Semuc Champey is one of the most beautiful natural wonders in Guatemala. This incredible series of turquoise pools is set across a natural limestone bridge, hidden among dense jungle 12km southeast of Lanquín. You can work your way from the top of the rocky staircase to the bottom, bathing in the shallow pools whose jewel-toned waters are fed by the Río Cahabón. Alternatively, head upstream and hike the steep, slippery trail to the mirador for views across the whole of Parque Nacional Semuc Champey.
While its remote location kept this scenic pocket of Guatemala off the tourist path for many years, today it’s a well-known stop on the backpacking trail between Tikal and the western highlands. No longer Guatemala’s best-kept secret, Semuc Champey still manages to maintain its allure despite its popularity – you can usually find a tranquil corner fairly easily.
Where is Semuc Champey located?
The pools are strung along a natural rocky bridge at the base of a valley in Parque Nacional Semuc Champey, 12km from the Q’eqchi’ village of Lanquín. It’s a great spot for a day’s swimming and relaxing among nature.
Most visitors stay either in Lanquín or around Semuc for a couple of nights, which allows enough time not just for the pools but also for Grutas de Lanquín – an impressive cave system from where the Río Lanquín emerges. Here you can go tubing down the emerald ribbon of water during the day or head to the riverbank at dusk to see thousands of flitting bats fly out of the caves to feed.
How do I get there?
While you can book an all-inclusive tour of Semuc from Antigua City or Guatemala City, you can also travel by shuttle bus from Antigua (two daily; 8hr) or Cobán (three daily; 2hr) to Lanquín – the jump-off point for the pools. From Lanquín, the attraction is a 45-minute journey by road: either join a tour or catch a ride with one of the local pick-ups (they depart around every hour until 4pm).
The mountain town of Cobán is also a popular stopover en route to Semuc from Guatemala City (4hr 30min bus journey), due to its proximity to a vast network of stalactite caverns, freshwater swimming spots and subterranean rivers.
The pools at Semuc Champey are famous for their bright turqoise water © Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock
Should I take a tour?
You can visit Semuc on your own, particularly if you pick a guesthouse close by, although most travellers choose to join a tour (around US$45) to avoid relying on infrequent public transport. Tours of Semuc Champey often include a visit to the bat-filled Kan’ba Caves, which are accessible with a guide only; some incorporate waterfall-climbing or cliff-jumping into a pool in near darkness.
Tours are available through all the main Lanquín guesthouses, such as Zephyr Lodge (see below) and El Retiro, and typically cost US$25 for a full day (including a guide and the K’anba caves). Several hotels and tour agencies in Cobán also offer day-trips (US$45–65).
When’s the best time to visit Semuc Champey?
Guatemala has one of the most pleasant climates in the world, with year-round warm days and mild evenings across much of the country. Some travellers avoid the rainy season – roughly from May to October – although the rain is usually confined to late afternoon downpours even at its height (September and October). Peak tourism season runs between December and March, and again in July and August, when the prime attractions are flooded with visitors. Try to visit in low season to avoid the crowds and skyrocketing hotel prices.
In rainy season the pools and rivers swell with water © Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock
Where's the best place to stay near Semuc Champey?
There is accommodation both in Lanquín and Cobán, as well as guesthouses dotted along the road between the two towns. Hostal El Portal is a good option for budget travellers. This community-owned hostel offers river views, a laid-back restaurant and comfortable accommodation, from wooden cabañas with a balcony (US$28) to small private double rooms (US$7) and a shared dorm (US$7). The downside to the low prices: electricity only runs between 6pm and 10pm.
Zephyr Lodge is the best of the bunch in Lanquín, just north of the town centre and with scenic views over the Lanquín river valley and Verapaz hills. There’s a great restaurant and swimming pool at this lively lodge, as well as good accommodation – dorms (US$9), doubles (US$35) and two-storey cabañas.
The charming Casa Q’eqchi’ is one of the latest additions to the accommodation scene in Cobán. This intimate family-run guesthouse is home to just three double rooms (US$68) and one suite (US$82), with lovely cosy interiors – all exposed stone, hard-carved wooden furniture and local textiles.
Top image: Semuc Champey © Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock