Semuc Champey is a unique water and rock environment with caves, terraced pools, and a disappearing river. Tucked away in the mountains of Guatemala, it may have been the most difficult of places to get to of anywhere I’ve been.
For the day long drive from Antigua to Semuc Champey, we averaged 10 miles per hour. It’s not far but the roads are barely hanging onto the edge the mountain and one heavy rain away from being impassible. Nonetheless, our retired US elementary school short bus chugged along dodging WW1 trench sized potholes and honking at kids to pause their street soccer games and move the dirt clods out of the road that marked the goals. We switched drivers and it was quickly evident that this was the sticky situation driver who could pick better lines down the road and was comfortable going at higher speeds around turns and through rough patches. It was about this time that we lost AC and between the heat and the driving, it was time for sweat beads and white knuckles. After a sketchy hairpin turn, our mostly paved road turned into a dry creek bed which the minibus handled surprisingly well I’d assume because of its lower center of gravity. The sun went down quickly but I could still catch glimpses of the sheer cliff to our right as we descended into the valley. Everyone else in the bus seemed to be asleep but I had a grand old time watching the driver flick between high beams, fog lights, and 4-wheel drive.
After 10 miles driving down the dry creek bed, we arrived in Lanquin, a mountain outpost town full of modded out pickup trucks with lift kits, knobby tires, roll cages, and after-market sound systems bumping reggaetón. Upon exiting the vehicle, you’re met with bunches of teenagers shepherding travelers to different ATV trucks that take folks to various hostels in the jungle. In our travels so far, we’ve found that there tends to be one dominant hostel in each city or tourist destination. They’re generally more party-oriented hostels that attract a younger crowd and you pay a bit more for the setting and connections to other travelers. Greengos was the big name in Semuc Champey and they had a sweet retired military amphibious vehicle to cart travelers from the tiny town to their facility. We’d chosen a different hostel called Utopia Ecolodge and piled into one of the tricked-out pickups along with 10-15 other Aussies. It was standing room only in the bed of the pickup truck where you spend all your energy ensuring you don’t crack a rib on the roll cage and someone up front yells when the vehicle comes up to low hanging branches. It was also pouring rain and pitch-black outside. Lucky for us, they needed 2 people to sit in the cabin of the truck!
The driver of our rig could’ve schooled the minibus driver with his skill. The path got narrower, steeper, and with the rain, a lot muddier. Luckily the steepest ascents had concrete runners sunk in the mud and rock to provide some traction. He bounced between gears to avoid using the brakes and to keep solid traction reminding me a lot of snow driving. After 45 minutes, we popped out of the valley onto an inlaid stone driveway and walked into what seemed like a candle-lit treehouse full of hippies.
Utopia Ecolodge, like its name suggests, felt a bit pretentious and had prices to match. None of the staff wore shoes and few were sober at our late hour of arrival but they did have some great homemade chocolate from the cacao trees on the property. As remote as we were in the jungle, they had a captive clientele for the bar, restaurant, and activities making for an expensive couple of days. Unfortunately, the quality didn’t match the cost so we kept our stay to 2 nights instead of adding on more time. Additionally, we’re not sure whether Utopia or the shuttle company they used took advantage of us but the 7-hour shuttle we paid for ended up dumping us at a bus station in the opposite direction from where we intended to go and turned our journey into a 14-hour ordeal. Overall, I’d encourage folks to consider other hostels and lodges in the area over Utopia.
Semuc itself was gorgeous and we had a full day of activity in the park including caving, a steep hike to the view point, swimming in the terraced pools, and tubing down the river back to our lodge. The caving was my favorite. They give each person a wax candle for light in the cave which presents a challenge since the cave is full of waterfalls and you have to swim through sections of the cave where the water may be over 10’ deep. Sara and I juggled our candles, a waterproof cell phone, and our Gopro and successfully made it back out of the cave with all our gear. The Gopro took terrible pictures in the low light but our iphone did take some usable pictures to document our adventure. Semuc was rather touristy with the overlook packed with people taking the same iconic picture and the pools full of families. Going with a group and a guide benefited our experience by getting us to the neat spots around the park and being able to fit all our activities into one day. The guide also showed us the safe rocks to jump off or slide down and the best rope swings. A guide was worth the cost.
Semuc was a neat place but I’m not sure it was worth the time it took the travel there and the cost. I also felt a bit uncomfortable with the locals and this discomfort has stuck with me ever since. One example in particular sums up for me the relationship between the locals and tourists. I was tubing down the river with our group holding a beer in one hand and waving to a group of preteen kids on the far bank with the other. The kids stared at me for a few seconds then one of them slowly raised his middle finger to me. This interaction shook me from my carefree state and bothered me a bit. I think this interaction illustrates a larger environmental justice concern that I’ve already seen many times in my few months of travel. The folks living around these natural and cultural wonders may be deeply impoverished but affluent tourists flood in from around the world to consume the destination. Unfortunately, much of the money from tourism stays within the expat community as they are the folks who own the hostels, tour agencies, bars, and restaurants. As a result, locals see limited financial benefit while their natural or cultural wonder erodes away under the boots of backpackers and jet-setting families. I don’t blame the kid for flipping me the bird. I’m just another white guy floating down the river with beers and a goofy hat paying a French guy to build another story onto his tree house utopian bubble.
It’s important to be conscientious of how we travel and our impact. Going forward, I’ll be trying to make better choices about where I stay and eat and what activities I do. I also need to ponder what I take or consume from a people and place when I travel there and what benefit I can offer.
My wife and I quit our jobs, sold our belongings and are hitting the road for nearly 2 years. We're blogging about our adventures, lessons learned, ideas, and recommendations. Take a gander at the content, leave a comment, or reach out to us to meet up on the road!