Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Guatemala – Wet & Wild Semuc Champey

Swimming in the clear water of
Semuc Champey
Storing our big backpacks in Cobán, we were excited about a light and easy two day side-trip to the town of Lanquín and the natural limestone bridge of Semuc Champey. Departing from our guesthouse at 7:30-ish, we hoped to be able to catch a direct bus to Lanquín just before 8 am. When we reached the correct bus terminal (there are about six of them in this city of 80,000 people), we were told by a worker that the next bus would leave in an hour at 10 am.

But wait, it's 8 am now! Is the bus now leaving at 9 or 10 am? This is a bit like in India – no straight answers ;-)

Oh well, we had at least an hour to kill and ate enough breakfast already (those bakeries were making good business with us). Why not go to the tourist office, normally they don't have much info on offer but it doesn't hurt to try. To our surprise the lady there was full of valuable information (we wrote about her in our previous post). She gave us lots of up-to-date info on how to get to Lanquín and later Semuc Champey, other attractions in the area and the approximate cost. So we thought we were unusually well prepared to go explore this area some 70km from Cobán

Just before 9 am, we were back at the terminal all ready to go. But the bus wasn't. It was there waiting but not a soul inside. Also waiting for the bus was Melissa, a young gal from the States. We were approached by another guy that claimed that his transport was about to leave around the corner, although we had a hard time understanding him and following where exactly his finger was pointing to. He was so drunk that he could hardly stand straight – this at 9 am! Obviously, we were happy to wait a bit longer for the other bus.

Direct bus all the way? Too easy!
The time passed fast, Patrick was people watching, with is always very interesting at a bus terminal, while Julane spent much time talking with Melissa about India, Yoga, and Ashrams. By 11am, we were sitting in the bus in the best seats. We were approached by a very friendly guy (later it turned out that he was the driver): he inquired where we were going and why we would not go all the way to Semuc Champey? He explained that the bus would take us there for just 5Q more (65 cent). He explained that it was much more convenient than staying in the village of Lanquín and taking a pickup truck ride to Semuc, a 20km round trip. He told us that there was a nice guesthouse right near Semuc too. The bus had Champey-Lanquín-Cobán printed on its front… So spontaneous change of plans: Let's go straight then and forget about the stop in Lanquín. It was getting late anyway to do a stopover (11:15 am and we still are not moving yet).

A small village on market day
We eventually were rolling out the terminal a couple minutes before 11:30 am, Semuc- we are coming, finally! The landscape during the journey was very different from what we've seen in the Guatemalan highlands. The vegetation here was very lush, with various shades of green dotted with the bright colors of the blooming plants.
The rough and grey mountains of the highlands had magically morphed into perfectly rounded green rolling hills (envision: bowl-like, half spheres plopped down by the God's children creating a paradisiacal landscape and then painting them a vivid, pure green) with even greener valleys carved between them.
Cardamom fields all over
This region is the world's largest exporter of Cardamom. Coffee is also grown in large quantities here; but unfortunately for us, the best quality is exported. So we have to drink the average stuff in the restaurants, which is still pretty tasty. But nothing like the mild butter-roasted coffee that we got from Dalat in Vietnam. On the way we also passed through a tiny village that had market day, since there is only one street in this village (the road that we were driving on) we drove straight through it. I wonder how many tomatoes and avocados were crushed by the tires of our vehicle, at least nobody seemed to run angrily after us :-)

The trip to Lanquín took pretty much 2 hours, the last 30 minutes on a dusty dirt road. Once there, we were told to get off the bus and transfer to a pickup truck. What??? We expected to take the bus all the way to Semuc. So here we were standing on the back of a pickup truck; the two of us, Melissa and Josh, a guy from Canada, that hopped on the bus in Cobán just before we left. Although, as we climbed onto the pickup, the bus driver told us "no pay more" we got suspicious when the pickup truck didn't stop along the way to pick up any local passengers and the kids outside Lanquín pointed at us with a big grin on their faces while shouting, "Gringos!!!".
We were pretty sure that we had fallen for some scam, and that the pickup driver would charge us a totally inflated extra price for our private transport to Semuc. Arguing would not be a good idea, the walk back to Lanquín was 10 km on a rough dirt road with lots of steep up and downs, besides that it was sweltering hot. Julane brought an antique guidebook from 1995 and it mentions that the walk there requires overnight camping as it would be too difficult to complete in one day. Ironically, the travel guide seems to mention a lot about camping and walking. Was it really so difficult and primitive to travel in Central America 16 years ago?? We don't have a tent, mosquito net and we have only one sleeping bag: it's made of silk!

We arrived at the mysterious guesthouse, and it actually looks quite nice. We jumped off the truck and only then spotted the sign on the other side of truck: "Las Marias Guesthouse and Caves".
We really got to Semuc with no extra charge, no hassle, much easier than expected. Probably, we are too leery and skeptical? Has traveling in India and Vietnam caused us being too suspicious?

Our "teddy bear" in Guatemala
Las Marias is one of two guesthouses in Semuc. From what we could see is actually also a bit nicer than "El Portal', which is located closer to the park entrance. Our place (Las Marias) probably paid a commission to the bus driver to put us on their pickup truck before we could find out about El Portal… oh well, we consider this smart marketing and were actually quite happy to be here. The well maintained grounds of our new home is right next to a refreshing river. The covered outdoor sitting eating area had a nice cool breeze flowing through and was a great place to just be and let the hot part of the day pass by. It had a bit of a feel like the expansive porch area of a hacienda. The rooms were basic and ok, not great, but bearable for one night if you don't mind a thin foam mattress on hard wood, and sharing your pillow with a special pet, or is that the "Bettmümpfeli" "good night" chocolate for guests?

Entrance to the Las Marias
K'an-Ba caves
We signed up for an afternoon tour of the K'an-Ba caves to help us cool down. The caves are actually owned by the Las Marias Guesthouse, which claims to be some sort of cooperative of the local community.

The caves tour is the most unusual we've ever come across: A stream is running through it, so it is filled with water and one needs to wade through it sometimes at about waist height; in some parts it's even necessary to swim. For light we carried candles. That's right, each person gets one small candle to hold (also while swimming). Only the guide has a battery operated headlamp – not a very one bright though.

We fortunately travel with our smallest dive torch, thanks to that, we also had our little extra light that was at least good enough to shine into the cracks and holes around and above. The water was not clear, actually rather milky from all the limestone deposits: trying to shine below the surface was pointless.

Unfortunately we did not have our dive camera case with us, hence we couldn't take any pictures but found two on an other travel website

Caving in candlelight!
For our tour, we were joined by a large group from Lanquín, so we had a total of 15 candles to light up the cave. Unfortunately a big group also means slow moving at any kind of obstacle, which were plenty. The first one was a swimming section immediately followed by a steep climb on a slippery ladder; then a climb down on the other side again. It's definitely a challenge to climb a small iron ladder with wet sandals, holding a candle that is dripping hot wax.

Next, we climbed up a 3 meter high waterfall. Holding on to a knotted rope and pressing our feet against the wall (keep in mind, that we are in a pitch black cave, our only light being candles.)
Then, we were swimming across a pool too deep to stand – one hand up in the air keeping the candle burning (thankfully we had many candles, some swimmers did not manage to keep theirs dry). While swimming we also had to navigate through the stalagmites that were mostly fully submerged in the dark water and totally invisible, and it hurts pretty badly when hitting one during a stroke with the hands or legs. Especially hitting the shins must have been painful; we heard a number of "ouches". Our best bet was to follow the path of the person ahead and go very slow when they "ouched" loudly.

Swimming with candles!
At the farthest point into the cave tour was a deep water plunge: We were challenged to climb up on the side to about 3 meters high and jump into the pitch black pool. It was fun! Thankfully, we all hit a soft sandy bottom cushion.

On the way back we had to do a combination of sliding and jumping through a small hole the diameter of a small car tire (not the truck or SUV size) that was probably the scariest part, as there was no way to see what was below. Thankfully below was another deep water part, and the hand of the tour guide literally "guided" us away from the sharp rock nearby as we came plunging down.

The cave tour was nearly 2 hours long, something totally unusual and a great experience. We guess that a tour like that would not be possible in the more developed nations… there are too many hazards that could do some serious harm. In the USA, a tour like this would probably require signing a stack of "release of liability" papers the thickness of the Los Angeles yellow pages.

We also had to suffer an injury, actually a casualty. Julane's (never used but stored in Singapore) Teva sandals lost the sole on one shoe. She didn't notice until we were out of the cave. The sole is probably floating around somewhere in there now all alone in the dark :-(

Bridge across the Cahabòn river,
It doesn't look very car worthy!
Our tour also included a 1 km tubing trip (floating in an old inner tube) down the Cahabòn River. During the dry season the water is flowing rather slowly and by the time we started our tubing segment, the sun had disappeared over the edges of the valley and it got cold quickly… Tubing ended up being a slow and chilling experience.

Back at the guesthouse, it was time for dinner. This place is so remote, that the only options for food is to eat at one of the two guesthouses or take a 10 km walk/drive to Lanquín. This must help them justifying their high food prices – double of what it would be in other places in Guatemala. We were ok with that, after all, this was a remote place and we would stay for one night only and then return to Cobán. But the dinner that we got was definitely no reason to come back here, it was small but edible, that's about all.

The next morning we took off early to Semuc Champey, wanting to get there before the large tour groups from Lanquín and Cobán arrive. Semuc is now a national park with an entrance fee of Q50 per person ($6.50) the money is used for security guards as there had been some robberies in the past. There is also a good quality wooden boardwalk along the river and up through the steep jungle to the "Mirador" (view point).
Climbing up to the "Mirador"
We first climbed up to the Mirador, it said on a sign that it is a difficult climb and we must admit that we did feel the effort as our legs still reminded us about our Volcan Santa Maria climb (this souvenir has lasted us a week). The climb up was pretty steep at points, but they did a great job of putting in stairs to do the climbing.

View of Semuc Champey
All the while we were climbing up, we could hear the water below, but the trees and bushes were so thick that we could not get a glimpse of Semuc Champey, only when we reached the Mirador platform could we get a first view of it. Below us reveled the entire natural limestone bridge that makes up Semuc Champey. Because we were there early, there were only a few other people on the Mirador and nobody down at the pools. Great for photos!

This site is often called the most beautiful place in all of Guatemala. We agree that it's beautiful but the view from Panajachel over Lake Atitlán or the view from Vulcan Santa Maria southward to the seven volcanoes is just as nice.

Tourist photo from the "Mirador"
Semuc Champey is quite an interesting natural wonder: The Cahabòn river is flowing at high speed under a natural bridge made of limestone. A long time ago, the river must have flown on top of what is now bridge, carving out a series natural shallow swimming pools. The force of the water must have eroded a tunnel through the lower part of limestone: this is now the river's path. It's not a natural bridge as we envisioned it when we first read about Semuc Champey. Rather, a natural long narrow arch spanning a wide and deep valley. It is more like a large flat slab of stone covering a narrow valley. Actually you can't really tell that it is a bridge until you walk to the upper part where the Cahabòn River enters the tunnel. The "bridge" is about 300 meters long and the naturally carved pools on top are filled with crystal clear water that reflects the sunlight in a shiny turquoise color. The water on top of the bridge is actually not fed from the Cahabòn River, it's the rainwater that trickles down the small creeks from either side of the valley.

Cahabòn river entering the tunnel
below Semuc Champey
We were there during the dry season, so the water was flowing very slowly, creating a very soothing sound. It is truly a relaxing place, especially when you are there early in the morning before the crowds arrive.

After the climbing down from the Mirador, we headed to the point where the Cahabòn river goes underground. It was a truly impressive sight. And apparently also very dangerous. I guess anybody falling into the river here gets sucked into the underground section of the river and will probably not come out alive. There was a security guard with a loud whistle reprimanding anyone that got too close to the edge.

The same guard also pointed us to look at a tree near the footpath. It had a lime green snake in it. Wow she's a beauty. Julane was so excited by the snake that she got as close as 1 meter of it while trying to take the perfect picture. Good thing she didn't know that the snake is venomous (at least that's what the guard told Patrick).
Posing for the camera
Don't worry, she was not in danger, the snake was all stretched out on the tree branch and could not have attacked her.

We offer an honorable mentioning on our Blog to the first person that writes to us with the correct name of this snake.

One of the big natural pools
We spent the rest of the morning enjoying the crystal clear pools with the surprisingly warm water, probably 25°C (77°F). The pools are full of small fish, and we were excited to stick our feet inside, would these be the kind of fish that love to nibble on dead skin (remember our fish spa story from Siem Reap?) Unfortunately, they were not that kind of fish, or didn’t find us delicious? Slowly the park started to fill up with people, mostly locals actually, which surprised us as it was a Tuesday. What is this place like on a weekend?

At the end of the natural bridge, the water from the pools forms a series of waterfalls that join the river that is gushing out of the tunnel below.
For more info on Semuc Champey visit this link to Wikipedia. And of course don't miss our Video below.

Because our good experience of getting to Semuc so easily, we decided to book the direct trip back to Cobán with the staff at our guesthouse. For 35Q a direct bus would take us all the way to Cobán.
Remember about us being skeptical to get here? We thought on the way back everything would be easy this way. A public minibus stopped in front of Las Marias a bit earlier than scheduled. It had Lanquín-Cobán printed on it…

Waterfall from the bridge joining
the Cahabòn river that flows out
We ensured that the guy from our guesthouse informed the driver that we already paid for the whole trip and saw that he handed some money to the driver. It was a very old bus but we figured we could handle the 2.5 hour ride.

Well, at Lanquín we were asked to change to another bus to take us to Cobán. While changing we made clear to the conductor of the new bus that we had paid already. "No problemo amigo," was his response.

By now you can probably figure what happened next: about half an hour before reaching Cobán, the Ayudante (helper or conductor) demanded that we pay for the ride from Lanquín to Cobán. We of course refused and explained that we had paid to Las Marias Q35 each for the entire trip. He asked for our receibo. We explained that he needs to collect his money from Las Marias. Of course, he didn't accept this and kept asking for more (but never actually telling us an amount we were supposed to pay.) He just said that whatever we paid was only good for the trip from Semuc to Lanquín).

We kept refusing and repeating our story, telling him to call Las Marias if he had any doubts. We are not sure if they actually tried to call or not, since he used the cell phone so much during the trip (he must have an unlimited calling plan). Anyway, they persisted that we pay more until we finally gave them the phone number of Las Marias. That solved the problem! No more requests for extra money.

We are not sure if the guys really didn't get paid by Las Marias or just wanted some extra pocket cash for their cell phone bills. But we figured that they are all from the same village and know each other. They can sort things out among themselves. We paid the correct amount (tourist price that is, the fare for locals would have been about 10Q less).

However, we did learn our lesson: stay skeptical and always ask for a receipt, something that Guatemalans rarely hand out. (we read that Guatemalans don't really pay any taxes either… is that why we never get receipts?).

Anyway, we had a nice time in Semuc Champey and especially loved the K'an-Ba candle light cave trip, which was actually nicer than the main destination Semuc Champey itself.
We still think staying in Las Marias was better than staying the night in Lanquín, but if you plan to stay for more than one night it might be better the other way round.