Ah Semuc Champey, the treasure of Guatemala. How many times did I Google you and stare in wonder at your picturesque beauty? Too many to count. You were the main reason I returned to Guatemala. How could I say I traveled this beautiful country if I had not rested my eyes on the fabled Semuc Champey, meaning ‘where the river hides beneath the earth’.
As I write this, I’m sitting in my rustic little ‘A’ frame thatch-roofed hut. The front end, opposite the door and where my bed is positioned, has a three foot high railing and that is all- it’s left entirely open. The rain is hammering down, the torrents coming down in waves, thunder is reverberating in the distance and the occasional flash of lightening sends a blaze of light into the hut. It smells of wet jungle – moist vegetation and damp earth. I sit shrouded in the opaque protection of my bug net and once again I am astounded that this is my life.
I made the eight hour ride form Flores to Lanquin and thought eight hours seemed like a breeze after my 24 hour escapade (you can read about it here!) from Guatemala to Nicaragua. I shared the shuttle with 12 others and we made our way through the Guatemalan countryside. We drove on small dirt roads through tiny villages. This was rural Guatemala, not the urban sprawls of big cities and paved highways. As always, my eyes were glued to the window, taking in all the sights as they passed by us by in fast forward. So many images have been burned into my mind from these bus rides. So many times I wish I could ask the driver to stop- go back! So I could look longer, take a picture maybe, or talk to the people I was seeing. But alas, the bus moves ever onward and I can only hope to remember those images that blurred past me in those milliseconds.
We pass through yet another tiny village on yet another bumpy gravel road. A small lean-to tienda is open, the plywood panel that opens the counter up is propped up, bags of Tortrix Chips and chocolate chip cookies line the walls, sun worn signs promote coca cola. There is a crowd packed around the shop opening, but they are not there for the chips, or even for the coca coals- it’s game day. A tiny television blasts at full volume and miniature soccer players amble across the screen. The men crowd around, tense, excited. Futbol is everything in Guatemala.
A church comes into view as they do in every village, nearly every street it seems. A 12 year old girl wearing a fuchsia satin gown is driving a motorcycle in front of the church heading towards the road we are on. A small boy of maybe six years sits in front of her. It’s Sunday in Guatemala.
We whir past a large open faced room where a lone desk sits in the middle. The room is devoid of any other furniture other than a small table with an antique, but surely still functional (and still regularly used) sewing machine. A young girl sits at the desk, studiously writing away, glancing up momentarily to look at us as we drive by.
These sights always pull me in- give me reason to love this country even more. Travel by bus or shuttle is the only way to travel – how else can you see a country so fully? How else can you see day to day from one end to the other – watching the people and the landscape change?
We begin to climb into the highlands near Coban and the scenery transforms into utter splendour. Huge green hillsides climb at steep angles on all sides and the road snakes its way through it all. The lush green forest hints that we are in the highlands, leaving behind the parched landscape. In Lanquin, our shuttle drops us off but I end up having to wait for an hour and half with a Dutch couple as our transfer has to wait for two more shuttles to arrive. We make small talk and sit on the street, watching the local teenage boys play rambunctiously – punching each other in the arms, chasing after each other with broken pieces of 2×4, laughing – the Dutch couple laugh and tell me this is clearly for me, a mating dance to impress me.
We eventually all hop into the truck bed of our shuttle and take off for Semuc Champey. The drive is breathtaking. The sun is just setting behind the steep mountains, and a thick haze shrouds them in a blanket of pink mist. The road is a narrow, winding dirt path and we all hang on to the bars mounted in the transport truck (some of us not as well as the others, as one girl bounced over the tailgate after a particularly nasty bump, hanging by her ankles and hands, ass over end). We pass a little wood cabin and a man takes a break from his wood chopping to watch us pass by. The jungle is coming alive with it’s nocturnal song and it smells hot and humid, the strong scent of damp undergrowth heavy in the air.
The hostel, El Portal is beautiful- it’s thatch-roofed cabins perched on the hillside looking down over the turquoise Cahabon river. After checking in and dropping my bags, I grab some dinner with my new found Dutch friends. They have no kitchen here, so you have to eat at the restaurant. The food isn’t amazing but it’s decent enough. The pancakes however, are excellent, and I’m brought back to my days in San Pedro where my home stay mom Maria would whip the same style delicious pancakes up for me for breakfast.
The next day I signed up for the 9:30am Semuc Champey tour. It consists of a guided tour through the Semuc Champey park, up to the mirador (lookout) and then down to look at another beautiful scene- a little waterfall, an hour and a half swimming in the refreshing picturesque pools, the hike back to the hotel for lunch (not included), an extraordinary candle lit adventure through a cave system and then a relaxing hour float down the river. It’s a massive day and only costs 150Q –about $22 Canadian dollars. You could never get a tour of that substance at that cost elsewhere in Central America- alas; it’s good to be back!
We ventured into the jungle around 10am, the temperature already soaring and the humidity already palpable. It was a steep trek up 500 meters, mostly climbing stairs that switchback the mountainside. We were all winded and covered in sweat by the end of the 25 minute hike. I’m a little out of shape from my lazy days on Utila and in Belize, but I wasn’t the only one huffing and puffing. And it’s absolutely worth it. The mirador (lookout) is strategically placed to offer a stunning vista of the Semuc Champey pools far below on the river. I stared in awe, stunned that they looked even more striking in person. Often times we see those attractions on the internet and the pictures are embellished or taken in a different season- but not Semuc- the bright turquoise pools stood up to the test, the taupe lines intersecting at the shallow points, juxtaposed against the opulent green walls towering on either side of the river bed. We all snapped a few photos, gazed awestricken, dripping sweat until we couldn’t stand the temptation any more- the sight of the cool blue pools was too tantalizing after our hard march- we needed to be in those pools! We made what seemed like an agonizingly long 700 meter march down towards the pools, dreaming about how invigorating it would feel to slip our sweaty bodies into the rejuvenating waters.
Once we reached the riverbed we were greeted with a sight that I think will be burned into my memory for the rest of my life as quite possibly the most beautiful scene I have ever laid eyes on. It felt too perfect, to ethereal to be authentic. Before me the river wound its way down in an eager torrent from up in the lush cover of the jungle. At one time the river had been higher and had cut smooth carvings out of the rock, leaving a deep ledge 15 feet up hanging over the river. Bright emerald moss grew in thick lush layers carpeting the ledge, and it crawled underneath clinging to the underside, thriving in the damp environment. Hundreds of ferns fanned out atop the moss further back from the ledge. Water cascaded over the ledge in several areas, and a steady stream of droplets trickled from the whole ledge. The steep sides of the jungle climbing up the mountainside served to frame the whole scene, as if enveloping it. I was breathless.
I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay forever in that spot, listen to the water rushing and rumbling down the river. I was enraptured by the rich, wet green and blue nirvana before me. I took videos, I took pictures, and I damned my cameras, all three of them, for not being able to come close to capturing the essence of this place. I only hope they can serve to catalyze my mind to recall this scene for the rest of my days.
Alas I dragged myself away from paradise and moved on to the next little utopia that awaited me: the pools themselves. I took in their beauty- the water was so strikingly clear! I could see the bottom, it looked so close, yet I knew it was deceptively deep. I stripped down and yelled cannon ball before splashing into the crisp cool water at last- what a reprieve! We swam and laughed, dove and splashed through all the levels of the pools. In some places you could slide down the slippery rock from one pool to the next, laughing, slightly scared as you whipped down over rock and dropped into the pool below. The water was wondrously clean- I kept getting it in my nose and mouth and could taste how deliciously fresh and clean it was. We spent nearly two hours in this paradise, but one could easily spend an entire day. I came back by myself the next day and spent a few more hours relishing the pools. In such intense heat, it’s divine to come here and cool down.
After sadly saying goodbye to the pools we headed back for lunch and then made our way across the river and hiked a few minutes up to the cave entrance. We didn’t really know anything about this cave adventure we were going on and our guide didn’t speak English. We were all given a candle and told to start exploring our way into the cave. Feeling slighting apprehensive that our guide was in fact not guiding us at all, we ventured in by only the light of our candles, the daylight from the entrance soon disappearing entirely behind us. There were about 12 of us in total, walking single file one huddled close behind the other peering into absolute blackness, wondering what lay ahead. At first water was only up to our knees, but soon the water deepened.
Our guide lingered in the back to make sure no one fell behind and myself, my two Dutch friends and Gabriel took the lead. Our steps were tentative and we stretched our arms as far as we could, willing our little flames to illuminate more, but still seeing no further than the tiny orbit of light they emitted a foot or two ahead of us. Soon the water deepened until we could no long touch and we found ourselves franticly doggy paddling with one arm, the other high above our heads, ensuring we didn’t let our only source of light go out. Sometimes we would clutch to the slippery side of the cave wall, grasping for some kind of grip to keep us afloat, scrambling to someplace we could finally find a foot hold on the bottom as the water level eased up again. After each of these blind swims, we would look at each other, eyes wide with disbelief in the dark, amazed that we had made it through.
We came to a waterfall inside the cave with a rope dangling down from it, blew out our candles when our turn came, grabbed the knotted soggy rope and hoisted ourselves up, climbing the slippery waterfall to reach the top. We crawled through crevices, clambered up a few make shift ladders that were merely tied together and tied off with ropes to the rocks above. We swam blindly, uncertain of when we would be able to touch bottom again, through pool after pool. When we reached the end of the cave there was an area you could grasp the cave wall and precariously climb up to a little outjet of rock and jump into the pool below. No one in the group was willing to jump since you couldn’t tell how deep the water was and it was a rather small pool. We watched our crazy guide leap into the pool and were covered in the aftermath of his splash, laughing and shaking our heads at his bravado.
We made our way back much the same way for about half the hike, until we came to a hole in the cave wall that had a small waterfall cascading down between two pieces of rock about 2 feet wide. The drop was only maybe five feet, but you had no idea what was below you and what you were dropping into. But our guide ushered us over with Spanish and signalled to us what we were supposed to. We stood in single file and watched as the first person sat on his lap as he instructed, gripped the rock on either side and pushed herself forward to slide straight as an arrow between the two narrow rocks and plummeted into the unknown. I watched two more go and then it was my turn. It was madness; if you moved the wrong way you could easily bump your head on the rocks that encircled your head and body the whole way down, or if you thrust out an elbow you’d surely crack it. I held my breath, dropped myself down and felt myself crash deeply into the water below me, my feet coming no where near the bottom, and floundered back to the surface gasping and dazed but elated that I had made it unscathed! I swam feverishly for where I could grip the sides of the cave and find purchase for my feet. Everyone one of us came down with the look of wild surprise on their faces that they too, had survived.
All the while in the cave our blood pumped heavily, flooded with adrenalin, our eyes wide with fear and in an attempt to somehow see past our candles flickering flame. It was an incredible adventure. Forevermore, surely when I think of caves I will recall the time in Guatemala where a group of us floundered, half blind, equipped only with candles and our courage to explore the depths of a cave in the side of a mountain.
After the rush of the caves, as a dénouement, we all let our heart rates come back to normal by floating down the lazy river in tubes, while local children hopped in the river on their own tubes and tried to sell us beer. “You want beer? You pay later” they called over and over until some of our group finally caved in, surely needing the beer to help bring them back down after the adrenalin rush of the cave. I spent three days down in El Portal, enjoying the beauty that this idyllic narrow valley in the mountains had to offer. The cool river, the tranquil pools, the daunting caves, the friendly travellers and staff and the flourishing flora and fauna.
With reluctance, I piled into the back of a pick up and headed back up the winding road, climbing to the top of the valley, smiling and returning a friendly “Hola!” to the local children that would run out of their small houses to wave at us as we drove past. I hopped off the truck in Lanquin and grabbed a tuk tuk to take me up the road to El Retiro Hostal. I wanted to spend a day in Lanquin to figure out my next moves and grab some wifi to let my family know all was well. Lonely Planet had said to be careful; El Retiro was the kind of place you could lose yourself in, and they weren’t lying. Perched on the riverside, the hostel grounds covered a large area of sloping green forest. Thatch-roofed huts dotted the grounds, platforms for sunbathing or yoga were scattered around and a shaded platform with six hammocks looked out on to the river with the sole purpose of relaxing and watching time and the river pass you by. The restaurant was wide open and looked out at the river a mere 15 feet away, and had a few swings you could lazily swing around on. Staff worked around the clock to keep the place clean and keep the landscaping in order. Hummingbirds, montezumas, black gackles and countless others flittered through the grounds and several hostel dogs ambled around keeping you company.
I met several people right away; mostly Canadians and we grabbed a map drawn in crayons from the reception desk that outlined a nice two hour hike in the area. The six of us set off and were accompanied by one of the hostel dogs, a cream coloured pitbull who took the lead. El Retiro sits on the very edge of Lanquin, and the first half of the trail was on a small dirt road leading away from the town. As we walked further into the countryside we saw a rust coloured calf ambling in the road and our furry companion- the pitbull- took off after the calf, barking at her. The dog smartly herded her back off the road and up towards the fence where she had come from. The calf found her way with him nipping at her heels and eventually hopped over a low area back into her pasture. We were amazed that this pitbull had such herding skills!
Onward our fearless leader led the way. We crossed a bridge and found ourselves on a trail cutting across the mountainside. We saw our pooch leave the trail and cut up through a smaller trail. We speculated whether to follow and figured the dog must know the way, since he had been leading us straight thus far. We followed and lo and behold he had taken us on a nice little shortcut! He would run ahead, then, not seeing us on his heels, would come back, look at us, wait and then carry on when we caught up. The day was hot, as we hadn’t left until 3pm, and the march uphill left us all drenched. But the views took your breath away. Lush jade pastures dipped in an undulating wave in the valleys below. Some of the hillsides were terraced with crops, and a small winding dirt path cut through the hills. Trees dotted the landscape and the sun beat down, willing it all to flourish further. I imagined that it looked somewhat akin to the Vietnamese countryside and I suppose next year I will find out if I am right when I find myself in South East Asia.
We followed our leader the rest of the way, stopping now and then to take photos of the countryside that was leaving us all breathless, in more ways than one.
The evening was spent playing charades with the group, laughing and conversing around our candle lit tables, waiting for the delectable dinner buffet- an immense amount of food was spread out and we all filled out plates, eyes always larger than our stomachs, and gorged ourselves on heavenly home cooked food: Bbq’d chicken slathered in a special spicy sauce, creamy curry coleslaw, half mashed-half scalloped garlicy poatatoes, thick toasted garlic bread buttered with a spicy tomato sauce, macaroni salad, a thai peanut stir-fry with rice, and quiche. Feast is an understatement!
I’m sitting riverside now, catching up on some writing- you can only access the internet for a steep price, so it encourages people to interact. But most of the guests have gone down the mountainside to enjoy Semuc and I find I have the place entirely to myself, minus the staff who are busily about their duties sweeping, prepping food and balancing the books. I’m watching the river drift by and a small dog is curled up near the swings sleeping. It’s so quiet, so peaceful here. I’m going to grab my yoga mat and enjoy a nice long, much needed practice to loosen me up from the last few days of hiking through these mountains. A little writing, a little green tea, a little hammock time with Stephen King and some yoga by the riverside. Life is so wonderful. I am so blessed.