Travel pushes your boundaries and encourages you to live at the edges of what you find comfortable. So often in life we live with the safety of routine. But when traveling, I have tried new foods that I had never dream of sampling, tackled adventures that intimidated me, and jumped off a rope swing, come to find out, really didn’t “have my name written all over it,” as the other travelers insisted. And yes, I am talking pretty specifically about one instance on that last one.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ll start the tale of my day visiting Guatemala’s gorgeous Semuc Champey waterfalls with a series of images:
It was my moment of glory. Many other backpackers had taken turns and flawlessly executed their swing and land into the water. What could go wrong, right?
Famous last words. My fear of heights meant that I hung onto the swing a little too long. Panicked that I would hit the rocks if I didn’t let go, I flung myself off the swing without any finesse.
It wasn’t pretty. Here’s the massive bruise that formed less than two minutes after I demonstrated precisely how not to jump off of the rope swing:
Yes. That takes mad skills.
Moving on, because the rest of our day trip to Semuc Champey was pure backpacker fun and adventurous travel. For those traveling through Guatemala, Semuc Champey is now a classic stop and one you should definitely visit!
K’an Ba Caves Near Semuc Champey, Guatemala
Lanquin is an unassuming, quite town. It’s completely uneventful, save for its spectacular location. Low mountains surround the town, and a ring of misty thin clouds obscure nearby peaks. Lanquin is the most popular staging ground for visiting Semuc Champey, a crowning jewel of Guatemala complete with glistening blue pools, dark caves, and navigable waterfalls. Although you’ll find sparse accommodation close to Semuc Champey, Lanquin is just 11 km from it and the easiest place from which to organize your visit.
You can only enter the Semuc Champey caves with a guide, so from the hostel (Zephyr has gorgeous views and party vibes while El Retiro Lanquin has chill vibes) I booked a full day adventure complete with a candle tour of the caves, a bit of tubing on the river, a swim through Semuc Champey, and a hike to a peak for pretty panoramic views. This was by far the easiest way to join other travelers on a fun adventure exploring the highlights.
Now, to be fair, the coolest thing about Semuc Champey’s K’an Ba Cave is that you fully navigate with only a lit candle in your hand—then you proceed to climb ladders, scale the sides of rocks, and swim through deep pools of water with your candle held above your head!
This is something you would never be allowed to do in the States (or Europe for that matter), but perhaps that’s part of the draw. The K’an Ba Cave portion of our adventure wasn’t exactly safe and it was a bit out of my comfort zone (it’s one those things that you’d just never do back home but that is perfectly acceptable on the road!).
Once we reached the innermost part of the cave, our guide instructed us to blow out our candles one-by-one. While some were more skeptical and timid about it than others, the idea was that we would go totally silent so that we could hear the bats living in the inner caves. I don’t know if it was a real experiment or a joke because our guide only managed to freak everyone out. We stood in ankle-deep water surrounded by the blackest darkness imaginable.
Dozens of minutes passed as we sat in pure silence, straining to hear the bats over the sound of our rapidly thudding hearts. It was probably only two minutes, but if felt like longer! I was relieved when our guide struck a match and relit all of our candles.
Turquoise Waterfalls and Rivers at Semuc Champey
Once we climbed and swam our way back out of the caves we grabbed inner tubes and floated down the ice-blue river. Tubing is a pretty standard way to entertain backpackers (as Vang Vieng in Laos proves, since it takes the cake as the most famous tubing spot in the world), and this is a sedate option that will differ completely based on your group and the weather. If it’s cool and you’re exploring Semuc Champey with chill people, it’s quiet and enjoyable. If you have some rowdy people on your day trip then expect tubing shenanigans.
After tubing, our Semuc Champey tour included a “choose your own adventure” part of the afternoon. A nearby mirador requires a steep and strenuous hike (45 minutes if you’re moderately fit) to the top. It’s worth it. The lookout point over Semuc Champey offers stunning views of the many pools of water and tiny waterfalls. We could see the others on our tour as tiny pinpricks soaking in the pools of water below.
It’s funny how no matter where you go though; some places are strikingly similar to others. Bio and ecological diversity fills our beautiful planet, but the view of Semuc Champey from the lookout jolted me instantly to a similar view of the waterfalls at Krka National Park in Croatia. Even today, I have to pause when I review my old travel photos and take a closer look to identify which one is which national park!
All in all, our Semuc Champey day trip ended in two injuries: my own (minor) injury and one other woman cut her leg sliding down the waterfalls. It’s a classic activity on this day trip, but if you’re not wearing swimming trunks (those lucky guys!), you might incur some cuts and scrapes. And you should not undertake the waterfall portion barefoot. I wore my beloved Chacos water shoes, and it made a huge difference (although it was a goofy feature in all of my photos!). Our guide slid down each one first and then waited at the bottom to catch us so that we wouldn’t slam into the rock at the bottom—he didn’t catch the one woman though!
Injuries included, however, visiting Semuc Champey from Lanquin was an incredibly fun day and an adventure anyone backpacking Central America should absolutely add to their bucket list. It’s a bit out of the way if you’re on a short trip, but it’s well on the backpacker route if you have weeks on your side.
How to Visit Semuc Champey from Lanquin
Semuc Champey is increasingly popular with backpackers and buses route there daily from the two hubs: Flores and Antigua. Lanquin is eight hours from both towns and located in the heart of the “The Green Route of Verapaz, Guatemala,” a diverse and mountain ecosystem in a fairly remote part of Guatemala. It’s a seriously stunning part of the country. You can also bus from the Rio Dulce, which is an optimistic five hours from Lanquin. You only need two nights in Lanquin. Although Semuc Champey is a fun adventure, there is not much else to do in town. I recommend sandwiching it between your time in Antigua and Flores since both of these cities offer great onward travel options either by bus or plane, or before/after visiting the Rio Dulce. It’s not necessarily along the way between them any of these spots, but it makes it seem more worth the trip if you’re not just doing roundtrip 16 hours to Antigua and back (that would be brutal).
What to Bring on a Day Trip
You absolutely want water shoes (my Chacos served me in good stead) and maybe even a rash guard if you are sun sensitive. Much of the trip was in the shade (or the cave), but I did use my sun shirt by the end so I didn’t leave burnt. I don’t travel with a ton (here’s my full packing list), but a few items are so useful it pays to pack them when visiting adventurous destinations like Central America. You’ll also want sun block, a hat, and maybe a coverup (sarongs work well as a towel-coverup combo) if it’s cooler during your visit since you will likely ride back to Semuc Campey in the back of a pickup truck at dusk. If you’re keen, you could also bring a headlamp to make the cave adventure easier (and likely safer, too).
How to get to Semuc Champey from Lanquin
Assuming you’re already in Lanquin, you can organize a full day tour (upwards of $40 and includes lunch, tubing, entrance fees and such). To visit Semuc Champey independently, it becomes a pick and choose adventure of which of the options you prefer. Entrance is about US $7, tubing on the river costs is also about $7, and the cave entry fee is about $9 with tours every 30 minutes from 9am to 3pm. Day tours will handle transport in a 4×4, or you can hire one to take you there for less than $5 in a shared transport. Some people walk the 2.5 hours, but you’ll likely only want that option in one direction since it’s a long day! Note that you can have a box lunch from your hostel, or there are a couple local vendors near the bridge. 10 year ago, NO ONE organized independent trips to Semuc Champey because it wasn’t yet on the radar, but now it’s pretty common to opt for either option in the high season, and most travelers go indie in Guatemala’s off season ().
Where to Sleep in Semuc Champey/Lanquin
There are two main hostels in town. Zephyr was not a party hostel back in 2010—in fact it was brand new. But now it’s a gorgeous spot where you might not get a sound sleep but you will surely have a good time. That said, it’s also very, very buggy. I woke to a scorpion on the floor of my dorm when I tried to pee in the middle of the night, and others confessed that cockroaches dropped from the ceiling onto their beds. It could do with some bed nets and I probably would stay elsewhere if I revisited it, even though it’s truly the prettiest spot in town.
El Retiro Lanquin is a good option for backpackers who might not want the party vibe but still want the companionship of other backpackers and access to the affordable backpacker trips. Incredibly, Lanquin also has some great mid-range accommodation options on Airbnb if you’re keen for a bit less backpacker vibe but still good adventure, or you could shop around to suss out which places match your budget and preferences.
How to Stay Safe
These types of day trips, while fun, are also a good reason you should carry travel insurance. I have used World Nomads for a decade (here’s why), and no matter which company you chose, the last thing you want is a serious injury in rural Guatemala (it’s EIGHT HOURS by car to the nearest airport and four hours to Coban in Honduras, which does have a hospital). In short, this is not the place to desperately need an airlift but have no way to arrange one.