The day began with Zev waking up early to find us a cheap tour that wasn’t coordinated through our hostel. We got in late the night before and spoke to the hostel about our options to see Semuc Champey but they seemed a little bit pricey. We traveled the entire day before with a three hour ride from Lake Atitlan to Antigua and then a nine hour ride from Antigua to Lanquin. By the time we arrived to El Muro hostel in Lanquin, we were tired, hungry, and a little grumpy.
The bus ride into Lanquin, a small town with only one street, was dizzying to say the least. The roads were some of the steepest I have ever been on and combined with the unpaved gravel, it was a bumpy ride. We had also been stuck in quite a bit of traffic earlier the day which made our arrival even later than we had hoped for. The deal with Semuc Champey is that it is a beautiful nature reserve complete with six fresh water pools you can swim in and waterfalls galore. We only had one day to see the park given our schedule and the amount of travel time required to get there and back.
Lanquin is the main town where most people stay who want to visit the park. It is an hour drive to get from Lanquin to Semuc Champey. The town consists of accommodations for tourists and it is clear that tourism drives the majority of the local economy. Visitors to the park can also stay in a few places closer to Semuc Champey but if you stay in one of those hotels or hostels the accommodation is your only option for food or transport. We are happy we didn’t stay closer to the park because we only had one day there and all transport arrives and departs from Lanquin. This would have been annoying for us in terms of getting to another hostel even later at night and waking up even earlier to head to Tikal the following day.
After shopping around town in the morning Zev found a tour company that would take us to Semuc and back and it included a tubing tour, a cave excursion, a short hike, and time to swim in the pools for 150Q, about $20. The tour also included our entrance fee to the park. We talked to a few people who told us that the entrance fee was 50Q and transportation there and back would be another 50Q so we were just paying an extra 50Q for a guide through the caves (which you need) and the tubing down the river. The hostel quoted us at 190Q so this tour saved us a few dollars each.
When we got into the car that was taking us to Semuc we soon discovered that we were with the group that had paid 190Q through the hostel. It made us feel better about shopping around knowing that we were getting the same experience for a little less money. The ride was very bumpy and we were about 15 people piled in the back of a pickup truck, standing up, holding onto the makeshift scaffolding they installed in the back. I had ridden in the back of pickup trucks in my other travels but never standing up so it was a fun new experience. The reassuring part of the drive was that the drivers are very familiar with the roads and transport tourists to the park daily.
Our day basically went as follows: hike to the lookout point for about an hour, swim in the pools for about an hour, eat lunch, go caving, and finally go tubing down the river. It was a great way to do Semuc in one day but if we had had more time we would most likely broken up those activities into a couple of days. If you end up doing this tour I would recommend skipping the hike and meeting back up with the group for lunch so that you get more time to swim in the pools, slide down the waterfalls, and just chill in the crystal clear water. The hike was nice but really muddy because it is rainy season so I slipped pretty badly and scratched up my leg in addition to getting a nice bruise. The lookout was really beautiful but I would have traded it for more swim time.
The cave tour was the coolest thing I think I have ever done. We each had candles and walked down into a pitch black cave with water up to our knees. There were points where you only held onto a rope and basically had to swim through the water because it was so deep. There were rushing waterfalls and ladders to climb up and down and it was just so much fun. We had to balance a burning candle in order to see while trying to navigate through a dark cave filled with water: awesome.
After the cave we grabbed tubes and jumped in the river for a quick tubing experience. It was really fun but really short. As soon as we got in the water a group of local boys also jumped in with coolers to sell us cold beer. They let you pay after and are pretty pushy with their product. After walking back up the river the guide offered to help people jump off the 30 foot bridge into the river. Zev jumped at the chance and there’s a pretty epic video of him fearlessly hurtling off the bridge into the rushing water.
We headed back to Lanquin around 5:00pm and had a chill night. We got some pizza and salad from a local cafe and went to bed exhausted around 9:00pm. We had to wake up the next morning to take an all day bus ride to Tikal for our final stop of the trip.