The Semuc Champey tour is a full day of caving, tubing, slides, swings, bridge jumps, cliff jumps, and a steep climb to one of the prettiest natural views you’ll ever see. It’s an all-round adventure and an absolute must for anyone who likes to live a bit on the wild side. But first you have to get there…
GETTING TO SEMUC CHAMPEY
To reach Lanquin – the base for tours to Semuc Champey, you will need to prepare yourself for a torturous journey. Regardless of whether you’re travelling from Guatemala City, Antigua Guatemala or from visiting Tikal, you’ll have to traverse some bumpy potholed roads. The likelihood of a roadblock is also pretty high, you’ll probably be packed into a tiny gringo minibus and, if you were unfortunate enough to get on last, you might well spend an entire day gripping the seat in front in an effort to prevent one of these lovely mobile wooden chairs from toppling backwards into the lap of a fellow backpacker.
The last part of this journey involves winding down a very narrow track beside a cliff edge, and a few hair-raising manoeuvres to allow oncoming traffic to squeeze by.
HARD PART OVER?
Well, not quite. As your van pulls up into Lanquin, you’ll need to be fully alert because a mob of local accommodation providers will literally ambush the bus as soon as the doors open. To make this experience as painless as possible, you should do two things.
First, keep your belongings packed securely in your day bag when you’re not using them, as electronics have been known to go amiss during all the commotion.
Secondly, do a little research and decide where you want to stay in advance. You could even pretend you’ve already paid a deposit if it gets them off your back.
The most popular and highly rated hostel/B&Bs are Zephyr Lodge and El Retiro. They both occupy idyllic locations beside the river and they both serve food and drinks. Zephyr Lodge has more of a reputation as a party hostel, but El Retiro can certainly pull out the stops (fireworks and musical chairs included!) when there’s a special occasion like Guatemalan Independence Day.
THE SEMUC CHAMPEY TOUR
Semuc Champey is a tour that words just can’t do justice. It’s incredible scenery, brilliant people and a lifetime’s quota of fun all packed into one day – a playground for adults, on a scale you never thought possible. Let’s take a look at what’s included…
Just as your rear is beginning to recover from those messed up mountain roads you took to reach Lanquin, it’s time to hop back into a truck and get reacquainted. The good news is you won’t have to absorb the shock with your spine this time, because there’s a very high chance you’ll be standing up. And if there aren’t enough people on the tour to ensure you’re squished like sardines, your driver will probably keep picking up locals until they’re hanging off the side. It’s perhaps not the safest way to travel, but there’s no chance of the driver picking up much speed on the road and it’s a great opportunity to observe the local towns and landscapes as you pass by.
On arrival, you’ll be asked to bundle any valuables into one huge storage locker. It’s time to enter the caves. There are no hard hats or head torches – your light source for this underground journey is the old-fashioned candle.
As the depths of the passageways threaten to engulf you, your guides stop a moment to paint your face using dark-hued minerals from the walls of the cave. And then the assault course begins. At times, as you struggle up rope ladders under the weight of an unforgiving waterfall, clamber up and jump of cliff faces into impossibly small plunge pools, or half slide/half get sucked through narrow passageways, you may wonder if it’s a good idea (they wouldn’t let you do it in the UK, that’s for sure), but, as the saying goes, without risk there’s no reward.
As you emerge into daylight and your heart rate returns to normal, you realise the relief is short lived. That’s because there’s a giant swing beside a raging river and the guides are beckoning you over. The dread sinks deeper in your gut as you watch one of them somersault through the sky like an Olympic high diver, gracefully enter the river, and only wash a few hundred metres downstream with the current before they make it back to the bank. The swing is a lot of fun, but it’s important to listen to the instructions before you give it a go. Rule number one: leave the swing at the end of it’s arc and, under no circumstances, ride it back to the start position on the bank!
Though still exciting, tubing is the most relaxing part of the day. Each member of the group enters the water, balancing precariously on their inner tyre and then holding tightly to the next person who gets in, until a line of you are floating in the current, fighting desperately not to get sucked downstream. Finally, the guide gives the go ahead and you try to keep hold of each other’s feet for as long as possible.
Inevitably, the chain breaks apart and you drift along leisurely for a further 30 minutes or so. This is when the real magic happens. Small children start to run alongside the river. Then you hear them calling out to you. They’re still a good 20-30 metres away, but eventually you make out the cans of beer in their hands and realise they’re offering them to you. Cries of ‘How can I pay you? I have no money!’ are met with ‘Drink now; pay later’, and then all it takes is a slight nod before an ice cold Gallo is hurtling your way with surprising accuracy.
It’s a tight squeeze as the truck/trailer ships you, your tubes and your half-finished cans back to base. Then, as the guides prepare your picnic area, there’s just enough time to throw your semi-inebriated body off a big iron bridge. The kids who threw the beers love to crowd around, some of them showing off their backwards flips from the highest rungs of the bridge. In order to jump you have to climb over or through the railings, which is a bit unnerving, but the adrenaline kick you get from flying through the air once again will keep you topped up till lunch is over.–
SEMUC CHAMPEY HIKE
If you weren’t already knackered, the next part of the day is pretty much guaranteed to tire you out. The hike to the Semuc Champey viewpoint is steep and, at times, very slippery. Even with a good tread on your soles, it’s a tough climb.
VIEW OF SEMUC CHAMPEY
It’s with immense relief that you finally emerge from the forest onto a small viewing platform and look down upon the series of pools and waterfalls that combine to form Semuc Champey, and it’s gobsmackingly gorgeous. Even if you had the breath to speak, you’d be stunned into silence for some minutes.
PHOTOS FROM THE TREE
Collapsing over the wooden railing, your group will have a brief moment to admire the view, followed by the opportunity to have your photo taken by your guide, who is by now balancing on a tree branch high above the canyon.
Then, satisfied that you’ve fully appreciated it from a bird’s eye view, it’s time to descend towards those crystal waters.
A FINAL SWIM
To the untrained eye, Semuc Champey appears to be a series of natural pools – perfect for a relaxing bathe, and perhaps a quick head massage under a waterfall. But this is Guatemala, and there’s a theme that runs through this tour until the very end… adventure. The guides know exactly where there’s fun to be had, whether it be the highest cliff jump or the longest and most slippery natural slide. There’s even a place where you can dip briefly underwater and come up in a tiny breathing space below the overhanging cliff, before following its passage with careful head manoeuvres until you re-emerge many metres away from your starting place.
Unfortunately, there’s not much chance for freshening up before the long-ish ride back to Lanquin. If you don’t want to be damp and bedraggled on the journey home, have a towel and fresh clothes at the ready, make sure you’re first back to the car park and ask to quickly use the bathrooms. They don’t hang about, but if you’re really quick you can change as they pack up the trailer. Alternatively, get to the van first and call shotgun on the comfy passenger seat up front!
Even if throwing yourself off things isn’t your cup of tea – or you’re rightfully a little concerned about the blatant disregard for any kind of safety regulations – you should still visit Semuc Champey. Lanquin is welcoming and peaceful, and the mountainside view of Semuc Champey alone is worth the journey.
If you go on the tour, remember that with reckless behaviour or too much alcohol, there’s a very real chance of serious injury. You do each activity at your own risk, but there’s the option to opt out at every stage. Remember that a broken leg and sudden end to your trip hurts a lot more than a damaged ego.