Deep within the jungles of central Guatemala, a miraculous place awaits for those willing to make the trip: Semuc Champey. Located a few miles from the relatively remote town of Lanquin, this idyllic paradise is well worth the hours you will need to spend in a tightly packed shuttle bus or rental car in order to reach the place.
Getting to Semuc is usually a two-leg journey. If you are coming from popular areas such as Antigua, Guatemala City, or Tikal, you will likely spend the majority of the day just getting to Lanquin, leaving little time (if any) to see the park. Fortunately there are quite a few hostels and hotels in the area, and once you arrive you should have no trouble finding them. When my shuttle reached Lanquin, it was immediately surrounded by a small group of local boys yelling out the names of hotels while shoving flyers up against the windows; I imagine it is the same for all tourist shuttles entering the town.
I had originally made a reservation at El Portal de Champey because it is the absolute closest accommodation to Semuc—only a two-minute walk from the park gates. As soon as I specified my reservation to one of the local boys, I was promptly pointed toward a pick-up truck that would take me there. The truck ride to the hostel was highly entertaining. We stood in the bed of the pick-up and tightly gripped steel bars as the driver whipped around narrow switchbacks with branches slapping the sides of the vehicle. Night had fallen and the moonlight illuminated the mist-covered ridges and peaks of the sloped jungle landscape, imparting a ghostly beauty.
When I arrived at the hostel, I was told they did not receive my reservation and that they were full for the night. They assured me the hostel down the road would have space and they would take me there in the truck. I got a gut feeling that this would work out in my favor, so I agreed and hopped in the truck once again for the short trip. When we arrived at the other hostel I quickly realized it was perfect for me. The first hostel, El Portal de Champey, had a great location and nice premises, but it was crowded and fairly energetic. Although I often gravitate toward this type of accommodation, I was seeking more solitude during my time in Semuc, and the alternate hostel, Posada Las Marias, was highly preferable in that regard.
Posada Las Marias Hostel
The next morning I was up around seven o’clock. I threw on some hiking shoes and set out on the muddy road to Semuc Champey. The road ran alongside the Cahabon River, which was moving quickly with churning brown water. All around, steeply angled hilltops jutted upward through layers of white morning mist.
Morning on the Cahabon River
When I entered the park it seemed as though I was the first person there. I opted to take the trail up to the Mirador, and climbed up the wooden steps that were built into the nearly vertical stone mountainside. The canopy overhead was thick and wet, dripping heavily with morning dew. After about 20 minutes of steep ascension, I reached the viewpoint—it was powerful. A wooden deck perched on the cliff’s edge revealed the deep, all-encompassing canyon that the park was contained by. My eyes traced the verdant, tree-covered slopes as they plummeted sharply down to the earth, where the Cahabon River was flowing strongly through the canyon. In the center of it all, sitting atop a natural limestone platform that bridges the river, were the turquoise pools of Semuc Champey.
View from El Mirador (viewpoint)
After absorbing the view, I continued on down the trail to the pools. When I arrived, I was one of the only people there aside from a few park workers collecting dead leaves nearby. The pools looked so pristine I had difficulty comprehending the fact that I could actually swim in them—it seemed too good to be true. So, after using some improperly conjugated Spanish to confirm that swimming was permitted, I picked out a spot to lay my belongings, removed my shoes and shirt, and slid into the cool, glassy water—it had a soothing, almost cleansing effect. The next four hours were spent alternating between swimming and photographing as the sunlight shifted, causing the hue of the water change over the course of the day. As time passed more people showed up, and eventually the pools were filled with swimmers. It didn’t bother me much, but I was grateful I got there early enough to enjoy the immaculate beauty before the crowds came. Regardless, these pools were undoubtedly one of the most stunning natural wonders I have seen.
The Pools of Semuc Champey
Hostal El Portal de Champey (Social) or Posada Las Marias (Peaceful). Although I didn’t technically stay at El Portal, I did spend a decent amount of time there. It has a social atmosphere and a large outdoor bar/restaurant where many backpackers hangout throughout the day. Posada Las Marias (the hostel I stayed in) was very quiet, there were only a few other visitors and I enjoyed the privacy. The amenities are very basic—essentially just wooden shacks with communal bathrooms and limited electricity at night. The great thing about both of these hostels, though, is there proximity to the park of Semuc Champey. Both are walking distance, with El Portal being about 1-2 minutes away, and Las Marias being about 5-10 minutes.
The easiest way to get there is to take a private shuttle. There are many tour companies that offer shuttles to and from the park. A seat on one of these shuttles will probably range between $15-25. Some may choose to rent a car, but the roads are remote, windy, narrow, and often muddy—not the best driving conditions for someone who is unfamiliar with the area. It may be possible to reach Lanquin through public buses, although doing so seemed difficult and not worth the extra time it would require.
If you visit Semuc Champey, be sure to do the cave tour in addition to the pools. Ask around once you are there—people will know what you are talking about. Also, if you’re in the mood for a bit of a challenge and want to get some exercise, consider hiking the 10km road from Semuc Champey to Lanquin (in either direction). It has many scenic vistas and picturesque landscapes along the way (but the steep inclines and hot weather can make it a pretty tough workout).