Whenever I hear the odd traveller mention Semuc Champey I immediately get the urge to launch myself headfirst into their conversation and go into a massive story about how amazing it is. The picturesque landscape of lush Guatemalan highlands, the turquoise limestone swimming pools, the excitingly dangerous candlelit cave exploration. On more than one occasion I’ve cut into conversations of complete strangers, but usually my enthusiasm gets me past that initial ‘is he nuts’ stage.
At Semuc Champey there’s an incredible display of natural beauty. Allow me to paint the picture. A dense overgrowth of jungle spread out across two green mountains, separated through the middle by a flowing valley. A cascading river crashes through until it hits a dark cavernous drop. Suddenly the sound of the torrent disappears and the river along with it. On the surface a series of gentle, peaceful swimming pools laze about for the next 300ft and slowly trickle down, as the monstrous river surges secretly below. At the end it spills out with ferocity and re-enters the river, before calming down again and heading out into the distance.
On the other side of the river there’s an opening to the Kan’Ba caves. On this guided tour you’ll get to stumble around jagged rocks and deep pools of water for about an hour and a half, all under the guidance of a small candle. No helmet, no flash lights, no shoes, no problems. Get to the end, climb up a rock and jump off into a deep dark pool of water. Once you get out of the cave, look for a seat swing that hurls you out into the middle of the river.
Just about perfect, but at times it does get a little touristy. But so are a lot of other beautiful spots around the world, and after a while you’ll have to get over it. My advice to beat the crowds: skip the tour and do some self exploration. The entrance to Semuc Champey is 50Q ($6) and if you go without a tour you’ve got as much time as you want without a pushy guide shuffling you along to the next spot with the rest of the herd. When you’re ready, the caves are on the other side of the river and cost 65Q. You’ll receive a mandatory guide once you’ve paid at no extra cost. That’s 115Q instead of the tours that usually start at 180Q. You won’t get transport, but if you stay close to the site it’s a fantastic walk.
And for those wanting to beat the crowds, do it cheaper and with even more excitement. There’s a couple of extra things that can really make the trip interesting. But like all good adventures, they’ll take a little bit of creativity, and possibly a bit of rule breaking.
The difficulties of Guatemalan roads are that there aren’t too many decent ones. This means a lot of backtracking if you don’t plan out your route properly. If you’re headed up to Tikal, or coming from the north, you can stop off at Coban and find your way out to Lanquin. There you can navigate yourself to hostels with eager 4X4 drivers who work for different companies. If you have less time and a little more money, shuttles can be arranged from Antigua or Tikal for a little extra and a hell of a lot less hassle than you’d get on local buses.
Most places near Semuc Champey are in the middle of nowhere. Because of this they have restaurants, not kitchens, and charge a lot because they know people don’t have any other choices. Be smart and invest in some travel food. Powered milk and oats are a great breakfast. Bread rolls will last a few days and are made into simple sandwiches if you bring some tomato, onion and mustard. Dinners, well, if you’ve eaten that for breaky and lunch you probably deserve a decent meal, so treat yourself.