Semuc Champey & the Kamba Caves

Ah, Semuc Champey. This day was my absolute favorite in all the time I spent in Guatemala. I didn’t get many pictures that day because I spent much of the day in the water, and my camera isn’t waterproof. (This was the first time that I was jealous of the folks who had GoPros.) But even though I don’t have photos of everything that happened, I do have my memory of it, and I will tell you the story as it goes. It’s too good not to share.

When you go to Semuc Champey, most people stay in Lanquín, which is a tiny rural town in a beautiful valley region in the middle of nowhere. The roads are rough, all unpaved, windy, through hills, on the edge of cliffs. They transport people via trucks with open beds, where people stand or sit stuffed in the back like cattle. There is barely enough room on the road for trucks to pass each other. But the views are really beautiful.  

My day actually started on one of these trucks when I was stuffed in the back with all the folks from my hostel. There was not enough room to sit, so everyone stood, while holding on as best we could. Somehow I ended up in the middle, and the only bars I could hold onto were directly above me. But I’m short, and I could barely even reach them. Just imagine this scenario, with me stuck in the middle of 20 or 25 people, nearly on my tip-toes trying to hold on to the bars while the truck rumbled up and down steep hills and around corners for about an hour. My arms started hurting within minutes. Thankfully, one of the taller Irish boys nearby agreed to switch spots with me so I could hold a bar that was a bit lower and better for my height. All of us giggled the entire hour up to the park.

Upon arriving, the first thing we did was hike up to the highest point for an aerial view of Semuc Champey. And the photo below is what we saw. When I wrote about Tikal and how nonchalant I felt about the ruins before visiting because of all the photos I had already seen of Tikal, I said how when I actually saw the ruins in real life, my apparent lack of interest completely disappeared and the only feeling that resonated was awe. A similar thing happened with Semuc Champey. I saw so many pictures of it that I didn’t think it would be very impressive. But I went because everyone who went to Semuc raved about it and said it was a must. And I’ll say again, when it came time for me to finally see this view, I was definitely impressed, absolutely awe-struck. This picture is cool, but it is nothing compared to the real thing. 

Then, we hiked back down toward the scene we all just photographed. You might be wondering by now, “What exactly is Semuc Champey?” Semuc Champey is essentially an underground river, with pools on top that you can explore, meander, swim, and dive in. Before we went swimming, we walked over to the “entrance” where the river meets the edge of the earth and goes underground into an abyss of underground river caves. Like so:

The picture above is actually fenced off and a guard stands there during park hours to make sure no one crosses it. I don’t know if it’s true, but I heard that they put the fence and guard here after someone fell in and never came out….oooof. 

And below is the beginning of the pools. Some are more shallow, like this one, but others are deep enough to dive or cliff jump into. I walked through some pools, I swam through others. I even swam underneath a waterfall and found shelter behind the wall of water, in one of the cave openings. Then I climbed up the cliff above and jumped in, about 20 or 30 feet, and didn’t even touch the bottom. 

We spent a couple hours in the pools, then headed to the caves! Here, we were each given a lit candle on our way into the darkness. We were led through this underground river cave for about 1 km, before heading back. We giggled the entire time because, well, what a thing to do, wander through river caves with a candle! It was simply absurd. It was also sort of dangerous! In my head I was thinking, “This would never be allowed in the States.” About every five minutes I exhaled, “What the fuck,” because seriously, what the fuck was I doing? In our bathing suits, we waded through water, sometimes swimming with one arm while holding the candle with our other hand, trying not to drop the candle in the water, sometimes getting burned by the dripping wax, climbing up rickety ladders and giant boulders (still while holding the candle), and jumping through openings between rocks and into water below. I had no shoes on, so I was also carefully stepping through to avoid sharp rocks. (I wasn’t always successful, ouch.) I was sometimes afraid (like with the ladders) but mostly inspired, exhilarated, amazed, and amused by this unique (potentially dangerous) experience, and happy that I experienced it with good folks and good friends, who all giggled together at the absolute absurdness of the situation and silly fun we were having. What a thing to do. I WISH I had pictures. I wish! 

After finishing up the day tubing, rope swinging and drinking beer, we all piled back into the truck and headed to our hostel where we spent the rest of the evening hanging out, drinking some more, and recounting the day’s adventures, while taking in the stunning views of the Guatemalan countryside. I, for one, felt so lucky to have the opportunity to see such amazing natural beauty, and to partake in such wonderfully adventurous activities. I couldn’t wait to continue my journey into Nicaragua. 

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