Though Guatemala is growing in popularity as a tourist destination, relatively few make the trek to this area (when compared to many other countries) and even fewer into central Guatemala to Semuc Champey.
As we bumped along, approaching over 12 hours in our cramped minivan, we couldn’t help but question just how worthwhile our detour to Semuc Champey would be; it was certainly a remote patch of the world! With no flights in, we had no choice but to journey, often over unsealed, pot-holed roads, from before sunrise until after sunset (more on that soon)…
Little did we know that Semuc Champey would be one of the most breath-taking, relaxed placed we’d ever had the pleasure of visiting and though, in some ways, it would be great to keep this spot a secret, it’s not hard to see why more and more people are heading over. The roads and length of travel time deter some, but it’s only a matter of time before tourism in this area increases.
Our journey began in Panjachel where we were picked up from our accommodation at 5.45am (eeek!) in a shared van. Our ticket told us we’d arrive at 8.15am, ready to depart on our next bus at 8.30am… however, it also said that they journey itself would be 2 hours and 45 minutes. Now it sure was early, but even with my tired eyes, I could see that was cutting it fine, and that wasn’t accounting for the unexpected petrol stop and general madness that you sometimes encounter on these roads. Regardless, on we drove, assured that the next bus would wait for us – luckily we’d booked all the way through with Marvelus Travel so there was never any doubt that they knew we were on the way.
We proceeded to arrive in Antigua at about 8.30am, ready for our connection, only to realise that our driver didn’t know where the office we were told we’d be dropped off at was… a bit of a problem! After driving around in circles for 30 minutes or so, we eventually parked up to find our next bus had pulled in behind us – some things are just meant to be.
On we climbed into the minibus to begin the main part of our journey to Lanquin, the gateway town to Semuc Champey. The journey in itself was quite an adventure; pulling through towns with locals absolutely swamping the road, watching overloaded trucks transporting Guatemalans across country roads and mountain-top highways, free of barriers, enough to make even the most unshakeable traveller feel a little nervous.
The roads through Guatemala aren’t the best but for the most part, they are good enough… that was until we reached the turn off not long after lunch. Pot-holes galore, our speed halved instantaneously. Next, we were greeted by an unsealed road, weaving around cliff faces with trucks attempting to pass from the other side; without doubt, the longest white-knuckled ride we’ve ever experienced.
As the sun was preparing to set, we pulled into Lanquin and prepared for the last stretch to our final destination. After a 30 minute delay, we piled onto the back of a ute and bumped our way along… that road into Lanquin that only an hour ago made us feel a little nervous was now looking like a main highway! In the dark, we charged up 4WD tracks, careful to hold on tight and braced ourselves as we slipped back down the other side. As we moved further and further from civilisation, we couldn’t help but wonder just how they’d get help in if heaven forbid there was actually an accident.
After 30 minutes or so on the back of the ute, we pulled up alongside our home for the next few days; Greengos. Travelling so far from civilisation, we were struck by just how gorgeous the night sky was and the peaceful calm all around us… even without venturing to the pools, it was obvious that Semuc Champey was a special place to spend some time.
Check out the view that we woke up to…
The rooms at Greengos are basic but comfortable and tidy and the kitchen made delicious meals at reasonable prices, especially considering how remote it is.
We opted for a room with a private bathroom (which turned out to be the right decision… more on that soon!), but it is worth noting that as the bathroom rooms are on the bottom floor, you may end up with people stomping away overhead in the top room. As a couple, it’s often cheaper (or not much more expensive) to get a private room, but there are dorms available for those of you travelling solo or with friends.
When we were there the wifi was pretty problematic, but how often is it that you make it into the Guatemalan jungle – we weren’t there to sit on Facebook all day! The power only runs for a few hours in the morning and between certain hours in the evening – this isn’t the type of place to visit if you’re wanting all of the modern conveniences of a town/city, but the remoteness really added to the experience for us.
Unfortunately Nathan ended up with a really upset stomach (grrrr, dodgy gas-station chicken sandwiches!) and didn’t manage to make it out of our room… imagine the disappointment at travelling all day, knowing that we’d have to travel almost as far out in the opposite direction again, to miss out on the action! The team at Greengos could not have been more welcoming though – they were happy to bring extra supplies as we needed them, brought food down to our room for Nath and provided copious amounts of tummy-settling tea for him. Golan and his team really went above and beyond for us!
After hanging around for the majority of the day in the hope that Nathan’s tummy would settle, it reached the point where it was ‘now or never’ for me to get out to the pools.
Begrudgingly, I left Nathan behind and walked for twenty minute until I got to the entry of Semuc Champey where I paid the small entry fee and abled along the jungle path until I reached the pools that we’d travelled so far to see.
Many people choose to join a tour around Semuc Champey, including caving or tubing, but it is absolutely possible to visit the pools independently. Prior to our arrival we spent a lot of time reading up on the caving and found there to be seriously mixed reviews. Though it didn’t end up being an option for us to go anyway, we’d already decided against venturing into the caves. I’m almost always up for an adventure – sky diving, bungy jumping, white water rafting – you name it, I’ve probably done it, but having read horror story after horror story about people breaking bones and badly cutting their feet, we decided it just wasn’t worth the risk, especially when we knew we wanted to go caving in Belize and needed our feet in one piece.
Due to my late arrival at the pools, I missed out on hiking up to the look out which was a real pity – the view from up there looks absolutely breath-taking! Even without the views from up high, Semuc Champey took stopped me dead in my tracks.
The cascading turquoise pools are naturally formed from limestone and if you venture up to the top one, you can slide and jump your way between them. Each pool is home to what must be hundreds of little fish, that love the occasional nibble on your legs (in a friendly, I’m-giving-you-a-clean kind of way) and whilst the water certainly wasn’t warm in December, it was quite comfortable.
I spent a number of hours swimming and wandering about on the jungle paths, enjoying the birds and waterfalls before heading back to join Nathan just before it got dark.
Before we made it to Guatemala, we’d been warned by others about safety concerns but even as I walked along these rural roads by myself, I never once felt uncomfortable… quite the opposite, I felt incredibly fortunate to experience first-hand a place as beautiful as Semuc Champey. If you have the opportunity to go, don’t think twice, just go!
PS: If you plan on booking at Greengos, be sure to get in touch with them three weeks out as that’s when they start taking bookings.
PPS: I recommend you check out Living on One Dollar on Netflix to learn more about the life many rural Guatemalan’s lead – it’s eye opening.