Thursday, 7th August
We left Flores at 8am or thereabouts bound for Semuc Champey, a popular destination for seeing beautiful waterfalls, pools and rivers in a valley set amongst Guatemalan jungle and forest. We had booked this leg through a travel agent in Flores so we didn’t have to think about too much. That included our travel to Lanquin, transfer to Semuc Champey, one night in Semuc Champey and then transfer to a hostel in Lanquin for our second night. We would then travel on to Antigua, a colonial town to the South West. By booking through an agent we thought this would make it easy on us but as I will get into later we had to double check things were booked and organise our transport as it seems communication is not high on the agenda here. We have learnt our lesson and will be booking directly ourselves in future to save money, although it was good this time to take some of the thinking out of where we will stay and the booking.
The journey to Semuc Champey took all day, leaving at around 8am from Flores and getting to our hostel, ‘El Portal’, at around 6pm. This included a minibus that was full to the brim from Flores, via Coban to Lanquin. On the way we made a couple of stops for food and to stretch the legs, the latter very much needed. Kirsty and myself were crammed in the front with the driver. It was a three seater up front but only just. This meant for a good view of the scenery but also a tight squeeze. The landscapes on the way to Lanquin were stunning, dense green forests and people, homes, shops and roadside cafes all along the way. The road was sealed but still had loads of pot-holes and speed bumps through the towns. It seems that there are no speed limits here, only speed humps to slow traffic down. This meant that we had an average speed of 50-60kmh. The scenery reminded us of Sri Lanka in places, with the rolling hills, all covered in green, people working the fields, and in place of tea there was corn. Kirsty was excited at one point to see a man on a horse, wearing a cowboy hat, lasso a cow that had seemingly wandered off into the road. There were also loads of men walking stretches of road with machetes in hand. It seemed as though they might have been some kind of off-job men who hacked away at undergrowth should you need it. Either that or a Guatemalan male doesn’t like to be too far from their machete. It is definitely the accessory de jour here. So, we saw a lot on the drive from Flores to Lanquin and got there feeling like we had seen a lot of Guatemalan countryside, in the North anyway. We had now passed through through ‘Departments’ as they call the districts here – Peten and Alta Verapaz.
After a winding ride down a dirt road, the minibus dropped us off in Lanquin, a small town in the Alta Verapaz district of Guatemala with a population of around 15,000. From Lanquin we found the guy from the ‘El Portal’ hostel where we were staying and jumped into a truck for the onward 11km journey along another dirt road to Semuc Champey. The National Monument (pretty much a national park) of Semuc Champey is home the Cahabón River and a natural 300m limestone tunnel, through which passes the Cahabón River. On top of the tunnel are a series of stepped, blue/green pools which you can go swimming in. There is also a walk with a lookout point and a view down over the river, waterfalls and the pools.
The ride was bumpy to Semuc Champey to say the least. We were lucky to get picked up last and so had seats in the cab but there were those standing in the back that would’ve had a rough ride. We arrived at our hostel early evening and were pleased with what we saw. Our room was an attic type setup above another room with an open window looking out across the hostel grounds and covered in thatched grasses for a roof. We had thought this would mean bugs and mosquitos in the night but there aren’t really any mosquitos up here which is a relief. People come to Semuc Champey mostly for the tours they run from the hostels of the tunnels, caves and river. You can stay in Lanquin and get a 4×4 for the 45 minutes ride to the park entrance but we thought by staying in Semuc Champey itself we would be a short walk from the park entrance and could wander around ourselves without the need of paying for a tour. We were keen on the walks through the jungle, checking out the river and waterfalls and swimming in the pools but not so keen on the caves. Basically you are guided through a cave filled with water with a candle to guide your way. It might have been fun but they charge a lot for these things here. So, on a budget we would take ourselves on our own tour the next day. We didn’t do much that evening being knackered from the journey so we had dinner, chatted to a couple from the States and took ourselves to bed.
Friday, 8th August
We woke up at dawn with the open-air window doing little to block out the light. We then found the curtain rolled up and stashed to one side that would have been useful to find the night before. We had some budget cornflakes in our room (you have to hide food here as technically it is against hostel rules; they have a restaurant you see), and then relaxed with a tea and coffee, overlooking the amazing view down over the river. This hostel is right on the Cahabón River and you feel like you are right in the valley with the sound of the water passing by. We then had to sort out some of our onwards travel and accommodation. With so many parties involved in the travel agency thing here it seems as though a lot can go wrong. Nothing really did in this case but we overheard others who had issues and will still had to check and double-check everything was as it should be. This is what we thought we wouldn’t have to do by booking through an agent. Anyway, with that out of the way we set off to explore Semuc Champey Park by ourselves.
It was only QZ100 (US$12) to enter for both of us and we walked about 45 minutes to the lookout which gave us breathtaking views down onto the river, pools and valley below. From there we descended and, already in our bathers, and jumped into the pools. The water here is so clean, fresh and cool. Perfect after a massively sweat inducing climb to the lookout. The pools are in a series connected with small waterfalls so you can hop and slide from one to the other, working your way down the river until you get to the big drop and can’t go any further. We did this though five or six pools then made the short walk back to grab our stuff, they give you lockers here for your gear. We had such a great time here swimming around, exploring and sliding down rocks worn away by waterfalls. The water is an amazing blue and green colour, there is dense forest all around you and the sun is shining – perfect. Lunch was now on our mind so we found a nice spot by the river for our budget lunch of rice cakes, tuna from a can and biscuits. We are actually getting pretty good at budget eating now. It was only a short walk from here back to the park entrance and the hostel where we rested by the river there before making sue of their showers and grabbing our bags.
We had missed the only transfer of the day to our other hostel which we thought might be the case. They run one bus at 1pm, not at 5pm as our travel agency had told us. We had been told that we had transport organised but of course this was myth. So, we flagged down a pick-up and jump in the back. If you take the comfort factor out of the drive it was a great way to get back to Lanquin, we had a great view of the countryside and drove through small villages on the way. The driver seemed in a hurry and wasn’t too worried about his suspension as we bounced over the road.
We got to Lanquin half an hour later and jumped out, wandered around a bit disorientated before finding a guy from the hostel we were going to next – ‘Hostel Oasis’. We jumped in another truck and ten minutes later we were at the ‘Hostel Oasis’. This hostel is out of Lanquin a bit and seems nice and quiet. It is also by the river and the restaurant area gives you amazing views down onto the river and across to the hills. We went for a swim in the river, which turned out to be freezing. It’s fairly quick flowing here and obviously the water doesn’t hang around long enough to warm up. So, we didn’t stay in the water for long but long enough to feel energised. At dusk by the river an amazing event took place. We noticed a few bats flying through the restaurant area, being open-air and looking down to the river could see thousands of bats flying all around. They were coming out of a nearby cave for a night-time of flying around and eating bugs and were following the path of the river. We walked down to the banks of the river and stood still whilst all these bats streamed passed us. It is amazing how they don’t just smash into you, with the sheer numbers flying passed. You have to fight the urge to duck and dive, knowing that they won’t hit you. For the rest of the evening, we set about taking it easy at the hostel for our last night in Lanquin before heading on to Antigua the next day. We have a bus booked for 8am. Fingers crossed it turns up.