Semuc Champey embodies every sense of the term off the beaten track. It was difficult to get to – most parts of the roads are rough and it is hours away from typical tourist attractions such as Tikal, Lake Atitlan and Antigua. However, Semuc Champey is on almost every backpacker’s Guatemala itinerary. If you haven’t seen the mesmerizing photos, you’re bound to come across a traveler who will urge you to see it during your trip. Is it worth the difficulty of getting there?
The exhausting 10 hour bus trip from the small town of Flores (near Tikal) seemed to take forever. We finally reached the town of Lanquin, and from here, we transferred to the back of an open truck (it was literally a truck with no seats) where we struggled to keep balance (we were standing) for another half hour on a rough, windy road to reach our hostel for the night, El Portal. The accommodation was simple (no fan, no wifi, shared bathroom) but it was close to the park and had a good view of the nearby river. All the difficulties faded the next day when we finally witnessed one of Guatemala’s most beautiful natural wonders – Semuc Champey.
We decided to do a tour to see Semuc Champey and the nearby attractions (like caving and tubing) since we thought it would be fun to hang around with the group we were with the day before (and it wasn’t much more expensive than doing it on our own). Here are the highlights of our time at Semuc Champey:
Hiking to the Viewpoint of Semuc Champey (El Mirador)
If you have been in Latin America for a while, you will often encounter the phrase “El Mirador”, which means viewpoint in Spanish. The hike took 40 minutes uphill. It was relatively easy even in jandals (flip flops) but it can be pretty hot even with the shade provided by the trees. The view at the mirador was mesmerizing! From above, we witnessed Semuc Champey, the unique limestone bridge with its cascading turquoise pools surrounded by lush green jungle. I couldn’t wait to see it up close!
Swimming in the Pools of Semuc Champey
The crystal clear waters of Semuc Champey were very inviting up close. These natural pools and small waterfalls lined up one after another like a staircase. There were so many of them that even with other tourists around, we could still easily claim a spot for ourselves. We had a look around the different pools and spent the most time relaxing in the upper pools where there are fewer branches / leaves and there is good mix of shallow and deep water portions. Be careful crossing the limestone rocks as they can be quite slippery on foot or with jandals.
If you are staying at El Portal or other accommodation near the park, you can easily walk for a few minutes to Semuc Champey to go for a swim. Entrance fee is Q50.
Caving by Candlelight (Kamba Caves)
One of the reasons we did the tour was to do the Kamba Caves with a group. It’s one of the adventurous things to do near Semuc Champey but it’s not exactly the safest considering the gushing water inside the cave. I was actually glad the guide insisted I wore a life vest since I was too small (water is deep in parts of the cave) and I was not the best swimmer (I can’t tread water).
With only candles for light, he headed into the dark cave in a line. It was exciting and at the same time terrifying not knowing what lay ahead. We saw some rock formations, got soaked in cold water, climbed up a dodgy ladder and jumped off a ledge into a pool of water. It was a lot of fun.
I learned later on how dangerous this caving experience was; people have actually died doing it. So it’s really at your own risk. Safety is pretty lax in Guatemala.
The Kamba Caves are located on the other side of the bridge across the river. Entrance fee is Q60 and combined with river tubing it costs Q70. A minimum number people is required for the cave since you have to go with a guide.
Tubing along the Cahabón River
I had never tried tubing before so it was a great first time for me. The river moved steadily and the scenery was really relaxing. Each with a beer on hand, we went our way down the river.
“Maybe later?” The kids in Semuc Champey are adorable. At the start start of our tour, a few kids said hello and introduced themselves to us. They also mentioned they sold local chocolates and eagerly mentioned we can buy and even pay them later after the tour (the chocolates weren’t great, we tried them). During the tubing, another set of kids joined us into the river with their small coolers full of beer cans. They just tell you their name and you can pay them for the beer when you go back to the hostel. It’s not a bad system. I don’t agree with kids selling stuff at such a young age but they seem to like hanging around with tourists.
The end of the tour was an optional bridge jump to the river. Our guide demonstrated first then a few in our group did it as well. The jump seemed pretty high and with the uncertainty of hitting a rock or landing on my face, this wasn’t an activity for me. We just watched the people who were up for the extra adrenaline boost.
How to Visit Semuc Champey
Tourist transport in Guatemala is quite easy so you can book a minibus from anywhere like Flores, Antigua or Lake Atitlan and take nearly a full day (10 hours from Flores). The closest town to Semuc Champey is Lanquin but it is still about half an hour away on a rough road to get to the pools so accommodation near the park will be more convenient. We stayed in a double room with shared bathroom at El Portal for Q100 per night. There are not many food options around but the hostel has a restaurant that serves decent meals. We previously planned to spend a few nights in Semuc Champey but considering the lack of internet reception (we needed to update our blog) and the lack of a fan in our room, we decided to push on to our next destination, Antigua after a couple of nights.
The tour costs around Q150 and includes Semuc Champey, Kamba Caves and the tubing. We booked it with El Portal. It would cost Q120 to do these activities separately.
Have you been to Semuc Champey or similar natural pools? How was it? Let us know.