Semuc Champey is a Guatemalan gem that every traveler in Guatemala should visit. Located in the heart of the Guatemalan jungle, these natural pools lie on top of the fast flowing Rio Cahabon. The river itself is perfect for floating on inner tubes. Most hostels in the area offer river tubing as an activity. At Semuc Champey, the wild Rio Cahabon goes underground for a few hundred meters. The surface above the river has a series of limestone pools that look like they’re from another planet.
Located in Central Guatemala, Semuc Champey is accessible from everywhere, though it might take you a while. We traveled from Rio Dulce to Lanquin by collectivo and it took us a full day. We left Rio Dulce at 9 AM and arrived at our lodge after dark. The road was in pretty bad condition, but it was an adventurous trip. You can take a collectivo, chicken bus or even a private minivan to get anywhere in Guatemala. Not many tour groups include Semuc Champey in their itinerary, so you won’t encounter too many buses. Most travelers you meer here, are independent travelers.
Lanquin and Coban
Lanquin and Coban are two villages that are often used as a hub to visit the pools of Semuc Champey. Coban is a larger town where you can easily find hostels and other travelers. We opted for Lanquin, a real jungle town with cozy cabanas and off-grid hostels. Lanquin is located 6km from the pools and the hostels arrange transportation and tours to get there.
El Retiro Lodge
El Retiro Lodge has private cabanas or suites and dorm beds in the middle of the Guatemalan jungle. The lodge has a large tranquil domain with many cabanas and sanitary huts. The restaurant has theme nights and you can choose to join in on the meal or find food elsewhere. The Rio Cahabon passes by the domain and you can take a swim if you like, but it’s not easy. The river flows very fast and impossible to swim. A safety rope connects both shores of the river, but we didn’t manage to cross the river without letting go and floating off. All staff in El Retiro Lodge is Guatemalan or volunteering, so it is a great place to practice Spanish and meet local people. In short, we had a great experience at the lodge. It was very relaxing and back to basic: exactly what we needed.
After paying a small entrance fee, we’re allowed to wander the jungle surrounding the pools. Close to the entrance of the National Park you can follow a path to the mirador or viewpoint where you get a magnificent view over the turquoise pools. Or you can head straight to the pools and dive in. The pools are connected by small waterfalls and the whole setting is very surreal. If you walk all the way to the top of the pools, you can watch the Cahabon river go underground. The river is very wild before it dives into the tunnel and diving in is lethal. This natural monument is well worth the visit and entrance fee.
The Kanba caves or caves of Lanquin are very close to Semuc Champey. The tour is very cool and I loved it. Bring a headlamp, unless you love tasting candle wax. Candles are offered when entering, but since the caves are pretty wet, you’re very likely to lose your light source. The caves are large and you crawl through different environments over a few hundred meters. There’s some wading through shallow pools, climbing slippery ladders, swimming through deep pools and climbing over rocks. At the end of the trail, there’s a deeper pool which you can jump from some sort of platform inside the cave. It is pitch black in the caves and you have no idea how deep the pools are. At some point, you have to climb a waterfall inside the grottoes. We loved this activity very much and felt like Indiana Jones on a quest.
Tubing the Rio Cahabon
Our lodge offered an afternoon tubing activity on the river. A jeep, stacked with inner tubes, took us to the start off point of our tube-fest. River tubing isn’t much of a job and mostly you’re just laying back in the tube, holding your beer and enjoying the surroundings. Just make sure to stay close to the guide as he has important information on where to get out of the water. Getting out was difficult because of the strong current of the river. Once past the small cove in the river, getting out is really hard.
Should you go to Semuc Champey?
Are you looking to visit the rural Guatemala and meet locals? Do you love visiting a natural wonder? You want to see and hear howler monkeys roar? Semuc Champey and Lanquin are worth a detour on your itinerary. We’d recommend at least 3 days to visit the region and relax a little. But if you only want to visit the pools and get out quickly, 1 day and 2 nights are enough. The pools are a definite must-visit when in Guatemala.