Semuc Champey: Enjoy the Perfect Day in Guatemala
A trip to Semuc Champey, a limestone ridge with turquoise pools, was for us a highlight of our travels in Guatemala. Read our comprehensive guide with tips on when to go, what to see and do, where to eat and whether it is better to go with a tour or visit Semuc Champey independently.
Semuc Champey is an isolated place near the village of Lanquin, and it can make you wonder what persuades travelers from all around the world to undertake a long journey (8 hours only to get to Lanquin is a norm) to reach this place in the middle of the jungle where still indigenous Maya people live.
It is a natural limestone bridge with six perfectly blue pools set into it which have put Lanquin and Semuc Champey on a backpacker's list of must-dos in Guatemala.
This description probably doesn't do justice to Semuc Champey, so you need to check our photos if you had not seen it before elsewhere.
And it is much better when you look at it with your very own eyes, not via computer screen. That's why we have created this ultimate guide to Semuc Champey. To inspire you to visit this place set in the lush jungle of Guatemala.
THINGS TO DO IN SEMUC CHAMPEY
Visiting Semuc Champey is not only about slowly moving from one pool to another (it can be if you want though!), but you can also do some other activities to spice up your day a bit.
Hiking to Mirador | Having fun in the pools is great, but only when you climb to the official viewpoint, you can fully admire how stunning Semuc Champey is. From El Mirador you can see blueish pools below and lush green hills around. It is pretty cool when you know that the river flows under the limestone pools! To get to the viewpoint, you need to climb several rickety stairs to the top - the hike to the viewpoint took us approximately 30 minutes but can take up to 45 minutes in case you are not used to hiking when it is too hot and humid. There are several vendors along the way selling cold drinks and coconut water in case you need to refresh. The only thing we were not particularly happy with was the limit we were allowed to spend on the viewing platform, but it is probably necessary to follow this regulation because of many people waiting. We recommend you to go to the mirador first, so you can jump to the refreshing pools after this feat.
Swimming in the Pools | For many the favorite part of this trip is swimming and jumping to pools of Semuc Champey. You can do whatever you wish here, but time in the pools of Semuc Champey flies incredibly fast. The best way how to enjoy them is to start at the top pool and slowly make your way to the last one! Some of the pools are deep so you can jump and swim in them while some are shallow only good for sitting and enjoying the views. There are lockers where you can store valuables you only need to bring your lock.
Tubing in Semuc Champey | When the water level is high enough, you can go tubing down the Cahabon River for 30 minutes. Rental cost 50 GTQ.
Visit Kan'Ba Cave | This activity was included in our tour, and we had no idea what to expect from this cave, but it turned out to be one of the best things we've done in Semuc Champey. You will get a candle by the entrance because there is no light inside the cave, and from now only you'll be walking, swimming and sliding in the cave for about an hour and a half. Even when it is quite dark inside, we found this activity completely safe (it is Guatemala style, so you won't get any helmet, but you can ask for lifejacket). Visiting Kan'Ba Cave is often included in the tours provided by hostels, but you can visit it on your own as well, the entrance fee cost 60 GTQ - you might want to get there in the afternoon when tours leave. Unfortunately, we did not have a waterproof camera, so we don't have any photo from the cave. You can walk barefoot, wear sneakers as we did but, of course, having water shoes is the best solution to protect your feet.
See Waterfall | Only tens of meters away from the entrance to the cave you'll find a small waterfall. You can plunge in the pool beneath, jump from a five-meters high platform, or even from the waterfall!
Jump to the River | When jumping off the waterfall is not enough for you, there is another adrenaline thing you can try in Semuc Champey - a rope swing which is right between the cave and the waterfall. Well, let's put it this way. Martin went first, as no one in our group seemed to be too enthusiastic about jumping to the river from a swing, and he jumped so badly (he hit his face when landed, and he lost his contact lens), that no one else wanted to repeat it after him. He even did not push me to do it either, as he usually does, so I guess it must have really hurt. Hopefully, you'll have someone more skilled person in your group who will show you how to jump and not how not to jump!
HOW TO VISIT SEMUC CHAMPEY - IS IT BETTER TO TAKE A TOUR OR TRAVEL INDEPENDENTLY?
Every hostel and hotel in Lanquin offers tours to Semuc Champey, and it is only up to you if you wish to join a group or you prefer to visit the place independently. Although we usually prefer doing things on our own, we found the tour quite interesting and inexpensive, that's why we decided to sign up for it.
Visiting Semuc Champey Independently | Because Lanquin is 11 kilometers from Semuc Champey, you need to arrange your transport first when traveling independently. You can use transport organized from your hostel (for GTQ 50 roundtrip), or you can try to catch a pick-up truck from the main crossroad - the price ranges between 15 and 20 GTQ per person per one way. To get back, you need to either wait for your hostel pick-up (it arrives when the tour finishes) or try to get on any truck waiting at the entrance. Be prepared that the ride is very bumpy. When you arrive at the entrance of Semuc Champey, you are boss of your time now, so you can go straight to the pools (entrance fee is GTQ 50), to the mirador or to the cave (GTQ 60) in any order you find the best.
And there is, of course, even one way (the cheapest one) how to reach Semuc Champey - you can walk!
Pros of visiting Semuc Champey on own: you can organize your time as you wish, you can spend as much time as you want in the pools, you can be ahead of groups and have some places only for yourself.
Cons of visiting Semuc Champey on own: it is actually not that much cheaper, and you will have to arrange everything by yourself.
Visiting Semuc Champey with a tour | We decided to take a full-day tour from our hostel for GTQ 160 per person, and it included transport, entrance to Semuc Champey and entrance to the cave. Everyone uses big trucks for transport, so expect to stand for an hour in the back of the truck while being slammed against the sides - pretty uncomfortable. When we arrived, we went to the caves first (we had a small group, so we had to wait only for a bit when we met another group who was returning), then we continued to a rope swing and to the waterfall. After that, we had a half an hour long break for lunch, and after lunch, we finally went to the Mirador. Our last activity was plunging in the pools - we had approximately one hour and a half, which we found enough to unwind.
Pros of visiting Semuc Champey with a tour: you do not need to worry about transport or any additional fees, everything is included in the price, you will visit the candlelight cave (not many people decide on doing it independently).
Cons of visiting Semuc Champey with a tour: your time is organized, so you cannot spend more time in the pools if you want to.
You can book the Semuc Champey tour with your hostel, or you can reserve it in advance here.
WHAT IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT SEMUC CHAMPEY
Guatemala has a pleasant tropical climate all year round with hot temperatures (it can be a bit chilly when you travel to highlands). The dry season runs from November to April while the rainy season is from May to October.
Obviously, the dry season is the most popular time to visit Guatemala, but in the wet season, you can expect rain usually only for a couple of hours a day as it rarely rains all day long.
You can visit Semuc Champey all year round - expect to share the place with others, especially during the high (dry) season.
If you want to enjoy a more peaceful atmosphere (and lower prices), your best bet is to arrive in the middle of the rainy season, but it is worth to wait for some sunshine, so the pools will have that desired color.
Semuc Champey can occasionally flood during the rainy season, so it is always better, to have some patience or a couple of extra days in case you will have to wait. Also, if you are visiting Guatemala during the rainy season, check weather forecast more often and have some backup plan in case you would have to skip this destination.
HOW LONG SHOULD YOU STAY IN LANQUIN
Generally, the visit of Semuc Champey is the only worthwhile thing you can do in Lanquin area, but because of its remoteness, you should make sure that those turquoise pools are what you want to see and do while in Guatemala, otherwise, this could turn out into a long, tiring and also disappointing detour.
When you are on a tight schedule, note that although the actual tour to Semuc Champey will require only one day of your precious time, you need to add one day when you travel to Lanquin and another day to get to your next destination on your itinerary. Overall, you must devote at least three days to fully enjoy this natural beauty. Usually, people stay in Lanquin for two nights because of that.
When traveling by rental car, you can leave Lanquin after you finish your visit to Semuc Champey and move a bit further the same day. In that case, one night in the destination should be enough.
FOOD IN SEMUC CHAMPEY
When visiting Semuc Champey, you can buy your own snack (there is not a big grocery store in Lanquin, so the supply is limited), ask your hostel to prepare packed lunch (the price is usually GTQ 25), eat in the restaurant near the bridge where they sell buffet lunch for GTQ 50 or buy food in one of many stalls between bridge and Semuc Champey entrance.
There are also many kids around selling water, pop or chocolate.
WHAT TO PACK
Because you arrived at Semuc Champey to fully enjoy magical limestone pools and flooded caves, you should also be well-equipped in order to make the most of your experience - yes, you will spend most of your time in the water. We've handpicked five things we think are essential to pack with you for your Semuc Champey adventure.
GoPro | We were not able to take many pictures during this trip because we don't travel with a waterproof camera at the moment. Some of the people in our group used it inside the cave when we were jumping to the water and in the pools as well.
Waterproof Phone Case | This is a must in case you want to take your phone with you and still want to have it functional after this trip.
Sunscreen | It is hot and humid in Semuc Champey, and because you will be all day on the sun and in the water, it is clever to invest and buy a waterproof sunscreen with high SPF.
IS SEMUC CHAMPEY WORTH THE VISIT
We had a great day in Semuc Champey despite the fact that Martin had visited this place several years ago with his family and could have seen it without the crowds. Today, no matter how time-consuming visiting of Semuc Champey is, the word about its exceptionality has spread out, and natural beauty of this place put Semuc Champey firmly on a backpacker's well-trodden path.
Is then Semuc Champey worth the visit? We think it is, but you need to set your expectations.
First, do not expect to have pools, cave or the viewpoint only for yourself: Semuc Champey is on almost every itinerary, and there are lots of people, not only foreigners but locals as well.
Second, make sure in advance that you are comfortable to spend at least half a day in the water. You don't need to be a good swimmer as most of the pools are not deep, but it can be boring to watch other people in the pools if you don't have any intentions to jump in.
Third, it is not worth to visit Semuc Champey only because of the viewpoint. Although the mirador overlooking pools from above is splendid, you can spend on the platform only limited time, something between 2 and 5 minutes - it depends how busy the day is.
Last but not least, it is much better to find out how large a group leaving to Semuc Champey from your hostel the next day will be. It was only nine of us that day, and it was just the right number - we did not have to wait anywhere too long. When we had read bad reviews about the caves, it was simply because the group was too big, and there was a lot of standing rather than exploring the cave.
Once you arrive with realistic expectation and with a positive state of mind, we believe you'll enjoy a memorable day out surrounded by unique nature.
WHERE TO STAY BEFORE AND AFTER VISITING SEMUC CHAMPEY
Semuc Champey lies near a small village Lanquin where tourism completely took over, so you will find here plenty of hostels and hotels, some of them are also along the way to nearby Semuc Champey - hotels will always pick you up in case you don't drive.
Because Semuc Champey belongs altogether with Antigua and Tikal among the three most popular destinations in Guatemala, make sure you will have your accommodation booked in advance.
We arrived during Easter, and it was near to impossible to find something decent within our budget.
Budget | Hostal Vista Verde Lanquin - Perfectly clean rustic dormitories and private rooms, outdoor pool, restaurant and bar on the spot, all of that run by a friendly and always positive Mayan family.
Mid-range | Utopia Eco Hotel - Beautiful eco-hotel set in the jungle boasts with a relaxed and sociable atmosphere and spacious terrace.
Luxury | El Portal de Champey - The setting of this hotel is just perfect. Do not expect luxury in the right sense of the term, you are still in one of the most remote places in Guatemala, but it is for sure the best accommodation in Semuc Champey.
Our best pick | Greengos Hotel - The most popular hotel in the area offers many types of accommodation which will suit every budget. It is located right near Semuc Champey, and the hotel has a great vibe and design.
HOW TO GET TO LANQUIN
Lanquin is a tiny village set deep in the jungle in Guatemala, and if there hadn't been for Semuc Champey, the shining star of the region, no traveler would probably have visited this place because of its remoteness.
Even though almost every visitor of Guatemala is nowadays traveling to Lanquin, there is still not a paved road for the last hour or so, and Lanquin's position, 8 hours drive from two major tourist destinations, Antigua and Flores (base for visiting Tikal Ruins) is not an advantage either.
Here are the best ways how to get to Lanquin.
Rental Car | It has never been easier to travel around Guatemala than it is now. Roads are safe in general and rental companies aplenty. Rental car is also the best (and economic) way how to get around if you are traveling as a group (4 people), and when you are on a tight schedule and need to get from one place to another to see everything from your itinerary. The chances are that you will be coming from the lower part of the country, from Guatemala City, Lake Atitlan or Antigua. In that case, you need to drive to Coban. From Coban take a road number 5 and just after a small village of Pajal turn right on AV-6 which will take you to Lanquin. This section is a bit tricky. The road is narrow, unpaved and there are no crash barriers, so drive safely!
Shuttle | Traveling between destinations by tourist shuttle is the most common way how to get around. Although it is a bit more expensive than the public bus, given the distances between Antigua and Lanquin or Tikal and Lanquin and the travel time, taking a shuttle seemed like the only logical option for us. Even without stopping (there are only a couple of stops for bathroom and lunch) the journey from Antigua to Lanquin took us 9 hours, so most likely we would not have made it by public transport in one day, or we would have arrived late. You will find many travel agencies providing tourists with shuttle services we only heard about one company you should avoid - San Juan Travel. Shuttle prices range between GTQ 125 to 200 from Antigua to Lanquin.
Always buy your onward ticket from Lanquin to another destination from your hotel or hostel in Lanquin. There are stories about many scammers who will sell you fake tickets in Flores or Antigua and the shuttle never turns up.
Public Bus | When traveling by public transport, for example from Antigua or Lake Atitlan, you need to take a bus to Coban (when going from Antigua, you need to change the bus in Guatemala City). Buses to Lanquin leave from Coban's Mercado la Terminal approximately every hour. This last stretch of the journey takes approximately 3 hours and cost GTQ 25.
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