Semuc Champey has a reputation among backpackers in Central America. They share images of the crystal blue water. Some love it while others don’t. It’s a long drive up to Lanquín, the small town that is the gateway to the park, and then another bumpy ride in the back of a pickup truck. So is it worth it?
In a word: YES. For this water baby anyways.
The thought of spending my day in a swimsuit with strangers didn’t immediately appeal to me, I booked a tour for the next day with my hostel, El Retiro Lodge. It was one of a handful nearby but was right on the river and quieter than the others. The ride from Lake Atitlan to Lanquin had been a comedy of errors, starting early and continuing past dark. I barely unpacked in my air conditioned dorm shared with an older French man. The door didn’t lock, so we had a system of keeping out the animals with a rock to stop the door.
I’d bought a pre-made lunch from the hostel as we set out in the morning. The trek involved standing and holding on for dear life in the bed of a pickup truck. When we arrived, our guide showed us where to lock up our stuff before entering the cave. I brought my headlamp, but everyone else carried candles. It reminded me of my visit to Rio Secreto, another cave with an underground river. The water came up to my neck, but I swam comfortably. We made our way in a loop, climbing up rock sections deeper and deeper. In one section, we jumped through a hole with water rushing through before the guide pulled us back up. If I had known about it in advance, I almost certainly would have chickened out.
After our caving adventure, it was time to relax in tubes on the river. Kids spoke in perfect English trying to sell us beer and chocolate. Some even jumped on their own tubes with coolers so that we could refuel along the way. Sipping a cold Brahma and soaking my feet in the river, I was completely content. When we got out, some people jumped off the bridge, but I opted out. I was way too far away from a hospital for that. And I wasn’t looking to test out my travel insurance policy firsthand.
In order to capture the image that made me want to go there in the first place, we had to go on a steep hike to the mirador. I’d had a lot of trouble at Pacaya, so I took my time up the stairs. I no longer worried about holding up the group. And it was strenuous. But I made it! I took my time going back down and watched the sunset from the pools. Tiny fish chewed on my feet, but this was everything I’d wanted from the tour.
It was this perfect day that almost made me forget what was going on back home: Inauguration Day. So after the highs, I browsed through Facebook posts back at the hostel with a Cuba Libre.
If You Go
I stayed at El Retiro Lodge and recommend it for travelers looking for a laid-back atmosphere. Internet is spotty, but it’s good to disconnect for a few days. There aren’t many places to eat nearby, so you’ll likely end up eating at the hostel’s restaurant. The Semuc Champey tour costs around 200Q, or about $20 USD. The hostel also offers tours to chocolate farm.
If you bring a few items, your tour will be even better. I had a waterproof fanny pack, waterproof camera like a GoPro, headlamp, and Tevas. I also recommend motion sickness bands or medication for the ride there and a supportive swimsuit top. I later purchased this one from Bare Necessities.