Lanquin and the pools of Semuc Champey are, these days, very firmly on the classic gringo trail through Guatemala. Backpackers exploring this huge, tropical, mountainous, chaotic and historical country are usually making their way down from Flores and the legendary ruins of Tikal in the north, having come in over the border with the state of Chiapas in Mexico, or through the tiny, ex-British colony of Belize. Or they might be doing it the other way round, and heading north-east towards Mexico or Belize, having come from Antigua Guatemala or Lake Atitlan.
The famous pools of Semuc Champey are extremely conveniently placed, being roughly halfway between Antigua and Flores. They’re not just a handy stop-off, however. The sight of the fish-scale, crystal-clear pools from above and the feeling of swimming in them is more than worth the trip, and when you throw the chance to get away from it all and stay in a cabin in the jungle into the mix, you know you’ve found paradise.
Lanquin comes as something of a surprise as a bustling town with everything you could need, hidden the way at the end of a long, windy and incredibly bumpy mountain road in the heart of the Guatemalan jungle. Whichever direction you’re coming from, don’t get your hopes up too high when you see the sign saying it’s only 12km to go to Lanquin, as that will take the best part of an hour. You come into a colourful little town with a hectic market, where the local population speaks Kekchi as a first language, and Spanish second. There are English speakers around, but a basic grasp of Spanish will get you a long way, and asking a local to teach you a few words of Kekchi will entertain everyone involved.
If you’ve come in from Mexico, you’ll soon be missing their beautifully efficient bus services. In Guatemala, you either have the ‘chicken buses’, old American school buses that have been flashed up and had a few more rows of chairs squeezed in, and on which I was legitimately sitting next to a basket of cockerels, or the shuttles which run between all of the main tourist sites. These shuttles often don’t cost too much more than a chicken bus would and are much quicker. Getting a chicken bus is definitely an experience everyone should have once, but the distances are so long that you might end up having to overnight in Coban if you choose this option on the way to Lanquin, so if you’re tight on time or don’t speak Spanish I’d always recommend the shuttle.
Where to Stay
Often in Guatemala, we just turned up and found somewhere to stay, which worked really well in Antigua and Flores. In Lanquin, however, as soon as the door of your shuttle opens you’ll be mobbed by hostel representatives trying to convince you to pick them, so it’s good to have something booked.
On a recommendation, we went for El Retiro, just outside the main town, which we adored. We ended up staying for three nights instead of two so that we had a day for Semuc and a day for relaxing in hammocks, swimming in the river, sunbathing, exploring the local Lanquin Caves (definitely worth a visit- go for the extreme tour!), watching the fireflies come out at dusk and enjoying the buffet dinner, the cheap Cuba Libres during happy hour and the impressive thunderstorm. The perfect spot to recharge your batteries after some hardcore backpacking.
We also heard great things about Utopia, which is a good 45-minute drive from the town (if you can face another journey after the 10 hours in the shuttle) near Semuc Champey itself, and is the perfect spot to escape from it all, with very little wifi signal, an idyllic jungle setting and an all-vegetarian menu of locally sourced food.
Wherever you stay will probably have its own restaurant, but they are much pricier and can get a bit samey. If you’re near the main town don’t be afraid to branch out and spread your Quetzales around a bit, as there are some great and extremely reasonably priced places to eat in the centre.
To tour or not to tour?
You essentially have two options when it comes to seeing Semuc Champey itself. The pools and the park surrounding them are about an hour from Lanquin. Most hostels offer a tour to see the pools which also includes a trip exploring caves by candlelight, bridge jumping and a tubing tour for 185Q, which is very reasonable if you tot it all up. Some people absolutely rave about the cave tour, but some people aren’t quite so thrilled by it, like Charlie on Travel. If on the other hand, confined spaces and swimming through a cave with one hand toting a candle doesn’t sound like your idea of fun (and I can’t say I blame you), then you can get a collectivo to Semuc for 25Q each way, and then pay the 50Q entry fee to the park.
We went with the second option, and were pretty pleased we did as it meant we got to the pools earlier on and were able to stay there splashing around for as long as we wanted, cooling off after the hot and sweaty hike (brace yourself) up to the sensational viewpoint. As we arrived in Guatemala just as the rainy season took hold at the beginning of June, it was fairly inevitable that at mid-afternoon storm clouds would roll in and thunder would start to rumble, and we didn’t fancy being in the water whilst an electrical storm was raging, so we were happy to see it in the sunshine and dictate the pace of our own day.
The pools themselves are as stunning as they’re cracked up to be, especially when viewed from above. A natural limestone bridge has formed over a raging river, which, at the time we visited, was swollen by wet season rains. At the top end of the pools, you see this mud-coloured torrent disappearing under the ground and being replaced by beautiful, crystal-clear water, which has trickled down from mountain streams and has nothing whatsoever to do with the river that rushes by a few metres below. This water cascades over various steps and down impressive waterfalls that form the pools that remind you of fish scales when seen from above, and is a complete joy to swim in.
Once you’ve had your fill, try and time it right when you hop back on a collectivo, a pickup truck with big cages on the back which everyone stands up in, so that you don’t get rained on. Hold on tight as it’s a real rollercoaster ride, with steep climbs and hair-raising descents.
Whether you go for the adrenaline rush of bridge jumps and cave swimming or limit yourself to a leisurely swim in the pools and plenty of time in a hammock at your hostel, enjoying the soundtrack of the jungle, I defy you not to be impressed by Semuc Champey and Lanquin.
Img Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Pixabay, Lanquin – Semuc Champey – Mickaël T. CC by 2.0, Lanquin Caves – Antti T. Nissinen CC by 2.0, Semuc Champey Panorama – Matthias Hiltner CC by 2.0 & Pools at Semuc Champey – descubriendoelmundo CC by SA 2.0.