After making our way from Northern Chile, spending some time in Santiago, Vina Del Mar, and Renaca we flew down to the Chilean Patagonia to Punta Arenas, Chile. Punta Arenas is one of the furthermost cities in Chile and the hub exploring the Magellan Straits, Magdalena Island, and Tierra Del Fuego. The first thing we noticed is how cold it was. We took a transfer from the Airport to a home where we rented a room. We found out about the room from a woman we had met on the bus from Iquique to Antofagasta, Chile who was kind enough to set it up for us. It was cold and wet outside and as we entered the house of a woman we affectionately called Grandma (Abuela), the space heaters throughout the house reminded us of how far south we really were.
In the jungles of Central Guatemala near the village of Lanquin, lies the natural wonder that is Semuc Champey. The combination of limestone caves and bridges, the Cahabón River and time have created a set of tiered pools and waterfalls with crystal clear water and picturesque beauty. Though Semuc Champey is rather isolated and difficult to reach, it is undoubtedly worth the effort to get there. We decided to rent a car after flying into Guatemala City and drove to Lanquin after visiting Antigua. But you can also book a direct shuttle from travel agencies.
Catching The Taxi In Lanquin
Guatemalan Taxis to Semuc Champey
We bought our tickets the night before from El Retiro. (the Lodge where we had booked a private room). Tickets were about 185q ($25USD) and included lunch. We weren’t given much information about what the tour included or the schedule for the day, so we weren’t sure what to expect. The next day, we woke up around 8am and packed a day bag with water, snacks and a few essentials before eating some pan dulce (sweet bread) and bananas for breakfast while we waited for the transportation trucks to arrive.
Guatemalan taxis are trucks with a bars running down the sides and middle of the bed, and everyone stands and holds on. We had passed many of these trucks loaded with people all over Guatemala and now we were packed in the back of the truck bed with the 20 other people going on the tour. We all to stood in the back of the truck, found a section of bar to grip and braised ourselves for the ride. It’s kind of funny to see, and not the most comfortable ride to make. The road to Semuc Champey was steep, curvy, bumpy, and beautiful. It took us about 45 minutes to go 10 km.
Entering The Cave By Candlelight
Once we arrived we walked down a path near a waterfall where the park entrance building and lockers were located. The first thing on the agenda for today was cave exploring. We got down to our flip flops and swimming attire and put the rest of our stuff in a locker. After tying our flip flops around our ankles so we won’t loose them, the guide gave us all two candles, one for going in and one for coming out. As we climbed up to the entrance of the cave, I realized the waterfall we saw was coming from inside the cave. We entered the cool water and walked 500 meters into the cave by candle light (although two or three in the group had headlamps).
We waded through shallow pools around stalactites and stalagmites. Some parts the water was too deep to touch and you had to swim holding the candle over your head. We climbed up ladders and jumped from ledges in the cave walls where the water was deep enough. I even climbed up a waterfall inside the cave by a knotted rope, it was awesome! Definitely one of the coolest things we’ve ever done! Everyone had gaping mouths and perma-grins that made it impossible to not enjoy. The whole cave tour took about one and a half to two hours. We will always remember this unique experience, our favorite activity of the whole day!
Quick Lunch or Just a Snack
We had worked up an appetite and were ready for lunch. We had paid for a box lunch with our tickets and soon realized we were supposed to pick it up from the office before leaving that morning. Oh well, it’s a good thing we came prepared with water and a few snacks. It’s true what they say about snickers, it really does satisfy your hunger! However, the rest of the day would have been easier if we had eaten something more substantial.
After "lunch", the guide applied our faces with "Mayan Sunscreen". It was very ceremonial the application. He had some sort of fruit that was reddish-orange in color. He mashed it up in his palm into a paste and with two fingers swiped each cheek on our faces. Some had it across their forehead, some down their nose and cheeks. We all looked like we had been painted with war paint of some sort. The guide also told us it was great as a sunscreen and the Mayans used it for this purpose. We all had these painted faces roamin around the jungle and I think it might have been done just to
River Tubing Down the Cahabón River
Rope Swings and Tubing
We walked back to the entrance path and headed up river. Our guide then took us to a rope swing that extended out over the river. The biggest drop from a rope swing we’d ever seen. It was set high up on the bank and with about a 30 foot free fall into the river. Our guide explained how it worked then held the swing while you climb up onto it from the platform. Once you let go be ready to jump when he says “GO” to make a safe landing in the deeper part of the river below. Easy right?
We waited in line for our turn, not a chance we were missing this. Slight visions of being life flighted out of here jumped around my head as I flung myself from the wooden seat and crashed to the river below. The guy with a waterproof camera in our group, luckily was able to get a short video of Shelly's jump. It was great! CHECK OUT THE VIDEO BELOW THE POST.
Next up was tubing down the river. We walked up the shore about 500 meters and tubed back down river to the entrance. It wasn't a particularly long tubing ride, only about a half an hour, but it was nice to just relax in the water and take in the incredible valley and green water. We passed a bridge we could have jumped from, but decided to skip that one as more life-flight visions danced in my head. Tubing was fun and relaxing, perfect way cool down and rest a bit before the next part of the tour.
El Mirador Lookout
After the easy ride down the river it was time to climb up the Senedero to El Mirador. El Mirador is about a one kilometer climb from the path to the pools. This is the famous lookout point over the pools and waterfalls of Semuc Champey. We were not really ready for this. Still a little sore from our last hike up Volcano Pacaya near Antigua, we started slowly climbing. The snickers and snacks we ate for lunch with the meager breakfast at El Retiro, was taking its toll on our energy stores.
The stairs were huge and steep and nothing more than crumbled clumps of stone in some parts. We climbed and climbed and climbed some more in the humid-gorgeous jungle. The climb was steep and I stopped counting the stairs at 650, it took us about 45 minutes to get to the top. We were exhausted and drenched in sweat, but we made it! And it was BEAUTIFUL! The view and the climb were both breathtaking and worth the sore muscles. We sat, took pictures, drank water, and rested a few minutes. We were last up and last down. I guess we should have conditioned more, or maybe got the memo regarding our free lunch we didn't pick up, or maybe we shouldn't have hiked a volcano a few days before!
The Pools of Semuc Champey
Now remember, we thought when we took this tour we were only going to the pools of Semuc Champey. Everything else up until now was a complete surprise. It was now about 2:30pm, we had left at 9am. And we still had not seen what we came for, but didn’t feel slighted in the least due everything else we got to see and do. We were in a hurry to get back down from the Mirador and found the descent much easier if not more dangerous.
We finally made it to the pools. The perfect way to cool off after our sweaty hike! The clarity of the water was amazing. We jumped in, relaxed and let the minnows nibble at our toes and chew some dead skin off our feet. We climbed the waterfalls, took pictures and soaked in the pools until 4pm. The high mountain peaks on either side of the valley were green and lush and the pools were emerald. The contrast between the two were breathtaking. We sat there in wonder of the beauty of this place, peacefully floating in the pools staring upward. It was a perfect way to end an epic day of adventure!
Changing Our Perspective
After our ride back to El Retiro in the pick up truck, we both fell asleep in the hammocks on our porch for a while. Around 7:30 the buffet dinner was served at the bar / restaurant. The theme was Italian and it was delicious. We enjoyed eating and hanging out with the friends we’d made discussing the day and how much fun it was. We were still exhausted and decided to call it an early night. Our plan was to leave early the next day because we needed to get the car back to Guatemala city by Sunday.
Change in Perspective
Today will go down as one of the more memorable days of our lives! We were in awe of the natural beauty and awesome people at El Retiro. Truly the scenery and the people make this one of the most beautiful places on earth in more than one way. We are having the time of our lives! It’s funny sometimes how things work out. Who would have thought that a casual conversation on a plane could lead to one of the most beautiful places we’ve seen with amazing memories and epic adventures. It goes to show what having an open mind can do, especially while traveling. I’ve always liked the quote “The mind is like a parachute, it works best when open.” Don’t be so set in your thoughts and ways that you miss out on great things. Take a chance, go with your gut and enjoy life. We’ll be heading to Utila, Honduras soon to learn how to scuba dive. Excited for the next adventure!!