You are currently viewing Semuc Champey (Part 1 – Below the Waterfall)

Semuc Champey (Part 1 – Below the Waterfall)

We slept pretty well last night, despite having 3 of us in the room and sharing a double bed with Charmaine. The only time I woke up was when I was freezing and had to adjust the air conditioner so it wouldn’t be so cold. Tessa said something about how she’s glad she brought her blanket from home with her or she would have frozen. That’s a good air conditioner.

Banana Pancakes
Banana Pancakes at El Retiro

We decided to have breakfast at the restaurant here at the hostel. That was a great decision. The restaurant is great. We knew immediately that we would be having dinner there too. I got the banana pancakes, which turned out to be more like crepes than pancakes, but with the bananas mashed and cooked into the crepe batter. It was pretty interesting and good. They served it with honey, jam, and a bowl of fresh fruit. I was very happy. Other people had omelettes, traditional Guatemalan breakfasts (which looked really good – I might have to get one tomorrow), and crepes filled with bananas and Nutella.

After breakfast we met in the lobby of the hostel to await our tour guides and our ride into the Natural Monument of Semuc Champey. As expected, our ride was an open cage installed in the back of a pickup truck. So we all stood in the back of the pickup truck and held onto one of the bars of the cage to keep our balance as the truck cruised through town and up into the hills on some windy dirt roads. When we got to the park entrance, they were very serious about health and made everyone get their temperature checked and made sure everyone had a mask before entering the park.

Pickup truck taxi
Pickup truck taxi

Semuc Champey is a natural limestone bridge over the Cahabón River. The river flows under the limestone for about 300 yards. On top of the limestone are several pools filled with turquoise water that flows down the mountains in the area. It’s really pretty. This is our fourth trip to Guatemala and Brett’s eighth. None of us had ever been to Semuc Champey previously, so it’s great to finally see it.

The river wasn’t super clean, but it was about as clean as any river I have seen in Guatemala. It didn’t stink like the river by our hostel, even though I’m 99% sure it’s the same river. I guess the town of Lanquín dumps a lot of garbage into the river. The fresh garbage and slow moving water must combine to make the river look and smell terrible by the time it passes the El Retiro hostel downstream from town.

Our adventure inside the park was split into two main parts. This post covers the first part until lunch. We started by walking upstream, carrying an innertube that we would eventually use to float back down. The main attraction for part one was a cave tour by candle light. Our guide said it was too crowded for us to go in right away, so we did a few other things on the way there. The first was a big swing about 50 feet tall. You sit on the swing and let it carry you way out over the middle of the river where you jump off into the water. It was really fun.

The water wasn’t very deep and everyone hit the ground when they jumped in. That’s fine for people who have flown through the air and know how to control themselves and land correctly, but not everyone falls into that category. One Guatemalan kid in our group accidentally went in head first. He was wearing a life preserver and was terrified of the water. He struggled to swim after coming to the surface, despite the guide yelling for him to just stand up (knowing the water was not very deep). After about 30 seconds he finally stood up and started walking back towards us. That’s when we saw his bloody nose. No other Guatemalans tried the swing after that.

A lot of the Guatemalans in our tour group were wearing life preservers. I don’t think many people here ever learn how to swim. It’s hard for me to imagine what it must feel like for them to be completely out of control in the water. I guess it’s probably somewhat like skiing when the hill is too steep for me. So I think they must be extremely brave to even attempt anything like that.

At the cave they gave each of us a candle and lit it as we went in. It was an interesting experience, but not one I would do again. Candles don’t provide much light, and it’s hard to see anything past the candle you’re holding when it’s in front of you. I held my candle to the side a lot so my eyes could focus on things ahead. But you can’t really see the cave this way, just the way forward to the next person holding a candle. That’s probably good, because I can only imagine what damage the black smoke from hundreds of candles makes every day.

The cave is filled with water that flows out the entrance and down into the river. The water is deep and they have installed ropes and ladders to help you move through the cave. In many places the water was too deep to touch the ground and you had to use the rope to hold your head above water and to pull yourself along. That made for some interesting times as I watched Jess with her phone in one hand and three or four candles in the other still grabbing the rope and pulling herself along. The candles dripped hot wax onto your hands as you went along. Some candles burned much hotter than others. My candle wasn’t too bad, but some produced hot wax that really hurt.

At the end of our journey in the cave (about 1km in – though the cave itself goes another 10km) there is a deep pool. Some people, including Brett accepted the challenge to climb the wall and jump into the pool below in the pitch black. That must have been an interesting experience, but it didn’t call out to me, so I didn’t do it. I think I was mostly concerned I wouldn’t be able to climb the wall.

After the cave we continued upstream with our tubes until we got to a beautiful waterfall that reminded me of a bigger version of the Gozalandia waterfall we went to in Puerto Rico a few years ago. There was a lot of water running away from the waterfall, but not much water coming over the top. The river goes underground about 300 yards upstream and pops up at the base of this waterfall which is just after the final limestone pool on top of the limestone bridge.

Brett jumps in
Brett jumps in

Our guides led us directly to a great cliff jumping spot about 15 feet above the river. The water there was super deep. It may be one of the spots where the water comes back up. We jumped it several times before the guide asked if we wanted to jump off the big island in the middle of the pool. There was never a doubt.

Brett and Nate swam with me out to the island and began to climb. Our guide swam out and scurried up the island much faster than any of us. The island is made of limestone (like everything else around there) and has had lots of little cups scooped out of it by water and wind. It’s pretty rough and sharp in some spots and it was tricky to climb without cutting our hands. I was wearing my trail running shoes, which gave me an advantage. I wasn’t any faster, but I wasn’t cutting up my feet.

Jumping into the waterfall
Jumping into the waterfall

At the top of the island, the guide tossed a rock into the waterfall to our left and told us to jump that direction. Brett went first. He jumped from the highest point near the edge of the cliff. Nate stepped down to a slightly lower perch before jumping into the waterfall. It looked amazing. I was really pumped. In retrospect, I was probably a little excited because I leapt high into the air and went a little past the waterfall when I entered the water. That little bit turned out to be a big deal.

I am very comfortable jumping into deep water from fairly high up. We were not very high, maybe 30 or 35 feet. Our guide had talked about having three levels we could jump from, the highest being from 20 meters, which is about 65 feet. So we figured this was the middle height and we would graduate to something even higher. There really wasn’t anything higher to jump from here, but I was thinking there would be higher waterfalls later on.

I had a great jump and a nearly picture-perfect entry into the river. Sure, I was a little off from the spot, but I’m a strong swimmer so I wasn’t too worried about getting caught in the current here. And there wasn’t enough water coming over the falls to hold anyone down. But almost as soon as my head was going underwater I knew I was in trouble. Both feet slammed into rocks only about 6 or 7 feet deep. My shoes slipped off the rocks into deeper water, forcing my knees to bend. My left shin slammed into the rock and I came to a stop. I knew immediately that something wasn’t right. I pushed off and came to the surface victorious, but swam cautiously back towards the shore.

The guide had been watching my performance from his spot at the top of the island. He knew I had missed the spot and slammed into the rocks. He was more than a little concerned and yelled down to see if I was going to be alright. I told him I was fine and continued swimming to shore. The more I swam, the more I realized something was wrong with my left leg. Did I break it? It seemed like I could still move it to kick. I definitely bruised it because it was really hurting. When I got close enough to shore to be able to stand up I realized it was bleeding. a lot. There was a nice red stream flowing out of my leg and heading downstream. I decided to stay in the water so I didn’t scare any of the other members of our tour group. I figured the bleeding wouldn’t last too long and then I’d get out when it was done.

It didn’t stop bleeding.

Shin Laceration
Shin Laceration

The guides eventually called for everyone to walk downstream past some rapids and rocks to put our tubes in the water and float back to the beginning. I stepped out of the water and the blood kept flowing, running down my leg and into my sock. It was pretty painful to walk, but started feeling better as we walked down the path. By the time I had my tube and was walking down into the river it seemed to be feeling pretty good. But then I stepped into the water. Pain raced through my leg and I could barely walk. I managed to climb into my tube and start floating downstream with my leg out of the water and bleeding. Several other people had noticed the blood, but none of them were sure how it happened. I’m hoping they all thought I got it from the climb up the sharp rocks on the island and not from the jump into the river. I guess it doesn’t matter, but I don’t like being a reason that keeps people from becoming comfortable in water.

The tube ride was super chill and we were back to where we started in no time. We took about 45 minutes for a lunch break before heading up to the top of the natural limestone bridge that made this place famous.

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