Places that get a lot of hype sometimes have a hard time living up to the expectations travellers have of them. I feel bad for these places, because they probably are, or at least were amazing before they were altered by some force, inherently changing what made the place so awesome to begin with. That force likely being tourism.
I can imagine what visiting Semuc Champy would have been like for those few backpackers that made the onerous journey out to the middle of nowhere Guatemala, down countless unpaved mountain roads in the thick, humid tropical air to these perfect turquoise pools just begging to be swam in. It would have been pure bliss. A travel discovery you would brag about to everyone you met. And that's probably exactly what happened. Word got out, hostels opened, shuttles added Lanquin to their itineraries, they hiked the admission price to be almost double that of nationals.... Now everyone comes to Semuc Champy. Young, old, package tourists and independent travellers. Not that any roads have been paved... unfortunately.
But now that poor Semuc Champey is in the lime light and the turquoise pools are full of tourists, people stop in and leave saying, ' Well, its not that impressive....' But they're wrong.
Many backpackers are on a mission to jam pack their days with as much of Lonely Planet's recommendations as possible. I can't even count how many people we've met this month alone, rushing from one 'highlight' to the next, claiming to see entire countries in the span of a week.
If you stay in Lanquin (which is 45 minutes from Semuc Champey) and go with everyone else on your hostel's daily tour, cramming in both the caves near Champey and the actual pools into one day, then of course you're going to be experiencing Semuc Champey with everyone else. Of course it will be crowded and you'll completely lose out on the area's spectacular natural charms. You're on a tourist train expecting a private experience. And if that's what you were expecting, you're going to be disappointed.
Before writing it off, why don't you give Semuc Champy a real shot of actually meeting your expectations and living up to its claim of being one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala?
First- Stay somewhere nearby, no more than a ten minute walk away. We recommend Greengos Hotel or El Portal.
Second- Give the area 3 nights, at least. Relax. Not only are these spots gorgeous, but the hostels here are in spectacular settings. Enjoy a drink on one of their terraces, try the Shakshuka at Greengos, make some new friends, listen to the river rushing outside your bedroom window. Go to Semuc Champy one day and the caves the next. Don't worry. Tikal will be there tomorrow.
Third- Get up (it doesn't even have to be that early) and go straight to Semuc Champey. Beat the crowds and if you're lucky, have the whole place to yourself. If you don't love Semuc Champey's pools after that, well you're crazy, but at least you gave it a fair chance to woo you.
We arrived at Greengos late November in the pouring rain. Greengos is a welcoming, social hostel with lots of colour and character. It's located on its very own picturesque little river and serves amazing food. But back to the rain. It had been raining hard for a few days, we were told. There was so much water that the river right beside the pools of Semuc Champey had overflown into the pools turning the usually clear, turquoise water an opaque brown colour. Even the river at the hostel was raging and brown. Although the attraction didn't close as a result of its muddy state, Semuc Champey was free to all visitors. “You don't want it to be free,” Greengo's manager told us. Its not the real Semuc Champey when its free. So we crossed our fingers that the next day, we would have to pay admission (that was a weird wish to make) and that the river would have calmed itself enough to stay on it's own side of the rope barrier.
It was a slow morning for us, with a little more rain when we headed out on the 10 minute walk from Greengos to Semuc Champey. It was free. We were a little disappointed, but its hard to be that sad when you just saved 100 Quetzals. The first pool we came across was brown and muddy. It was hard to see what all the fuss was about, even trying to imagine the terrassed pools their usual bright colour. But, as we followed the arrows to the more popular swimming pools, the water became clearer and had a tinge of turquoise, more like I was expecting. It was a bit murky, but there were other people swimming, so I hopped in. It was refreshing and, despite the other tourists, a beautiful place for a dip. The river that flows at the top of Semuc was still brown and muddy and very angry. Usually, these 2 bodies of water are separate, but with all the rain, the division was blurred and the raging river just about met the pools before disappearing down a waterfalls into the earth. This overflow of the river is the reason that the pools were less turquoise and clear, as they were being contaminated by he murky brown overflow water from the river. As the day went on and the river decided to keep to its own side of the rocks, the pools became more and more clear.
Because swimming is one of my all-time favourite pastimes, we decided to check out Semuc Champey the next day as well. If we had to pay the second day, it would be a 2 for 1 deal, and we would hopefully get to see the natural pools in all their turquoise wonder. We ate breakfast (the amazing Isreali dish of Shakshuka, which I could not get enough of) and were at the pools by 9:30am. There was an entrance fee! Hooray! And, there was not another soul insight. It was absolutely spectacular. Other than a couple policemen and a few fake lifeguards wearing life jackets, we didn't see another person for 2 whole hours. I was all by myself swimming the now perfectly clear waters in the most amazing natural setting. I jumped off the small waterfalls, sat at the edge of the pool looking down on the terraced water, swam back and forth through the narrow channel between the main pool and the river junction.... all by my lonesome. And then, I did it all over again. Not for the first time on this trip I wished I had a GoPro to be able to capture the memories to revisit later. It was one of the most amazing travel experiences I've ever had.
Word of Mouth: Staying near Semuc Champey worked perfectly for us. However, if that's not your style, we also heard great things about El Retiro which is on the outskirts of Lanquin. They have one day tour for Q180 that include both Semuc and the caves, which everyone who did said the tours was fun and a good value. They also have Q50 all you can eat buffet dinners.
Where we stayed: Greengos Hotel, 170Q for a private room in the top of an a-frame cabin. The room was basic, but clean with lots of air (screen windows) and light. The bathroom was communal, but always clean and there were hot showers in the afternoon. They also have dorms and private rooms with en-suites and porches over the river. The food was a bit on the expensive side (as you would imagine in the middle of no where) but delicious!
And ps, Merry Christmas!!!