Semuc Champey is one of the highlights of most backpackers’ visit to Guatemala. Beautiful turquoise pools amid the lush Guatemalan jungle certainly is a sight to behold. However, a 2-day detour between Antigua and Flores, if you are on a tight schedule, think very carefully if you have time to fit in this little slice of paradise. Once you have decided to go, the next decision is whether to take a Semuc Champey tour, or to visit independently.
How to Get to Semuc Champey
The easiest, and recommended, way to Semuc Champey is to take a shuttle from Flores or Antigua. With prices starting from 100 quetzales it probably works out just as cheap as taking the chicken buses, and a lot quicker. Even so, it still takes 8-9 hours from either city, and the shuttles always travel by day. I left Flores at 8am and arrived in Lanquín (the closest town to Semuc Champey) at around 5pm, and when travelling on to Antigua, I left Lanquín at 8am, and arrived in Antigua at 6pm.
Bear in mind that the road in both directions is very windy, and continuously so. For those of you who suffer from motion sickness, I recommend taking tablets or another method of reducing the effects! I had 2 of my tablets, wore my acupressure bands, and managed to negotiate a seat at the front, which helped a lot! On the plus side, some of the views of the Guatemalan countryside are quite spectacular.
Accommodation in Semuc Champey
There are a couple of accommodations in Semuc Champey, walking distance to the entrance of the park. However, I preferred to stay in Lanquín which had more choice and had the chance of strolling around the town too. Zephyr Lodge in Lanquín is more of a party hostel, but has great views and a swimming pool. I stayed at the more chilled out El Retiro, which offers private rooms and dorms, and is right by the river so you can swim there instead. The dorms were basic, and smelled a little damp, but the setting was beautiful. A simple but well selected breakfast & lunch menu is complemented by a themed buffet dinner every night. Breakfast & lunch costs around 25-30 Q, and the lunch buffet was 50-60 quetzales. The buffets included lots of vegetables too, so it was great to get some vitamins! They also have a bar on site with a ping pong table, pool table, and swings to relax on. I really enjoyed my stay here, and at 50 Q a night for a dorm bed you can’t go wrong!
The Semuc Champey Tour
All of the hotels/hostels in Lanquín arrange tours to Semuc Champey, and follow the same basic format. They include:
An English speaking guide, transport in the back of a van to Semuc, a visit to the Kan’Ba caves, swinging off a giant swing into the river, tubing down the river, a break for lunch (food is not included), then hiking to the viewpoint and time to swim in the pools. The tour from El Retiro cost 185 Quetzales, and left at 9am, returning approximately 5.30pm.
The tour of the caves is great for the adventurous but not for the fainthearted. After visiting the ATM caves in Belize I thought I was prepared for anything, but no helmets and no headlamps here – just a candle. A candle.
The first part was fine, a couple of bruises from bumping into rocks, and then an optional precarious climb & leap into a dark pool below. I politely declined, my paranoia of suffering an injury so far away from a hospital preventing me from really letting go! Then I ended up at the front of our group, and unsuspectingly was led down a drop in the cave – expected to hit ground a few centimetres below I got a hell of a shock when I kept falling then plunged into water below. The guide said he didn’t tell me as most people love it, but I was terrified and pretty pissed off! Maybe it was my fault for going first, at least the others behind me knew what was coming. The other optional fun was using a black substance from walls to paint your face – I’m not sure if it was bat guano or something from the rock but that stuff is a nightmare to get off!
After the caves, we emerged & walked a bit further up river to a giant swing which we could leap off into the river below. It looked like fun, but after my shock in the cave I wasn’t really in the mood for it. My new friend Sandie did a great job though!
We then walked another 5 minutes up river to where the waterfalls at the bottom of Semuc Champey cascade into the river below. A pretty spot for photographs there was also the chance to swim here, and for daredevils yet another jump into the water from the top of the falls.
Then came the tubing. A gentile 20 minutes or so float down the river. The local kids were peddling beers to drink on the way, and would catch you on the way back up to make sure you paid them.
After tubing we took a break for lunch. A couple of our group had a takeaway lunch from El Retiro; a stuffed sandwich, fruit and a biscuit for 25-30 Q, but we went to eat at a stall selling a buffet for 50Q. The food was good, and make-shift restaurant was clean. This was just before the river crossing, on the hill next to the white stone ‘Bienvenidos’ sign. After stuffing myself silly, now was time for the hike up to the viewpoint. We hopped back into our truck, and were driven across a VERY rickety bridge to the entrance to the Semuc Champey park. After a bathroom break we entered the park, and followed the signs to the mirador.
The hike to the viewpoint is a steep 30 minute climb, mostly up a combination of stone steps and wooden staircase. It was cloudy when I was there, so I was spared some of the heat, but still needed a couple of breathers along the way. The hike wasn’t difficult, just steep – and definitely worth the climb!
We rested at the top, took photos and climbed down a different way to come out at the entrance to the pools (pozos). There were a few lockers at the entrance, although you would need to bring your own lock, and test several to get a relatively secure one! The pools were beautiful; cool and deep enough for jumping in places, and others shallow enough to sit and wallow. When we visited at the end of May, in the afternoon the sun was behind the mountain alongside the pools, so we could swim without worrying about burning. Sun screen adds to the chemicals in the water so it is best to avoid if you can! We stayed in the pools for about an hour, then returned to take our bumpy ride back to Lanquín.
Getting to Semuc Champey Independently
If you prefer not to take a Semuc Champey tour, it is easy to reach the park on your own. In the morning there are plenty of trucks going to Semuc Champey from Lanquín. An option is to use the same transport as your hostel tour, for example from El Retiro the guide was charging 25 Q just for the ride to Semuc Champey, not including anything from the tour. You may be able to negotiate a better deal with another truck in town, just hang around and flag down any passing truck. The entrance fee to the park itself was 50 Quetzales for foreigners. At the entrance to the park there are several stands selling food (although I’m not sure about the quality), drinks and sliced fruits. There are bathrooms at the entrance, and lockers inside by the pools. Once you’ve had your fill, negotiate a ride back to town on any of the leaving trucks.
If you are making an independent trip to Semuc Champey without a guide, I recommend hiking up the viewpoint first, then after the sweaty walk you will be more than ready for a swim in the cool water!
Which is best, a tour to Semuc Champey, or an Independent Visit?
If you want to also visit the extra things like the caves, tubing and the swing then the Semuc Champey tour is definitely worth it, as each extra item has its own additional cost. If you just want to come and enjoy the pools and the viewpoint, then it is just as easy to come alone to Semuc Champey without a guide. The price of the Semuc Champey is very good, considering everything that is included. However, if I went again, I would definitely go independently.
Useful Information for Visiting Semuc Champey
Wear comfortable shoes. For the tour, I wore my trusty Merrel sandals, although I would have been glad for more sturdy shoes on the hike. For the swimming and the caves though these sandals were perfect.
The 45-minute truck journey to the park is very bumpy, on a dirt track. Everyone piles into the back of the trucks and hang on for dear life! The scenery was incredible, I would have loved to take photos but it was just too bumpy.
Put sunscreen on before you leave your hostel. If it is sunny, you’ll need it for the truck ride.
Everywhere you may need water, local people will be selling it! Be aware that as soon as you arrive at the Semuc bridge, kids will be there selling drinks and chocolate. They are fluent in several languages (at least the phrases they need – What is your name, where are you from, chocolate, 5 quetzales – and maybe later?) and ask your name so they can write it down and find you later! I found this quite uncomfortable, it is hard to know whether to give them money or not; that is up to you.
There are bathrooms at the cave entrance of you decide to go there, and at the entrance to the pools.
At the pools there are some lockers to leave your belongings, bring your own lock & check them to make sure it is secure.
The rocks in the pools are very slippery, take extra care when walking on the stones.
Have you taken a Semuc Champey tour or did you go there independently? Share your experiences in the comments below.
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