The best place in Central America: Semuc Champey, Guatemala
Semuc Champey – Guatemala
Semuc Champey is one of those places hard to get to, but absolutely worth the effort; in my opinion it is one of those not-to-be missed places if you’re in Guatemala.
After walking 10 minutes to the entrance from our hostel and paying a 50Q entrance fee, we hiked up to the Mirador (lookout point) above the river. It’s a steep and muddy climb; you will need sneakers! The beautiful blue pools that you see are created by a natural limestone “bridge” that sits atop the river Cahabón. The river rushes underneath the rock formation and on top are left stepped pools of crystal blue water. The name Semuc Champey translates into “river that hides itself under the earth”. You can easily spend the whole day relaxing and swimming and climbing/jumping from one pool to another.
From the entrance to Semuc it is another 10 minute walk over a wooden bridge to the K’an Ba Caves, another absolutely unforgettable experience for those prepared to swim, climb, and jump through a dark cave with only candles to light the way…highly recommended for the adventurous only! We arrived close to 4:30pm, the cut-off time for entering the caves. We were lucky to be in a group of 6; if we had been only 2 or 3 people they would have told us to come back the next day. It cost just 60Q each ($8) for the entrance and the guide (you can’t enter without one). Sneakers and a bathing suit are mandatory!
Transportation Flores to Semuc Chapey:
The tour companies will tell you the trip is 8 hours from Flores to Semuc, but we left on an 8am shuttle and didn’t arrive until almost 7pm to our hostel. Remember to always negotiate with the tour companies and don’t pay more than 80Q ($10.50US)! The trip required one passage by ferry across a river, several stops for snacks and bathrooms, lunch in Cobán, and then another 2 hours over an unpaved bumpy road to Lanquin. Before you even have time to get off the bus in Lanquin you are acosted by representatives for the various hotels in the area, whose job is to collect those with reservations (and to convince those without reservations) and to transport them free of charge to the hotel.
You have two options for where to stay while visiting Semuc Champey. The first is to stay in Lanquin, a very small town with many hostels and a few small stores. Staying here will require you to travel another 40 minutes by pick-up truck to reach Semuc Champey the following day (25Q one-way or $3.25US). The other option is to take the free transport offered by the hostel representatives to one of the hostels located within walking distance of the park. If you choose this option, you’ll be loaded into the back of a pick-up truck (the only type of vehicle that can be used on the road) with other travelers and you will spend a bumpy 40 minutes standing until you reach your destination. As I said, this one-way trip is free as the hotels are competing to get your business.
At the time of writing, there are only 4 hotels actually in Semuc Champey: Utopia (although this one is still too far to walk to the river!), Las Marías, El Portal (right next to the entrance), and Greengo’s (where we stayed). They all have similar prices – we paid 50Q each ($6.50US) for a bed in a dorm. The catch is that each hostel has it’s own bar and restaurant and it is not permitted to bring in your own food.
Greengo’s is a very new and very beautiful hostel with a full restaurant, bar, volleyball court, pool table, and hot showers situated 10 minutes walking from the entrance to Semuc Champey. Despite this, I would recommend staying somewhere else. We felt shamed by the owner for being “cheap” when we asked for information on how to visit Semuc Champey without a tour, or how to arrive to Antigua without booking the more expensive shuttle through the hostel. They are definitely not trying to cater to the frugal backpacker, but rather to the more “all-inclusive” traveler who will eat, drink, and book all tours and transportation with them. If you do stay with them, look for Marcos and Luisa’s house right next door: eat cheaper and with good company!
Our hostel made us leave all of our food at the reception desk when we checked in and only let us get it back when we left the property the next day to visit Samuc Champey. Among the cheapest options at Greengo’s restaurant was a 45Q ($6US) hamburger – an outrageous price for Guatemala, especially for backpackers. Near the entrance to Semuc is a family-run food stall selling hot plates of local food for MUCH cheaper than you’ll find in the hostels. As we approached the few picnic tables near there several children ran up to us yelling in English “Chocolate 2 for 5! 2 for 5!”. Turns out many of the local children are learning some English and Hebrew (our hostel is owned by Israelis) from the tourists that pass through the area. We stayed talking to them well after we had finished our sandwiches. They learn Spanish in school, but like a large percentage of the population in Guatemala speak another native language at home, in this case Maya Q’eqchi. They were generous and patient enough to try to teach us some phrases!
Later on when we returned starving after our excursion in the caves, we got to know the parents of some of the children and the owners of the food stand: Marcos and Luisa. Read more about our memorable experiences with these incredibly generous and kind people here (Talking with local – Semuc Champey, Guatemala)
Transportation Semuc Champey to Antigua:
If possible, book directly with a tour company in Lanquin. With them you’ll be able to negotiate the price of the shuttle; don’t pay more than 100Q ($13). The shuttle will stop in Cobán, drop people off in Guatemala City, and finally end in the central plaza of Antigua – a total of about 8 hours.