If you like nature, adventure and adrenaline pumping experiences then you will love taking a tour to Semuc Champey, Guatemala!
Incredibly, we did not originally have Semuc Champey on our Guatemala trip itinerary. Thanks to a suggestion from a friend we added it in as he said it wasn’t to be missed…he was so right! It quickly became one of our absolute favorite travel experiences and definitely our first choice for adventure in Guatemala.
Semuc Champey, Guatemala is a series of stepped, turquoise pools sitting atop of a natural limestone bridge carved out by the river below. There is also a challenging hike that leads to a spectacular view of the pools and for the adrenaline junkies a spine tingling trek through the KAN’BA Caves. From our experience it is definitely on of the most beautiful spots in Guatemala. Sitting in the middle of the country, about a two hour drive from Coban, it is not the easiest destination to get to, however it is well worth the effort.
Getting to Semuc Champey
Lanquin, Guatemala is a small village in the mountains and it is the base for trips to Semuc Champey. To get to Lanquin we took an eight hour shuttle for Q230 (about $30USD) from Antigua with Atitlan Tours. Coming from Flores take about the same amount of time and the journey from San Pedro is twelve hours. There are no airports close by so shuttle van or chicken bus are the only choices short of hiring a private vehicle. The shuttle van is by far the better option for public transportation but still be prepared for a somewhat uncomfortable journey as the vans are usually old and not air conditioned.
From Lanquin there are a couple of options for visiting Semuc Champey National Park. You can arrange for transportation only and visit just the pools or you can go with a tour and explore so much more. We normally prefer to explore on our own, but if you like the idea of a great jungle and cave adventure we highly recommend taking a tour. In fact the only way to enter the caves is with a licensed guide.
You can arrange the tour at your hostel (see below for suggestions) but you can often save a little money by going to one of the travel agencies in Lanquin. The average cost is Q250. There are also companies that you can book with online that include all the transportation to and from Lanquin but the price jumps substantially. If you have the budget for the added comfort and convenience you can look at a site like Travel & Health Guatemala.
We went with a tour booked by our hostel and were picked up by an open bed pick up truck. After the bone rattling, butt bruising (if you’re lucky enough to be seated) hour long ride through the jungle we arrived at the park and happily jumped off the torturous transport.
The Kanba Caves
The first part of our Semuc Champey adventure was exploring the Kanba Caves. On arrival we were instructed to strip down to nothing but our swimsuit and were given a locker to hold the rest of our items.
One very important bit of advice is to bring some sort of water shoes (not flip flops) as you will be wading through water and clambering over rocks in a dark cave. My water sandals did the job ok but after stubbing my toe a few times I made a decision to buy better sport shoes for future adventures like these Keen waterproof sandals with a closed toe. Also if you have a headlamp it will save you from trying to hold a candle above the water which at times can be over your head.
With candles lit we were led down stone steps into the water filled Kanba Caves. It becomes dark very quickly and all you have is your candle and a guide rope to help find your way…a bit scary at first. At one point the tour guides stopped each of us in turn and painted our faces with a black coal like substance taken from the cave walls. Some of us got warrior stripes, others full camo and some a clown face or cat whiskers. Of course you had no way of seeing what had been drawn on your own face, something the guides of course found hilarious.
Sidenote: One thing we noticed about many younger Guatemalans…they laugh a lot. Not sure if it’s often at our expense but it’s contagious nonetheless.
For about 1.5 hours we waded and swam through chilly water, climbed over rocks, up ladders and waterfalls and jumped off ledges into tiny pools, all lit only by candlelight. For the most part the Kanba Cave walls are not too closed in which was a big concern for a slight claustrophobic like myself but there are a couple of tight spots.
The biggest adrenaline rush came when we were taken one at a time to a really small hole where our guide tells us where to place each hand and foot (which entails turning around in this tight space). Then he says hang our legs down through the hole and let ourselves drop into the dark water below. I’m sure it must be much safer than it felt and sounds otherwise they wouldn’t have you do it right? Hmmm…well as far as I know everyone survives.
Speaking of which, we were surprised at the variety of people on the tour with us. Almost every age bracket was covered and people of all shapes, sizes and physical fitness level joined in and everyone came out of it with a big grin on their face. I would say that if you’re severely afraid of water, dark or somewhat enclosed spaces you might want to think twice however it may also be the perfect time to face those fears and have a blast doing it!
Note: Don’t miss the video of the whole day further along in this post!
After exiting the Kanba Caves we headed for the massive rope swing which propels you into the river. It was a lot of fun but I have to say it was probably the most painful part of the tour. You fly up pretty high and hit the water quite hard. Add to that the almost unavoidable flailing you do when you leave the swing and you’re almost certain to hit the water with your face or stomach or in my case inner thigh? No idea how but I was left with a massive bruise. The rope swing is of course totally optional so feel free to pass on it…however it is fun. You will also get the chance to jump off a bridge from about 20m into the river, again not mandatory. Nathan did it of course but I decided to pass on this one…see Mom if everyone else is jumping off a bridge I’m not necessarily going to do it too.
Semuc Champey Pools
Next up we hiked to the mirador (view) of the pools of Semuc Champey. It’s a fairly steep hike and is slippery in sections but there are steps and handrails for a lot of it so it’s fairly easy other than the cardio and burning legs aspect. I know I’ve said it before but it’s totally worth it. The view of the pools below is breathtaking even on a cloudy day like we had.
Following the hike we were hot and sweaty and more than ready for a swim. Perfect timing for the crystal clear pools we’d viewed from above. We had an hour or two to explore and play in the natural staircase of idyllic turquoise pools surrounded by lush green walls of jungle. The natural waterslides going from pool to pool were especially fun although they did provide for some more butt bruising.
Bridge Jumping and River Tubing
By this time I have to say I would have been happy to end all the excitement but that was not to be. We still had bridge jumping and river tubing. I have to admit I passed on the bridge jumping, not wanting to add to the colors already blooming on my inner thighs but Nathan of course took part.
Unfortunately after this very full day of activity we still had the hour long bumpy ride back to the hostel. Somehow we picked up three more people for the return trip so Nathan and a fellow Kanba Cave survivor had to hang off the back bumper for the first 30 minutes of the journey. Not easy to do on those roads.
Video of Semuc Champey Adventure
Where to Stay Near Semuc Champey
Accommodations in Lanquin are fairly basic and quite rustic but that just adds to the adventure. We didn’t book in advance and on arrival decided to stay at the El Muro Hostel right in town at Q120 ($15USD) per night for a double room with private bath. We chose El Muro quite randomly but as you can read in our post “Is it Safe to Travel to Guatemala” we were really glad we did.
El Muro is right in the village which was convenient but there are some other really lovely hostels further out and they will meet you at the shuttle in town. Zephyr Lodge and El Retiro are two that we’ve heard good things about. There are also a few options on Booking.com You could do as we did and wait until arrival which in slower season is a fine option. However during the busy months it’s a good idea to book as it is a small village.
For Live Dream Discover the tour to Semuc Champey and the Kanba Caves was so very worth every bump, bruise and hour spent getting there. It has many of the things we look for when deciding where to travel: nature, fun, adventure, beautiful scenery, exercise and interaction with the local people. If you’re looking for an unforgettable experience in Guatemala don’t miss this one!