On Friday the 13th of July, a group of seven of us studied during our regular morning session of Spanish, had lunch at our homes, and just after 2:00 we were each picked up by a minibus that would take us to Semuc Champey, a state park tucked away in a lush valley. We were told that the trip would take about 8 hours, which turned out to be a very optimistic estimation. We had no problems initially, except heavy traffic in Guatemala City, which was expected. (When we had to stop at traffic lights, children would run out between the cars, one would stand on the other’s shoulders and they would juggle pieces of fruit for a few seconds before running between the cars offering the fruit for sale).
A couple hours outside of the city we got stuck in a huge traffic jam. We initially waited, hoping that we would start moving at any second. When it was clear that that wasn’t going to happen, we got out of the van and stretched for a while. We finally began moving again after an hour.
Long after it was dark, our driver (Marvin) got lost in a pueblo and kept stopping to ask for directions. He finally found the right “road,” which turned out to be more of a dirt path. It felt almost like driving through Luangwa, only we were in an enclosed vehicle and the roads were steeper. After more than an hour of bouncing along, we finally came to a stop, relieved that we had made it after 9 hours on the road. However, when we escaped the van we were directed to a pick-up truck and we all crammed into the bed with our things. There were metal poles that formed a frame which allowed us to stand up in the back. (The roads were so rough I found it easier to stand.) We endured another cruel hour in the back of the pick-up truck (which felt even more like Luangwa) before we finally made it to El Portal at midnight. The hostal is powered by a generator only during certain hours, so it was pitch black when we stumbled in and had to wake up the staff to give us our keys. Will, Morgan and I shared a room, Danielle and Ali were in another, and Kayla and Michael were in a third. I feel asleep easily, with the sound of distant rushing water in my ears.
I was woken up pretty early, though I had no way of knowing what time it was. Other guests of the hostal were packing up and getting ready to leave. They were being pretty loud, but I suspect it was because Will and Morgan had been pretty rowdy the night before and they felt justified in returning the favor. I got up after things had calmed down a little, only to discover it wasn’t yet 7:00 in the morning. I explored the grounds a little and took pictures. El Portal is just outside of Semuc Champey, and just farther down the river; I could hear the waterfalls in the distance. Michael, Kayla and I encountered a type of plant that I remember having in our yard in Africa, which closes its leaves when touched.
The seven of us had breakfast around 7:30, though we attracted some scary-looking flies that would not leave us alone, so we practically had to inhale it. We were told that our tour of Semuc Champey would begin at 10:00, so a couple people in our group went back to bed, while the rest of us hung out listening to music on the veranda of the cabin. At 9:15 the guide came over and told us that the tour would begin at 9:30, so we quickly got changed into suits and got ready.
A little after 9:30 the seven of us and several other guests of the hostal walked the few hundred meters to the entrance of the park. Our guide told us that we would summit the valley we were in, half an hour up and half an hour down. I foolishly didn’t bring my tennis shoes on the trip, and my flip flops were falling apart, so Will lent me his.
The trek was quite a hike! We had to move very slowly and carefully to prevent injury. A lot of places would have been impassable had it not been for the steep wooden steps. It was so hot and humid that we were all sweating bullets. It took the full half hour that the guide had said it would, but the hike was definitely worth it! Valió la pena que nosotros subiéramos la montaña. ¡La vista era espectacular! (It was worthwhile that we went up the mountain. The view was spectacular!) From our vantage point we could see the various natural pools in the river, complete with waterfalls big and small. It truly was incredible!
It seemed to take a lot less time to descend the mountain on our way to the pools. On our way down we could hear howler monkeys screaming in the treetops. They were so loud it sounded almost like lions!
When we made it to the pools our guide took us to a place just up the river where we stood on a shelf of rock overlooking some powerful rapids. He explained that at Semuc Champey, two water sources intersect and then join together. The river farther upstream rushes into an underground chamber underneath the pools, and it merges 300 meters downstream. The water from the pools is supplied by natural springs which originate from the valley.
After viewing the place where the river enters the underground chamber, our guide took us to a place to deposit our belongings so that we could swim. He led us through the pools, showing where we could slide down waterfalls, jump in safely to lower pools, and swim in crystal clear water. He even took us through a cove under one of the rock shelves, where we had just enough space to breathe. (It wouldn’t have been the most pleasant for a person with claustrophobia).
After our guide had taken us through all of the pools, he gave us some free time to enjoy them at our leisure. We mostly relaxed in the bigger ones, where the minnows would try to nibble at our toes. At one point we were able to catch a glimpse of the howler monkeys in the treetops!
We enjoyed the pools for an hour or so before our guide told us it was time to go back to El Portal for lunch. We thankfully didn’t have to climb all the way up the valley to get back to camp; we took a separate trail along the river and discovered the pools were only a 10 minute walk away via the second route.
We had a good lunch and a little time to relax before our guide told us it was time to get ready to go again. For this excursion he told us that we couldn’t bring anything with us except our flip flops; we were just to wear our swimsuits.
For some reason our post-lunch group had expanded to over 30 people, and our guide led us over the bridge that crosses the river and towards a beautiful waterfall that we were able to hear from the camp. We came to a building that advertised water activities, and several men began handing out candles to the group. We then proceeded to walk up a trail to the mouth of the waterfall, which begins in a cave carved out of the mountain! We took off our shoes, lit our candles, and ventured into the dark cavern in single-file.
The water was definitely chilly, but the experience was worth it. At times we were wading in knee-deep water, other times we were swimming or treading water with one hand holding the candle out of the water. We climbed up a ladder into a larger cave, where we saw some bats hanging from the stalagmites. It was pretty slow going with such a large group, so at times we had to wait for the line to move ahead. The sound of rushing water kept getting louder all the time, and finally we came to a fairly large waterfall deep within the cave. A guide helped us hold onto a rope and walk through the falls. It was exhilarating to feel the power of the water falling on my shoulders!
After everyone had made it through, we started making it back the way we had come. I had thought that we would climb up a ladder we had come down, but the guides had another idea. They took us one by one around a corner where the water was rushing through an impossibly small tunnel and cascading into the unknown. At first I had thought it would be a natural slide carved out of the rock, but after I had rounded the bend I could tell that it was another waterfall, though not as big as the other one. Then the guide was showing me where to place my hands and feet and he motioned for me to jump. It was a little terrifying to have to plunge into the darkness, having no idea how far down the bottom was, but I took a leap of faith and did it!
I surfaced with barely inches to spare for my head. I spotted light coming from the left, and I swam towards it to join up with those who had gone before me. Ali told me that she hit her head when she came up. Apparently the guide had been telling us to swim to the left before breaking the surface, but most of us had been too shocked at the prospect of jumping into the abyss to have heard him.
We had to wait a long time for the rest of the group to make it through the passage. I managed to climb out of the water and sit on a rock ledge so I didn’t have to keep treading water. After what felt like forever (I was practically dry) we made our way through the easier initial caverns and to the mouth of the cave. I wish I would have been able to bring my camera with me to capture the experience, but it would have been impossible to keep it dry. Thankfully, someone did have a waterproof camera and took a picture of our group when we were in the deepest part of the cave.
We walked the short way back to El Portal to relax and put in our supper order for later. The last activity for the day was tubing down the river, though there weren’t enough tubes for everybody. Our guide from the morning hike split our large group into two smaller parties. My friends and I were in the second group because we were staying the night at the hostal.
By the time it was our turn, it was dusk. The water was brisk, to say the least, but it didn’t take long to get used to it. There were no rapids where we were tubing, so it was a rather lazy ride down the river. We didn’t go much more than 500 meters before we “docked” where a few local women were washing clothes. The oldest lady was completely naked from the waist up, which was just another reminder of how remote we were.
We hiked the relatively short distance to the bridge, where we stopped and put down our tubes. Our guide told us we could jump off the bridge, and then proceeded to demonstrate by flinging himself from the side. I decided to go for it! The hardest part was the moment immediately before the jump, when my nerves and better judgment tried to hold me back, but I did it! I was nervous about slapping my feet too hard on the water, so I pointed my toes before going in. Because of that, I went deeper than most of the other jumpers. I actually touched the riverbed before coming back up!
We didn’t have to wait long for supper after we made it back to the hostal. The evening would have been more pleasant if the guide (who thought he was being funny) didn’t constantly try to freak out the girls by holding cicadas in front of their faces. It also would have been nice if the hostal had the cocktails listed on the menu. I would have loved a piña colada, but they only had cheap beer and rum. I ended up going to bed fairly early since I was pretty tired from the day.
The next morning we got up after 7:00, had breakfast, and made our way back to the pools of Semuc Champey. There weren’t as many people there since it was still mid-morning, and I managed to get some fantastic pictures. Unfortunately, the howler monkeys didn’t make an appearance because I had wanted to get a video clip of them screaming.
We stayed for just over an hour before we had to go back to El Portal to check out and get ready to catch our truck back to the village. I quickly ran back to the falls where the cave was to get some pictures, though I wasn’t able to go up to the top. By this point my flip-flops were practically non-functional, so the trek to and from the falls was rather frustrating due to all the rocks. I definitely wasn’t thinking when I forgot to pack my tennis shoes!
The truck came and we loaded up, not really wanting to leave. I could have sat in the cab, but I chose to stand in the back for a better view. Just outside of the hostal, we picked up a couple backpackers to take to a nearby lodge. After we dropped them off, we picked up a few locals going to the village. Pretty soon we were crammed in the back with a bunch of other people. One was a Mayan lady who had her little daughter with her. I managed to sneak a photo of her after she had fallen asleep (which remains a mystery to me how she did).
I wasn’t disappointed in my choice to stay in the back. The views were incredible! The Guatemalan landscape was alive and green and seemingly untouched in some places. It was something like I would have imagined the Garden of Eden to have been like.
At one point we made a stop at the edge of a valley. The driver got out and retrieved a large barrel that had been in the back with us. He walked to the edge and emptied the contents onto the pre-existing pile of garbage: a third-world country’s idea of a landfill.
We made it successfully back to the village, where we exchanged vehicles and continued bouncing along on the dirt road in our blue van for another hour before finally hitting the tarmac. We all cheered.
The drive back was uneventful. Mid-afternoon we stopped at a mall for some “lupper.” I still feel terribly guilty about this, but I will admit I got a Subway sandwich. It wasn’t exactly like the US version, but close enough. It was strange being in a mall with nice shops and a food court. For dessert I got some excellent sorbet.
Thankfully we didn’t hit any major traffic dilemmas on the way back to Antigua, cutting our drive down to only 9 hours instead of 10. Woo.
All in all, the trip was definitely one of my best experiences in Guatemala. Semuc Champey isn’t as well known a tourist destination as other places in Guatemala, which kept the cost considerably lower than what I’m sure it will be in the future! I would love to go back there one day … with a waterproof camera!
“He makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work.”
Psalm 104: 10 & 13