A faraway and remote paradise. Turquoise-tinted pools. Limestone bridges. Cascading waterfalls. Mysterious caves. Is this what Leo felt like in The Beach?
Tucked away in the jungles of Guatemala, a hidden gem lies in limbo between being an untouched destination and a backpacker’s hotspot. Indeed, Semuc Champey is in that sweet spot of not being at all commercialized yet having just enough tourist infrastructure to enjoy all the park has to offer. And holy cow, do Semuc’s natural wonders really pack a punch.
Leaving behind my big bag (who I have decided to name Hodor) in Antigua, I set off on a three day, two night trip to Alta Verapaz.
My journey took me to the small city of Lanquin, a 7ish hour journey including breaks. This was my first taste of the long and arduous bus trips that provide the core method of travel through mountainous Central America. It was made endlessly more enjoyable due to having several other backpackers along for the ride. I meet an awesome couple, Blue and Holly, an Aussie and Swede respectfully, who are on month 8 of their 10 month adventure through Latin America.. And I meet Natalia, a Polish girl who dropped everything and has been gallivanting all over the world for over a year and has some amazing stories.
I eat lunch with these three in Cobán, about 2 hours from Lanquin. Natalia regales us of her time in Nicaragua and El Salvador, among other places. She is a fellow blogger, speaks six languages including Spanish, and has been able support herself with writing, working in hostels, and has even joined singing troupes to make some extra cash. I’ll go ahead and shamelessly plug her site, an excellent source for the budget traveler.
Once we arrive in Lanquin, Blue, Holly, and I pile in a pickup truck with several others, forcing us to stand for the bumpy 45 minute ride to our lodging in the middle of no where.
Through the underbrush, over rickety bridges and bumbling, winding roads, we enter the thick of jungle. Though the ride is anything but comfortable, it’s all part of the experience and we all laugh anxiously as some rough patches of the road nearly send us tumbling down the mountain side.
We finally reach our hostel, El Portal, and unwind after a long day of travel. Immediately, an eager 18 year-old Guatemalan staffer named Nelson introduced himself, excited that I speak Spanish. He would become my buddy over the next few days.
El Portal hostel, 100% Guatemalan owned and operated, is essentially a compound of open-air cabins built on the side of a hill overlooking the Cabahón River. There are a series of pathways throughout the compound connecting the huts, small bar/restaurant, and outhouse. Beautiful foliage, towering trees, chickens, hostel dogs, and no internet, all add to the good vibes.
That night I enjoy a good meal and some beers with Blue, Holly, and several of the young Guatemalan staffers. Some Israeli travelers perform a traditional dance, much to our enjoyment. .
Later on I fall asleep on my bunk with the soft breeze flowing in and sounds of nature singing their sweet, symphonic lullabies (yeah that was poetically cheesy, but whatever, just setting the scene arright?)
The next day we get an early start and set off on a 1km hike virtually straight up the mountain. Though quick, the hike definitely had me breaking a sweat.
But those views, though.
The multi-tiered pools are like something out of a fantasy story. They are formed by residual water from the Cabahón River, which actually flows underneath the limestone bridges. The minerals from the runoff creates a wonderfully aesthetic shade of turquoise. I can’t help but admire this beautiful scene, though in reality I am just eager to get down there to do some swimming.
Thankfully the pools were our next stop. It was just what my beer-sweat laden body needed.
The water is pristine. We hike, swim, dive, jump, and slide our way down the tiered pools while being led by our benevolent guide, Nelson. Him and I talk in Spanish and I relay messages to the group as the only one with a semblance of fluency in both English and Spanish.
Nelson grew up speaking the native Mayan tongue. He is working on English, his third language, and is eager to learn words and phrases that will help him communicate with the rising populace of English speakers that are discovering Semuc as a destination.
Cleansed and refreshed, we head back to El Portal for some lunch. Bellies full, we head for our next excursion, the caves of Semuc.
At the entrance we are handed candles to guide our way. At that point I had no idea what I had gotten myself into.
We are led through a series of winding caverns while wading in pools that sometimes came up to our necks. The darkness consumes our group, guided only by our flickering flames. We have to duck under hanging stalactites, crawl through tiny crevices, climb slippery ladders, and slide down small waterfalls, all while keeping our tiny candles aloof and aflame.
I was woefully unprepared with my flimsy flip-flops. Blue, Holly, and I are constantly hysterical at the clear and present danger of this trek.
There are a few challenges scattered throughout for the adrenaline junkie. The first was the choice between scaling a waterfall by ladder or by a dangling rope. As the rest of our group lines up for the ladder, Blue decides to opt for the rope. Not to be outdone by the Aussie, I also accept the challenge.
Blue grabs a hold of the rope and leverages himself up the falls, disappearing into the flowing water and darkness. I don’t see him reach the top (probably three meters high), but hear his familiar yell of achievement. The Guatemalan “spotting” us hands me the rope.
“Go fast. Five big steps and you’ll reach the top”
I grab the robe and yank on it. Seems sturdy enough. I plant one foot on the falls and push off with the other. The crushing water pours down on me as I use the entirety of my strength to pull myself up. Without my candle and the water in my face I can’t see anything.
One big vertical step. Second step. I push off with my legs and grab higher on the rope, pulling myself up higher. Third step. Fourth. Fifth.Sure enough within seconds I’m lying at the top, panting, laughing, heart pounding. 10/10 would do again.
The second challenge presented itself after more crawling and wading through the caves. We come across a large part of the cavern with a cliff overlooking a deep pool. Our guide scampers up the cliff and beckons anyone daring enough to join him up top and jump into the pool below.
Cliff jumping inside a cave, how could we say no?
Sure enough, Blue is the first to act. He successfully scales the cliff, and I’m relieved to see him emerge smiling after he plunges into the pool below.
I follow suit. The climb proved to be the most sketchy part, as one errant step could lead to slipping and cracking your head on a rock. My screams echo through the caves as I take the leap. The pool was plenty deep, thankfully, and I emerge unharmed, adrenaline sky-high once again.
We probably spent close to two hours in those caves. All told it was one of the crazier experiences of my life.
We cap off the day with a much-needed relaxing tube ride down the river.
Still reeling from the day’s activities, we relax back in the hostel that night with some more delicious food. Blue, Holly, and I are joined by two Spanish women on holiday together, and Romain, a French solo traveler. The collection of languages somehow works, and we discuss a range of topics including politics, of course, while sipping on beers.
The Spanish women lament that nothing gets done in Spain, and I return the sentiment. Nelson stops by and chimes in. I ask him about Morales, the Trump-esque Guatemalan President, and he says he likes him because he’s not a politician. It seems the anti-government, nationalist movement is thriving in many corners of the world. The Danish couple from our group that day had talked of a growing nationalist movement in Denmark as well. The common man can relate to someone like Trump or Morales, at least more so than shady career politicians.
Nelson and I chat separately for a while. He has aspirations to work in medicine, and hopes to attend medical school some day. He brings over his English workbook and we go over proper pronunciations of key words and phrases for his work. He is a quick learner and super stoked when he gets things right. We mess around with Snapchat filters, much to his enthusiasm.
The following morning we are treated to pancakes before departing on our way. I say a sad goodbye to Nelson, Blue, and Holly. I would get back to Antigua some 12 hours later after hitting considerable traffic passing through Guatemala City.
My time in Semuc Champey was hands down one of the most epic, daring, breath-taking ventures I’ve ever had. It’s a beautiful place off the grid with something for everyone. If you’re ever in Guatemala, it simply can’t be missed.