I just knew I was going to throw up.
I never get car-sick but the unpaved road to Semuc Champey was long and bumpy.
What was supposed to be a 7-hour bus ride turned into a dizzying 10 hours.
A/C and Wifi were both guaranteed to be on the bus, but of course, this wasn’t true. I learned not to expect either of these western luxuries while traveling in Central America - even if they were advertised.
I was just grateful to have a whole row to myself to sleep through the journey.
And after hearing many stories of bus breakdowns that turned into 20+ hour rides, 10 hours didn’t seem so bad. I was happy enough to be on a bus that actually completed this journey to the middle of nowhere.
That’s exactly where Semuc Champey is - the middle of nowhere.
WHAT IS SEMUC CHAMPEY
Semuc Champey boasts a series of tiered turquoise pools and limestone bridges in the deep jungles of Guatemala. Just like Tikal, this natural site is touted as a must-do while for travelers.
Getting there is not easy. You’ll likely have an 8+ hour ride to Lanquin, Guatemala. As you roll into remote Lanquin, you’ll notice traditionally dressed Guatemalan women wandering along the town’s dirt road. Semuc Champey is 11km from this town, so you’ll need to walk 2.5 hours or hop into the back of a cramped 4x4 to get to there.
You can visit the pools alone or with a tour. I signed up for a day tour with my hostel, Zephyr Lodge. While researching things to do & places to stay in Guatemala, I stumbled upon a picture of Zephyr Lodge’s infinity pool overlooking the green jungle and I was sold.
GETTING TO SEMUC CHAMPEY
We left Zephyr lodge at 9 am and nearly 15 of us squeezed into the back of 4x4. I had no idea the ride would be 45+ min, so I’m really glad I opted to do this instead of the 2.5-hour walk. Those hills were something serious. We all grabbed hold to whatever we could as we bounced up & down for the entire duration of the ride. Aside from being jerked & jolted, the drive was absolutely breathtaking - nothing but lush green highlands.
We jumped out at the sight of a yellow bridge that looked as if it was on the verge of breaking down. There were local kids running around, tugging at our shirts, and trying to sell us chocolate. Our local guide advised that we decline because many of the children skip school to make money. He said buying from them would only further encourage them to do so. The children were relentless though. They took note of us anyway and told us they’d be waiting for us when we returned from our trek.
WHAT YOU ABSOLUTELY CANNOT MISS - THE KAM’BA CAVES
I thought we were going to walk down to Semuc Champey, but I was instead surprised when we were directed to a dark cave. I had no idea that we were visiting caves, as I’d only signed up for this tour in a hurry the night before.
On one hand, I was extremely excited. On the other hand, I was bitter. Why? I’d spent $90 to explore caves in Belize only a week prior, while this tour was a whopping $7. SERIOUSLY? WHAT THE HECK?. I wish I’d known about these caves beforehand, but I had to push my saltiness aside to enjoy the moment. There was nothing else I could do at this point.
We were led to a dark entrance & handed what would be our only source of light - a single candle. Unlike the Belize tour where we were led by headlamps, we had to hold the candles above our heads as we waded through the waist-deep water.
We climbed up ladders that weren’t too sturdy and used ropes to climb up slippery rocks. I’m a grade A clutz so there were several moments where I thought I was going to fall flat on my face or cut myself on the sharp rocks below the surface.
I left the caves unharmed and full of excitement. Exploring the Kam’ba caves was such an adventure. I didn’t expect this, but it ended up being the highlight of the day.
THE NOT SO FUN PART - HIKING EL MIRADOR
After exiting the caves, we began walking to landing point of the anticipated hike up ‘El Mirador’.
Along the way, our guide stopped at a swing hanging from the trees and invited us to jump out into the river. I happily declined and watched as some people in our group swung into the water.
Once the brave finished jumping, we began our hike. If you know me, you know this wasn’t my favorite part of the day.
I was huffing & puffing and slipping & sliding the whole 45 minutes up. I was tired of walking up the steep wooden steps after only 15 minutes, but the hike was doable.
Once you reach the top, you’ll have a bird’s eye view of what’s to come - Semuc Champey.
FINALLY, SWIMMING IN THE CRYSTAL CLEAR POOLS OF SEMUC CHAMPEY
After reaching ‘El Mirador’, you’ll begin your descent to the pools you’ve been waiting for.
Obviously, the hike down is much easier than the hike up. You’ll gain a bit of energy back as you inhale the crisp air and take in the views.
I was relieved to see the crystal clear pools once we finally arrived. I immediately knew that the journey was worth it.
Semuc Champey was breathtaking!
I kicked off my sandals, put away my belongings and jumped into the water! After such a long hike, it was extremely refreshing and I felt that I’d been rewarded for all of my hard work.
We jumped into the tiered pools, swam around, and even got free pedicures as the fish nibbled on our feet.
It was such a fun day and I’m so glad I decided to visit! After swimming around for a few hours, we made the journey back into Lanquin. My arms were sore the next day from holding onto the bars above my head for dear life, but it was all worth it.
By the time we returned to the hostel, I was exhausted. I napped and then headed into town with some people from the tour to grab food.
The following morning, I began my next adventure.
I woke up at 6 am to catch another torturous 10-hour bus ride to Lake Atitlan. I spent the bus ride reminiscing about such a beautiful day at Semuc Champey and anticipating what exciting things Lake Atitlan had in store. If my time in Lake Atitlan was anything like my time in Lanquin, it would all be worth it.
THINGS TO KNOW
What to Wear
A water bottle
Sports Sandals. I wore Tevas which were great in the caves because there were sharp rocks at the bottom and I didn’t have to worry about walking in soggy shoes.
I stayed at Zephyr Lodge, which is a backpackers hostel in Lanquin. There are several hostels in the area, but I’ll share my take on this one:
An infinity pool with stunning views
Good customer service - I forgot my passport at the hostel front desk.They had the daily shuttle driver drop it off my at my next destination free of charge.
the shared rooms are open air so there were SO MANY of bugs. I was honestly afraid to go to sleep because bugs(spiders, roaches, bugs I’d never seen before) were EVERYWHERE - on the pillows, in the sheets, hanging from the ceilings.
The food is catered towards westerners so it’s overpriced and average. You are not allowed to bring food in from outside. I went into town for traditional food.
The wifi hours are between 7am-7pm but it’s going to be really slow or nonexistent.
There is a very European/western backpacker vibe. Some might be looking for this, but I learned early on during my trip through Central America that this vibe is NOT for me. It’s not what I went to Guatemala for.
All hostels & hotels provide a tour that you’ll likely pay $25-$30 for. I opted for this because I only spent 1 full day in Lanquin, so I didn’t want to deal with figuring out the logistics. Also, I wouldn’t have felt safe navigating this remote town by myself since I was traveling alone and this was only my first day. I didn’t think it would be worth the hassle.
You can visit Semuc Champey without a guide. You’d need to catch a ride or walk into the center of town to hop on a 4x4 that will take from Lanquin to the site OR you can walk the full 2.5 hours uphill & then downhill all the way to Semuc Champey.
Entrance to Semuc Champey: 60Q or approximately $8
Entrance to Ka’amba caves: 50Q or approximately $7
I’m not sure if you can visit the caves without a guide. Even with a guide, it’s not particularly ‘safe’ by western standards so I highly doubt it.
Other things to do in the area include:
Tubing down River Cahabon for 50Q or approximately $8. Tubing is really popular in Texas, so I wasn’t particularly drawn to it.
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Don't forget travel insurance! I used World Nomads while traveling through Central America. The reason why I don't have more photos is that I lost my phone a week later. Through insurance, which includes personal loss & theft, I was sent money to purchase a replacement phone. The insurance definitely paid off. Click below for a quote.
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