Fabian, thanks for the tip on Palestrina. I’m compiling a list of less well visited spots in Italy, so will put this on it! Yeah, Belize is an interesting one. I’d say if you have time and money, it’s always best to check things out yourself. Not sure I’d extend that to Belize City, though! Let me know how you get on 🙂

              Reply

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