I’d been dreaming of Semuc Champey for a long time. The rough mountain hike that overlooks those magical turquoise limestone pools and the final, satisfying plunge into the cool sparkling waters at the end of the sweaty path.
If you’ve seen photos of Semuc Champey before, then you’ll know exactly what I mean. Semuc Champey is one of Guatemala’s most famous destinations and looking at those aquamarine waters, it’s not hard to see why.
But there was one thing that no one told me about the trip to Semuc Champey and it was my worst nightmare.
The Bumpy Road to Semuc Champey
After a day-long slog from Flores to Semuc Champey, we arrived in the quiet town of Lanquin. This is where all of the hostels in Semuc Champey send out trucks to pick up their guests from. A bunch of local guys call, shout and pester until they find the people heading to the hostel their representing.
We watched as various pick-up trucks came to take groups of people to their hostels. The Zephyr Lodge truck came twice during the hour and a half we spent standing at the roadside waiting for our lift. By the time our truck arrived, it was dark and bucketing with rain.
We were thrown in the back of a muddy pick-up truck which bumped its way up the dirt road through the jungle. I can 100% say that this was the most uncomfortable 40-minute ride of my entire life. I spent the entire ride being slammed against the truck sides getting my arms and butt bruised and thinking to myself: damn, Semuc Champey better be worth it.
Finally, we arrived at Utopia Hostel and I gratefully threw my battered body out of the back of the truck. After a few minutes of walking through the darkness, we entered the most beautiful looking wooden room lit by candlelight. It was such a relief that I can’t even describe it.
Bumpy roads and muddy trucks I can handle, it’s what comes next that I absolutely lost my head over…
The Kanba Caves at Semuc Champey
We booked a tour to visit Semuc Champey through our hostel. Part of this tour is visiting nearby Kanba caves. I asked the guy volunteering at our hostel – who looked like Keanu Reeves from his Bill & Ted days – to explain what exactly the cave visit involved. “Oh man, it’s amazing. You just walk through this dark cave with a candle. Real beautiful and tranquil. You’ll love it.”
Beautiful and tranquil – that sounds pretty good, right? I once took the most enchanting boat ride through a glow worm cave in New Zealand and explored some incredible caves in Halong Bay. So here I was thinking that I was about to have another amazing cave experience.
Wrong! The caves at Semuc Champey were not anything like these caves.
In fact, what Keanu Reeves told me couldn’t be further from the truth. He’d either never been to said caves, was completely deluded about the cave experience, or was outright lying to me. Going inside the caves at Semuc Champey was the most horrendous experience of my life. And I don’t say that lightly – it was bad.
I can’t think of anything worse than going potholing, and this experience was basically potholing without the equipment. If there’s one thing worse than potholing, then that’s it.
We walked into a pitch black cave in our swimsuits with nothing except a tall white wax candle. Our guide smeared everyone’s faces with some black muddy stuff from the cave floor. Most people got very cool tribal designs but Luke got the short straw and ended up with some thick black Harry Potter glasses. I screwed my face up and politely declined having unknown black mud smeared on my face – I’m a spoil sport and I don’t care.
Just seconds later, we were completely submerged in freezing cold, rushing water. My teeth were chattering. We were all in a row, swimming with one hand while trying to keep our wax candles above water level so the light wouldn’t go out. With no guidance, many of the people in the group hit their feet and legs against the sharp, jagged rocks under the water.
We passed a number of shell-shocked people who looked like they’d ended up on some horrible tour they didn’t want to be on – oh, wait, because that’s exactly what happened! The experience went on like this for some time and included trying to keep your head above the water level, climbing slippery ladders in the dark and swinging on a hazardous rope behind a gushing, rocky waterfall.
We finally reached the end where the crazy people could opt to jump off a ledge into a pitch black plunge pool. Most declined this exciting opportunity, myself included. I was relieved it was all over now and we were turning around to take the same route back outta this hell hole.
Except, it wasn’t the same route. Soon we came to a tiny shoot in between the rocks. It was basically a small hole with rapidly flowing water gushing down. He ordered everyone to slide down and STAY LEFT. He proceeded to push reluctant tourists in with no further communication.
I stood wide-eyed in horror looking at the hole which goes to… well, who knows where it goes!? There was absolutely no way I was going to get trapped and drown in that hole. I grabbed Luke and expressed my fear through a number of panicked arm waves and floods of tears. He soon got the message.
We hadn’t come up this shoot, so there must be an alternate route, right? Luckily for me, Luke spotted the rickety ladder we’d climbed down on the way in. Our guide immediately protested, fuming at my adamancy. We climbed up into… pitch black. Our candles were right down to the wicks, burning the tip of our thumb.
“Great, now we’re lost in the dark,” Luke said. I was secretly pleased to just be nowhere near the death shoot. We clambered around, making no progress on the slippery rocks. Our guide’s head popped up, his wax candle between his teeth. “OI!” he called and motioned aggressively. We scaled our way over and down the other ladder.
At the bottom, we met the rest of our group who were looking distinctly more pale with fear than before. “How was it?” I said. The other British girl shook her head unhappily, “absolutely horrible,” she murmured. Her boyfriend fidgeted behind her and said: “I didn’t know there was another way out…” I clung to Luke, gave him a kiss, and continued out of the caves with my jelly legs.
Swimming in Limestone Pools at Semuc Champey
“Are we going to Semuc Champey now?” I asked the guide. Finally, we were embarking on the hike that overlooks the beautiful limestone pools of Semuc Champey that I’d been dreaming about.
It struck me as completely crazy that we were now hiking up a stoney, muddy path in completely soaking wet shoes and clothes (wet from the cave ordeal). But by now, I was so glad to not be in the cave and so excited to be hiking that I didn’t really care.
The hike was reasonably short and pleasant. The view from the top was absolutely spectacular. Lush green forest surrounded a valley and multiple blue limestone pools were stacked one on top of the other in the river. You could hear happy sounds from the people swimming below.
By the time we got down there, I was so ready to get my sweaty kit off and jump in the pools! It was refreshing and beautiful. I only wished we’d spent the whole day there.
Where to Stay in Semuc Champey
There are lots of hostels in Semuc Champey and it’s worth doing your research before going. Semuc Champey is located in such a mountainous area with really poor transport connections (there’s only a rubble track, no roads) so all of your meals will be eaten at your chosen hostel too.
We stayed at Utopia Eco Hostel. We wanted somewhere kind of rustic and close to nature, and we chose this place because all the meals served at the hostel are vegetarian. We liked our room and thought it was reasonably priced at 165Q per night for a private double. We definitely recommend staying in a “nook” as these rooms were much nicer and cooler than the cabanas.
Unfortunately, the food was pretty bad. Dinner is a fixed price of 50Q and served family-style at the same time every evening. We were particularly annoyed that one night though dinner was priced at 60Q because there was a “guest chef” (which means nothing to us because we don’t know who the usual chef is) and the meal was probably the worst and most expensive we had in the whole of Guatemala.
How to Get to Semuc Champey
It’s a beast of a journey to get to Semuc Champey. You can come from Flores, Antigua or Guatemala City. We travelled by bus from Flores, which took around 10 hours. From Antigua, the journey is even longer at around 12 hours. Guatemala City is the closest and the journey can be done in around 6-8 hours.
If you’re on a budget or want to avoid the caves (because they suck), you don’t need to book a tour through your accommodation. You can walk down or hitch a ride down to Semuc Champey, depending on where your hostel is located. Once you’re there, you can pay the entrance fee to the park and hike on your own. The hiking route to Semuc Champey is really straightforward so a guide isn’t required.
Have you been to Semuc Champey? Were you more adventurous about the caves than I was?