I was 21 and spending the summer in western Guatemala when I kept hearing about a place called Semuc Champey. “You have to go,” said a friend of mine; and after a quick Google Image search, I needed no more convincing. I scrolled through photo after photo of terraced pools of turquoise waters while mentally selecting a day in mid-July to make the trek.
The trip was amazing, and I did learn a few things. I mean, of course I did. Travel is about finding a home in the unfamiliar, after all.
1. Semuc Champey is More Remote Than it Seems
Getting to Semuc Champey, which is deep central Guatemala, is indeed a trek, as my travel buddy and I soon discovered. First, you have to get to Lanquín, the closest town to Semuc, and Lanquín is pretty far from any larger cities. At the time, I was living in Quetzaltenango, also known as Xela, which is in the southwestern part of the country close to Lake Atítlan. Despite Guatemala being a relatively small country, travel is slow, and the trip took us at least 10 hours.
We opted to save some quetzales by taking one of Guatemala’s famous chicken buses from Xela to Guatemala City and switched to a nicer bus from Guatemala City to Coban. In Coban, we walked around the city and waited for our turn to squeeze into one of the smaller buses that sort of feel like a van belonging to a family with far too many brothers and sisters. The ride to Lanquín was shoulder-to-shoulder and a little nauseating.
2. Expect Some Bumps
The last leg of the journey, from Lanquín to Semuc, is on a dirt road. As the sun was beginning to set, we pried ourselves from the seats we’d sunken into during the voyage from Coban to Lanquín, shouldered our backpacks, and followed a brusk guy to a small red pickup truck, where he urged us to hop into the pickup bed.
Google Maps tells me this final stretch of the journey takes roughly an hour; but in my memory, it went on for several. Over bumps that threatened to knock us out of the truck, we were holding on for dear life in the darkness — wondering where in the heck we were.
3. Pick a Hostel Ahead of Time
We didn’t do this, and we were completely fine, but we were traveling in the off-season; and in the future I’d definitely do more research. It was fairly late at night when the pickup came to a stop in front of a lamplit hostel with hammocks hanging from the front porch, and we were just grateful to actually be there.
It seemed as good a place as any to stay, so we ordered beers to wash away the sweaty day of traveling and ate whitebread sandwiches while we chatted with the hostel owner. We were the only guests, we couldn’t see much around us in the dark, and we knew only that we were deep in the jungle.
4. Throw Away Your Itinerary
In hindsight, I’m grateful for all this travel inconvenience. Visiting Semuc Champey is an experience in which it’s important to feel a little disoriented. There, you’re truly off the grid, trapped to some extent on a remote stretch of jungle with very few other people.
Over the course of the next few days, we wandered through a mossy rainforest trail to overlook the turquoise pools of Semuc Champey, floated on an inner tube down the river, read books in our hammocks, lazed around, drank cuba libres, snacked on mangoes in the cabana, and pretty much just lived that jungle lifestyle. It gets so humid and sticky, you might congeal if you try to move to fast. So it’s best to just chill out. I mean, you’ve come this far, right?