Every Tuesday, Union Times will be taking you on a journey that will travel North to South, from the small underrated country of Belize to the tip of the continent in Ushuaia. If all Latin American countries thrive with unmissable landmarks, an offbeat experience is what we’re really after. From extreme scuba diving and volcano boarding to Tarzan jumping or high altitude swinging: embark on our weekly series and push your boundaries with once-in-a-lifetime adventures.
After kicking off underwater near the Great Blue Hole in Belize as you can read here, we are now heading South West to get lost in the jungle in Guatemala.
2nd STOP : GUATELAMA & THE WONDERS OF SEMUC CHAMPEY
The cultural country has forever bewitched backpackers and tourists with its vibrant Maya heritage pulsating through the stones of the Tikal ruins, the rural villages surroundings the Lake Atitlan or the colourful traditional markets flourishing in colonial Antigua. A gigantic part of the country being covered by luxuriant jungle, there had to be an hidden gem out there awaiting outdoors lovers, and thankfully the mouth to ear helped us unravelling it.
Taking its name from the Q’eqchi Maya dialect, Semuc Champey translates by ‘where the water is hiding in the mountain’. And for this series of stepped ponds and pools atop a 300 meters-long natural limestone bridge, the name couldn’t be more suitable. Laying in the department of Alta Verapaz, the site has a real ‘middle of nowhere’ vibe meaning only one thing: getting there isn’t for the light-hearted or the comfort-lovers. Either leaving from the capital city of Guatemala or the more touristic spot of Antigua, embark on a 5 or 6 hours ‘bus ride heading to Cobàn before switching transportation and going deeper and deeper into the wild aboard a microbus towards Lanquin. Both journeys will be equally as scenic as they are tumultuous, going from dirt roads in-between mountains to bananas plantations and traditional farmers hamlets.
Officially 7 hours (realistically around 9 or 10 hours) later stands Lanquin, a quiet hillside village where all tours to the natural monument leave from. Right out from the minibus, you’ll be suggested what feels like a hundred different accommodations opportunities either in locals’ homes or hotels/hostels. From there, according to whatever floats your boat, you’re free to explore the ‘pozas‘ (aka natural pools) on your own or with a guided tour but whichever option you go for, make sure a few activities are ticked off your list by the end of the day.
Bridge atop the bridge. As you enter the natural monument, the best way to kick the day off is a 10 meters high bridge jump for a first-hand experience of the panoramic views from the upstream section of the pools (not as turquoise but just as enjoyable) and a look up at the surrounding mountains covered in green luxuriant jungle. And if heights isn’t really your thing, a Tarzan rope has also been set up to allow all visitors a swing in the air before diving in the refreshing water.
Caves exploring. ‘Las grutas’ as they’re called in Guatemala can be done either as part of a day trip or as a side activity. The more popular (understand touristic) Kam’Ba caves offer the ideal experience for anyone willing to swim into a pitch-black hole with for only way of light, the glimmer of a hand-hold candle. Half climbing rocks and massive stalactites half swimming through the inundated parts, the caves promise an offbeat experience where fear mixes with excitement. Cherry on top, unusual animals lovers will be thrilled to know that those caves are renowned for their extremely large population of bats which you’re likely to have dancing around your head at some point.
The mirador (aka view point). The 30 minutes to an hour (depending on your calves and the scorching heat) uphill hike will be wet and exhausting but leads to a clear panoramic view on the whole natural bridge helping to understand its building up. Formed by the erosion made by the Cahabon River that lies underneath it, the limestone bridge is covered with stepped pools supplied in water by the rain and streaming from the hills. Bonus: the ‘tired yet exhilarated’ selfie from the top, overlooking turquoise waters and bright green mountains is definitely Instagram worthy.
The pozas. Trekking down from the view point will have you dying for a refreshing swim and right by the hill will be awaiting the ponds and pools whose crystal clear waters are bound to be dived or relaxed in. Some companies even offer ‘donuts tubes’ making the chilling out even more absolute. The spot is quite touristic amongst adventurous couples and backpackers but it isn’t rare to encounter locals on a family picnic whom children will happily sell beers to quench the thirstiest.
When to go: Dry season goes on from November to May with no particular peak season. The rest of the year is catalogued as rainy season although it is far from raining 24/7. But the views over jungle sites such as Semuc Champey or the Tikal Ruins are best enjoyed on a clear day.
How to get there: As for most of Central America, there are no direct flights. Many will go through US hub cities but other options will pass by Madrid (Iberia), Amsterdam + Panama (KLM) or Mexico (Any international companies then opt for a local airline down to Guatemala)
Cost of living: Guatemala is one of the cheapest, if not the cheapest, countries in the area. Accommodation is available for just a few pounds if you don’t mind basic facilities or averaging the £10 for a dorm bed in a backpacker-oriented place (inc. wifi, pool, TV room, bar and onsite restaurant). For Semuc Champey, ‘Zephyr Lodge‘ is the go-to hostel for youngsters although its ‘gringo‘ party atmosphere may not be to everyone’s liking (author’s note: the place does have a large pool benefiting from an unbeatable panoramic view over the jungle so if you don’t mind the constant socialising and beer enjoying, this will be your paradise).