Semuc Champey and Lanquín, Guatemala

December 2008

After Christmas climbing Volcán Pacaya near Antigua we once again arranged a tourist van to the blue waters of Semuc Champey. Unfortunately the tourist van only drove us to Cobán before dropping us in town where we caught a chicken bus followed by a combi (basically a van) and then finally a huge 4×4 truck to take us up the final stretch of wet jungle road. Semuc Champey is remote and rural, most of the land was either coffee or chocolate plantations or cloud forest. IMG_1293_12059IMG_1294

Since we were obviously tourists the truck dropped us at a small hotel made up of small cabins with a central dining area under a large palapa. We were definitely on the edge of wilderness and this was the first area we saw and heard a significant amount of wildlife.

This large tarantula joined us for dinner one night.
The hanging nests of Oropendola birds.

We didn’t know much about Semuc Champey before arriving other than it was a good stopping point between Antigua and Tikal and also it had pretty blue water. We were totally blown away by how amazing the area was. There was hiking trails, swimming in mineral rich pools, howler monkeys in the forest and caves. The area adjacent to Semuc Champey containing trails, restrooms and a small restaurant was built as a USAID project, our foreign aid tax dollars at work on an awesome area! The geology here was really fascinating, Semuc Champey is a mineral terrace that is deposited over the Rio Cahabon, so the river flows underneath and people can climb on the terrace and swim in cool, mineral rich water.

People swimming in the clear waters of Semuc Champey
From the overlook on the hiking trail above the river

Most of the tourists we saw here were Guatemalan, there were some foreign tourists, mostly young because this place is far from the main tourist areas of Guatemala. This was the first place we encounter howler monkeys. The sounds were other worldly, extremely loud and unsettling but we learned to enjoy their chorus.

The Rio Cahabon coming out from underneath the mineral terraces of Semuc Champey
The Rio Cahabon disappearing under the mineral terraces, a local told us this was called the sumidero.
There were howler monkeys in the trees, providing the soundtrack to our hike.

We got lunch at the small restaurant by the waters. I’m vegetarian so had basically been eating rice, beans and plantains for most of the trip and here it was difficult to find anything vegetarian. Jamie will eat anything and so he got soup with a big purple drumstick. They told us the meat was turkey but neither of us had ever seen purple turkey meat, so after a few bites and disliking the taste Jamie tried to sneak the drumstick to a local dog only to be caught by the restauranteur! She gave us a really sour look and we slunk off back to the waters.

The surrounding forest was incredibly lush.

There are a lots of caves near Semuc Champey and Lanquín so we did a couple of cave tours. At Semuc Champey we joined a swimming tour. We met our guide and were joined by four other tourists from Spain, our guide spoke only the local language and Spanish but his accent was too difficult for the others from Spain to understand and so they would ask me in English what he was saying. My Spanish is proficient now but on this trip I was really still learning how to speak it practically after learning it in high school and I am pretty sure my translations were not great. Our guide gave everyone candles for our journey into the cave, Jamie and I had headlamps with us so we used those instead. We got into the cave and were immediately waist deep in water with a ceiling covered in bats a few feet above our heads. It was awesome! Our guide led us through the small river sometimes swimming, sometimes scrambling over rocks in the cave for about an hour and a half until we popped out another exit.

Cacao pods growing on trees near our hotel.

Every afternoon when we returned to our hotel there would be a young girl waiting to see us local chocolaté and we would buy some. The local chocolate was basically cacao nibs ground down and mixed with granulated sugar. It was sweet and bitter and that same time and very rich, after a couple days eating the little tin foil wrapped patties we got the worst belly aches and I was put off chocolate for months!


Once we left Semuc Champey we head back down to Lanquín to check out the caverns which make up a national park there. They were significantly larger than the other we had seen and also a little more built up with stairs and lights. Jamie and I were the only people visiting the caves that morning.

Parque Nacional Grutas de Lanquín
Lanquin Caves National Park
River near the cave entrance

As we left the caves we heard a lot of noise in a garbage can near the entrance and looked in to find a possum had gotten stuck. Two gringos staring a garbage can discussing how to get the possum out without getting bit attracted some attention from the staff and a brave worker grabbed it by the scruff to free it! After that we were off to catch a local bus to Flores and get ready for Tikal.

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