In the heart of the Guatemalan Jungles lies Semuc Champey, a destination that perfectly blends nature with adventures. Located in the Alta Verapaz region, this has become a destination for travellers looking to go off the beaten path, explore some of the lush landscapes Guatemala has to offer and enjoy some thrill-seeking activities.
My travels around Central America took me from Mexico to Colombia by bus. For my month in Guatemala, Semuc Champey was the perfect ‘middle point’ between visiting the East (Flores, Tikal etc) and the West (Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala City etc). Given the remote nature of Semuc Champey, it was a long and bumpy journey getting there!
In this guide, we’ll explore the best things to do in Semuc Champey and why it’s a great place to add to your Guatemalan adventures.
The Semuc Champey Natural Pools
One of the most iconic images of Semuc Champey is its natural limestone turquoise pools. Earning the nickname ‘the emerald paradise’ these stunning, crystal-clear waters are the perfect places to soak up the sun and enjoy the surrounding rainforest vibes. These cascading pools offered the perfect respite from the heat and were a relaxing part of what was a busy day.
There were surprisingly quite good facilities in the area with toilets, cold showers and bench areas available near the pools. Our guide had a padlock for us to use for the lockers, but consider bringing one of your own if you’re doing the trip unguided.
El Mirador de Semuc Champey
To witness the cascading, natural pools from a different vantage point, embark on a hike to El Mirador de Semuc Champey. This trail takes you on a 40 minute hike through dense jungle, providing glimpses of local flora and fauna. The hike up is primarily up steep stone and wooden steps, and is fairly challenging given the high humidity and heat. However once you reach the summit, it’s totally worth the effort as the panoramic view of Semuc Champey and the surrounding mountains are spectactular. It’s a trek worth every step for the breathtaking scenery that unfolds before your eyes.
I’d highly recommend wearing as suitable shoes as possible, especially as the steps get really slippery. I wore fairly sturdy, strapped sandals but saw people struggle their way up in flimsy flip-flops. The viewing platform itself only allows 7 people at a time and there’s only one really good photo opportunity. Be prepared to queue a little and take it in turns if it’s a busy day. We were extremely fortunate that it was fairly quiet, so we had about 20 minutes to enjoy the view and take pictures.
The path down is different to the one going up, so you shouldn’t have any issues with awkwardly crossing people on narrow stairs. Once at the bottom, we spent a while cooling off in the natural pools!
Explore the Caves by Candlelight
There are a number of caves to explore in this area and this was our starting point of the Semuc Champey tour. You’ll explore the caves with candles. Sold as an enchanting experience, it ended up being quite an intense and worrisome time. You start off walking through the cave’s waters with candles and traces of daylight lighting the entrance way. Before long, you go much deeper into caves. At certain points we were fully swimming with just an arm out of the water holding our candles. Both my sister and I were quite scared – this wasn’t helped by the fact it was just us two on the guided tour. There were several points we had to climb up flimsy, roped ladders that were flat against rocks. I’m quite scared of heights and we were slipping around climbing up against these rocks. About 20 minutes into the cave experience, my sister and I asked if we could go back as we were freaked out.
Our guided tour revealed intricate rock formations, impressive stalactites and stalagmites and limestone walls. Although it was a cool, somewhat unique experience, it was quite scary and probably the only part of the trip I wouldn’t do again. On reflection, I think we misunderstood what the cave exploration fully entailed. If you decide to visit the caves, bring swimwear and consider bringing water shoes with grips. The cave tours here might all differ so this was just our experience.
Tube Down the Cahabón River
The Cahabón River winds its way through the lush landscapes surrounding Semuc Champey, making it the perfect setting for a tubing experience. This was my first experience tubing, so I don’t have anything to compare it to, but it was a great experience. Costing around $7, the adventure starts just outside of Semuc Champey. Our guide organised everything so we just blindly followed. We were guided downstream, fully immersed in the natural beauty that lines the riverbanks. The mix of gentle waters and faster rapids made it a leisurely yet exhilarating way to experience the region’s pristine wilderness.
Visit the Town of Lanquin
Lanquin is a charming town that acts as a gateway to Semuc Champey. All journeys from other parts of Guatemala will end in Lanquin. If you’re staying in accommodation in Semuc Champey, your accommodation will come to collect you from Lanquin. We spent a few hours exploring Lanquin before we got collected by our hostel. It’s a great place to get insight into local life and culture within the area. There are a few charming streets to wander around and lots of great local eateries offering traditional Guatemalan cuisine. If you’re short on time, I wouldn’t travel specifically to Lanquin, but rather see it during your transfer.
If you’re looking to stay in the area for a little while, consider visiting the nearby city of Cobán. Filled with lively markets, the historic El Calvario Church and plentiful coffeehouses, Cobán is a great balance of urban meets natural beauty. You can easily catch a bus from Lanquin to Cobán for a few dollars and the journey will take about an hour. Cobán is also a bigger transport hub, so you might need to go here anyway as part of your onward journey from the Semuc Champey/Lanquin area.
Getting to Semuc Champey
Semuc Champey is located just south of the small town of Lanquin. We travelled from Flores to Lanquin by shuttle bus, before getting collected in an open top jeep by our hostel. The next day we did a full-day private tour of the area that we organised through our hostel. Such a great day out and I’d highly recommend this to anyone looking to do something a little different.
How Long Should You Spend at Semuc Champey
Given its remote nature and long travel time, it’s worth spending a few days in this area. We spent a full day at Semuc Champey and two days relaxing in the nearby areas. Without a car, our only way to get between the east of Guatemala (Tikal/Flores) and the west (Antigua, Lake Atitlan etc) was public buses. We were told the estimated journey time was between 10-13 hours to do this. Semuc Champey became an appealing option to break up this long journey as it’s located more centrally within Guatemala.
To make the most of the area, consider spending a few days here. You’ll need a full day at Semuc Champey itself to visit everything on offer. The accommodation in this area is mostly found in beautiful, tranquil greenery – making it a very relaxing spot. Consider having a day or two just relaxing at your accommodation and soak up the nature. My sister and I stayed at a hostel which had a lot of pretty outdoor space for us to relax in. We enjoyed getting a few drinks at the hostel bar and playing cards, reading and getting to know other travellers. Definitely a nice break from the long bus journeys and more hectic parts of Guatemala. Other hostels we saw had swimming pools and outdoor hammocks, so there’s a lot of opportunity to relax for a bit. My impression of the area was that there wasn’t much nightlife outside of your accommodation, purely from how hard it was to travel around this region.
Tips for Semuc Champey
- Bring water – be sure to bring your own water and snacks. This is especially important if you’re doing the hike up to the viewpoint as it’s very hot!
- Bring a padlock – there are some areas you can lock away valuables. Our tour guide brought a padlock for us, so check in advance if your tour will do the same. If you’re doing this trip solo, bring your own. A few of the lockers were in eyes reach of the natural pools, but we didn’t want to chance it or be constantly checking over our stuff.
- Sturdy water shoes – I regret not having sturdy water-appropriate shoes. We were doing the cave tour bare foot and would have potentially benefitted fro better shoes at the lakes too.
- Avoid peak times – this might seem like an obvious, as with any tourist destination, however the caves, viewpoints and lakes were quite small and would have felt cramped and un-relaxing in busy times.
- Bring cash – this isn’t an area where you’ll be able to use debit cards. Bring cash!
- Consider a local guide – I wouldn’t usually opt for guided tours but I’m glad we did for this trip. Our guide was very knowledgable and helped us plan the day so we could maximise on everything it has to offer. If you decide to go solo, be sure to plan ahead with the transport. You’ll need to ensure transport to/from the Lanquin area. I can’t provide tips on this but research ahead of time / contact your accommodation for advice.
Semuc Champey – with its emerald natural pools, hidden caves, tubing adventures and surrounding natural beauty, is a haven for nature enthusiasts seeking an immersive and authentic experience. Whether you’re looking relaxation at the turquoise pools or in a jungle hammock at your accommodation, or adventure into cave systems, river tubing or hiking to panoramic viewpoints, Semuc Champey has something for everyone.
If you can over come the slightly challenging journey, Semuc Champey is definitely worth a visit and I’m glad we broke up the long journey from East to West Guatemala by paying it a visit. Having said that, if you’re tight on time in Guatemala, I would prioritise places like Tikal and Antigua over Semuc Champey. After our time in Semuc Champey, we got a shuttle bus to our next stop in Guatemala: Lake Atitlan. Check out my guide on best places to visit in Guatemala for more travel inspiration.