It is often said that Guatemala is a beautiful place, and that the most stunning sight in all of the country is Semuc Champey. It is also said that Lago Atitlan is the most beautiful lake in the world. I find that superlatives of this sort have a way of backfiring, creating expectations impossible to satisfy.
My initial view of Lago Atitlan was impressive, from high atop the contorted road which dropped from the Pan American Highway down to San Pedro La Laguna, by way of Santa Clara, San Pablo, and San Juan. But honestly, I’d never have called it the most beautiful lake I had ever seen. Still, in the two weeks I lived smack dab lakefront in San Pedro, I developed a deep appreciation of its moods and textures and was most sad to finally have to leave.
I was fortunate, in some strange way, to have had two quite deprecating comments about Semuc Champey before arriving there, thus dispelling the overawing idealism.A couple I met in the shuttle the day I traveled to Semuc were on an open-ended round the world journey. All three of us had been to a very special waterfall outside of Luang Prabang, Laos – Kuang Si. It was their opinion that the comparison was clear and overwhelmingly in favor of the appeal of the Laotian site. The other comment came that night from a young man from Poland whose comments came at the end of his day’s visit to Semuc Champey. He more or less tossed it off as not deserving more than an hour or so, and hardly worth remembering.
And so it was that when I arrived the next day, I hardly expected anything to come up to the superlatives I had heard previously. This proved to be the perfect lead-in to an absolutely wonderful afternoon. Not only was the scenery satisfying and beautiful, but the local men employed to safeguard stumbly extranjeros like myself were so helpful and so sweet.
Semuc Champey is composed of limestone formations which sit atop a cave. A sizable river – Río Cahabón – disappears into this cave and emerges 300 meters downstream. The roof of the cave holds spring fed turquoise pools and rivulets. These pools are perfect for swimming and include some sections where one can slide from one pool to the next.
After studying the billboard map at the entrance, I had decided to approach the complex from the bottom, where the river emerges from the ground, and to walk up alongside the terraces, ending at the start, where the river disappears. There is also a high viewpoint – El Mirador – accessible by a steep, muddy, slippery path. I’d seen quite a few photos of this spot and since they all looked the same, I was undecided about bothering with the climb.
Here, in photos, is what I found by my chosen route.
From the banks of the river, this is the first view of Río Cahabón after it has reemerged from its underground passage. The relatively small additional volume of water from atop the limestone bridge form small waterfalls here, adding to the roaring volume of the river.
Several visitors stand on top of the cave, peering down at the river. The man to the left of this group, in the yellow vest, is a barefoot local man employed by the park to assure that no one gets dangerously close to the slippery edge. The limestone on top is alternately foot-cutting sharp and algae-slick. When I walked up here a bit later, I was wishing for water-proof, non-slip shoes to protect my tender feet. My unease was evident to this lovely vest-clad man and before I knew it he was at my side and had taken my arm.
At various times I had the most reassuring and gentle assistance from four different local men, one a paid guide who took a few moments to help me, and the other three park employees. Because of this much appreciated and warmly given help, I was able to safely see all the best bits of this beautiful site.
This photo of one of the lower pools shows both slick and rough sections. The rough parts made for secure footing but were far too sharp for my feet.
These were the two lowest of the pools on the cave roof. Extreme care needed to be taken at the far edge as the drop off was very slippery. Below there were rocks and a turmoil of river currents.
Various shady pools at Semuc Champey shrouded in jungle foliage.
Looking upstream at the churning river as it is swallowed by the cave.
Looking downstream at the cave opening. This would be a very bad place to slip as only a crumbled and mangled body would emerge a quarter mile downstream. The two people to the left rear give an idea of the scale of the cave opening. The photo was taken for me by one of the gentle, sweet and amazingly sure-footed locals doing park safety patrol.
Having seen all the lower down bits, at the end I couldn’t resist doing the steep climb up to the viewpoint.
I stayed the night at the El Portal ecolodge just outside the entry to Semuc Champey. Though lacking hot water in the showers, they had concrete washing basins where I was able to clean off all the caked mud off my shoes, acquired on the track to El Mirador.
It would have been nice to have had more time in this peaceful spot. The daytimes were very quiet, full of tropical birds perched in the jungle trees surrounding the deck, above the river. Electricity was solely by generator from 6 pm til 10. Once the generator was cut and the party folks had retired, the night was completely dark and completely quiet. I slept with my door open. Perfect jungle peace. But with time remaining in Guatemala so short, it will have keep for another time.