Posing at the Semuc Champey lookout © Emma Sparks
Guatemala’s roads don’t have the best reputation. Here, the potholes have potholes; tarmac – when present – is furrowed and cracked, and plentiful unmarked speed bumps batter buttocks into the beyond. Pair all this with perilous mountain passes and the Guatemalans’ penchant for overtaking on blind corners, and the journey to Semuc Champey starts to sound like an adventure in itself… Oh, and you get to experience all of this with your knees next to your ears, wedged into the back of a stuffy minivan. For 12 hours.
Many travellers are deterred by the thought of such an endeavour, having already experienced the mayhem of chicken buses and winding roads on shorter journeys around Guatemala. But for those who take on the challenge, the rewards are such that bruised bums are soon forgotten.
Watching the Rio Cahabon flow beneath the pools © Emma Sparks
Semuc Champey is a collection of tiered pools and cascades set in a jungle-shrouded valley. A powerful river flows beneath the limestone formations, but the water is calm and cool. A short, steep hike leads to a lookout that provides gawp-worthy views of the turquoise pools below. It’s exactly the kind of refreshing dip you need after a day spent thigh-to-sticky-thigh with strangers.
The Semuc Champey lookout © Emma Sparks
Is Semuc Champey worth it?
Like most travel experiences, it’s all subjective. Would I rather have avoided spending two days in shuttle bus to get to (and move on from) this natural spectacle? Absolutely. But do I regret it? Not at all.
We spent a whole day splashing in a sparkling Eden, jumping and sliding between natural pools, exploring caves and soaking up sunlight. Riverside swings, tubing and terrific views were all part of the package. In a place as hot and chaotic as Guatemala can be, Semuc Champey was a much-craved escape.
If you have the time to spare for the journey, don’t skip Semuc Champey!
Where to stay
You choice of accommodation matters in a town as rural and hilly as Lanquín. From the town centre, the entrance to Semuc Champey is a good hour’s drive further up a very bumpy track.
We stayed at Hostal El Portal, the option closest to Semuc Champey – just a three-minute walk away. The staff were super friendly, which is ideal when you’re in the middle of nowhere and knackered after a cramped road trip. Accommodation consists of basic huts and electricity is severely rationed – but who needs their phone when you’re immersed in nature?
What to do
You can do Semuc Champey independently, but I recommend the day tour run by the chaps at El Portal. Our small group of five enjoyed a guided hike to the lookout, plenty of time to explore the pools at our leisure, a guided watery tour of various jumping points and rocky slides (so much safer with a local who’s in the know, but wedgies are unavoidable), a candlelit tour of nearby K’an-ba Cave, plus a spot of tubing along Rio Cahabon. Not bad for Q175 (£17.40)
What to eat
The menu at El Portal is fine for a day or two, but nothing special. If you bring snacks, transport them in well-sealed tubs to keep the bugs at bay…
Local kids sell homemade chocolate bars and beer, while there are numerous street food stands at the entrance to Semuc Champey, as well as coconut water sellers within the grounds.
Top tips for visiting Semuc Champey
- Bring shoes you’re willing to submerge in water to save your toes and prevent dramatic tumbles on slippery rock surfaces
- Cave tours are conducted by candle light. Bring a head torch to minimise the multitasking stress that is climbing up a rope ladder beneath a gushing waterfall, one-handed. If your candle gets snuffed, at least you’ll still be able to see.
- Pack plenty of plantain chips for the journey to and from Semuc Champey.
- Replenish your stash of travel sickness tablets before you make the journey. Even the strongest of stomachs may turn on this trip.
- Catching your shuttle out of Lanquín can be stressful. The main pick-up point is packed with vans, and drivers may tell you your shuttle is cancelled in order to gain another passenger. Hold your ground – chances are your ride will show up eventually!
Making your own way to Semuc Champey – Along Dusty Roads
How to get to Semuc Champey – Cheeky Jaunt
Semuc Champey – Atlas Obscura