Swimming in Sacred Water: Semuc Champey of Guatemala

As I look down from the heights of El Mirador, the pools of Semuc Champey appear as expanses of turquoise set between limestone ridges. It occurs to me that El Mirador — it means a viewpoint — is a name far too common in Central America or, at the very least, too humdrum for this place. The hike, barely an hour, was nothing compared to the insane 12-hour journey to reach this remote valley in central Guatemala. Though I’ve not even taken a dip yet, I already know it was all worth it.

The Pools of Semuc Champey from El Mirador

The Pools of Semuc Champey from El Mirador

Guatemala is full of backpacker blockbusters to visit, including the colonial town of Antigua, a lake—Lago Atitlan—considered amongst the most beautiful in the world, and the Mayan ruins of Tikal. However, Semuc Champey, visited far less than the aforementioned highlights, may be the crème de la crème. Tucked away in the hard-to-reach jungles of the region of Alta Verapaz, the “sacred water,” as translated from Kekchi, one of twenty-three local Mayan languages, is simply a stunning work of nature and a refreshingly functional place to swim.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Crystalline pools surrounded by monkey-infested, parrot-housing jungle—that’s a pretty spectacular place to practice the breast stroke.
  • Semuc Champey, often compared to Eden, is still remote and “off-the-beaten-track”, so it’s less crowded than many marquee destinations.
  • It’s an ideal place for nature lovers to see tropical animals, lush plant-life, and clean water cascading through a stunning landscape.

A Natural Water Park

Inside the park, a pleasant collection of wooden bridges and trails run alongside and across the Cahabon River, the water source of Semuc Champey. At one end of the pools, the roaring river seems to be sucked underground, beneath a great limestone bridge; at the other end, the river rages back out. In between waterfalls connect the descending series of natural swimming holes. In many of them, I was the lone bather.

Adrift in Pools of Azure

Adrift in Pools of Azure

As if the pools were not enough, the hostels of Lanquin, the most accommodating town near the site, also offer tubing along the up-tempo river. Group tours of Semuc Champey include swimming by candlelight in caves, as well as visiting a spot to jump into the river from a bridge and/or swing. However, it’s also easy enough to skip the tour and catch a ride with one of the massive monster trucks that taxi between Lanquin and the park—standing room only.

At the end of the day, I was pleased to discover that the park’s entrance had a nice covered area in which to sit. It was the only spot where I’d seen vendors of any sort all day, so I grabbed a cold beer and some pineapple slices while waiting for a ride back to the “city,” Lanquin, little more than a few corner stores, thrown-to restaurants, and competing hostels. The place I was staying—El Retiro—had a large swath of property that nuzzled right up to the banks of the river.

Back at El Retiro that afternoon, soaking up the last rays of sun, I was surprised when a cow appeared at my side. I looked around for where it might have come from, only to discover another climbing up the river bank. They were circumventing their fenced enclosure by swimming over to the hostel. I couldn’t help but wonder if that made them sacred cows.

Practicalities

  • When visiting the park, remember to bring all the necessary swimming equipment and some food and drinks to have a picnic.
  • Try to go during dry season and even more preferably in the spring.
  • There are a few places to stay—El Portal de Champey, Utopia Eco Hotel, and Las Marias—nearer to the park, but the two main spots are in Lanquin—El Retiro and Zephyr Lodge.
  • It’s in the remote jungle, so expect problems with modern services like cell phones and WiFi. It’s just another reason to distract yourself with the scenery instead.
  • Over the woods, through the hills, coffee and cardamom farms, and the dirt road beyond, Lanquin is nearly three hours from the nearest city, Coban. Appropriate consideration should apply.
A Sacred Cow

A Sacred Cow

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