Guatemala looks like a small country on a map and I am still under that illusion, but when I decided to visit Semuc Champey on a day trip from Cobán in the Alta Verapaz region, I realised that the size of a country shouldn’t be measured in sq.km, but in road and vehicle conditions. And then google maps tells me that the 60 km ride from Cobán to Semuc Champey’s closest town, Lanquín, will take me 1 hour and 20 minutes. Well, let me tell you something google, the day that journey takes 80 minutes is the day I have a flying carpet, cause there ain’t nobody that can take me there in your record breaking time. Dirt roads, bumpy roads, mountains roads and narrow roads, there was never a chance that I would reach Semuc Champey within two hours.
It was mid june when I headed to Guatemala for a week and on the top of my list was those spectacular, turquoise limestone pools I had discovered existed far into the Guatemalan jungle. I decided I wanted a shorter journey onwards to Flores after my visit and chose to spend the night in Cobán instead of closer to Semuc Chamepy in the small town of Lanquín. I had weighed the pros and cons of going by myself or on a guided tour, but my speculations were wasted time. Low season decided it for me when I was unable to find a single tour operator (note, the only one in Cobán) that had been able to sign up the minimum of 4 people for a trip. Thus, I was skinned of those two options and I had to go with the only one available; I began planning the day ahead and how to get there alone.
At 6 a.m the following day I caught the morning ‘collectivo’ (minivan) that left from outside the pharmacy on the corner of 1a Calle and 2a Avenida in the centre of town. It was a cold morning in the mountains where Cobán is located, however the drive, if you can keep your eyes open, is a beautiful journey through one of Guatemala’s green mountainous regions. Those two hours I was told it would take to reach Lanquín were already 30 minutes longer when the bus reached the outskirts of town where they dropped me off to be welcomed by guides belonging to local tour operators. Deciding to leave a guide out of it, they offered a ride on to Semuc Chamepy for a 100 Quetzales return. More or less sure that was overpriced, I would suggest anyone visiting to stay on the bus until it reaches the center of Lanquín where you’ll find tens of trucks willing to take you up and on the rest of the 30 minutes to Semuc Champey. The journey from Cobán costs around 25 Quetzales one way (make sure you have change) and be aware that if you are heading back on that same day, you should be back in Lanquín no later than 3.30 p.m to catch the last bus.
If you decide you would like a guide to take you around the park, fear not, you’ll find local young boys willing to take you for no more than what you are interested in tipping them. However, the park is easy to navigate with paths and signs guiding you through all of it. Despite this I ended up with a young local boy as my companion although mostly to practice my Spanish and company for a lonely traveler. Because of low season we were lucky to be able to walk through the jungle without much interruption from other people. The guided trips that had been set up from Lanquín were certainly not empty with an average of 30 people per group. Included in a tour to Semuc Champey you’ll get to swim through a cave and go tubing down the river as well as enjoy time in the natural pools. Of course all of this is possible individually as well, but you’ll have to pay each activity separately. The entry to Semuc Champey will cost you 50 Quetzales, the cave another 50 and tubing takes it up to a total of 150 Quetzales for the whole lot. Last piece of advise is to stay your nights in Lanquín. Cobán was a very boring place, with little to see or do. Don’t be put off from going to Lanquín because of the lacking information there is to find online about accommodation, the town has many hotels and hostels and particularly during low season there’ll be no reason to spend your time looking for a place to stay.
Finally, nearly 3 hours after setting off from Cobán, I reached the hanging bridge that stood between me and what is arguably Guatemala’s most beautiful natural treasure. Although I had to get up early and the journey was long, Semuc Champey was worth it and then some. I don’t know how they found this place, but I’m happy they did. Nestled in the middle of the thick Guatemalan jungle, a limestone bridge opens up the landscape and reveals paradise. You’ll see colours you couldn’t even imagine existed; an incredible green jungle and the clear, turquoise waters, coloured by the limestone, will take your breath away. This is such a stunning spot which you must not miss out on when you go to Guatemala and Central America as a whole. Take my word for it, Semuc Champey, will make you fall in love with nature.