Caving in Semuc Champey

Thomas making his way through some of the tighter spaces in the caves

Thomas making his way through some of the tighter spaces in the caves

I peered inside the tiny shuttle bus I was going to spend the next six hours on and groaned inwardly. There was less than a 30cm gap between the seats. After playing a bit of Tetris with my legs and bag, I settled in for an uncomfortable journey.

Three stops later – one for food, one for fuel, and one to pick up some dead plants on the side of the road (I employed the don’t ask and play ignorant if something goes wrong policy for that one) – the driver pulled up on the edge of a beautiful mountain range.

It was Zephyr Lodge in the Guatemalan town of Lanquin. Most tourists stay there to visit the nearby national park, Semuc Champey, which is famous for its caving tours, tranquil countryside, and unusual river.

I jumped out of the shuttle, grateful to stretch my legs. Suddenly a group of 12 Guatemalan men surrounded me, seemingly from out of nowhere.

“Senorita, El Portal.”

“Amiga, Semuc? Best price and accommodation!”

“Caving? You want to go caving?”

A young Dutch man pushed through the crowd yelling, “Ella tiene una reserva!”

“Gemma,” he enquired?

I nodded and he grabbed my bag, leading me away from the throng, which quickly dispersed. The men jumped on a truck and took off after the shuttle to try their luck with the others on the bus.

The best, and least imaginative, way to describe Zephyr Lodge is beautiful. It is on the outskirts of town and the thatched roof buildings are perched on the side of a mountain range. The view from all angles in the hostel is much the same: fog covered mountains with a river flowing between them and animals grazing on the lush greenery.

It is an odd place, though. Several hundred metres away is Lanquin, where Guatemalans dress in traditional clothing, eat traditional food, speak Spanish or the local Mayan language, and poverty is common. Zephyr is far removed from that. English is the common language and I would go so far as saying that it is actively discouraged for you to speak Spanish. The few times I tried to order food in Spanish I got looks of disdain and a response in English. The scenery and décor make it feel as though you are at an eco retreat, particularly the showers which each have a large window so you can look over the countryside as you wash the day’s dirt off.

The hostel makes life easy for the weary traveller. Shuttle buses can be booked to your next destination and will pick you up at the front door; they offer the cheapest caving and tubing tours in town, with the option of a packed lunchbox; and you can sign up for the nightly dinner, which is delivered straight to where you are sitting. It all seems a little bit too easy after struggling through Mexico.

My brother, Thomas, and I signed up for the caving tour – there is really no point sweating through the humid nights in Lanquin if you are not going to the caves.

A truck picked 11 of us up at 8:30am, and after a bumpy 30 minute ride, we arrived at the Semuc Champey National Park. During a 45 minute hike, our group somehow dwindled to 5 – the guide did not seem particularly concerned, though, so we shrugged and continued on.

Semuc Champey is a Mayan phrase and can be translated to ‘where the river hides beneath the earth’. The national park is on the Mountains of Chama and contains a unique ecosystem. After hiking up a set of natural and manmade stairs you can look down upon a river which seemingly ends suddenly to make way for a set of natural pools of crystal clear spring water. If you make your way down to the site you can see that the river actually runs underneath the pools and comes out the other side.

After a 45 minute hike in 80 per cent humidity, a swim is desperately needed. The turquoise clear pools are the perfect antidote with some of the coolest and most refreshing water in Central America. They are up to three metres deep and you can dive from one pool to another until you reach the other end, where the river finally emerges from beneath the earth. Tiny fish nibble at your feet if you sit still too long, so a lot of people choose to wear shoes in the water.

The Semuc Champey National Park can be done without a guide but you will need one for the next national park – Grutus de Lanquin. The park hosts a series of caves and is a short walk from the pools. Our guide was a spritely 20-year-old named Carlos who obviously knew the inside of the caves like the back of his hand – perhaps even better.

“¿Qué edad tienes,” he enquired, laughing when he realised we were all much older than him.

Carlos lit the candles he had handed out to us and led us into the pitch black cave while making a lot of noise.

“Many bats in here,” he said holding his candle upwards.

While he moved forward confidentially the rest of the group tiptoed forward, unsure whether to look where they were putting their feet, at eye level to watch out for hanging rocks, or upward incase there were bats. About 30 metres into the cave the ground suddenly dropped off into icy cold water.

“Swim,” Carlos explained holding his candle above the water.

This is how the caving tour continued for the next hour. Swimming, scaling rock walls, and jumping down waterfalls – all while trying to keep the candle above your head and out of the water. It was extremely fun and not for the faint hearted, although, it was not quite as arduous as several people had made it out to be.

Semuc Champey is a natural wonder worth seeing, and the caving tour an experience worth having. The bumpy drive into the park on a road that probably never saw better days and lack of phone or internet services should make it feel as though you have reached an isolated paradise. Those days are well behind this park, though, and Semuc Champey has been firmly implanted into the tourist trail. This is no doubt due to gringos who have created hostels offering easy ways of getting to the park and even easier ways of staying there longer than you need to. What effect, if any, this will eventually have on the park remains to be seen.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *