Guatemala Revisited: Semuc Champey and the Rio Dulce

Feeling rested and with legs still sore from our recent trek up Acatenango, we left Lake Atitlan and headed to Semuc Champey, a magical land laden with turquoise pools, waterfalls, limestone caves, and fast flowing rivers. We were told the trip to Lanquin, the entrance point to Semuc Champey, could take anywhere from 8-11 hours as the roads tend to be in poor condition.

The journey started off slowly as the van rounded up other backpackers from their hostels and we drove through the scenic country side, but it shortly became a terrifying and exhausting experience. This serpentine single-track dirt road carved into the side of the mountain was definitely not for the faint of heart. On the ‘road’ we were routinely passed by massive lorries traveling at warp speed, bringing to mind forgotten childhood prayers. However terrifying as the journey is, it’s a trip that many backpackers in Guatemala endure to visit one of the country’s most beautiful destinations.

The view of Semuc Champey from the mirador.
The Cahabón River emerging from under the naturally formed limestone bridge.

Semuc Champey which literally means, ‘where the river hides under the stones’, consists of a natural 300 meter long limestone bridge, creating a series of stepped turquoise pools. These crystal clear pools are fed by streams coming down off the mountain, and under this naturally formed bridge, rages the Cahabón River.

It was a long and bumpy mini bus ride through the beautiful country side and into the deepest, darkest depths of the middle of nowhere Guatemala. Once in Lanquin we hopped into the back of a pick up truck and held on for dear life as the driver sped down an equally terrifying and bumpy dirt road, but as the presence of the road diminished and the travel became infinitely slower, we were able to enjoy the beautiful night sky covered in more stars than we’ve ever seen before. Arriving at our hostel well after dark, we were starving and in much need of a shower.

The view from the mirador!

We woke up early to a lush forest and a gently flowing river just outside our door. The birds were singing their morning songs and thatched roof huts filled our periphery. After several cups of coffee and a massive plate of banana pancakes we decided to hit the trail early to beat the crowds of tourists that would soon be shuttled down from nearby hostels.

We had chosen to stay at the hostel El Portal again, since it’s the closest to the entrance of Semuc Champey and only a short walk to the gate. If you stay at any of the other hostels you have to be shuttled down with other guests at set times throughout the day.

Photo by Willie Kessel.

The hike to the river from the park entrance is beautiful and we highly recommend taking the “Mirador”, or the lookout trail first. It’s steep and can be challenging at times, especially if it’s been raining. The trail is only about a mile long and definitely worth the view once up at the mirador! The trail from the top leads back down to river where the pools are cool and refreshing after getting sweaty on the trail. There’s also tons of little fish that will give your feet a pedicure if you stay still for long enough!

Photo by Willie Kessel.

In the afternoon when the rain showers and crowds moved in and we headed back to our hostel to plan out our next adventure!

Next up was the Rio Dulce!

The Rio Dulce, or Sweet River, has long been a popular cruising destination and one of the safest places to leave a boat during hurricane season.  It’s truly a beautiful place that offers a little of everything from ecolodges and spas, to rich rainforests, waterfalls and ruins. The river begins at Lake Izabal, and seated at the entrance is a small Spanish colonial fort named Castillo de San Felipe de Lara that was originally built to stop pirates entering the lake from the Caribbean.

A quick visit to Castillo de San Felipe de Lara.

The ride from Semuc Champey to the Rio Dulce is not recommend. It was another windy, and very steep dirt road. So steep in areas that a tractor had to pull 18 wheelers up the grade, one by one. It was another long and exhausting trip in a small and cramped van, twelve hours to be exact.

We had not been to the Caribbean coastline of Guatemala on our previous trip and we were excited to see this famed port and cruiser hang out. True to our style Willie, Nicola, Josh and I showed up starving and exhausted in the Rio Dulce with no plans and nowhere to stay, and definitely in need of showers. We quickly looked for a restaurant with WiFi where we could drop our bags, fill our bellies and do some quick research on a place to stay. With the internet barely working, Nicola decided to head out and walk the main road in hopes of finding a decent hostel. Along the way she met a girl who recommended a place called The Backpackers.

Photo by Willie Kessel.

With full bellies and heavy packs, we hailed a tuk tuk to take us over one of the largest bridges in all of Central America. At the base of the bridge in the small town of El Rellenos is The Backpackers, seated along the edge of the river the hostel and restaurant offer a beautiful view along with their affordably priced private rooms and dorms.

We soon noticed a sound similar to artillery fire permeating the air. The sound was coming from directly above us on the bridge. Day and night the sound could be heard as trucks passed overhead, only ending as the truck finished its descent.

Hot spring waterfall. Photo by Willie Kessel.
Enjoying the cool steam at the base of the falls. Photo by Willie Kessel.

Over dinner and a little research one night, we found two places we wanted to visit while in the area. The first was Castillo de San Felipe de Lara, the Spanish colonial fort, and nearby Finca el Paraiso, a hot spring waterfall flowing into a cool stream!

The entrance fee to the waterfall was a whopping 10 quetzales, or about $1.40, and we spent the entire day enjoying the warm water and jumping off the falls. Unfortunately at one point during the afternoon when we weren’t watching our bags, our friend Willie’s phone was stolen. A sad reminder to never leave your things unattended, especially while traveling in new areas.

Photo by Willie Kessel.
Photo by Willie Kessel.

Back at The Backpackers we met the amazing Heather Graham, director of the hotel and Casa Guatemala. She informed us that The Backpackers and restaurant help support the Casa Guatemala Orphanage and School located just down the river. Every cent spent here helps to care and educate over 250 children! They also provide older children from the home an opportunity and place to transition into the full-time work force.

Photo by Willie Kessel.

Heather kindly offered to take us to the home the following morning to meet some of the kids and see some of the work they do there.

Stay tuned for more on that in our next post!

New friends made at the bus stop. Photo by Willie Kessel.

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