Central America, Destinations, Guatemala

Semuc Champey: Heaven in the Middle of Nowhere

Brilliantly blue waters and lush jungles abound in Semuc Champey, one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala. Semuc Champey is a park located just outside the town Lanquin, which is conveniently located close to nothing. The journey itself is long on the normal tourist path, 8 hours in a bus from Antigua, but it is hell on wheels from Xela. We hired out a private shuttle van because it would save us money in the end and everything was set to go…until the night before when our driver decided he could squeeze some more money out of us and increased the fee by Q2000, $260 USD, after he had repeatedly promised us the first fee. After some stressful bartering and posturing he wouldn’t budge so we found another company to take us, for more money than we had been promised at first, but less than the ridiculously jacked up price at the end. The next morning all was well and we even picked up another traveler at the last minute which helped bring costs down for everyone.

10 and half hours later we finally bounced into Lanquin, headaches courtesy of the dirt jungle road that hadn’t seen an ounce of pavement in its life. In a stroke of luck we made it just in time for the end of dinner so we had some halfway decent Guatemalan Thai food and passed out. We woke up in jungle paradise. Our lodge, El Retiro, sat right on the Lanquin river and it couldn’t be more beautiful. Our thatched roof cabana had private hammocks out front and there was a natural swimming hole right in front of the restaurant. The food was good for Guatemala and overall I would recommend El Retiro, the property was kept up and the food never made us sick.

The tours offered from the lodge were nice and well priced as well so we ended up doing the full day Semuc Champey tour for Q180 each and the river tubing for Q50. The full day tour entailed hopping in a stand up truck, bouncing along for 45 minutes to the park, jumping off the biggest rope swing I have ever seen into the river below, hoping out, getting handed a candle and pointed towards the direction of a very dark, wet cave. It turned out to be awesome. The caves were strangely beautiful in the candle light and it was rather exhilarating to be feeling along with your feet, not sure when the underground river would double in depth and you’d be swimming while trying not to dunk your light source. We shimmied through crawl spaces, slid down natural water slides, and some of us opted to fling ourselves of high ledges into the dark water below. I opted not to do this last one as without my glasses I couldn’t aim and there were some menacing rocks that wouldn’t be very fun to get to know better.

Exploring the caves by candle light.

After the caving we walked to a beautiful swimming hole with water tumbling over plant covered cliffs. Yet again some jumped off, thanks to Guatemala’s lax opinion of safety regulations, but I passed it up, feeling no need to further incite the rocks into smashing my head open. My favorite part followed this show of bravery/stupidity, tubing. There is nothing more relaxing than floating down a clam jungle river, beer in hand, sun shining, with not a care in the world. Tubing over it was time to head to lunch, a sketchy roadside pop up Guatemalan buffet thing which we would later regret as food sanitation also isn’t a very big thing here. Note to future self, never eat the beef when the cooked beef is kept immediately on top of the uncooked beef. We finished the day with a 20 minute hike up the mountain to see a bird’s eye view of the pools Semuc is famous for then a relaxing dip in said pools. We returned home happily exhausted.

Semuc Champey is Guatemala’s best kept secret, you don’t want to miss this gem.

The rest of our trip was a combination of reading in hammocks, drinking in tubes on the river, drinking in hammocks, and thinking twice about attempting to read in tubes on the river. When it came time to leave I was hesitant, after all thinking about the smog of Xela while breathing the crisp, clean air of the jungle is a very depressing thought. However, Kane and I had an apartment to get back to and the others had to finish up their volunteering so we got back into the van for the bus trip from hell part 2. Our driver wanted to avoid the potential gridlock of Guatemala City so we went the northern pass; this was a mistake. The northern pass is much more direct, but much less maintained as the government has “paved” the roads at least 5 times without the roads ever seeing any of it. So thanks to the Guatemalan government’s fraudulent means of funneling money into their own pockets we bounced down the worst roads I have ever seen for 11 hours. By the time we stepped off the bus in Xela both Kane and I felt like we’d just gotten off a boat, the road was so bouncy we had gotten sea legs on dry land. For future reference, never try to take the northern route from Xela to Lanquin, it is no faster and it is not worth the pain.

The tubing was much more relaxing than the drive back to Xela.

In the end the trip was worth it, Semuc Champey is truly beautiful and a must see in Guatemala, but it would make much more sense to take the normal tourist path up from Antigua and on to Tikal so you don’t have to endure the bus ride from hell two times in one weekend. Oh and it would be nice if the government here actually paved the roads when they said they did, but that might be a bit too much to ask from a government known for its corruption.

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