Guatemala’s Hidden Paradise: Semuc Champey

Feb. 3 to 6, 2020

With our 3-night stay in Tikal behind us, Stephanie and I looked forward to the rest of the country. We were only one week in to our 8 week trip in Guatemala, and we had many more adventures ahead of us. The next one being Semuc Champey.

Semuc Champey (pronounced sort of like “sayMOOK chamPAY”) is a stunning natural limestone feature along the Cahabón River. The river itself disappears and flows underneath a massive limestone “bridge” which has large terraced pools on its top. Semuc Champey actually means “where the river hides under the stones” in the Q’eqchi’ Maya language of the indigenous people there. The calm and clear water of the beautiful pools has become a major attraction to adventurous travelers, and we were ready to go see the place ourselves!

We had no trouble finding a shuttle service that runs to Semuc from Flores. With the possibility of a 12 hour travel day, we wanted to minimize the chaos and book a shuttle rather than trying to figure out how to get there via the buses. The shuttle was a direct trip versus stopping and switching buses 3 to 4 times along the way.
Every city with ample tourism in Guatemala has shuttle operators. They have vans or small buses that can get you and other travelers to your next destination quickly and safely. The only thing is that they are much more expensive than the usual public transport options.

We arranged our shuttle in Flores for the following morning. For only Q100 ($13.00 usd) each, we would arrive in Lanquín in just about 9 hours. Yep, that’s right! It would still take us 9 hours to go from Flores to Lanquín, which is as far as the bus can go. To get to Semuc Champey still required a 9 kilometer ride in the back of a tiny truck down the most miserable gravel road I may have ever experienced!

To get from Lanquín, a small town that’s also the drop off point to access Semuc, to your hostel of choice near Semuc, you need to ride in the back of a truck. And not usually sitting down. Most trucks have metal bars around the bed for holding on to, as you and all the other travelers are packed into the back, standing up, for the 45 minute ride up and down one of the steepest and most grueling roads I’ve been on!

By the time we started the drive down the road, it was nearly dark. The sun had set while we waited in Lanquín for the truck to pick us up.
Bouncing and slamming into each other, we all held on in an attempt to not knock each other over as the truck jumped and bumped down the road. After I had acquired a bruise on my arm from bracing between the bars and a big Australian guy, we finally reached the drop point for our hostel.

We chose Chi’bocol Community Hostel. It’s an beautiful and rustic eco-hostel tucked in the forest along a small river. Did you noticed I said “the drop point” for our hostel? That’s because after the stressful 45 minute ride down the mountain. we still had to hike through the dark for about a mile (30 minutes) down a trail to reach the hostel. I’ll admit, we knew what we were getting ourselves into. We knew about the half hour hike, and chose that hostel anyway. Thankfully, they have guides waiting for you at the road to help carry your bags and lead you to the hostel. They were very kind and patient, and made the walk to the hostel easier.

To remedy the intense journey that it took to get there, the hostel staff had a paid dinner prepared and waiting. Nothing better than ending a long day with a hot meal in the open-air dinning room listening to the sounds of the forest and the stories of fellow travelers.

The morning was foggy and humid as the soft glow of the predawn sun started to illuminate the hills.

I made my coffee in the open-air kitchen, listening to the birds waking up. First were the Melodious Blackbirds. This bird certainly deserves its name. They become the soundtrack to anyone’s visit to the tropical regions of Central America. Next to start were the White-bellied Emeralds singing along the creek below the hostel, and the Brown Jays blasting their cries from the hillside.

I walked down the trail past the different cabins towards the river. A male Gartered Trogon sang from a tall perch while Chestnut-headed Oropendolas, Clay-colored Thrushes, and Yellow-throated Euphonias moved about in a large tree near the river.

male Gartered Trogon

I climbed a trail uphill behind one of the cabins and turned around to one of the best morning views from a hostel I’ve ever had. As I soaked in the view, more and more birds started to appear. The grassy hill above the hostel was full of small birds; Blue Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, Blue-black Grassquits, and Morelet’s Seedeaters.

steamy sunrise above the hostel

The birdiness continued as I found Golden-olive Woodpeckers, Kentucky Warblers, Chestnut-sided Warblers, and Crimson-collared Tanagers! It is a wonderful experience to see birds I know from The States mixed in with exotic and tropical birds like the Oropendolas and Euphonias. It’s a great reminder that those migrant species that visit us in the summer months are not really ours. The northern US is not their home any more than Guatemala is. It’s important to think about it in the context that we’re sharing those species. What ever we do to them and their habitat in one part of their life effects how we interact with them in the other. Safe wintering grounds are just as important to these migrating songbirds as safe breeding grounds.

After nearly two hours of wandering the trails along the river, I returned to the hostel for second breakfast. Stephanie was reading in one of the hammocks that hung from the edge of the open dinning room/kitchen combo.

Birding that morning was great, and the comfortable and laid-back vibe of the hostel was warm and inviting. We could have easily laid in the hammocks, drank coffee, and read our books all day, but the whole reason we were there was to see Semuc Champey! We spent 2 full days exploring Semuc and swimming in the beautiful natural pools.

We packed a small bag of snacks, water, towel, binoculars, and started the one and a half hour walk to Semuc. Because of our choice of hostel, we were not as close to the main attraction as we could have been. There are a handful of other accommodations that are only a 5 or 10 minute walk to the pools, but we didn’t mind our long walk. It gave us a chance to see more birds and see more of the area. We crossed an amazing bridge and saw Achiote and Cacao farms. Right at the bridge, I found my lifer Green-backed Sparrows. Luckily, I watched one through the leaves of a dense shrub after I tracked it down by its song. Spot-breasted Wrens, Black-headed Saltators, and Yellow-throated Euphonias were everywhere along the road we walked to get to the Nature Preserve of Semuc Champey.

The swimming area of Semuc Champey is spectacular! A nice trail and boardwalk leads to the large and glistening limestone pools of clear water set in a huge canyon draped in lush rainforest greenery.
Green Kingfishers flew up and down the canyon, hunting the small fish in the pools that would nibble on your toes if you stood still long enough. We heard the occasional Roadside Hawk shriek from the trees and even had a Northern Waterthrush visit the edge of the water.

It felt so good to relax in the water. So much of the weeks leading up to Semuc was spent figuring out our next move, preparing for bus rides, buying groceries, cooking, planning, and looking for the best hostels that it really stressed us out.

I should say that the first week of any trip is generally stressful. After which, you find a rhythm in the madness, you find comfort in the unpredictability and you let the wave of travel carry you forward. But until then, you need a reminder to relax. Semuc Champey was our reminder. Without any contact to the outside world expect for the spotty WiFi at the hostel, it almost felt like camping. We had no agenda but to soak in the water and explore the area.

After a few hours in the sun, I took a break from swimming in the water and hiked up to the overlook, or mirador, above the canyon looking down on the limestone pools. At the start of the trail, I found a few birds moving around the forest. A Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Golden-crowned Warblers, and an Ochre-bellied Flycatcher. Somehow I miraculously spotted two Mottled Owls roosting right off of the trail!

I continued up the trail which was a series of wooden stairs built into the side of the canyon wall. At the top, the trail leads to a wooden platform overlooking the whole canyon with the pools of Semuc Champey directly below. It was absolutely STUNNING!

I watched from the platform as a big flock of the giant White-collared Swifts flew by, chattering the entire time. They would fly down the canyon, then return shooting up the canyon only to turn around and zoom back down. That was possibly my best look at that amazing and massive swift species; it’s not often you can see them at eye-level!

On the platform, I meet another traveler. He was from Europe somewhere (I forgot where exactly) and we shared stories of our travels. We talked about how important travel is to us and how important it is to everyone. We talked about how travel breaks down people’s prejudices and can open people’s hearts to compassion and understanding.
Mark Twain said “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness”.  That is something I believe true to my core.

Both of us started down the trail to return to the water. Along the way, I asked if he wanted to see some cool birds. He seemed happy to see anything neat, but he was blown away when I stopped and pointed out the two roosting Mottled Owls. I shared my binoculars with him, and that really made him excited. It may have been the first time he ever used binoculars, and he was using them to see a beautiful owl so close you could almost count the feathers on its face.
We parted ways, he thanked me for sharing the owls, and I thanked him for the converstation.

I found Stephanie and told her about the owls; we both ran back to the trailhead and enjoyed our amazing looks at those two birds. The only thing is that I didn’t bring my camera on that day’s walk to the pools. At least I had my phone to take digibin shots. Good thing they were so close to the trail.
We started our walk back to the hostel, making a plan that Stephanie and I would hike to the mirador the following morning.

The next day was spent nearly the same way, with Stephanie and I returning to the pools earlier in the day to hike to the mirador before jumping in the clear blue water.

We entered Semuc Champey around 8:30am with plenty of time to walk the trails before the rising sun encouraged us to dive into the water to escape the heat of the day. Being there that early was quickly rewarded by an Orange-billed Sparrow right along the main trail! We also had White-bellied Wood-Wren, Boat-billed Flycatchers, and a Kentucky Warbler.

Orange-billed Sparrow

We climbed up to the mirador, checking for the owls which seemed to have moved to a new roost. As we were taking photos from the overlook, a Wedge-tailed Sabrewing flew right up to us, checked us out, and quickly zoomed off into the forest! The Wedge-tailed Sabrewing is a big and beautiful hummingbird, with a smoky-gray breast and belly, bright shiny green back and violet-purple crown. They are fairly uncommon and hard to find, so I was understandably excited to have one visit us at such close range!

We really enjoyed our last day in Semuc. After our hike to the mirador, we spent the rest of the day swimming and soaking up the sun around the pools. Semuc Champey is a truly a hidden paradise, tucked off of the beaten path, and protected by the long and sometimes uncomfortable journey it takes to get there.

Semuc Champey is not a birding destination in the classic sense. It is surrounded by subsistence farming that has completely cut down the natural forest for as far as you can see. The bird life around Semuc is made up of species that do well in disturbed habitats, fields, plantations, and edge thickets. Diversity would be greater if there were some larger patches of mature natural forest left to explore.
We made the most of it, though. Finding what birds we could and enjoying the time to relax in the sun. Traveling with another person, even your significant other, is all about compromise. We spent 3 days camping in Tikal for the birds, and rightly we spent 3 days enjoying the hidden gem of Semuc Champey, where birding was tertiary to our other goals of relaxing and reconnecting.

We left our hostel, rode in the back of a truck back up that insane road to Lanquín, and found a bus back to the city of Cobán. From there, we will go to the Biotopo del Quetzal, a wonderful nature preserve in the cloud forest of eastern Guatemala!

eBird checklist for 1st morning at hostel:

eBird checklist for 1st day Semuc Champey:

eBird checklist for 2nd morning at hostel:

eBird checklist for 2nd day Semuc Champey:

Cost and Logistics

Bus from Flores to Lanquin: Q100( $13.00 USD) per person

Chi’Bocol Community Hostel
The standard dorm beds cost Q60 / $7.85 USD per person per night.
They do have private cabins that cost a little more per night.
This hostel serves a delicious vegetarian dinner every night for Q50 / $6.50 USD per person. I highly recommend it as there isn’t anywhere near by to buy groceries for a self-made dinner. We did bring breakfast and lunch stuff along with us.

Semuc Champey
Because it is a nature preserve, there is a daily entrance fee of Q50 / $6.50 USD per person. Cash only.
The preserve opens at 8am and closes the gates sometime after 4pm, but check locally as the hours might change.

There are a few restaurants near the entrance of Semuc Champey, so you can eat a lunch and dinner there if you do not bring your own food.

Our total cost for the both of us for 3 days and 3 nights was: $160.25 USD
this includes the bus from Flores and the truck ride back to Lanquin from our hostel.
This equals about $26.70 USD per person per day.

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