Friday, December 2nd, 2016

My Favorite Day in Central America — Semuc Champey

51

Paul, Wren, Kate, Shaun, Erisa and Candice in Semuc Champey

What makes a perfect day?

I’m not talking about one of the days I had a water fight in Bangkok, or the day I danced with Vikings in Shetland, or the day I went croc cage diving (in South Africa or Australia), or the day in high school my friends and I saw our classmate’s dad next to us at a stoplight, then challenged him to a drag race. (He agreed. We actually raced.)

In my mind, perfect days aren’t about the most extreme activities. Just the perfect combination of good times and good people.

There was a time just after I turned 21 when a few friends and I went to the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut for the day, randomly did a trip to Providence, Rhode Island, tried our first scorpion bowl at Fire & Ice, and finished with seeing The 40-Year-Old Virgin at the movies. Nothing extraordinary. Just fun, friends, road tripping, and singing along to “Mr. Brightside” at the top of our lungs.

More recently? My day at Laguna de Apoyo with Grace and Skye. Nothing extraordinary or life-changing, just a really fun day in a beautiful place with two great new friends.

And here was another memorable day. A day spent swimming in green pools, swimming through caves with a candle for light, and tubing down the river, beer in hand. A day with beautiful friends. A day full of joy.

Welcome to Semuc Champey.

Note: almost all the photos in this post were taken by my friend Shaun on his waterproof camera or GoPro. I took a few with my Nikon. All are edited by me. Thank you for taking so many photos and letting me use them, Shaun!

Semuc Champey

Semuc Champey

Semuc Champey is a series of limestone bridges and caves that snakes through part of central Guatemala, tying in with the Cabahón River. When you combine the limestone and the river, you have a series of tiered pools that look like something out of a fairy tale.

Semuc Champey struck me, as places often do, as an “I Can’t Believe It’s Not UNESCO” destination. It’s not even on the tentative list!

Semuc Champey is not an easy place to get to — it’s isolated and the closest village, Lanquín, is an eight-hour drive from either of the two commercial airports in the country (Guatemala City and Flores/Santa Elena). But if you’re backpacking long-term through Central America, it’s a natural pit stop in between Flores and Antigua.

Your best bet is taking a direct shuttle from one of the popular tourist hotspots; otherwise, it’s a looooong journey by chicken bus.

For our day exploring Semuc Champey, my friends and I did the one-day tour offered by several different hostels in town. It included a hike to the viewpoint, time swimming in the pools, cave exploration, and river tubing. Here’s how it went!

Semuc Champey

Hiking to the Viewpoint

After a 40-minute ride standing in the back of a pickup truck, we arrived at Semuc Champey. Our first activity? Climbing to the famous viewpoint.

I’ll be honest — I did not enjoy this part. The walk is approximately one kilometer of stair-climbing, which isn’t bad ordinarily, but it was about 95 degrees (35 C) and very humid, the stairs were huge and often just crumbled into rocks, and it had rained the day before, so everything was slippery and you had to be extra slow and cautious.

I was so drained by the time I got to the top, I barely mustered the energy to take a photo. One DSLR pic (pictured above). One iPhone pic for Instagram. One iPhone selfie. And done. I promptly annihilated a giant slab of watermelon, then hiked the way down.

Semuc Champey

Swimming in the Pools

Now we’re talking! We stripped down to our swimsuits and jumped into the cool water. (Or everyone else jumped in, I tried to walk in slowly, and promptly fell on my ass, the universe deciding that I’d get in quickly after all.) I can’t tell you what a relief it was to cool down after that incredibly sweaty hike.

We swam, we played, we debated the ethics of peeing in water as beautiful as this.

Semuc ChampeySemuc ChampeyKate at Semuc ChampeySemuc Champey

Hours passed as we climbed and jumped our way from pool to pool. Eventually it was time to meet up with our group and go to the next part of the trip.

Semuc Champey

Next up was an option to swim to this waterfall, scale it, and jump off the top. I passed on this part (I honestly didn’t think I had the upper body strength to climb that wall), as did most of the group.

A quick lunch later (packed sandwiches from the hostel that we bought the night before), we began the most exciting part of the trip.

Semuc Champey Caves

Exploring the Caves

Now, this was the best part of the day. I knew that cave exploration would be fun, but I had no idea it would be this good!

We climbed up into a cave and were each given a candle. We would hold it in our hand throughout the trip for light, even swimming one-handed with one arm up like the Statue of Liberty. This is Guatemala! I thought to myself with a laugh. No helmets, a candle instead of headlamps, jumping off ledges, led by a bunch of crazy wildmen!

We would be swimming quite a bit. I did some cave swimming at Khao Sok National Park in Thailand, loving every minute of it, but that was only brief. Here, we were frequently swimming through water so deep we couldn’t touch the ground. (Lifejackets were provided for the non-swimmers.)

Paul, Erisa, Shaun, and Kate at Semuc Champey CavesSemuc Champey CavesSemuc Champey Caves

This girl insisted on twerking in the cave. She was my hero.

At one point, I was confronted with a rope leading up a vertical wall. Ordinarily, I could never climb something like that. But there was something about the happiness of the day and the war paint our guide José painted on my face (“What’s that?” I asked. “Bat shit!” he replied with a grin). I had the confidence.

I climbed that vertical wall. With no assistance. I did it!

As we swam through the caves, my friends and I kept exclaiming to each other that this was the coolest thing we had ever done. And I meant it. I wish I could bottle that feeling and take it with me.

Semuc Champey CavesSemuc Champey CavesSemuc Champey Caves

Even though we’d been traveling together all day, the cave is where our group really bonded. We went into that cave strangers and emerged as friends.

Semuc Champey

Tubing in the River

After the caves, it was time to jump into a tube and float down the river. We nestled ourselves into our tubes — and then a group of kids jumped into the water, throwing cans of beers at our heads!

“You buy from me! My name is Ronaldo!” one chanted. They had a system — each beer had a letter on the bottom of the can and they used that to figure out who would pay whom after the tubing ended.

You might remember that I don’t buy things from children while traveling, unless it’s clear that they’re using the money for themselves and not supporting their families (i.e. the kids in Jaibalito who spend their luggage-carrying tips on Coca-Cola). It wasn’t clear here, so I bought a beer from the lone adult instead.

Afterward, I learned that the kids and the adult were all working together. Sigh. Had I known that, I wouldn’t have bought from them at all.

Despite that, floating down the river for about 30 minutes, beer in hand, was the perfect ending to a high-energy day.

Semuc Champey Kate at Semuc ChampeyKate, Erisa and Shaun at Semuc ChampeyShaun at Semuc Champey

The day concluded with a rope swing into the river. Make sure you lift your legs!

Oh, and that wasn’t all. There were jumps from a rickety bridge into the river.

Semuc ChampeySemuc ChampeySemuc Champey

Yeah, there was no way in hell I was going to jump from there!

With that, it was time to head back to Lanquín in the back of a pickup truck.

Lanquín

Lanquín

Lanquín is a tiny town without too many amenities — you basically eat, sleep, and socialize at your guesthouse. I stayed at El Retiro Lodge, which I really liked for the most part (see Essential Info below for more details). It felt like an off-the-grid nature getaway, right on the river.

I also visited another popular hostel, Zephyr. Zephyr is definitely a hardcore party hostel with amazing views over the mountains (pictured above). Their pool was huge, modern, and even had a swim-up bar — but it was closed for construction, sadly.

Still, I’m glad I stayed at El Retiro — it had a homey feel and it was a lot of fun without the crazy party scene.

El Retiro LodgeEl Retiro Lodge El Retiro Lodge El Retiro Lodge

The Takeaway

My day at Semuc Champey was pure joy. I’m so glad my friends and I added it to our itinerary. Even our friends who had to double back to Antigua (and in Candice and Shaun’s case, on to El Salvador again) said that it was well worth the long journey.

How much did I enjoy it?

1) I kept laughing randomly for no reason at all.

2) I barely took photos and didn’t even care.

3) Pitbull’s song “Fireball” came on the radio on the way back and I actually sang along and danced in my seat. (Dude, I HATE Fireball. I love most of Pitbull’s music, but I think Fireball is the laziest songwriting since Old Time Rock and Roll. Seriously, did it take him more than 10 minutes to write that song? Is he pranking America? Was this a bet with Enrique Iglesias? First, he supports Chris Brown, and now this? But I digress…)

Overall, Semuc Champey is one of my favorite memories of Central America and catalyzed Guatemala into becoming one of my favorite countries in the world. I highly recommend you make it a priority.

Essential Info: The town of Lanquín is the base for visiting Semuc Champey, and it’s a 40-minute ride away via pickup truck, though there are a few hotels and hostels close to the entry. Getting to Lanquín, your best option is to take a tourist shuttle (eight hours from Flores or Antigua, twelve hours from San Pedro, five hours from Rio Dulce). Otherwise you’d be taking a million chicken buses. Cobán is the nearest city to Lanquín, about two hours away.

I stayed at El Retiro Lodge, which felt like a paradise getaway on a hill by the river. My four friends and I shared a private room with three twin beds and one double bed, and a shared bathroom for 250q, or $32.50, total. Semi-private rooms from 100q ($13), private cabanas from 150q ($19.50).

They serve food and have really nice nightly buffets: we had Guatemalan, Thai, and Mexican nights with plenty of vegetarian options. Dinner is 50q ($6.50) for vegetarians and 60q ($7.80) for carnivores. Great staff, too.

One big drawback — despite what their website says, the internet is awful. Plan on being off the grid for a few days, and don’t come here if you need to get work done.

The tour to Semuc Champey includes a hike to the waterfall, swimming in the pools, the cave tour, and river tubing. It costs 200q ($26) per person. I was there in May and El Retiro was having a special for both April and May: book the Semuc Champey tour and get your third night free. So I paid about $40 for three nights’ accommodation AND that tour!

All hostels seem to offer the same tour, though they offer the activities in a different order. I thought the order the El Retiro tour went in was perfect.

One last thing — I was very happy to have sports sandals for this day. They were perfect for everything from climbing to cave swimming. My other friends were stuck swimming in their sneakers. Trust me — sports sandals a good thing to have! I recommend the Teva Tirra Sandals, which are super-light and have excellent arch support.

Is Semuc Champey your kind of destination?

Comments

51 Responses to “My Favorite Day in Central America — Semuc Champey”
  1. Michelle says:

    Wow definitely sounds my ideal destination (minus the lack of internet). Your pictures are beautiful and it seems super affordable!

  2. Sounds like the sort of day you travel for! What a unique experience, you’ll be telling that story for years to come. Especially because you can use bat poop as a punchline 😉

  3. Heather says:

    8:10 am here on a dreary Monday morning in North Carolina as I sit here at my desk at work reading your latest blog post. I sit in my four walled cubicle and now dream of carrying a candle through the caves in Semuc Champey, a place I’ve never heard of before until your blog. I know you must hear alot, “I wish I had your life”, and as the only exciting place I have ever gone to is Paris, I can honestly say, “I wish I had your life!” Instead, I check your blog every day looking to live vicariously through your fun adventures! 🙂

    Looking forward to reading more! I loved this post!!

  4. YES! Semuc Champey looks freaking awesome. And bahhhah I loved that girls twerk dance move, they were on point. Anyways the caves and pools look like a blast. This place was never on my radar until now, thanks for sharing!

  5. Katie says:

    LOVE this! Definitely saving this post for planning my return to Central America 🙂 so many have of my best days traveling have been days like this – hanging out in beautiful places with amazing people, enjoying the here and now with all the rush of must-see sites. Reminds me of how I always felt visiting Erawan Falls in Kanchanburi 🙂

  6. Sarah says:

    I feel the same way about Fireball and that Pitbull is pranking America. Great details on this trip!

  7. Gene says:

    @kate
    interesting.
    any chance you could make a map or list of cool/interesting places you recommend seeing in central america?
    thanks!

  8. Laura says:

    I love how passionate you wrote this post. Well done Kate!

  9. Erin says:

    Oh, gorgeous. I have Guatemala on my list for 2016 and this looks amazing. Thanks for all the very detailed insider tips in the Essential Info section!

  10. Brooke says:

    This looks awesome and I can’t believe it’s not a UNESCO World Heritage site either! I agree with you that the best days aren’t necessarily the life-changing ones. What makes a great day is hanging out with great people who enjoy your company and make you smile. 🙂 This sounds like a great place to escape and enjoy yourself. Glad you had a great time!

  11. We stayed at one of the small local lodges within walking distance to Semuc Champey for two nights as we weren’t keen to do a day tour as we wanted to go at our own pace. I loved swimming in the pools and hiking up to the viewpoint and the hike along the dusty road to get there was so beautiful and scenic. I’m not generally that into caves so we weren’t interested in the cave tour although it definitely looks like an interesting experience!

  12. noel says:

    It is wonderful to have days of pure bliss enjoying the simple things like being on the water with a cold brewsky and hanging out with people of like mind….so sweet

  13. Clay says:

    That looks like a blast. I enjoyed how photo heavy it was. 🙂

  14. Omg twerking in a cave? Amazing. Thanks for sharing these lovely photos, Kate (and Shaun!).

    Happy travels 🙂

  15. Andrew says:

    it looks great. not taking many photos – usually means you’re having too good a time to remember too!

  16. Ivy Kriste says:

    Cool….its really amazing place

  17. What a wonderful day! Everything looks so green around you! Amazing!

  18. Kate!

    I’ve been wanting to check into your blog more thoroughly for some time now, and I’m really glad I did. I love this post for a variety of reasons. It looks like you had an amazing day! Such a beautiful location.

    I’m not a swimmer (something I hope to have the courage to remedy when I start my travel journey), and I miss out on A LOT because of it. I appreciated that you added the fact about life jackets. It may have seemed like a tiny thing to include, but when I read that, I was even more excited: this is something I could actually do! Thanks for including it, and me.

    I have been trying to figure out how to balance the story-telling with the needed info, and you do it brilliantly. There is info scattered throughout your post, but not in a way that distracts from the story. The “Essential Info” box is great. When I want the story, I can read the story. When I come back later for facts, there’s no need to wade through the post. BAM. It’s right there. Well-frickin’-done!!!

    As a solo-traveler, a writer, a photographer, and simply as a human being, I’m really glad to have stumbled on your blog. Keep it up!

    • Jen, I appreciate that so much! I’m really happy to receive that feedback from you.

      And you should definitely prioritize learning to swim. 🙂 The world will open up to you! Please don’t end up like my ex. I had to change so many travel plans because he couldn’t swim and was deathly afraid of anything water-related.

  19. Kelly says:

    This looks SO super amazing! Guatemala seems like a beautiful country, and right up my alley. I’m dying to visit, especially after reading all of your posts the last few months.

  20. Izy Berry says:

    Great Post!! i am in Guatemala right now and definitely samuc champey is a place i want to go. I love Guatemala 🙂

  21. Tamz says:

    Oh yes.
    This is definitely my kinda destination.
    The photos are awesome and tell the whole story about all the fun.

  22. This looks lovelier than anywhere I found when I was down that way!

  23. Neel says:

    Beautiful is the word!

  24. Nothing better than turquoise blue waterfalls & swimming pools in the middle of the jungle. Def added to the C. America bucket list. Thanks for the comprehensive write-up, Kate!

  25. Britt says:

    I swear the more I read your Central America posts the more my stay in Guatemala just keeps expanding and expanding! I’m almost definitely now using the requirement for me to leave the US for 2 months to change my visa from a student visa to a volunteer visa as another opportunity to head back to Central America and do other places like Nicaragua and El Salvador.

    This place looks like my kind of destination- great combination of fun, sights and exploring. I totally agree with sometimes its not what you see but the experience you have. In our last trip to Thailand my sister and I loved Ayutthaya as much because of the opportunity to cycle around and wave and chat with the locals than seeing all the amazing temples!

  26. Stephanie says:

    You’re sooooo right!! It’s the simplest of adventures with the right people that are always the best. Sounds so joyful!

  27. Aaron says:

    Look like such a fun day, great photos too!

  28. This reminds me of Plitvice Lakes in Croatia. Beautiful images.

  29. Sounds like a lot of fun. Yes! My type of place with a bunch of friends and a group of “up-for-it” people. Sometimes, you just have to let go and forget that there’s no helmet, gloves, seat belt or even a key. I once went on a chicken bus in which the driver started the engine by putting two wires together and using the seat belt as a way to open and close the door without getting up. Oh, and a kid of 8 spent most of the time hanging outside the door and climbing through the windows in order to get the passenger fare while the bus was going at top speed. Nobody blinked!

  30. Tikva says:

    Memories.. was here in 2008. So glad to read Semuc Champey is as beautiful as ever and our favorite hostal is still going strong. Love your cave adventure pics.

  31. I will come when I have conditions, this is paradise.

  32. Erika says:

    I had never even HEARD of Semuc Champey until my friend visited a few months ago and, since then, I see mention of it everywhere! I’d LOVE to go back to Guatemala and take a dip in the pools.

    It looks like paradise!

  33. This looks so beautiful and fun! Moreover, it is so nice to see some positivity coming out of Central America. My family is from Honduras and, like Guatemala, gets a largely bad rap for all of the violence and instability in the region. I truly believe that there is beauty to be found everywhere however.

  34. Claus G says:

    Sounds awesome!

    I’m going to be there later this week, and got a quick question… What did you do with your camera & phone during the cave exploration? As yours wasn’t waterproof and you have to swim, I’m assuming you left them someplace else, but is it safe? Just to make sure I don’t take anything unnecessary if I risk losing it!

    Thanks 🙂

  35. Mariah Henderson says:

    Hi Kate! I have the same question as Claus regarding where you leave your valuables at Semuc Champey and I was also wondering what shuttle service you took? I’m reading reviews on some now, but most of them seem negative :/ thanks in advance!

    • We had one of our guides stay with the valuables, which were kept in large (unlocked) lockers that he watched. I couldn’t tell you the name of the shuttle service; everything is very Wild West in Guatemala! It’s not a pleasant journey to Lanquin no matter how you go, to be honest, but I found it was worth it nonetheless.

  36. Menno says:

    Good post about Semuc Champey! The Candle Light cave tour was absolutely a highlight from our trip through central America. Sketchy for sure but fun as hell! Too bad we couldnt jump from the bridge due to a low water level. Did you notice a lot of Israeli people here? Even our guide spoke Israeli…

  37. Stephanie says:

    Hi! My two girlfriends and I are thinking of going here this coming January but I am not a good swimmer at all. I love caves but am kind of scared of water I can’t touch in. Was there any part where you had to go completely under or could you keep your life jacket on the whole time? How long were you in the dark for? Thanks for all the info!

    • The tour was in the dark the whole time but you can keep a lifejacket on the whole time. If you’re nervous about it, though, I think you would be better off skipping it and doing a more safety-conscious trip like the ATM caves in Belize. This tour is very lackadaisical — almost no safety precautions are taken.

  38. Colby says:

    Very informative blog! Looks like a must see destination on my upcoming trip! While in the caves did you find a “safe” place to store your camera and phone?

    Thanks!

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  1. […] have spent the morning at Semuc and the afternoon at the caves, like Adventurous Kate’s tour did. (Interested in reading a completely different take on Semuc Champey? Check out her […]

  2. […] rather have spent the morning at Semuc and the afternoon at the caves, like Adventurous Kate’s tour did. (Interested in reading a completely different take on Semuc Champey? Check out her […]



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