Located deep eight hours north of Antigua, through windy mountain towns without much infrastructure, Semuc Champey is located deep in the Guatemalan jungle along a river that is privy to waterfalls and turquoise-colored freshwater pools. Here is a story of my experience of a Guatemalan jungle tour and the pros and cons that came with it.
After arriving in the small town of Lanquin, I hopped on a roof-less truck packed to the brim with travelers, all their luggage, and made my way through windy dirt roads to El Portal hostel located closest to the entry. Daily, that hostel is in touch with other traveling outposts in the area to guide visitors up a steep trail and eventually to the pools. The itinerary also includes a tour of the underwater caves in the afternoon so I thought, Por que no, or why not? I had not been on any guided tours and decided that this would be the best way to see the sites of such a remote area.
Our tour left around 10am; eleven other backpackers and I convened at the entrance. We waited about twenty minutes so an additional sixteen people could join. We walked down a dirt path that led to two separate destinations, the first a horizontal path that would go directly to the pools and the second on a straight vertical ascent through the jungle that would eventually end with the pools. The sign at the entrance indicated that the trail was rated difficult so those with heart problems or any other medical issues shouldn’t test their luck. Up, up, up we walked. First on a dirt path, followed by a wooden stairway, these two methods switching on and off as the hike progressed. The twelve of us who started out together managed to stay within a steady pace, stopping sporadically to catch our heaving breaths, hoping to continue on at leisurely speed. Our guide wanted to keep the group together so we were forced to wait for the other sixteen travelers trekking slowly behind us. This continued more often than we had hoped, making the hike feel more like a guided task than a tour for adventurers on vacation.
Eventually we made it to the pools. The guide took us to a spot where we could safely jump off a twenty-foot cliff. Then we had to wait. Wait for the other sixteen who wanted to jump, did not want to jump, and were indecisive. This happened on the rockslides, and every other spot he took us to. I assumed we would be able to leisurely swim or relax but since there were so many people, this never happened.
After lunch, the twelve of us asked the guide if we could be separated into two groups when touring the caves. They nodded in agreement and we made our way to the rocky caves in a nearby location. We all convened at the entrance and were each given a candle. The caves were located under a rock-way with a watery path to follow. Despite our request for two separate groups, all 28 of us entered together. Starting and stopping more and more frequently to ensure no one drowned, gotten stuck somewhere along the rocks or in the water that would occasionally get so deep that walking was no longer an option.
The path led everyone to wet ladder we all climbed up which opened into another cavern of sharp rocks and a path that went from calf-deep to impossible to stand at all. This led to another ladder where a waterfall tumbled over each rung, making it rather difficult to keep us balanced since one of our hands was occupied with a lit candle.
About 8-12 of us got tired of waiting for everyone lagging behind; myself along with another traveler took turns leading our smaller group (without the guide) by candlelight into caves and passages unknown. Eventually, our group leader called ahead to inform us that we had come to the end of the cave passage and we had to wait for the rest of the group to catch up. After sitting in the cold water along the jagged, rocky edges of the caves, our smaller group grew restless and once again, a fellow traveler and I lead a smaller group back to the entrance. Back through the jagged rocks, the bottomless pools, the ladder with the waterfall, and down to the main area we had only traveled once before. Our candles were getting dangerously low so we took turns in front with one lit and one unlit to ensure we’d always have light in the event one of the wicks went out for good.
We made it out safely and once again waited for our guide and the sixteen other stragglers to exit.
The pros of going with this group is that the tour guide will show you where you can safely jump off rock cliff, slide down rock slides, and go into the caves where you are not allowed to go unless accompanied by a guide. But there are enough travelers hanging out by the pools on their own who can show you where to go without consulting a local. In addition, there are park operators who are situated by the pools who can give you this information as well.
The cons of this jungle tour in Guatemela are that you may end up with a large group of 28 people which aside from the annoyances of constantly starting, stopping and waiting for everyone to continue on together, is that a group of that size is rather dangerous, especially in the confines of an underwater cave where the only people in charge of safety are one, maybe two guides.
If you happen to be in Semuc Champey, I’d recommend signing up for a tour the day you want to go (early in the morning) and asking the staff how many others happened to sign up. If you get to the entrance and see that the group exceeds over 12-14 tourists, ask for a refund. The tour ends up being more of a task than a fun day exploring the beautiful scenery of an almost-untouched destination.
Did you have a different experience on a Guatemalan jungle tour? Please share!
Note: All experiences and opinions of this tour are my own.