Why to visit Semuc Champey, how to get there and is it worth it?
This article has been updated on July 18, 2021
If you are heading north from Antigua or Lake Atitlán during your travels across the Americas, you’ll be presented with a dilemma. You can either head straight north to Mexico’s Chiapas region or cut through Guatemala towards Belize. While Chiapas certainly belongs to the highlights-of-the-trip category for many travellers, the other option isn’t without its perks either, because the nearest highlight ahead of you is Tikal, a magnificent ruins of Mayan city surrounded by vast jungle. Getting across Guatemala overland could however take time and such a long journey requires a stopover. The most blatant place to do so is Semuc Champey, a rather unique natural monument with multiple natural pools set in a picturesque valley.
In this post, we’re therefore going to talk about this “stopover” in Central Guatemala. Whether it’s worth it getting here as well as how to get here, what’s there’s to do and so on.
About Semuc Champey
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Semuc Champey or “where the river hides under the stones” in Q’eqchi, the local Mayan language, is a rather special place located in Central Guatemala. In practical terms, we’re talking about a natural bridge that was created by water that slowly eroded the rock away only to form a river that went underground, exactly as its name says. In this process, a natural rock bridge filled with multiple natural beautiful pools was created.
Semuc Champey/Kanba cave tour
The most obvious activity here is to take a tour around the natural monument and its attractions. Semuc Champey tours present the visitors with fun semi-adrenaline activities, such as a rope swing/jump into the river or an opportunity to jump into the waterfall (Salto del Cabro) from a decent height. But before you get to the actual pools, there’s also one more activity, which is exploring the Kanba (K’an Ba) Cave with candlelight.
First, it’s just a normal cave but later, as you wander further inside, you hit the underground river, which becomes deeper and deeper, the fun starts 🙂 Suddenly it’s too deep and you have to swim (with the candle in your mouth) while the cave gets narrower and narrower. The cave fun climaxes when you need to jump through a meter-or-so wide hole through which the water’s flowing rather fast into the darkness below.
Now, I’m a little claustrophobic and this was a major activity for me to tackle this irrational fear of mine. To be honest, in that tight space with the whole group behind me and water flowing past us at a decent pace, I didn’t have many other options, because there was literally nowhere else to go (:0
Anyway. After the cave, you’ll stop for lunch at a cool local outdoor eatery with fun Mayan ladies and very talkative cute kids. After lunch, you’ll head to a viewpoint with stunning views of the scenery and the turquoise waters of Semuc Champey. After everyone takes their photo, you then head to those pools to swim and chill in that picturesque settings 🙂 FYI, there are the Garra Rufa fish into those pools, those that people pay to get their pedicure done 😉
Overall, I’d say that it’s a perfect day. For me personally, it was basically one of those days, you will never forget, a day at the end of which you are entirely happy 🙂 And how much would this all cost you? Well, prepare to pay 185,-GTQ (€21,20) for a 10 hrs day full of fun. FYI, you can also do the tour by yourself, which would cost you a park entry of 5o,-GTQ but then I wouldn’t recommend going through the cave, which does require tips from the guards to prevent accidents…
Other possible activities at Semuc Champey
A popular activity for backpackers appears to be tubing down the Cahabon River. Some tours also include it in their packages so you can end your day tubing. In case you didn’t know what’s that, you basically sit in an innertube from a track and flow down the river, while in the meantime, the local kids will sell you a cold beer off the river banks on your way down the mild stream 😉 Oh – and there’s one more thing – and you can also learn how to make chocolate in the traditional Mayan way.
Semuc Champey is located about 11km away from the regional capital town Lanquín. While Semuc Champey would be perhaps the most popular attraction in this region, you could also opt for checking out a much larger and more spectacular cave complex known as Grutas de Lanquín. More info is here (in Spanish). FYI, the cave is home to many bats and it could be quite a spectacular experience to see them all flying out of the cave at dusk, which is something you can actually book and let them fly past you 😉
Lanquín, as well as the little settlement nearby Semuc Champey, are both rather small. While there are few places to enjoy a drink, most travellers appeared to socialize in their own hostels.
Although there were some reported rare incidents of robbery in the park in the past, the place is considered safe, especially if you’re with a group. That’s for the dangers caused by other humans. Then there’s yourself. Excuse me to sound too cautious, I’m sure that the vast majority of you don’t need to be reminded about the possible dangers of swimming/tubing when drunk, nor about overestimating your abilities to jump from the waterfall or swing rope and so on…
As I said above, Lanquín as well as the whole area where hotels are built nearby Semuc Champey are both rather small. And there isn’t much need for getting around. If you however need to get around for some reason, you could grab a tuk-tuk (always negotiate the price before you get in) or just walk.
How to get there
To be honest, it wasn’t easy to get to Semuc from Lake Atitlán, because it took us 11 hours, instead of the promised 8. However, it was even harder to get out of there. The alleged 8-hour journey to Flores apparently never takes 8 hours. Most travellers I’ve met were talking about 11-hour trips on average. But before booking the shuttle, I had no idea that I will be part of an epic, record-breaking 17-hour trip filled with unfortunate incidents regarding mostly the technical state of our bus. But that was an exceptional length journey and you should count on 11 hours “only”.
Therefore, from Lanquín to Flores, prepare for 8-11 hour trip for 110,-GTQ (€12,60). As for Lake Atitlán, from Panajachel to Lanquín prepare for an 8-11 hour trip that will cost you 190,-GTQ (€21,70). In case you were travelling from Antigua, there are daily shuttles for around 150,-GTQ and the journey will take approximately the same amount of time. FYI, at the time when I was checking flights from Guatemala City to Flores, this whole overland adventure cost me less than flying over Guatemala.
Btw, in case you wanted to listen to some cool tunes that would gradually bring you to sleep, here‘s a series of Spotify playlists designed for long-distance buses/or flights to give your journey a cool soundtrack 😉 In case you wanted to daydream only, here are few playlists that could possibly enhance your experience 😉
When to visit
The high season starts in mid-December and lasts until mid-April. There’s less rain so the Cahabon River is clearer, and there’s a lot of people. IMHO, the best thing would therefore be to pick the good old shoulder season just before or right after the high season.
You’ll be told this upon purchasing your tour, to bring your swimwear and walking shoes. About taking your camera or electronics, please bear in mind that you’ll go diving in a cave. You can still take it with you and leave it in the locker before you enter the cave. Also, take some cash with you for lunch and water you’ll buy from the cute and clever Mayan kids 😉
Furthermore, let me stress the fact that if you are claustrophobic, the K’an Ba cave part of the tour might be quite a challenging activity for you. I can tell you that if you tackle it, it feels very relieving;) Otherwise, you could also opt to skip the cave or just book a tour that doesn’t include the cave…
There appear to be several hotels in Lanquín as well as nearby the natural monument. I was personally very happy with my choice: El Retiro Lanquin. The place comes with a huge garden and a nice bar by the river. If I’ve picked private, I would have loved the place, because the dorm didn’t really have mosquito nets, but it was generously spacious and I was only there for two nights.
Sort of conclusion
Most of the stopovers, the travellers make to cut their long overland journeys in two in order not to spend some stupid hours on the bus could be all right but they rarely turn out to be special. However, Semuc Champey was very special. For me, it was the best stopover ever, in fact, it turned out to be even better than many main/major tourist destinations I’ve visited before. I mean that we all know that there could be quite a few super-special days in one’s life (I bloody hope there are) and the day I’ve spent at Semuc Champey certainly belongs to that category 😉
But is it worth it to visit Semuc Champey?
To be more objective, I must say that if you have asked me if I would visit Semuc Champey as a destination, rather than just a stopover to break my trip between Lake Atitlán and Tikal ruins, in spite of the fact that I liked it there a lot, I would have most likely said no. The reason for that is that it would take you a full day to get there and another full day to get out. So if you don’t have time and have spare money to fly over to Flores in order to reach Tikal ruins, do it. On the other hand, if you have a couple of spare days on your hands – Semuc is definitely worth it 😉
How long to stay
To answer this question, we’re back to the spare time availability. Speaking for myself, I was sad that I’ve booked my departure bus ticket in advance. If I knew how well will I feel there, I would have stayed longer. It would have been nice to relax in Semuc for few extra days because it’s just a pleasant, tranquil and rather spectacular place. Plus the people I’ve met there were fantastic 🙂
Useful and interesting links
- Social conflict over Semuc Champey: David Hill writes for The Guardian about the dispute and the consequent impact the conservation area has on local communities
- Grutas de Lanquín website (in Spanish)
Other destinations to visit in Guatemala
Only about 2,5-4 hours drive from Lake Atitlán, there lies one of the two most popular destinations in Guatemala, La Antigua Guatemala. We’re talking about a pretty colonial town with cobblestone streets lined up with old houses in Italian Renaissance style and some impressive baroque ruins, a rather vibrant nightlife scene and great tourism options in the region. To find out what there is to see and do, where to grab a drink, safety and so on in Antigua, please click here.
Only about 90km/2,5hrs journey away from Antigua, you’d reach a lake that many people including myself found to be a rather special place. Surrounded by steep hills and three volcanoes as well as numerous Mayan villages, Lake Atitlán comes with a lot of excellent trekking options with breathtaking views and a rich cultural environment that’s determined by the friendly and rather happy indigenous population. More details could be found here.
Tikal Ruins and city of Flores
Perhaps the most iconic of all Guatemalan destinations to visit would be Tikal, which is spectacular ruins of an ancient Mayan city that’s located in the vast jungle in the northeast of the country, nearby the picturesque city of Flores. To find out about this mind-blowing “Indiana Jones-like” site as well as what there’s to do in Flores, please click here.
Featured photo by Alexander Schimmeck from Unsplash