The first six hours of the drive from Flores to the village of Lanquin went by relatively painlessly, with a few toilet/snack stops and a lunch stop before arriving at a turnoff to a dirt road at about 2pm. We proceeded downhill for the final hour and a half of the journey at about 10km/hr because the road was insanely bumpy, but it didn’t really matter because we were so distracted by the incredible views – we were descending into the most lush valley we’d ever seen.
Our vehicle had barely slowed down to a stop in the village of Lanquin when several men began to board and shout enthusiastically at us all, trying to promote their accomodation and taxi services. It was so intense, we couldn’t even get out of the van because they were blocking the doorway and yelling!
When we did eventually get out and get our bags, we asked a taxi driver to take us to a hostel we had read about the previous day when we were planning our journey.
He proceeded to tell us it was booked out and suggested an alternative – a common trick that the local ‘coyotes’ try on backpackers. They receive commission from certain hostels/lodges in return for bringing in the business!
I think the look of amusement on our faces let him know that we knew he was bullshitting, and when we insisted we had a booking with them (we didn’t) he obliged and we were on our way to ‘El Retiro Lodge’.
The lodge is a backpackers paradise!
It’s cheap, clean, beautiful, and right on a rushing river. The food was also cheap, but there was plenty of variety and it was all fresh local produce. The hostel organises plenty of activities and trips to attractions in the local area, and theres an abundance of hammocks and relaxing scenic spots to hang out in all over the property.
We went for a walk that afternoon and found that the village of Lanquin had a friendly, safe vibe about it. We saw mothers and daughters lining up at the community corn grinding mill to make tortillas. There was a small communal games room with an Xbox for the local kids, and John played a bit of FIFA with some local boys. There were stray dogs but they seemed to be more like community dogs, well fed and loved.
It was a really beautiful place to spend time.
We got our room and arranged to visit Semuc Champey the following day with a small group of other backpackers from the hostel. Semuc Champey is a natural monument made up of a series of limestone bridges and caves that snake through part of central Guatemala for about 300m, with the Cabahón River flowing underneath it, creating turquoise pools that are breathtakingly beautiful.
The next morning, a group of us jumped onto the back of a pickup truck for the short drive to Semuc. We had one guide with us, a short and stocky local guy who was pretty entertaining. He had a plan for the day but it didn’t feel restrictive or like we were on a school field trip – we both agreed that having his insiders knowledge and handy hints helped us get way more out of the experience than if we had of visited alone.
Upon arrival at Semuc, we were greeted by a hoard of local children hugging us and trying to sell us chocolate and beer. They were super cheeky and tried really hard but once they had sussed us all out and done any business they joined us for the day on all of our adventures and were heaps of fun to have around.
We started off by going on a caving adventure. We’d never done anything like it. We basically walked into a cave that had a river in it, and at times the water was chest deep as we navigated through the dark by candlelight, squeezing through mini canyons and corners in the cave.
At one point the cave opened up into a cavern and our guide had us all stick our candles around the walls for lighting so that we could climb the rock wall and jump off a mini cliff into the water. It was crazy!
On the way back, we reached what looked like a dead end, but really there was a hole in the ground of the cave where the water was rushing through. One by one, he had us sit at the top of it as though it was a slippery slide, fold our arms across our chest, take a deep breath and plunge into the black hole.
When we landed we were magically in a pool with the other backpackers, watching the rest of the gang come flying through the ceiling. It was epic – sorry if what I’m saying doesn’t make sense!
After we emerged from the cave, we got to take turns on a giant rope swing into the river. John loved it and nailed it every time – I flailed massively but had the most fun!
When we were finished swinging we all grabbed a tube and floated down the river to our lunch spot. A few of the kids stayed on the banks of the river and hurled beers at us as we were floating – it was the funniest and strangest thing to experience.
We ate some food and then moved onto the next activity, a hike up to a lookout of Semuc Champey.
Finally, it was time to swim. The guides were really great about making everyone rinse off at a makeshift outdoor shower in order to prevent any chemicals from sunscreens or insect repellants damaging the environment of Semuc.
We entered the pools at the ‘top’ of the river, and slowly explored each pool before moving down to the next level. Some levels had natural slides in the rock and some were higher ledges that you had to jump off in order to move further.
There were so many different shades of blue and green, and no bad views anywhere we turned. It’s one of the most spectacular places we have ever seen!
We stayed at El Retiro for a couple of days after exploring Semuc to rest and recharge for the next leg of our journey.
We hope the locals and tourists alike continue to protect and look after Semuc Champey for years to come, and would love to go back and visit again one day in the near future.
Here is a fun video we made of our time there – enjoy and please leave a comment if you like it!