Off the main highway, but definitely part of the tourist route through Guatemala, lies Semuc Champey. It’s a good stopping point between Antigua and Flores (a twelve to twenty hour journey), although about a two and a half detour from the highway.
We took a “tourist shuttle” from Antigua which was basically an over-priced collectivo style van packed with tourists on every form of seat possible but at least everyone had a seat, and it didn’t stop every hundred metres. Of course, there was no AC, and the journey took two and a half hours longer than we were told it would. Almost ten hours later, we arrived in the town of Lanquin. Drivers from all the lodges in the area were stationed near the drop-off point to pick up passengers. We had reserved a room at El Retiro Lodge, located near the town on the river. The entire lodge was full that night and the all-you-can-eat dinner buffet at the river-side restaurant was packed. The entire place is 100% Guatemalan run and most of the staff spoke English and all were very friendly.
We signed up for the Semuc Champey tour the following day. As we’ve said before, we don’t tend to do a lot of tours, but when you worked in the entrance fee and transportation cost, the tour was basically free – and included a knowledgeable guide and a lots of fun activities. For a bit extra, we could have done the caving but since we planned on doing that in Belize and had done it before, we opted not to. Also, if you do a tour with the lodge, your third night is free – which would have been awesome if we didn’t already have a room booked at our next two places.
We didn’t get to take any photos of the rope swing, rock jumping, or tubing as we don’t have a waterproof camera (we are getting a GoPro for the next part of our trip). Tubing was by far the highlight of the activities. Shortly after we started floating downstream, kids began chucking beers in the water at us to catch and even came by on tubes of their own selling more. All the beers were enjoy now and pay later :).
While everyone else was caving we had the opportunity to take some waterfall pictures and explore the area a little more.
For lunch, we were directed to a small stand near the bridge and served a local buffet which was good but extremely over-priced for local food. All the kids who had thrown us beers while tubing came to sell more and collect their money. The kids were thrilled with having their photos taken and loved posing for the camera along with taking pictures of me and their friends.
To get from one side of the bridge to another (and where people jumped into the river from) is a sketchy bridge missing plenty of planks. Larger trucks that cross all carry extra planks to temporarily lay down in the big gaps (not sure why they don’t all just tip in and fix the bridge…). This pickup with the back jammed full of people almost threw the kids on the side up in the air as the wooden boards bounced around from the trucks weight.
After lunch, our tour continued in Semuc Champey. We first hiked up to the top for a birds-eye view of the gorgeous pools – a very vertical and slippery 30-minute hike that I would rather have not been wearing flip-flops for. The views were well worth it though and one of the beer-boys accompanied us and doubled as a photographer.
Back at the bottom we happily jumped into the refreshing clear water of the pools. The main river was brown from the recent rain but since the majority of the river flows underneath the pools, they remain a crystal-clear and turquoise-bluer. Our beer-selling photographer kid also turned out to be an excellent guide through the pools. He led us across and down multiple sets of pools jumping, sliding, swimming, slipping and walking. We also swam into a small cave on the side of one of the pools that you had to keep you face pointing up as it was so shallow (he guided our heads with his hands so we didn’t get hurt).