Guatemala, whether you like to admit it or not has a defined tourist route. You can start in the south from either El Salvador or Honduras or you have entered from Mexico or Belize in the north, whichever way you travel your itinerary will include Tikal, lago di Atitlan, Antigua and Semuc Champey.
Semuc Champey was the place in Guatemala I had pinpointed on the map upon the first five minutes of research, it was the place tourists rave upon during brief discussions and why wouldn’t they? The guide book assures me ‘it’s the the most beautiful place in Guatemala.’ The hype surrounding Semuc Champey grew.
and so we went.
Standing up in the back of a ute with 12 other people, full throttle racing though the isolated Guatamalan jungle regions of Alta Verapaz merely added to the excitement. The mountainous views stretched on and on with no civilisation in it’s path, almost a prod, an assurance that we are getting off the beaten path. As the car finally slowed, we cross a dilapidated wooden bridge and below, a vibrant teal river. As we unload our gear, I’m enraptured by the serenity. I’ve immediately understood the appeal of this place that so many have felt before me. With it’s stilted wooden thatch huts adorning a preened hillside and a huge wooden veranda spilling out from the restaurant along with some earthy beats, El portal (a popular backpacker choice), is a little manicured slice of nature, our home for the next few nights. Idyllic right?!
Checked into our little bungalows we visit the tour board. It offers 1 tour: A full day excursion including the limestone bridge and an adventure tour through a cave system with candles, but that’s tomorrow. With a few hours left of daylight, we have a walk in mind but the manager can only direct us to the caves or the natural limestone bridge. Unsure how far, we assume we can go for a leisurely stroll to stretch our legs and find our bearings… we were wrong. Turn right from our hotel and within 3 minutes you are at the ticket booth to the natural bridge, a dead end. Left from our hotel, we cross back over the bridge and 100m further down a small trail meet the ticket booth for the cave. The only other option available to us is the road back out, leading to the town of Laquin. We look at each other and scratch our heads, there is nowhere to go.
The natural bridge is phenomenal, truly idyllic. It is a 300m limestone formation caused from the progressive force of the Cahabon river pummelling into the soft limestone canyon over thousands of years. The result is a 300m tunnel in which the river freely flows and later resurfaces, continuing into 196km journey west to Lago de Izabel. Above ground, the ancient remains of a shallow valley remain; a natural bridge collecting the wiry runoff from the Cahabon river. For hours we traipsed the bridge, sliding down the slippery cascades into the next lagoon and generally lazing about in the translucent pools.
But outside of the natural bridge, the next few days were spent twiddling our thumbs and walking back along the dusty ‘main’ road. With no wildlife other than a few vultures, no walking paths, no view points, no hikes down to different pockets we couldn’t help but wonder what people do here. Other than a swim in the river, a jump of the bridge and a one day tour, i’m baffled by the lack of activities in a place as beautiful as this. I’m left wondering, do other people feel like there is nothing to do here or is that the charm, forced R&R??
I can’t help but do the maths. To get to Semuc Champey it’s a full day journey from either Guatemala city or Antigua, 2 days there and back… and what for, a few hours of swimming and a 2 hour walk though a cave?
If I was to do Semuc Champey again, I would stay in Coban, a town directly on the transit path between Antigua and Flores and do a day trip to Semuc Chempey from there. Sadly, one day is more than plenty to experience the offerings of Semuc Champey. It is certainly worth a detour to break up the long route between Antigua and Tikal, but would I make a three day trip just to see this place, well the jury is still out on that one. If you are after rest, then go ahead, there is plenty of that here.