After 2 weeks in the Lake Atitlan region, it was time to head back to Antigua to catch our transport north east to a national park called Semuc Champey. We had previously booked our tour package through The Yellow House hostel which included transport, 3 nights’ accommodation and the activities at Semuc Champey. We found it more economical to book through an agent than to piece the package together ourselves.
What was meant to be an easy 3-hour bus ride from Panajachel to Antigua, turned into a gruelling day of travel as our 11am chicken bus (the only direct bus to Antigua) did not arrive as scheduled. Upon arriving at the bus stop we were told by the somewhat sketchy bus coordinator (a middleman who rounds up people for various destinations) that the bus had a tire problem, but that it should be ready to go an hour later. After waiting for 3 hours we decided to abandon our post, change our plans, and take a different bus to a town close to Antigua, and then get a connecting bus from there. After another hour delay (lunch break for the driver) we were eventually on our way.
The first leg on the bus was comfortable enough and we made good time after our late start. We then made an uneventful and quick change to our next bus (which turned out to be fuller than either of us would have considered possible), finally arriving in Antigua at 6pm…only to find that the city’s electricity was out! Fortunately we knew where we were staying and were able to navigate through the dark on the cobbled streets to our hostel, The Yellow House. We were excited to spend the night at this very clean and comfortable hostel that came highly recommended to us. It didn’t disappoint and we settled in for the night – luckily the lights came back on a couple of hours later and we were able to cook dinner in the shared kitchen.
It was up early the next morning for another long travel day by mini bus or “collectivo” – more efficient than the chicken bus but surprisingly less comfortable! The journey to Semuc Champey, only 285km from Antigua took 8 hours! If you’re not on the single main highway in Guatemala, chances are that the road you find yourself on at any given moment is in shocking condition (by North American standards). During our 8 hour journey we traveled through big, bad Guatemala City and north east through Coban and Lanquin, deep in the jungle. Semuc Champey is about 11km on a super bumpy dirt road from Lanquin. Upon arrival in Lanquin we jumped onto a 4×4 truck or “picop” and made our slow final hour to our hostel, El Portal. (We’ve quickly learned that it takes a long time to cover short distances in Central America!)
El Portal is the hostel closest to the Semuc Champey entrance and is perched on the hillside overlooking the Cahabon River. We decided to treat ourselves and upgraded to a private cabin with patio and hammock on the quieter side of the property. The hostel has a wonderful common area with decks and tranquil spaces to relax. It’s very isolated there, with limited electricity and internet access (6-10pm every night). This was definitely part of the charm for us as we were looking forward to a few quiet days after a few long days on the road.
Semuc Champey is a beautiful natural collection of pools, waterfalls and rock formations with water in amazing shades of green and blue. The rock formation features an underwater canal through which the Cahabon River flows, with another water system fed by natural springs from the mountains that runs over top of the rocks.
Our tour package included a morning at the pools with a guide. We first hiked up to a lookout point or mirador to view the pools from above. Such an amazing collection of colours, shapes and formations created by years of water flow and limestone accumulation. The rest of our morning was spent swimming, sliding and jumping through the water, pools, waterfalls and natural rockslides. Richard was much braver than me, climbing up 12 meters on a rock face and jumping into the pool below! We finished the day by tubing down the river on inner tubes. Fun!
The second part of the adventure package was a 2-hour guided exploration of the K’anba cave system close to Semuc Champey. Kitted out with headlamps, shoes and bathing suits we ventured into the dark recesses. We quickly found ourselves waist deep in cold water, holding onto ropes and surrounded by darkness and amazing cave structures from floor to ceiling. The adventure included climbing up and down chain ladders, swimming across deep pools guided only by rope systems, climbing across and up a waterfall and blindly throwing ourselves down a hole to pop out in a lower cave pool (think Blair Witch with bikinis and board shorts ). Exhilarating stuff! Take a look at the GoPro footage from our cave tour here!
Our stay at El Portal was really relaxing and unplugged. We enjoyed reading and chatting with other travellers on the large patio overlooking the river. Unfortunately it rained most of the time we were there (rain is becoming a common theme in our grand journey!), and while this kept everything damp and soggy, we still enjoyed our time in this special place, the mist and rain making it seem that much more mysterious and mystical.
Bev thumbs up: Amazing views and lush jungle setting – and surviving the cave tour!
Bev thumbs down: Long travel days to and from Semuc Champey
Richard thumbs up: Caves were super cool, the jungle running and hiking were awesome
Richard thumbs down: A lot of rain!