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Semuc Champey, with its natural limestone bridge, turquoise pools, caves, and lookout point is one of the best places to visit in Guatemala. It’s remote, it’s stunningly gorgeous, and it’s a must-visit.
I traveled to Semuc Champey, Guatemala, and it was one of the best days of my life. But what makes a perfect day, anyway?
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, Guatemala. You’re going to love it here.
Why You Should Travel to Semuc Champey Guatemala
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 located in central Guatemala, about 45 minutes from Lanquin which is the closest town. It’s series of limestone bridges, caves, and pools.
The small 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.
In Semuc Champey, you can relax in the natural pools, hike to a lookout point, go tubing down the river, explore a cave and more.
I recommend staying in Lanquin. My favorite hotel there is El Retiro. It feels like a paradise getaway.
Things To Do In Semuc Champey
For our day exploring Semuc Champey, my friends and I did the one-day guided 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 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 of Semuc Champey.
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 bought a giant slab of watermelon, devoured it, then hiked the way down.
Swimming in the Pools
Now we’re talking! We stripped down to our swimsuits and jumped into the cool water of the blue pools. (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 turquoise water as beautiful as this.
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.
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
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 the Kanba 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.
Not a swimmer? You’ll be okay. Lifejackets are provided for the non-swimmers..
This girl insisted on twerking upside down 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.
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.
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.
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 are a good thing to have! I recommend the Teva Tirra Sandals, which are super-light and have excellent arch support.
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.
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.
Can You Visit Semuc Champey Without a Tour?
While I definitely recommend a full-day tour like the one my friends and I did as it’s the easiest way to make sure you see and do everything, you can absolutely visit Semuc Champey without a guide.
To do so, you’ll want to take local transport (about $1) from Lanquin to Semuc Champey. Once you arrive at the entrance of the park, you’ll need to pay your entrance fee (about $7). From there, you’ll be able to explore at your own pace, including the turquoise pools, El Mirador lookout point, the caves, and the river. Inner tubes can be rented for an extra cost.
Semuc Champey is open daily from 8am to 4pm. Morning is the best time to visit and hopefully beat the crowds.
How to Get to Semuc Champey
Semuc Champey is not an easy place to get to. It’s small, 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.
Here’s how to get to Lanquin from the popular tourist destinations:
- Lake Atitlan. Semuc Champey is a looong ride from Lake Atitlan, whether you take a shuttle service or chicken bus. From Panajachel, you can book shuttles for about $65-70 which will take about 13 hours. If you prefer chicken buses, I’d first take the bus to another city then on to Semuc Champey the second day.
- Antigua. There are frequent shuttles from Antigua for around $20, which take about 8 hours. You can find them at almost any travel agency and most hotels/hostels. Definitely take the morning shuttle so you arrive before dark.
- Guatemala City. From Guatemala City, you can take either a shuttle or the Monja Blanca Bus to Coban and another bus to Lanquin.
- Coban. Coban is the closest city to Semuc Champey. Local buses leave from mercado la terminal frequently, cost just a few dollars, and take only 2 to 3 hours.
From Lanquin, you’ll be able to take a local pickup to Semuc Champey or, if you join a tour, transportation will likely be included.
When Is The Best Time to Visit Semuc Champey?
The best time to visit Semuc Champey is during dry season, from December to April. This is also the busiest time of the year. I highly recommend visiting Guatemala during the dry season, because even if it’s busier, the weather makes sure a big difference in your enjoyment.
During rainy season, especially August to October, it is possible for the river to flood and Semuc Champey to close. This doesn’t happen frequently but just be aware that it can.
Where to Stay near Semuc Champey: Lanquín
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.
Lanquín is a tiny town without too many amenities — you basically eat, sleep, and socialize at your guesthouse. I stayed at El Retiro Lodge in one of their private rooms with my travel companions, which I really liked for the most part. It felt like an off-the-grid nature getaway, right on the river.
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.
I also visited another popular hostel, Zephyr. Zephyr Lanquin 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.
Is Semuc Champey Worth It?
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. It’s definitely one of the most beautiful places in the country and I highly recommend you make it a priority.
Travel Insurance for Guatemala
One last note — it’s absolutely vital to have travel insurance before traveling to Guatemala. If you get sick or injured on your trip, if you get robbed, or even if you have to be flown home for more care, travel insurance will protect you from financial ruin. I use and recommend World Nomads for trips to Guatemala.
Travel insurance will help you in your hour of need if you come down with appendicitis in Guatemala or fall and break a bone while on a bike tour, and if your flights get canceled due to bad weather, you can get accommodation and new flights paid for.
As always, be sure to read your policy carefully and make sure it’s a fit for you. See what World Nomads covers here.
More on Guatemala:
See all Guatemala posts here.