We can’t believe we are already over three weeks into our trip… it has been amazing, hard at times and unexpected in many ways.
Lanquin was our last stop in Guatemala. Nestled in the mountains in south/central Guatemala is the tiny town of Lanquin. Getting there from San Pedro required a 3.5 hour shuttle ride back up the windy and bumpy road to Antigua, a 3 hour “layover” while we waited for the next shuttle, and finally a 7 hour shuttle ride, getting us to our hostel at 10:30 pm (we got on our first shuttle at 8 am). So why the long journey? Why do backpackers make this trek to a place with no major stores or bus stations? Two words: Semuc Champey.
Semuc Champey is the kind of place that makes you wonder how Guatemala is not a major tourist destination. It’s beautiful turquoise waters are located in thick jungle. It is only accessible by truck, and those who make the long trek to Lanquin must also climb into the back of a pick up and hang on for dear life as you wind your way an hour out of town, up a totally rutted out, twisty, steep road (look it up on YouTube, it was a crazy ride). But it is all worth it. Semuc Champey is one of the most beautiful and unique places I have ever seen and the tour we took was INSANE.
We stayed at El Retiro lodge, just outside town, in the dorms. We had only been in private rooms up to this point, but El Retiro only had the dorms available, so we decided to give it a try. We were pleasantly surprised at how well we slept with 12 other people in the same room. The beds were really comfortable and people were generally quiet (which is what we were worried about). El Retiro is beautiful, and located right along a river with all its buildings made with Palm frond thatching. It was so quiet and peaceful there, and everyone we met was so nice and laid back. Our first day it was rainy and there was no electricity in all of Lanquin, so we had a super laid back day eating, playing cribbage and reading. We took a night tour to some nearby caves to watch the bats fly out at dusk, which was pretty cool, and pretty cheap. The caves were not very impressive, but we were allowed to just climb all over inside, which you can not do in caves in the US (just one of many things we did in Lanquin that WOULD NOT pass safety regulations in America). Oh, and the locals who worship Mayan deities still sacrifice animals in the cave.
We decided to take the tour to Semuc Champey the next day, which ended up being a great decision, as the sun finally made an appearance. The tour began with everyone piling into the back of the trucks and getting to the remote landmark. We took a tour of the caves there first, which was easily the craziest and most fun thing we have done so far. For the tour everyone stripped to their bathing suits and most people went barefoot (we had our Chaco’s on). We each had a candle (just one) to help light the way and our Mayan guide Hector painted our faces with mud, I guess to make us brave cave warriors. And man, you have to be brave to go on this tour. Hector jokingly asked if we all knew how to swim, and it became apparent why when we began to descend into the water filled cave. There were many points where you had to swim with your candle above your head because the water was too deep to stand (not what I would say people were thinking of when they told Hector “yes we can swim”). We climbed up and down slick ladders through small holes in the cave, climbed rope ladders up through the middle of waterfalls, rappelled down waterfalls, slid down natural water-slides, and made small jumps blindly into each deeper section of the cave. It was kind of scary, but also super cool and amazing. The turn around point in the cave was a big room with an optional jump off of a 15- foot cliff, into the dark cave water below. After a few people jumped, Logan decided to jump as well, and after a few more after that I scaled the slippery wall to jump. (The climb up was really hard, straight up a cave wall, which was wet). The jump was pretty scary, since you couldn’t really see where you were jumping, but I am really glad I did it. The way back was similar to the way into the cave, with the exception of a section where you are literally pushed/fall down through a hole with a waterfall hiding the fact that you are dropping down 5-ish feet to the water below. It was terrifying to be pushed into a waterfall, not being able to see where you were going to end up.
After the exhilarating cave tour we all took a turn jumping off a swing into the river below. The swing was at least 40 feet high (like the length of the ropes) and when you jumped off you were about 20 feet in the air. The jump was really fun and almost everybody in our tour group of 24 ended up jumping (in the cave only 8 or 9 people jumped off the cliff). Next we went on a short tubing excursion down the river. After tubing a few people in the group decided to jump off the bridge above the river (about 30 feet), which Logan and I opted not to do.
At this point everyone was tired and starving, but we still had not seen the pools of Semuc Champey, so we climbed (and climbed and climbed, I felt like a mountain goat) up the steep, steep stairs straight up the side of a mountain to the lookout point above the pools (over 1300 feet up). The view was amazing and we ate lunch looking out and down over the turquoise water. After lunch it was finally time to go swim, so we climbed back down the mountain and jumped into the shallow pools. The water was warm from the sun, and each of the pools was 5-10 feet deep, with smooth rocks to stand on in the middle. We jumped from pool to pool, swimming and sliding around on the rocks. It was an amazing end to an amazing day.
You do not have to take a tour to Semuc Champey, you can go on your own, but we were really glad we sprung for the tour (only $20/ person) because we got to experience the caves (which you need a guide for). Also, at El Retiro you get a free night in the dorm if you go on the tour, so really we only paid $14 for a whole day tour.
Our day was amazing and we topped it off with delicious margaritas and barbecue (El Retiro serves all you can eat buffets!) Semuc Champey has been the highlight of our trip and was the perfect way to top off two weeks in Guatemala.