Crystalline turquoise pools cascading down a valley surrounded by lush, dense green forest. Navigating our way through a dark, humid cave alone by phone light, rushing to get the exit with 1000’s of bats scheduled to leave at that moment. Floating down a river of pure drinking water, bobbing past townspeople doing their washing and cooling off on a Sunday afternoon. This was our soul reviving experience in Lanquín, Guatemala.
Semuc Champey is one of the must see, bucket list places in Guatemala – and rightly so. It is a wonderful feat of nature, a natural limestone bridge on top of which has formed sparklingly clear turquoise pools singing out to be bathed in. There is no right or wrong way to visit this delightful spectacle, but with 100’s of tourists visiting each week how did we manage to relax without feeling like we were being herded along on the gringo trail or being suffocated in a sea of local tourists? These were our subtle off-route experiences that I feel made our experience a little more unique…
We visited the Lanquín Caves alone at dusk: This is no secret and the place can get quite busy but it was good fun, and we only saw a couple of others when we went on a Sunday evening. There are actually three different caves around the Lanquín area but this network is known as “Las Grutas de Lanquín” and is an easy 20 minute walk from town. The entire network runs for kilometres and much of it is still unexplored however the 1st couple of hundred metres has a string of antique looking bulbs (which I assume worked at some stage) so that makes it easy to navigate the cave’s path. If you take a torch you can visit without a guide for only 30 quetzales pp ($5.50aud) or you can hire a guide for an extra 20Q ($3.60aud) if you’re unsure. If you’re an experienced “spelunker” you’d have a fine old time exploring the caverns, but if you’re a scaredy cat amateur like me you’ll appreciate knowing there are also 1000’s of bats living inside whose wings you can hear fluttering in the dark while they wait to venture out en mass, to dine on tasty insects when the sun goes down.
Walking into the deep abyss the silence enveloped us and without even realising we found ourselves whispering to each other. Our lights did a poor job penetrating the gloopy black darkness but we could make out huge stalagmites in the threatening formations of animals poised to attack. While squinting to make out the path we found all sorts of other little cave dwelling critters, the type that would be more at home in a fever induced hallucination than in waking life. My heart rate was starting to become apparent, especially because we’d come here to see the sunset spectacular “when hundreds of them fly out of the mouth of the cave in formations so dense they obscure the sky” – Lonely Planet. I did not like the idea of being lost in here while those little vampires navigated their way out. Once we were back at the entrance we realised we actually had nothing to worry about… because we waited over two hours for the little beasts, but only noticed ghostly shadows flickering past like a trick of the eye, one at a time. We left in the dark impressed by the cave, but underwhelmed by supposed curtain of bats.
Floated away a Sunday afternoon: From the Lanquín cave you can hire an inner tube and float serenely down the river. We used a guide from our hotel which cost 65q each but you could do it alone by going to the same entrance as the Grutas de Lanquín for a fraction of that. We entered the water just after the pump house that collects the water for drinking. You can imagine how clear and beautiful this river is at this point. We flipped into our tubes and lay back as the cool water lapped at our hot skin, being warmed by the sun and carried by nature on a tour of the riverside dwellings. Past hotels and houses, locals soaping up, doing washing, and playing games. Men bent at the waist with their heads submerged, popping up with clear round masks covering their faces and grasping small crabs to deposit into their sacks. Unfortunately the further down the river you go the more rubbish becomes apparent, but the water is still clear for now. We floated for a total of an hour and a half then jumped in a little tuk tuk who drove us back to Hostel Oasis.
Visited Semuc Champey without a tour during the week: To tour or not to tour was a tough decision for us. With the tour you get to see the Maya cave by candlelight which is supposed to be very cool, and you also get to jump off the bridge and go tubing. At 180 quetzales it doesn’t cost much more than doing those things separately, plus you get transport and the explanations and expertise of a local guide. But having done our own version of those things the day before we decided we’d rather be independent of a group. Transport was 25q pp each way and consisted of standing on the back of a knee juddering pick up truck for 45 minutes with a group of other happy tourists, winding through stunning emerald hills. Entrance was an additional 50q each and the trip home was another 25q each. We took our own packed lunch that was prepared for us at the hotel because the only food options are at the entrance of the park. You can read more about our experience and see some more photos HERE.
Stayed somewhere other than Zephyr Lodge: Zephyr is THE backpacker hostel so if you’re travelling alone or are keen to meet more travellers then this is a good choice. We thought it was crazy expensive and after cringing at the nasty replies by management to bad reviews on Tripadvisor we’d put the final nail in the coffin. There are two options when considering where you want to be, if you only have a limited amount of time you can pay a little more or settle for a little less and book a place near the actual park (El Portal, Greengos or Posada Maria). We wanted to stay near the pueblo of Lanquín so called the most central hostel “El Muro” who were full but suggested we stay at Hostal Oasis. We were so happy with this result, we had a beautiful private room overlooking the river for the same price as two dorm beds at Zephyr. Be aware that food options are limited, even in town so you’re at the mercy of your hotels kitchen (unless you’re happy with fried chicken and tamales every night from the little pueblo). Oasis had a beautiful open dining area, a bar and a pool which was perfect for making friends with some local tourists.