I’d finished my four weeks of Spanish classes in Antigua and had one week to kill before taking the long bus trip down to Costa Rica to meet up with my folks. I considered staying in Antigua which, as the place I’d been the longest by far, felt comfortable, homey and easy. But I was over easy and although I loved my time in Antigua, the travel bug had me itching for new adventures – and I got it in spades.
At the encouragement of nearly everyone I met, I decided to go to Semuc Champey. Not a particularity easy place to get to but, to everyone I mentioned it to, they got this far off, glassy look in their eyes and would nod, slowly and dramatically in order to add extra weight to their recommendation. “It’s so worth it. Go.” The main reason people head to this remote place is for the incredible park (you technically stay in/near the town of Lanquin) and its absolutely breath-taking caves, waterfalls, vistas and, most of all, the pools, which are an other-worldly color of turquoise.
I booked the eight hour bus transfer and on Saturday morning hopped on. I was befriended by an Australian and a Canadian on the drive up and their American friend was set to join them at the hostel later on. So before arriving I was part of a small crew, which felt nice. *After inching our way down a scary-steep mountain (see footnote below), we alighted from the bus at a drop-off point where people from various hostels/hotels waited to pick us up and take us to our accommodation in the back of trucks (which is the standard mode of transportation in this area). Pro tip: stand, do NOT attempt to sit in the bed of the truck for these very rough rides around town.
Making our way to the hostel (Zephyr Lodge) we had our doubts, but as the truck rounded the corner…. a veritable traveler’s Disney World emerged to our delight. The hostel was BEAUTIFUL. It was set on a mountain overlooking two valleys – one where the sun would set dramatically every evening while travelers watched from the infinity pool or hot tub, and the other with a gorgeous view of a river that I could hear rushing below as I walked to my dorm.
The bungalow-style dorms were rustic-chic and an Instagrammer’s dream come true with clean white sheets and views of the trees/valley/river. For couples there were also private huts available that looked pretty damn luxurious from the outside.
Even the bathrooms were glorious with showers that boosted a huge cutout, open air window that looked out over the hill. In the main lodge was a restaurant, bar, hammocks, a pool table and all of the necessary materials you could imagine for drinking games.
A few things that this hostel could benefit from:
- Mosquitos Nets. HOT DAMN the bugs were bad a few times and it made for two completely sleepless nights as I squatted and cursed the bastards in the dark, eventually residing to entombing my entire body (head and all) within my sheet, despite the fact that I had beads of sweat rolling down my brow.
- Fans/AC. AC is probably asking a lot – I get that. But some ceiling fans or even a damn box fan would make a huge difference.
- Better Staff. With the exception of a few people (who were lovely) the majority of the staff were grumpy, unhelpful and rude. I never get that. If you hate people, why work in a hostel? It’s like those teachers who hate kids.
We arrived with enough time to throw our things down, change into suits and enjoy sunset from the pool with a drink in hand, eventually moving into night mode (which coincided with the start of happy hour). If you were to think of a typical party hostel atmosphere this was it. Beer bongs, blunts and dark and storms flowed in abundance. People fooled around in hammocks. You could take your pick of drinking games at one of the many picnic tables and the anchor that held it all together was a nightly Jenga game out on the deck. Pull a brick and do as you’re told. Body shots, switching of clothes, kissing of strangers and whoever lost the game by tumbling the tower had the unhappy (but very heartily encouraged) task of skinny dipping in the pool for all to see (to the soundtrack of whistles, catcalls and “Oh yeahs!”) Every night of the week this was the drill. Stay four nights and get the fourth free. Stay five and enjoy all-day happy hour. After that the benefits end and its your cue to leave – which is exactly what I did.
With five full days to spend, I had hoped to take the first day to relax by the pool, read and catch up on some writing. But the people who weren’t going to Semuc for the daily tour planned to pool it until lunch time and then go tubing down the river with beers. I’ll refer you back to my previous article about making friends – obviously I went. It was like tubbing in Indiana in that the water was chilly and we had beers, but the scenery was pure Guatemalan jungle/paradise and the ride was fast and full of small rapids.
The following day I opted to do the Semuc tour, which was hands-down some of the best money I’ve ever spent. The entire day was chock-full of heart-pounding excitement and show-stopping beauty. First up was the cave tour, which was lit only by the long, skinny candles we held in our hands. We made our way through the cool waters of the pitch blackness, climbing up and down ladders, over waterfalls, and wading through the water, one hand grasping a rope above our heads as we hopped along, the other hand carefully protecting our candle. The best part came when we reached the back of the cave. It opened up into a large-ish dorm with craggy rocks surrounding a deep pool of water.
“Who wants to jump?” Our guide asked enthusiastically.
Jump? Here? In order jump you first needed to scale up the side of the cave to a small, steep, slippery “landing.” From here you would jump almost blindly into the dark waters far below. I’m not positive, but I’m guessing it was a good 30 foot jump. They wanted us to hurl our bodies into the abyss, aiming at God-knows what. I was in.
I ended up being one of the last ones to jump. Legs shaking and heart pounding I tried to slowly and carefully climb up the side. In all realness, this was the scariest part. Falling backwards or missing a grip would have likely resulted in me mangling my body on the sharp rocks as I tumbled down. When I made it to the top, I took our guide’s hand.
“Ok, now stand here. Just be sure to jump out and to the left a bit – to the right is a big rock.”
Because I was one of the last ones to jump, another group had joined us. They crowded around and peered up at me in disbelief. Behind me was the cold, hard, rough rock of the cave and in front of me a pack of adventurers lighting the cavern with 30-40 candles and encouraging me with their chants “Jump! Jump! Jump!” I obeyed and leapt off the rock.The jump was high enough that I had time to yell and still think “When will I hit?” before I plunged into the dark, chilly waters. I surfaced, shaking my head “Woooooohooooo!!!” The onlookers cheered and clapped while another jumper climbed to take my place.
My adrenaline was such that I felt like I’d popped an Adderall. It was one of the most thrilling, surreal moments and I was hooked, ready to jump more, higher. I’d get my chance.
After the cave we walked a ways along the river to a beautiful piece of paradise where the water from the pools above all converged and came rushing down, creating a wall of waterfalls that fed into a perfect little lagoon for swimming. Again it was time for climbing and some jumping – but this time it was much higher. Like 18 meters, which I didn’t realize until much later is about 60 feet. My father pointed out that if not landed correctly, people have broken their legs, backs, etc. from heights such as this. Glad I was blissfully unaware at the time. Thankfully I did know enough to keep things tight, and my toes pointed.
After climbing the warm waters of one fall to reach the jumping point I peered down. This gave me more pause than the previous jump. It was SO. FREAKING. HIGH. I had to have our guide count down for me otherwise I may have chickened out. But I jumped… and it was terrify. And amazing.
Later we grabbed tubes to float down the river, but not before being swarmed by some pre-teen boys who were hustlin’.
“You want beer? You want two?
Before you could even answer yes or no, they were hurling full beers at our heads. “No mas! No mas!”
Further down the river, men in dive masks waded in the water, looking intently. Then they would flail noisily, slapping the water. I could only assume they were fishing, but what fishermen made that much of a ruckus?
“Que buscas?” I asked in awful, awful Spanish. (What are you looking for?)
“Pez!” he called back, and then held up a long, flat sword with a blade about the length of my arm, from elbow to fingertip.
This is what they were flinging into the water with such vigor. Time out. They’re fishing with… machetes.
“Vamos a ver!” (Let’s see!) I yelled back, unbelieving. He turned to the side to reveal a belt that was decorated with small, dead fish. Impressive stuff.
We chowed on a delicious (but expensive) buffet lunch and then it was time for the hike to the viewpoint over the pools. After days of partying I was ready – even excited – for some exercise. But then we started… and it was HOT. Like whoa hot. I didn’t want to be the old one at the back, but more than that I didn’t want to be the old one passing out from heat stroke. So I took my sweet ole time. While the view was spectacular (a tiny bit disappointing because it was half sunny/half shady by the time we saw it), swimming in the pools really took the cake. The pools are formed in a stair-step fashion, flowing from one to the next – allowing us to jump and side our way down the natural wonder. We rode back to the hostel in the bed of a truck, feeling exhausted, but utterly fulfilled and full of wonder.
The following day I went back for a self-guided tour with some other traveler. We took beers, jumped more, sunned ourselves, swam and verbally patted each other on the backs for “living the dream.”
We rode back into town in search of the infamous “burrito lady” for out-of-this world burritos she cooked up in her little food-truck, which was parked permanently on flat tires near the park. She slapped out homemade tortillas from fresh dough onto a blazing hot flattop, added chicken, veggies, sour cream… and now my mouth is watering just thinking about them. We walked back to the hostel in time for a swim. It was one of those perfect days.
The last two days I spent relaxing around the beautiful pool, reading, drinking, sunning and talking. Come to think of it, it was one of those perfect weeks.
*Just a day before I arrived, another group of travelers had been in a massive car accident on this same road when the breaks of the van went out. After the breaks went out the driver had two choices: veer to the left, which meant plummeting off the cliff to certain death for everyone, or to the right, crashing the van into the stone wall. He wisely chose to the right, but the force of the impact caused the van to flip and roll three times before swaying to a standstill. Accordingly to one of their accounts an Aussie had called out “Everyone ok?” No answer. So again he asked, “Everyone ok?” Still nothing. He thought he was the sole survivor until the rest of the passengers came to, having been overcome with shock. Slowly they all started to confirm that yes, they were ok. Miraculously the extent of the injuries were a coupe broker collar bones, a broken arm, a few concussions and whip lash. The lad riding in the front seat – the only other seat besides the drivers that had a seatbelt – only suffered broken sunglasses. It’s nothing short of a miracle given the fact that none of the buses are equipped with seat belts (the norm all over Central America and Asia, in my experience).