Two words echo through the streets of Guatemala. Everywhere I went, I heard them. As I laid in my Antigua AirBNB, the birds outside my window would chirp these two little words. As I zip-lined above a coffee plantation, the leaves would whisper the words in my ear. At the hole-the-wall mezcal bars, rooftop restaurants, and colorful textile markets, the words would follow to sing their siren song. “Semuc Champey.” Those were the two little words tickling everyone’s tongues. Photos and descriptions told me that it was Guatemala’s paradise. So, of course, I had to go.
The Long Road to Semuc Champey
Like every beautiful creature, Semuc Champey does not wish to be found. Getting there is an exhausting struggle. So much so, when I learned of the long road ahead, I almost bailed. But somehow, like always, I found the courage to take the road less traveled. Onward I went to the mysterious oasis in the jungle.
Step 1 of the Journey: Shuttle Van
The only way to reach Semuc Champey is by car and most book a tourist shuttle van. The 11-hour road trip is uncomfortable, to say the least. Tourists from all over the world toss their backpacks on top of a small passenger van, praying they’d see them again at the destination. I, like all the other cattle, shoved myself inside one of these vans and claimed the last seat, which required straddling a wheel well. My legs went numb 30 minutes into the adventure. Several times throughout the ride I wondered if I had made a huge mistake.
Van Travel Tips:
- Pack a daypack with your small expensive belongings, passport, money, snacks, and water. Cradle this bag on your lap for the journey.
- Wear lightweight and comfortable clothing.
- For the love of god, do NOT get too drunk the night before. The only thing that would have made the ride worse would have been a hangover.
- Expect the van to be anywhere from right on time to one hour late
- Ration your water. Potty breaks are few and far between
- Bring a book. I highly recommend Tree Girl by: Ben Mikaelsen, a Guatemala fiction based on the devastating Mayan genocide.
After a very long day in the van, we finally reached Lanquín (a small town outside Semuc Champey). But the trip wasn’t over yet! My hostel was still 30 minutes away, deep in the jungle.
Step 2 of the Journey: Off-Road
Next, I was loaded into a truck bed for a bouncy ride along a dirt road. I clutched the metal bars and stood, swaying, as the truck charged up hills and narrowly missed stray dogs. The ride was exhilarating, at first. Or perhaps I was just slap happy from a sweaty van ride. Eventually, exhaustion set in. I spent the last 10 minutes of the ride salivating for a much-needed beer.
Step 3: Bridge Crossing of Death?
Just before arriving, we came to a dilapidated bridge that crossed the roaring Río Cahabón. I could see my hostel glowing with a promise of the sanctuary on the other side of the river. Normally I would be hesitant to cross such a bridge, but after the long trip, I was ready to swim across the river if I had to. After our driver repositioned a few boards – yikes – we slowly drove over the bridge, and I deliriously checked into my accommodation.
ACCOMMODATIONS NEAR SEMUC CHAMPEY
You have a few choices when it comes to accommodation near Semuc Champey. You can either stay near the town of Lanquín, with more amenities, and take a shuttle to and from the park, or you can stay near the park for a more rustic experience. I chose the second option and stayed in the rustic, yet charming, El Portal Hostel.
The best part about El Portal Hostel is the location. It’s right next door to Semuc Champey! The downside is that you are at the mercy of the hostel’s restaurant and bar (which is average at best). You can choose to stay in a dorm or a private cabin – I splurged for a private cabin with private bathroom. Electricity is only available at certain times of the day, and there is no cell phone reception or wifi.
Self-Guided Trip to Semuc Champey
All of the hostels in Semuc Champey offer group tours, but you can save $20-40 by exploring the park on your own. Simply pay the park entrance fee and enjoy the main attractions at your own pace. You can see the entire area in one day (two nights), or you can book a group cave tour on day one and do a self-guided pool visit on day two. Your choice!
A MOST RELAXING DAY AT SEMUC CHAMPEY
9 am: Swim and Relax in the Pools
On my self-guided tour, I started with the main event! After all, I deserved it after such a long journey. Here is where is pays to stay near the park: I got there right at opening and had the pools to myself.
Semuc Champey is comprised of several crystal clear pools cascading over each other, and you can actually swim in them! Float in the water, soak up the sun, slide down miniature waterfalls, and simply relax. This. Is. Paradise. Get to the park early to have the pools all to yourself!
11 am: Hike to Mirador
Mirador is a beautiful lookout, high above the pools of Semuc Champey. It’s a short hike, but it’s all uphill. It takes about 20-40 minutes to hike one way, depending on your pace. Purchase a coconut or mango from one of the locals for refreshment.
12:30 pm: Eat an Authentic Barbecue Lunch
There are several street vendors set up just outside of the park entrance. Most of them are serving the same thing – barbecue chicken, homemade tortillas, salsa, and beans. It’s delicious, authentic, and super cheap!! In fact, it was one of the best meals I had in Guatemala.
1:30 pm: Back to the Pools!
There is nothing quite like swimming in cold water at the hottest time of the day.
4 pm: Return to your Hostel
Shower and get ready for dinner and drinks. You can also arrange a van ride back with your hostel.
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New mantra: the roughest roads are often the most rewarding!
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*Shout out to Nabil Kausal-Hayes, my travel companion and the photographer of some of these images*