Semuc Champey was not originally on my travel itinerary, but after hearing tales of its spectacular beauty from other backpackers I decided to venture to that remote locality.
Semuc Champey is not a city, town, or village; it is Guatemalan backwater where one can bask in a truly unspoiled haven of natural magnificence. Just getting to Semuc Champey is a challenging and time-consuming endeavor, but the return on investment is high. Coban is the nearest major city where one can procure transportation to Semuc Champey. The trip from Coban involves about one hour on a relatively well-paved highway followed by a 1.5-hour descent on a one-lane windy gravel road down into the valley where Semuc Champey is located.
Whether you spend a few hours at Semuc Champey or a few days, it’s important to be prepared with the appropriate apparel. That region of Guatemala is rainy nearly year-round and it gets chilly at night so it is wise to have a jumper and some water resistant clothing along. Another essential garment is a bathing suit. The activities described below highlight the importance of bathing suit portage.
Many tourists and backpackers choose to just day trip to Semuc Champey from Lanquin or Coban, but one day is not enough time to truly appreciate the beauty of the area. Maximizing one’s time there requires folks to engage in Semuc’s two major activities: the main park and the caving expedition.
The main park contains a series of shallow natural pools scattered about a fairly small area and a scenic overlook high in an adjacent mountain. Regardless of the weather, the pools present a nearly irresistible temptation. The water in the pools is perfectly clear, unbelievably refreshing, and even tempting to drink due to its obvious freshness. It's advisable to have a swimming costume readily available so you can comfortably submerge yourself into the dihydrogen monoxide.
High above the aforementioned pools rests a scenic overlook that provides a stunning view of the surrounding expanse. There is a boardwalk-type walkway that leads to the foot of the rugged path that must be followed to the overlook. The half hour hike is rather challenging due to the path’s rocky, narrow existence, but it’s well worth the trouble for the photos that can be executed from the platform.
The second activity, which is organized by the Las Marias staff at the guesthouse, involves a guided two-hour expedition deep into a river-bearing craggy limestone cave in one of the Semuc Champey mountains. The trek began at Las Marias in the early afternoon when a shirtless, bathing suit clad Guatemalan guide distributed our method of return transportation: black inner tubes. The inner tubes were carried about ½ mile to a guard shack near the mouth of the cave. The guide may encourage you to walk barefoot to the cave from Las Marias but unless you are a street performer that has experience walking on broken glass and/or sharp rocks I recommend using any variant of footwear to protect your feet on this journey. You will enter and exit the cave from the same passageway so your footwear can be safely left behind while spelunking. In order to gain access to the cave a 30 quetzales entrance fee was paid to the guards manning the shack. For that price they kept a diligent eye on the inner tubes while our group was off exploring the cave.
The portion of the trek inside the cave presents a demanding physical endeavor. One must wade, swim, crawl, climb, and descend all with the use of only one arm and hand. The other upper appendage will be busy attempting to hold a lit candle above water. A river originates somewhere deep in the cave system so you are submerged nearly the entire time in the cave (approximately one hour). Keeping the candle dry, and therefore lit, for an hour while splashing around in an otherwise pitch-black cavity is nearly impossible, but the candles are designed to be relit even after being submerged in water so accidentally extinguishing the flame is not an irremediable action. The guide will lead the group to the "back" of the cave where a geologic formation in the shape and size of a Mexican sombrero exists.
After a few moments of face time with the sombrero the exit journey began. Our guide was a bit of a prankster and he exercised his antics by disappearing into the darkness a couple of times on the way out of the cave. He would only materialize after he was satisfied that we sufficiently despondent about making it out alive! Once we withdrew from the cave we retrieved our inner tubes and made our way to river for our return trip to Las Marias, but not before we capitalized on the existence of a sweet rope swing on the banks of Rio Cahabón! Once the novelty of the rope swing wore off, we plopped our inner tubes into the river and boarded for the leisurely cruise back to the guesthouse.
Visiting Guatemala without seeing Semuc Champey will not seem like a deadly sin until you meet someone some day that did take the time to go there. Only then, after hearing firsthand how great the place was, will you begin to understand the egregiousness of your blunder.