Semuc Champey Natural Monument
These gorgeous limestone pools (www.semucchampey.com, 6 a.m.–6 p.m. daily, $6.50) lie at the end of a rough dirt road nine kilometers from Lanquín. Although they were once a remote attraction way off the beaten path, they are now one of Las Verapaces’s top tourist draws. Accordingly, infrastructure has improved to keep up with the rising numbers of visitors. Try not to visit on a weekend, as there are day-trippers in droves from Cobán and vicinity.
A giant, 300-meter-long limestone bridge forms the backbone for the descending series of pools and small waterfalls that make up Semuc Champey. The water that fills the pools is the product of runoff from the Río Cahabón, churning as it plunges into an underground chasm from where it reemerges downstream at the end of this massive limestone overpass.
In addition to swimming in the perfectly placid pools, there is a series of trails and hanging wooden bridges taking you to the sites where the river makes its underground plunge and where it reemerges downstream. It is truly awe inspiring to see the force of nature as the raging river is crammed into an underground cavern.
A longer, 1.2-kilometer trail heads straight up the side of a mountain to a fantastic lookout point, where you can see the pools from above. It’s worth the substantial effort required to climb on the steep mountainside, sometimes with the help of vines and tree roots.
Closer to the park entrance is a walkway that will take you to an observation platform where you can see a pretty waterfall gushing into the Río Cahabón over the point where it re-emerges from its cave.
Across from the parking lot and park entry booth, you’ll find a visitors center where you can buy drinks and food. The latter is a set menu ($3–6) consisting mainly of local dishes and grilled meats. Vehicle parking costs $1.30. Guides are available here to take you around. As always, tipping is a good idea.
Accommodations and Food
There are now at least two hotels just minutes away from the park entrance. Coming from Semuc Champey, the first place you’ll come across is Hostal El Portal de Champey (tel. 7983-0046, $5 p/p to $26 d) where there are pleasant A-frame cottages set on a hillside overlooking the Río Cahabón. Service at the on-site restaurant may be spotty when one of the caretaker’s frequent parties are taking place. (You might have better luck if you bring a cooler full of beer with you.)
A better choice lies about one kilometer from Semuc Champey. Posada Las Marías (tel. 7861-2209, www.posadalasmarias.com) enjoys a wonderful riverside location and offers accommodations in dorms with shared bath ($4.50-6.50 p/p), rooms with shared bath ($20 d), or rooms with private bath ($23 d). The restaurant serves three meals a day ($4–7) and the menu includes sandwiches, nachos, and barbecued steak. Activities include inner tubing on the Río Cahabón and visits to the nearby caves of K’an Ba ($5 for guests), where you can explore an underwater river.
Another option near Semuc Champey lies a couple hundred meters away at Jam Bamboo (tel. 4549-9735, cabralmariano [at] hotmail [dot] com). There are private rooms ($7 p/p shared bath, $12 p/p with private bath and fan) along with six-bed and 12-bed dorm rooms ($4 p/p, shared bath). The dorm beds consist of a small mattress on a wooden floor and are set above the restaurant/bar. Otherwise, the beds are firm and there is hot water. Breakfast here costs $4 and lunch or dinner cost $5; all are set-menu options. The hotel staff likes to jam on their drums, lending credence to the lodge’s peculiar name.
Getting to Semuc Champey Natural Monument
There are several tour companies in Cobán operating day and overnight trips to Lanquín and Semuc Champey. Shuttle-only options are available and are highly recommended as the best way to get here. From Antigua, Old Town Outfitters (tel. 5399-0440, info [at] adventureguatemala [dot] com, www.bikeguatemala.com) runs a four-day trip to Lanquín, Semuc Champey, and the cave of K’an Ba for $295 per person with a two-passenger minimum, including transport, meals, and accommodations. There are stops in Cobán and the Quetzal Biotope along the way.
If you’re driving, you’ll need a 4WD vehicle for the road from El Pajal to Lanquín. Bus schedules change frequently so check current schedules. Hourly buses (5 a.m.–5 p.m.) from Lanquín to Cobán cost $3.75. There are six microbuses and at least two shuttles a day to Cobán.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com