Semuc Champey is that little slice of paradise that is still just far enough down a rough dirt track to feel like paradise. Revered as one of the most beautiful places in the world and a must-see destination in Guatemala, Semuc has not yet succumbed to a heavy level of development, and it’s still a bit of a mission to get to.
From Tikal, we headed to nearby Flores to spend the night and get a bit of a plan together for the coming days. We’d looked scarcely into Guatemala past the ruins and had some decisions to make. Our vague idea was to travel through Guatemala and then head into El Salvador, but the jigsaw-puzzle layout that is this section of Central America made us have to think about the logistics a little bit. It’s possible and popular to head into Honduras as well; Copan ruins are very close to the border, and it’s not too far of a jaunt to popular tourist destinations and diving spots from there. Rio Dulce is a popular place to visit in Guatemala along the Caribbean coast, but knowing that we were going to spend several days on the Amazon in a few months time made it less appealing to us. In the end, we decided to head roughly south, stop in at Semuc Champey and then continue onwards to Antigua and Lago de Atitlan.
There are two main ways (in our capacity, at least) to travel from Point A to Point B in Guatemala. The first is what is referred to as a “chicken bus” these are the old American school buses that have been given facelifts and new leases on life. They’re a bit scarier and a bit more jam-packed than in Belize, and are also dirt cheap (around 50 cents for an hour + ride). The second option, which I wasn’t really prepared for, are tourist shuttles. Guatemala actually has a very well-beaten tourist track, with common routes including any combination of Tikal, Flores, Rio Dulce, Semuc Champey, Guatemala City, Antigua, and Lago de Atitlan. These are faster, more secure, and more convenient than the chicken buses. They are also, of course, a lot more expensive. We looked at the logistics of Flores to Semuc Champey and opted for the shuttle. We managed to find a shop offering it for 100Q (most were coming in at 125 – 150, so shop around). With the numerous buses and changes, we decided our time and sanity was worth the couple extra dollars.
A good rule of thumb in Central America is to take the amount of time that “they” (the bus company, the guidebook, the travel agent) tells you it’s going to take, and roughly double it. They told us to expect a 3 p.m. arrival in Semuc Champey, and we ended up rocking up closer to 7. The shuttle took us as far as Lanquin, and then the place we had found to stay, Utopia, was to pick us up from there. Apparently two people is not enough to run a shuttle, though, so we ended up waiting about an hour for another group to arrive.
I see why. Though not very far in terms of distance, Utopia is about a 45-minute truck ride from Lanquin. Everyone was piled into the back of the truck, with a metal cage to hang on to and spent the ride equal parts laughing and clutching on for dear life as the 4-wheel-drive powered along. We arrived to Utopia in the dark and were efficiently processed, considering that we’d arrived with a group of around 20 other people. At Utopia, they add everything to your bill, and you pay at the end. There are a range of accommodation options, from camping/hammocking to dorms, to rooms. Meals are available for 25, 30, and 50 quetzales for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Utopia also offers a range of tours in the area. We were camping, in a lovely and rather private spot by the river.
We woke and, for the first time, saw where we were staying. Utopia is a fitting name. The sprawling hostel is built on the hillside rising up from the riverbed. The main building, which houses the kitchen, the bar, one of the dorms, and plenty of lounge space, is an open-air timber structure with incredible views of the surrounding area. We took advantage of the solid wooden posts and set up a slack line. It’s easy to walk down to the river, and follow that track all of the way to Semuc Champey (about 3 k.m. walk).
On our first day, we decided to hang out around the grounds and book one of the tours offered by Utopia: chocolate making! The premise was that you would learn how to turn cocao beans into chocolate, using household appliances. And learn we did. Along with lots of interesting facts, and lots of tasting, we managed to create little trays of our very own chocolate, using only a frying pan, a food processor, and a double broiler. We will definitely be taking these tips home!
The following day, we headed over to the main destination: Semuc Champey. The area has two main draws: Semuc Champey itself, and a cave system that can be explored as part of a guided excursion. We hit the caves first, and meandered our way through the caves, ladders, water, and waterfalls by candlelight.
Next, it was on to Semuc. Our group first climbed up to el mirador, a viewpoint offering amazing views of the area. It says 1.25 hours, and difficult, but even the least fit people in the group made it up the many stairs in less time than that. Regardless of how long it takes, the climb is worth it, as it offers unparalleled views of the limestone pools of Semuc Champey below.
After making our way back down, we were rewarded with the opportunity to finally swim in the pools we’d been ogling. The water was chilly and refreshing, and the pools are almost formed like a staircase of swimming pools; one slightly above the next, each offering a shallow end and a deep end. It’d be easy to lounge around for the entire day in the pools (bring a picnic lunch), but we were soon to be on the next adventure: tubing down the river home.
The sun was already a little low as a group of about 10 of us jumped into our tubes and began floating down the river back towards Utopia. Our guide travelled ahead, marking the safe path along the river that, without fail, two ladies in our crew failed to follow at almost every crucial moment. It was endless laughs as our group of tubers made our way down the river, enjoying the rush of miniature rapids and hoping no one was going to drift off over a waterfall.
All up, we ended up staying for four nights at Utopia, taking advantage of the cheap accommodation and idyllic location. It was hard to tear ourselves away and, indeed, many people didn’t as it was a hotspot for travellers to work for a few weeks or months during their journey, in return for room and board.
Until next time.