After leaving Belize, where Dragon swam with sharks and explored the jungle, Dragon’s 3-month-long backpacking adventure deposited him in the middle of Guatemala, where one of his favorite adventures led him to the tiered turquoise pools and underground caverns of Semuc Champey. An often overlooked and underrated country, Guatemala houses secrets and wonders that can impress even dragons (who as magical creatures are already quite accustomed to seeing sorcery and other things of majesty). But this is no sorcery. The gemstone colored pools are real and as fascinating as a fairy tale. And like any good fairy tale, it’s full of secrets. Here’s the best ones you should know before planning a visit:
1. Yes, the Semuc Champey pools really are that blue. That’s not Photoshop. That’s turquoise water as pretty as gemstones.
2. In Q’eqchi’ Semuc Champey means “where the river hides.”
3. The tiered pools actually exist as part of a 300m long bridge made of limestone deposits that formed over time. Water pools above the bridge, creating tranquil bathing spots, but hidden below all that rock, the Cahabon River flows unseen underneath.
4. The pools range from 1 to 3 meters deep and are fed by karst springs and small waterfalls that flow down from the surrounding mountains.
5. Locals and tourists often scale some of these waterfalls to jump off the sides of the cliff into the pools below. And when they’ve had their fill of that, they jump from the top of an old, rickety, railroad bridge nearby.
6. The hike to the top of the overlook to get the iconic aerial shot is one full uphill kilometer of several hundred slippery steps. In the local Spanish language, this viewing platform is called El Mirador, and it’s worth every breathtaking step.
7. The closest town to Semuc Champey lies 11 kilometers away, and it’s common to reach it by chicken bus. Yes, a bus made for transporting chickens has also become a popular method of tourist travel in Guatemala.
8. At the far edge of Semuc Champey, some people have disappeared where the river flows underground, never to be seen again. For obvious reasons, you should keep a healthy distance away from that side.
9. A little further downstream– and far away from this dangerous hole of death– tourists can access the underground caves by entering where the river finally resurfaces in a much calmer fashion than than where it first raged below. The Semuc Champey caves offer a unique tour experience where you’ll be guided by nothing but a candle as your sole source of light.
This often means swimming through water one-handed as the other is held high above your head, dripping wax, and carefully gliding through underground waterfalls while trying to keep the flame from going out.
10. You can also leisurely tube down a calm portion of the Cahabon River or safely whitewater raft down a class III and IV rapids section as part of your complete Semuc Champey experience.
Getting to Semuc Champey
Chicken buses are common modes of affordable transportation in Guatemala. The closest town to Semuc Champey is Lanquin, and these buses offer the cheapest method of reaching it (though you may also opt for private shuttles to get you there). Once you’ve reached the town, Semuc Champey still lies 11 km away, but it’s easy to hire a local 4×4 driver on the spot to bring you the rest of the way through the jungle.
Where to Stay – Semuc Champey Hotels & Hostels
We stayed at the Utopia Eco Hotel. You can view their website here. They house a restaurant, bar, and even a Spanish language school. They also offer many guided activities, including Semuc Champey tours.