My 25th Birthday was near. I was absolutely dreading the day, it felt (to me) to be a big point in my life, where I finally had to start thinking about my future and how to achieve the goals I had for later on in life. Up until this point I would brush off all responsibility and thoughts of the future because “I’m in my early twenties, who cares. I have my whole life to be an adult, to have a career, to buy a house, to start a family!” But I felt like 25 was that age where that all had to change (where I had to actually start thinking if the decisions I was making now were taking me in the right direction) and I was freaking out, as most do (I have spoken to so many friends about this who have assured me I am not alone). For the month leading to my birthday, October 17th, I would often just burst into tears in very public places, like chicken buses in Nicaragua where I had too much time to think and would sob incoherently until my boyfriend would calm me down and assure me I was going to be fine. Anyways, so as my birthday loomed I decided that I wanted to spend my birthday doing something fun and adventurous in a beautiful setting. For months I had heard about a little place called Semuc Champey and how it was the most beautiful place in all of Central America. Sounded perfect. And it was!
Here is how my dreaded 25th birthday ended up being one of the funnest and memorable days on our three-month adventure though Central America.
WHAT IS SEMUC CHAMPEY?
In the middle of the jungles of Guatemala you will find the magical gem that is Semuc Champey, a 300 metre long natural, limestone bridge. Underneath the bridge gushes the Cabanón River and above the bridge lies a collection of tiered infinity pools and waterfalls filled with turquoise, cool water. It is spectacular. Some of the pools are deep enough to dive in whilst others are shallow enough to lie around on the limestone rocks and let sucking fish give your feet a little pedicure.
FYI – Apparently Semuc Champey literally means ‘where the river hides beneath the earth.’
Note: I wish that it hadn’t rained so much the day before and we didn’t have an overcast, grey day as whilst I was having too much fun to take too many photos the photos we did take would be much better quality if the weather was better as our old GoPro takes crappy pics in bad weather.
HOW TO GET THERE
As is the case with most beautiful places Semuc Champey is not the easiest place to reach. The closest town to Semuc Champey is Lanquin (still about a 45min/hour drive away). In order to reach Lanquin you will have to take a mini-van from one of the major cities/towns along the bumpy, windy and often dirt roads.
We came from Panajachel/Antigua which took around eight hours (luckily we did have movies for the drive to keep us entertained). It’s an eight-hour drive from either of the two commercial airports in Guatemala also. If you are backpacking through Central America this is the natural pit stop between Flores and Antigua.
Normally in Central or South America if I have a significantly long journey ahead of me I take night buses so I can sleep the hours away but during our time in Guatemala they had stopped night buses due to it being too dangerous.
As was the case with the rest of Guatemala I found it far more expensive than what I was told (and read) it would be. Whilst I have read blogs that were written no more than a year before my visit stating that the 8 hour bus had cost them less than $20 our bus cost more than $50 (and I price compared and bartered with over twenty agents, I literally could not find it cheaper).
If you were to do this journey via chicken bus it would require hundreds of buses and many days to get there (and we had been told by multiple people that chicken buses should be avoided during our time there due to many assassinations happening on them and as we had needed a police escort between the El Salvador border and Antigua I wasn’t going to risk it).
WHERE TO STAY
Most people stay in Lanquin, the closest village to Semuc Champey, though there are a handful of hostels just outside the entrance to Semuc Champey itself.
The most popular hostel is Zephyr Lodge (which I will write about soon), which is where we stayed. I have also heard great things about Utopia and El Retiro Hostels.
No matter where you stay all the hostels in the area are the same in these factors: None of them have kitchens, supermarkets or restaurants around. You will have to eat at the hostels restaurant. None of them will have wi-fi access. Be prepared to live off the grid. Zephyr had one ten-inch laptop that had internet access between 7am and 7pm, it also had a long line of backpackers trying to use it and many restrictions. All I wanted to do was Skype home on my birthday and I got yelled at by the staff when I did so for one minute as it “used too much internet.” That sucked! I cried (turning 25 was very emotional haha). So if you need to contact home, pay bills, book flights or work then try to organise these things before arriving in the wilderness that is Lanquin (P.S I actually love having a few days off the grid, just not when I had things to do and no prior knowledge that would be the case).
Whilst you could try to hitch a ride to Semuc Champey and do it all independently I think it would be quite hard. I definitely recommend doing a tour through your hostel. It was so much fun. It cost roughly $30 and included round trip transport, a guide and a day full of so much fun!
Here is how the day went:
We left the hostel at around 8.30am. We had to stand in the back of a pick-up truck for the 45 minute drive to Semuc Champey. It was a windy, bumpy drive and I’m super glad it had stopped raining as it would have been a lot worse if they needed to cover the roof with tarpaulin making us sit on the hard, metal floor of the truck. My ass would have been very bruised and it would have been stinking hot.
After arriving we put all of our belongings and clothes into a locker and followed our guide to the entrance of the caves. Here he introduced himself, decorated our faces with war-paint (it was Bat Poo, my face was painted in Bat Poo!!!) and handed us each a candle, which would be our only source of light through the 3km cave adventure. We proceeded to follow him through the caves, the water levels which started at our ankles proceeded to rise to our chins, our arms stretched out high as we struggled to keep the flame alive as we swam through deep waters, jumped into deep pools, climbed up ladders, climbed up ropes and waterfalls, the hot wax dripping onto my hands throughout.
We wore no helmets, no life jackets, no head-torches. It wasn’t the safest thing in the world but man, it was SO much fun. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for the whole two-hour journey underground. It is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done and everyone else on our tour loved it too. Our group of five was the perfect size, I imagine it could become a frustratingly slow process in a large group. I cannot recommend the caves enough, they were so much fun.
Next up we walked up to the base of the gushing waterfall and hopped into the river with our tubes for a fast ride down the river. We were followed by a bunch of local kids who were trying to sell us cans of beer for the ride down. I was quite confused by this, the current was so strong and we were going down the river so fast you’d barely have enough time to open the can (not to mention I do not condone purchasing from children in developing countries). As it were I have later read on other blogs that normally the river is quite calm (the day before we had extremely heavy rains) and the tubing that took us less than five minutes normally takes around thirty (a much more relaxing, beer drinking pace).
Next up on the days adventures was the rope-swing. I have terrible upper body strength so unfortunately rope swings and I normally don’t go together but I was pleasantly surprised to find this was an actual sitting rope swing, no arm strength necessary. It was so much fun I did it twice.
(Watch the Video linked below to see the Rope Swing fun!)
After a short lunch break we hiked the El Mirador trail to the viewpoint where you could see a bird’s eye view of Semuc Champey. The 45 minute hike was much tougher than I was expecting. The path was extremely steep, the path mainly consisted of large and winding stairs and due to the heavy rain the day before it was extremely muddy and slippery. It was also extremely hot. I was super stoked to reach the top of the viewpoint (and extremely tired), but the view was worth it.
The hike down was a bit easier on the body, but no less slippery. I was glad to reach the bottom of the path and the beginning of the beautiful pools. It was nice to dive into the cool waters and clean off all the mud on my legs. During our visit we befriended some locals who showed us some limestone caves under the surface, which required you to dive under the water and into a gap in the rock face to a cave so small you had just enough space to breathe. It required lots of trust in the locals but was one of the coolest little finds (again, watch the video linked at the bottom to see these caves).
what to take
- A Padlock for the lockers
- Closed in shoes for the Caves and Hike
- A water bottle
- A waterproof camera
A PERFECT DAY
We had such a fabulous day exploring the natural wonder that is Semuc Champey. It was beautiful, it was adventurous, it was fun and it was the perfect way to celebrate turning a quarter of a century. The fact that I barely took any photos is a big indicator of how much fun I had.
Don’t visit Guatemala without visiting the magical Semuc Champey! It was definitely my favourite place in Guatemala and one of my highlights in all of Central America!
For the record, I am totally fine with being 25 now and I’m looking forward to many more years being careless and free on the road of adventure- adulthood can wait a while more!
I made a short 15 second video of our day in Semuc Champey – WATCH IT HERE!!!!!!
Over to you. Have you visited somewhere similar to magical Semuc Champey? Have you ever had a birthday freak out? I want to hear all about it in the comments below!