I remember the first time I heard about a magical place called Semuc Champey. I was literally on the other side of the world, in an idyllic swimming hole in Laos, and a Scandinavian girl I’d met on the road was telling me about a place she’d been that was even more beautiful, even more pristine, even more extraordinary than any of the natural wonders we’d seen in Laos. I couldn’t imagine such a place existed. But, so many promised, in Guatemala, it did.
If you’ve ever been to Guatemala or considered going to Guatemala, it’s likely that you’ve heard fellow travelers rave about Semuc Champey. Heck, if you’ve been, you may have raved about it yourself. It’s the battle cry of backpackers across Central America: get thyself to Semuc Champey. I know many of you recommended I go there as well, and so I hope you won’t be offended when I tell you the following — a confession which may technically land me in traveler jail.
I thought Semuc Champey was the most overrated place I’ve ever been.
It all started with getting there. Along with two couples I’d met in Rio Dulce we squeezed into an un-airconditioned minibus and steeled ourselves for five hours bouncing over unpaved roads to Lanquin, the base camp for travelers seeking Semuc. Five hours turned to seven, and while the scenery and rural communities we passed were some of the most beautiful and fascinating I’d seen in Guatemala, it was hard to enjoy them as we one by one succumbed to motion sickness. Stopping at a gas station to refuel and catch our breath, we found no running water, and a sink covered in blood. It was, unfortunately, a bit of an omen for what was to come.
I’d heard high praise for Zephyr Lodge, some travelers going as far as to call it their favorite lodging in all of Central America. They have a stay-three-nights-get-the-fourth-free deal, and I intended to take them up on it. Looking at the above two photos, it’s easy to understand why, right? Wrong. What those photos don’t show were the fact that the lodge was under heavy construction, ruling out the idea of relaxing by the pool or in a hammock during the day. And when I crawled into my dorm bunk that first night, I was met by a cockroach scurrying across my pillow — though the next morning the hostel was buzzing with the news that another girl had come back to find a tarantula on her bed, so I suppose I was actually lucky.
I don’t want to totally trash Zephyr — the open air showers were stunning, the food was good, the surrounding views were mind melting, and clearly plenty of people love it. Plus, it’s never really fair to judge a place when it’s under heavy renovation. But that said, they truly do have a cockroach infestation — one of the couple’s I’d traveled with told me they counted ten in their private room — and the dorms were similarly uncomfortably dirty and bug infested. They were also a far walk from the bathroom, and the only lockers available were in the distant lobby. I felt uneasy sleeping in an open-air, freestanding building with open windows and doors and was shocked that no bug nets were provided considering the open windows didn’t even have screens. Yes, it is the jungle, but I’ve stayed in plenty of lodging deep in the jungle — some with open walls, even! — where I still felt relaxed and safe. I hate to sound like a priss or be overdramatic, but I would have preferred to set myself on fire than spend another night in that dorm. Ha! Guys I’m kidding. Tooooooooootally kidding.
Anyway, with a day of sleeping in and relaxing by the pool firmly ruled out, I signed on for the main event — a day tour to Semuc Champey.
Our first stop was the privately owned Kan’va Caves. I’ve visited some spectacular caves around the world over the years and was looking forward to this one, especially when our guide handed each of us a candle and told us we’d have to swim with it to light our way!
We spent nearly two hours in the caves, wading through water-flooded caverns, swimming through narrow passages, and jumping off underground waterfalls. It was stunning, and parts of the tour were totally unique, however, it could have been done in half the time. Our little group of five from Rio Dulce hung near the back and quickly grew frustrated with how slowly we were moving in such an enormous group — there was a huge amount of simply standing around, candle in hand, waiting for the twenty people ahead of us to scramble through a narrow passageway.
Next, it was time to jump off things — one of my favorite hobbies. Still high from the cave cannonball I’d aced, I happily took my turn on the big river swing. Water levels were low though and so I skipped jumping from the nearby bridge. I hate turning down adventure but hearing the first jumpers say that they’d hit the bottom of the river bed definitely deterred the second lot of us!
Next, it was time for lunch. Seriously, I feel like if this is the only post someone were to read from me they’d think I was the whiniest whiny-pants who ever whined, but it’s kind of like we were being punked. Back at Zephyr Lodge, we’d puzzled over the lunch situation for the full day tour — the hostel encouraged us to pay for their overpriced and very mediocre packed lunch, and were evasive when we asked if food would be available for sale at Semuc. “Food vendors aren’t always there,” they said, and avoided eye contact. We decided to risk it, and I was so glad we had! The guides led us to a road side restaurant that was delicious and reasonably priced and looked very much like a permanent fixture that was indeed always there, and those that had paid for soggy sandwiches looked on bitterly.
So that was awkward. But nevermind — we were soon onto the main event, the turquoise pools of Semuc Champey. At the entrance we found, you guessed it, even more food vendors, this time selling bags of ripe fruits. I snagged a few, and off we went on the forty-five minute uphill slog to El Mirador.
It was a tough uphill hike in steaming heat, but I loved the exercise. I also loved descending, and the first moment I dipped my toes in those cool waters below.
For shutterbugs, I’d recommend a tour that does these activities in reverse — the light was pretty much gone by the time we made it down to the pools, which made photography difficult. I’d rather have spent the morning at Semuc and the afternoon at the caves, like Adventurous Kate’s tour did. (Interested in reading a completely different take on Semuc Champey? Check out her post.)
Relaxing in one of the pools at the end of the day, I confessed to the couple I’d been traveling with that Semuc Champey wasn’t what I hoped. They shrugged and said they felt the same. Semuc Champey is a lot of work to get to and to get from (I had an eight hour journey to Guatemala City still ahead), and we just didn’t feel like it paid off. I truly could not believe that this was the place I’d been hearing about for years.
When we originally planned to stay for four nights, we thought we’d take one day to do the Semuc tour, one day to relax at the lodge and explore town, and one day to take the hostel’s tubing and bat cave tours. Other travelers warned me the water was too low to make the tubing tour worthwhile and we all agreed we couldn’t really stand other night at Zephyr Lodge anyway. So we booked our tickets to leave first thing the next morning. And we didn’t look back.
So what led to me and my travel companions shrugging our shoulders? We did some musing on this very topic. Perhaps I was at the end of my trip and I just didn’t have the mental energy for the two days spent in motion-sickness inducing buses that it took to get to Lanquin. Perhaps I was unhinged by our lodging situation. Perhaps it all just seemed too commercial and crowded after having such an authentic and unexpected adventure in Rio Dulce. Perhaps I was too stressed about work to enjoy being forced off the grid. Perhaps my expectations were too high. Or, most likely, travel has just left my completely spoiled.
The awkward thing is that the more you travel, the harder you become to impress. Comparison is the thief of joy, they say, and the universal they has a pretty good point there. The first white sand beach you ever lay eyes on is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen and seared into your brain for the rest of your life; the hundredth, yeah, it’s nice, but the seventy-seventh had finer sand. Four years of constant travels and maybe I’ve seen too many gorgeous caves and waterfalls for my own good — I couldn’t I couldn’t help but compare Semuc Champey to the stunning Kuang Si Falls in Laos, or the Sagada Caves in the Philippines, and think how the magic I’d felt in those places was missing.
I don’t for a second take for granted how lucky I am to have these experiences — the good and the bad. The blessing in a little bit of apathy slipping in after a few years of travel is that when a place still manages to wow you, you know it’s something special — and you grab onto that moment with both hands.
Can you guys make me feel better by committing traveler heresy and telling me a place you guiltily thought was overhyped?
Where I stayed: Clearly I can’t recommend Zephyr, where I paid 70Q ($9) for a dorm. I did hear good things about Retiro Lodge and Utopia Lodge, which might be better bets.
One issue that probably won’t matter much to most travelers but was very stressful to me so I do want to mention it was the internet situation at Zephy. I knew there was no wifi, however I imagined a setup similar to the one at Casa de la Iguana, where there was a bank of desktops guests could pay to use. Instead, there was just one teeny 10″ netbook in the middle of the bar that was on from 7am to 7pm and a long line of people each day eager to confirm flights, check email, and browse Facebook. I found this system incredibly stressful and anxiety over work definitely hampered my experience immediately. For many, this won’t be a concern, but there were definitely others at the lodge who were similarly frantic over flights, bills, etc. that they needed internet access to address.
Where I ate: I only ate at Zephyr and while quality is great, selection is limited. Outside food is banned.
How I got there: Private shuttles go to Antigua (stopping first in Guatemala City), Flores, and Rio Dulce. Other connections are available by chicken bus. Roads are windy and in many places unpaved. I paid 86Q ($11US) to get to Guatemala City from Lanquin, and 150Q ($20US) to get from Rio Dulce to Lanquin.
Bonus tip: There is no ATM in Lanquin and credit card payments incur an 8% fee. Bring cash!