Northeast of Cobán, a paved road heads off into the lush hills, connecting a string of coffee fincas. After 46km the road reaches the Pajal junction, where a branch road cuts down deep into a valley to LANQUÍN (a further 12km away). This sleepy, modest Q’eqchi’ village, where Spanish is very much a second language, shelters beneath towering green hills, whose lower slopes are planted with coffee and cardamom bushes. The village itself is very relaxed and quite attractive, but virtually every visitor in town is here to enjoy the extraordinary pools of Semuc Champey, a short ride away.
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The region’s prime attraction, and one of the most beautiful natural destinations in Guatemala, is Semuc Champey, a shallow staircase of sublime turquoise pools suspended on a natural limestone bridge. This idyllic spot sits at the base of a towering jungle-clad valley and makes a wonderful destination for a blissful day’s wallowing and swimming. Just a few years ago very few visitors made it to this remote part of Guatemala, but the secret is now definitely out, and the pools are very much a key stop on the backpacking trail between Tikal and the western highlands. That said, you can usually find a peaceful corner without too much difficulty.
If you walk a few hundred metres upstream via a slippery path you come to the river source that feeds Semuc: the fast-flowing Río Cahabón, the bulk of which plunges into a cavern, cutting under the pools in an aquatic frenzy before emerging again downstream. For a photo-perfect view of the whole scene, you can hike (and climb a little in sections) for twenty minutes up a slippery, vertiginous trail to a mirador high above the pools.
There are security guards at the site, but it’s best not to leave your belongings unattended. You’ll find a small café (reasonable meals are around US$5) and there are vendors selling drinks and snacks at the entrance.
While you can visit on your own, most travellers choose to visit Semuc as part of a tour, which avoids having to wait for infrequent public transport or tackling the terrible dirt access road.