Semuc Champey is a remote, intensely beautiful natural monument in Central Guatemala. Here, deep in the forest, the Cahabón River runs underground for about 1,000 feet. It is covered by a limestone bridge that has been smoothed by thousands of years of running water and a slowly shifting river. The result is a series of perfect turquoise pools, a stunning, otherworldly oasis in the middle of the jungle.
The nearest civilization is the small Mayan town of Lanquín. Lanquín itself is at least an hour and a half from another town of notable size. This means that getting to Semuc Champey is a very long trip, no matter where you are coming from.
Semuc Champey has an interesting reputation amongst travelers. The guidebooks like to call it “Guatemala’s hidden gem.” I’ve heard backpackers say it was the “most beautiful place they’ve ever visited” or their “favorite day in Central America.” It’s shrouded in mystique, this hard-to-reach place in Central Guatemala.
But as always, the travel guides are a few years out of date. It’s a bold stretch to call Semuc Champey “hidden” anymore. The natural phenomenon has been thoroughly discovered and is well on its way to becoming a major tourist attraction for the country. The only thing that keeps tiny Lanquín from being a full-on tourist town is sheer physical remoteness. It is still so difficult to reach that only backpackers, rich with time and patience, are willing to take the long, bumpy trip to make it there.
Arriving in Lanquín
We had been crammed into a tourist shuttle from Antigua for 8 hours already when we suddenly began descending steep, bumpy dirt roads. For 45 minutes we bounced around and watched jungle pass by our windows. And then, suddenly, when I could no longer feel my butt and my bladder was ready to burst, we began to see signs of civilization.
We began to pass billboards advertising the “most beautiful hostel in Guatemala” and “infinity pools overlooking the river.” A few minutes later the shuttle ground to a stop. We looked around, confused. We were still surrounded by jungle. Why had we stopped?
And then the door of the van slid open and a man hopped in. The vehicle began to move again as he started his pitch: if we didn’t know where to go in town, he could lead us to the best hostel around. Most of the beds in town cost 15 or 20 dollars, but not at his place. No, this man could lead us to a spot where the beds were cheap, the view was stunning, and the beer flowed freely.
I looked out the window to avoid his scrutinizing salesman’s gaze. Scattered between the garish hostel signage and touristy restaurants, we glimpsed images from local life: wooden farmstands, stalls doling out rice and beans, stores hawking bright plastic wares. Mayan women in their colorful woven shirts watched as our bus passed, their faces impassive.
This was our first glimpse of the strange duality of Lanquín: bright, luxurious, western hostels advertised beside dilapidated shops; sugar sweet tour guides and hostel workers fronting a town of people thoroughly unamused by the sudden influx of tourists.
A Lazy Day in the Valley
We had booked a room in El Retiro Lodge, the only locally owned hostel I could find in town. It was like most other hostels in Lanquín: an all-in-one stop. Wooden cabins, an open air bar, and outdoor seating dotted the sprawling riverside campus. This place was designed so that a traveler could come to Lanquín and never actually go into town. Food and drink? Check. Beautiful views? Check. Tour guides and transportation to Semuc Champey? Check. Everything you could possibly need was there, provided by your friendly, English-speaking hosts.
The thing about this kind of setup is that it encourages one particular type of tourism: laying around and drinking. And for our first day there, that’s exactly what we did. We swam in the river, sipped beer, and played cards. It was very pleasant, but it also felt strange to be in a white-person’s resort world deep in the heart of rural Guatemala.
We spent a lot of time trying to decide if we wanted to join a tour to Semuc Champey or go on our own. In the end, it was the Kam’ba Caves that decided it for us. Most of the group tours included a stop at Kam’ba in their Semuc Champey packages. These caves are famous because the tours are conducted by candlelight. Unfortunately, the candlelit tours have a minimum group size that is difficult to reach without a tour group.
Though I usually dislike group tours, I didn’t want to risk missing out on the caves. So early the next morning, Michael and I crawled out of bed to catch El Retiro’s tour to Semuc Champey and Kam’ba Caves.
Overlooking “The Most Beautiful Place in Guatemala”
We hopped in the back of a pickup truck with twelve other people and embarked on a bumpy 40 minute ride to the entrance of Semuc Champey. We entered the park and immediately started a steep upwards hike. After twenty minutes of nearly vertical steps, ladders, and slopes, we arrived: the overlook.
This is where the money shot comes from. That picture of Semuc Champey you’ve seen from above? The line of crystal blue and green pools swirling into each other, surrounded by the rich dense Guatemalan forest? This is where everybody takes that picture.
We crammed excitedly onto a small wooden platform to claim our Instagram fodder. It was undeniably beautiful. I listened to the sounds of the jungle as I watched the stunning water swirling beneath us. But it was difficult to truly breathe in the beauty of it while being jostled around on a platform with fifteen other people and their selfie sticks.
Michael and I lingered behind the group as they left, trying to catch a moment on the platform in peace. When we finally did it was far more enjoyable. That started a trend for the day: we were the people dragging behind the group at every turn.
Take Me to the River
Next we made the steep descent down to the pools. The guide led us to a place to lock our belongings and strip down to our bathing suits. We hurried out to the water, picking our way across the stones in our bare feet.
And then I dove into the closest turquoise pool. The coolest, cleanest, most breathtaking water surrounded me and I was at peace. This…THIS was swimming. This water was made for it. It was crisp and clear and it cried out for diving and rolling and paddling, for splashing and playing and exploring the nooks and crannies of nature.
Don’t get me wrong, Semuc Champey is a beautiful sight. But let’s be clear: the swimming is where it really shines.
Long before I was ready, the guide was leading us to the next of the pools. At each pool we only got a few minutes to float around before he was directing us to the next transition, sliding down smoothed rock faces to the next level or jumping from miniature cliffs into the glasslike water below.
Before long I grew grumpy. I was here to SWIM, to wallow in this amazing water. What was this man doing rushing us along, herding us all into the same pools together like sheep? Couldn’t we hang out for a while? I wanted to separate from the group and find my own corner to breathe it all in.
Drop Me in the Water
Michael and I started hanging back again, enjoying precious moments alone together in the pools the rest of the group had left. We ignored our tour guide’s frustration when he consistently counted heads and found that he was missing two. I didn’t care. I’d come an awful long way for this experience, and damned if I was going to miss out on the quiet impeccable tranquility of this place for the sake of an impatient guide.
The moments we stole away from the group were by far the most satisfying and beautiful. Semuc Champey is truly, truly stunning.
The best part of being with the group revealed itself at the very end. As we were making our way back to where our clothes were, he led us to one more secluded waterfall. There, he showed us an underwater tunnel that ran beneath it. If dove underwater and swam through a hole in the rocks, you emerged into a cave behind the waterfall. Inside there a pocket of air just large enough for your head to break through on top of the water. Treading forward with our noses held high, we looked with amazement at the mossy walls around us—then dove one more time and emerged from a similar underwater hole on the other side of the pool.
Whoa. Sometimes even a group-tour scrooge like me can’t deny the benefits of insider knowledge.
When Chocolate Overpowers Ethics
As we dried off and traipsed out of the park our group was approached by a handful of young Mayan children selling chocolate. They wore the plaintive faces of children who understand the impact their poor, sad, innocent eyes have on tourists.
As I have researched the key tenets of traveling sustainably and ethically, I have learned that you should never buy things from these pint-sized hawkers. They are often skipping school and other responsibilities to be there because they know they can make a few bucks off sympathetic tourists. Purchasing from begging children encourages this practice and allows tourism culture to overwrite the original culture of the place.
In this case, though, I absolutely couldn’t resist. The chocolate they were selling was Mayan chocolate, made at home from cacao pods grown locally. They came in small disks wrapped in tinfoil and were flavored with a variety of different local herbs and fruit. I broke down and bought two because I know how amazing local Mayan chocolate can be. My weakness paid off with incredible, smooth, dark chocolate flavored with mint and cardamom. Yum.
Oops. I feel slightly ashamed to admit to this lapse in values. But in the end, I believe that the important thing is to be aware and conscious of your impact as a tourist. Try your hardest to minimize your negative impact and maximize your positive impact. If occasionally your actions don’t match your ideals, then that just mean you’re human.
And like many humans, I have a deep, deep weakness for good chocolate.
The Kam’ba Caves
After lunch we made our way to Kam’ba Caves. I was positively wriggling with excitement for this part of the tour. Kam’ba Caves are wet caves famous for the fact that the tours are led completely by candlelight. I love caves. I love candlelight. And I love swimming. Who on earth ever thought I could get all three of those at once?
The guides passed us each a tall white candle and led us through the forest to the mouth of the cave. One of the of the guides lit our candles as we passed into the darkness.
At first, it was pitch-black inside. The darkness pressed in on me, held at bay only by the small flame in my hand. But soon more people entered behind me and added their candle flame to the pool of light. I began to make out the rocks and water around us. In front of us the path into the cave slanted downwards until it entered a river. The water glittered in the candlelight, disappearing into the crushing darkness of the distance.
For the first time that day I was at the front of the line. I wanted to experience the cave in as much darkness as possible. The guide led us into the river. We waded through the waist high water in silence, observing the reflections of our glimmering lights.
A Candlelit Adventure
The trek quickly became nearly as adventurous as our experience in ATM in Belize (nearly). We kicked through deep water, keeping our nose and candle hand above water while gripping a worn rope with our other hand to stay afloat. Sometimes we handed our candles to the guide above us as we climbed over piles of rocks. At one point the guide gave us a choice: take the traditional ladder to the left, or try to climb this knotted rope through a waterfall on your right.
I jumped at that chance and I was the first one of our group to scale the waterfall. I used my upper body to pull upwards, my feet useless as they slipped off the moist rock wall. The water fell on my body and pushed downwards as I fought upwards. Summiting the climb was perfection. The smiling guide handed me my candle as I beamed down at the cheering group, cold, wet, and exhilarated.
Leaping into the Darkness
At the back end of the tour, before we turned around, the guide presented us with another optional adventure. We could climb up the rocky sides of the cave wall and take a ten foot leap into the black water below.
If you’ve followed Furiosities, you know well how much I love jumping into water at height. I had never leapt within a cave and I was eager to add this to my list. Only two other people joined me as I followed the guard in clambering up the wall.
I wasn’t expecting the fear I faced at the top, though. Ten feet isn’t much; I’ve jumped that far plenty of times before without thinking about it twice. But this time the jump was into complete darkness. The pool of water in question was at least ten feet from where our group was standing holding candles, past where the fire lit the cave. There was nothing else to illuminate the landing. To do this, we had to blindly trust the guide, hope that we were aiming well, and leap into the unknown.
I let somebody else go first. I watched the white of his splash fly into the air, saw him pop back up beaming. My heart rate slowed a little. I steeled myself and I leapt into the darkness.
The freezing underground water overtook me in a blink of an eye, my entire body immersed and refreshed and exhilarated by the adrenaline the jump had inspired in me. I floated back to the surface, smiling wide.
It was an incredible end to a truly epic caving experience.
More Child Vendors, this Time without Chocolate
The last piece of the tour was simple and relaxing. We left the caves, grabbed some inner tubes, and floated back down the river to our transport. Michael and I floated lazily toward the back, letting the chattering group float further and further ahead of us.
Then, suddenly, our quiet was interrupted by yelling. In front of us, we watched as a group of six or eight young Mayan boys sprinted into the river. They threw down tubes in front of themselves and leapt into them, paddling furiously towards our tour group. Pushing and prodding each other, they struggled to reach us first.
“What are they doing?” I asked Michael, confused. Where had they come from and why were they in such a rush?
Then I saw what the lead boy was had in his hand. He held it out to us proudly, a silent sales pitch in his youthful face.
These boys were racing each other to our group toting small coolers of tall boys. They were hoping to make a few dollars selling drinks to tourists as they lazed down the river. It was wild, hilarious, fascinating, and sad, all at the same time. It was also, I think, a decent indicator of where Lanquín is in relation to the tourism market at the current moment.
Final Thoughts: Semuc Champey, the People of Lanquín, and Overtourism
When people think about overtourism, they tend to imagine the crowded streets of Venice or the crumbling walls of Macchu Picchu. Lanquín is a good example of how overtourism can occur in a place with a relatively small stream of tourists.
A few well placed advertisements, strategic hostel marketing, and a nod in the ubiquitous Lonely Planet guide to Central America has slingshot Lanquín into the traveler’s vocabulary in a few short years. First, fast-moving foreigners with a keen eye for business capitalized on this. They bought large plots of cheap land nearby and built sprawling, resort-like hostels. Sharp eco-marketing attracts backpackers to come to Lanquín and stay awhile, drinking beer from the hostel bar and eating overpriced meals in the hostel kitchen. Now, big name Guatemalan tour guides and travel agencies have started to latch on to the trend. They’ve partnered with hostels in the area to offer travel packages from Antigua, making the long distance seem less daunting.
And all of this has happened in the blink of the locals’ eyes. Suddenly their quiet, remote town is frequently overrun by white tourists. Foreign people who are happy to crowd their parks and streets, who parade around their traditionally conservative home in skimpy bikinis, who need to buy beer but don’t speak a word of Spanish…but who never spend a single dollar in the town of Lanquín itself. The culture of the town has been permanently altered by tourism, but the economy has not.
And then to visit Semuc Champey itself is crowded, awkward, and underwhelming. Hostel-run tours cram dozens of people into single groups, nullifying the quiet, natural magic that made the place appealing in the first place. This is overtourism.
Say, Caitlin, What Can I Do About It?
I’m sad to report that it is very difficult to visit Semuc Champey without encouraging the problem. It is hard to find locally owned hostels and businesses to purchase from, the local restaurants are limited and often somewhat hostile, and if you want to visit the candle lit caves, there is no way to do so without buying into a big package tour.
Even the tours to local parks discourage local spending. A lunch stop at Semuc Champey could easily consist of packed food from the local market or a stop at the hot food stalls set up by local vendors outside the park. Instead, tours herd you to another fancy hostel nearby to purchase their overpriced Western food.
All I can hope is that in the next few years the local economy catches up to the tourism boom and more ethical options become available. For now, try your best to respect the local culture, spend money in the local shops and restaurants, and leave Semuc Champey – and Lanquín – exactly as you found it.