written by Carla Berryhill photos: Thor Janson
I had heard of Semuc Champey and its pools of turquoise water, but I had no idea just how stunning this destination would really be.
My very dear friend, Richard, planned a trip for me to the eastern side of Guatemala. I had not done much traveling in Guatemala yet, so I was looking forward to a week of exploring this beautiful country.
He took me to some absolutely incredible places such as Quiriguá, Río Dulce and Lívingston … but the biggest surprise was Semuc Champey. And as Richard had wanted, it was a complete surprise—he wouldn’t even allow me to do any internet research or let anyone tell me about it. He wanted to see my reaction as I entered the park and saw it for the first time.
I’m glad he had me see it this way; it is something I will never ever forget. I think my jaw dropped to the ground when I saw the pools of Semuc Champey!
We took an early morning shuttle from Río Dulce to Lanquín that took six hours because the route we took was nothing but a dirt road, winding its way through the mountains into Alta Verapaz. The farther we went the more excited I got because the scenery took my breath away—lush, green mountains with small pueblos still untouched by tourism. I was in cacao and cardamom country—amazing to see. We drove by homes where the children would run after the shuttle, giggling and pointing while yelling “gringos” at the top of their lungs.
It was dark by the time we arrived at Lanquín and the lodge at Semuc Champey, so unfortunately I had to wait one more night to see what was in store. But I got the sense it was something special.
We woke early to a perfect, sunny day and walked the short distance to the park entrance. The breeze was warm and scented with the rich, fresh smell of a mountain forest. The park is well marked with easy trails and many informative signs. We took a path that comes close to the Cahabón River and then suddenly opens up to the most amazing pools I have ever seen. In all there are 14 pools on a natural bridge that the river has cut out over thousands of years.
The river runs swiftly under the bridge, but the mountain-fed pools on the bridge are calm, blue and almost surreal in their clarity. I saw at least four different species of fish without even trying. The pools cascade down into each other, surrounded by a variety of small, colorful flowers and greenery.
The water is not deep but you can jump right in and swim in most of the pools. One of the larger pools feeds into another, and you can ride down a natural water slide cut out of rock. A little bumpy, but fun! You should get to the pools early. We arrived at 8:30 a.m. and didn’t see any other visitors until after 10 or so. We had the pools to ourselves—what a treat!
After your swim you should climb up to the mirador. Not the easiest of climbs but if you take the new trail up, the one nearest the pools, there are wooden stairs and handrails to make it easier. The old trail is difficult and slippery. Either way, it’s worth the effort because you can see the entire river valley; the view of Semuc Champey from above is spectacular.
I will never forget my time in Semuc Champey but I do plan on returning. Tranquil, lush, blue and beautiful, this is one of Guatemala’s gems. As I travel more in this country, I’m able to see how many natural treasures there are in this amazing place that I now call home.