Monday, April 11, 2016

Semuc Champay

Semuc Champey is Mayan for Sacred Waters. I can only wonder how sacred and magical this place would have been to the Ancient Mayan because it sure was magical to me.  As usual you can go to the park on you but if you join a tour with qualified guides the experience is so much better. El Retiro did not have enough people for their tour so I walked into town and jumped on a semi filled pick up with a group from another their confused surprise. We then bounce and jolted our way the 30 minutes to the park entrance up and down what can only be loosely termed as a jungle road.

War Painted up and read to enter yet another water filled cave
Our tour started with yet another cave walk, this time by candle light and our two guides were the most energetic guides I have met to date. They used natural coloring from a few jungle plants and painted our faces for our trek to put us in the Mayan warrior spirit. They also used twine to keep my Havaianas from falling off. A very ingenious solution to be sure. Well with candles in hand we waded into the cave for our 700 metre trek and swim. Once inside there was an eerie feeling with the candles which provided a much better adventure than flashlights or headlamps. We waded and swam through cool water, climbed up and over boulders and back down into the stream. Our end game was a swimming hole where, if courageous, you climb 15 feet up a rock face and jump into a natural pool remembering this is 700 metres deep inside a cave.

Mayan cave warrior
Next up, tubing down the Cahabón River which is always fun. The best part of this were the "beer kids". They started hitting us up as soon as we got to the park. "hey want to buy a beer?", my name is Mario you can pay later" and with that the little salesman hooked me. When the sun is shining and your floating down a river on an inner tube, the answer to  "Drink beer  now, pay later"  is always a big OK. Regardless that it was 10:30 in the morning. There were half a dozen of these enterprising little guys but they knew their stuff and were relentless.

My relentless beer kid Mario following us down the river with his cooler
It was 45 minutes of fun on the river including falling off the tube more than once but NEVER spilling a drop of beer. Mario was right there encouraging more beer if I lost mine in the river. What a thoughtful kid. We ended our little water journey near a bridge where we were encouraged by our  guides to "get some courage and jump" to which Mario said "man beer gives you courage, you want another beer". It was about 30 feet and no amount of beer was going to get me to jump off a bridge. I am a tubing in the river kind of guy, not a jump off a bridge kind of guy.

After getting out of the river we gathered up our gear, paid for our beer and walked to the bridge. The beer boys had ran ahead and as we walked on the bridge they started pointing to various people and saying "your drunk", "he's drunk", They are drunk" and then offered us more beer. What funny group of kids
We will jump from that bridge ahead of us
Would you jump from this height?
After lunch we had a 30 minute fairly strenuous 30 minute hike to the Mirador or lookout point. From here we had our first view of the tiered pools of Semac Champay, the fast flowing upper river and the surrounding mountains. I must still have my Quetzeltrekkers game face on as the hike was difficult but aside from a soaked shirt I was fine and recovered quickly. That's not to say that I ran up the trail like a bunny. My legs were burning and were shaking plus I wobbled a bit when I walked when I reached the top. I find myself really pushing it when I have the opportunity to do so. Life in a hammock can be detrimental to a guys belly.

It is always a strange feeling to be staring at something that you have only known in pictures or heard of in stories. There I was on the Mirador looking down on the clear blue and tiered pools of Semac Champay. It did not disappoint and was a huge photo opp moment that included group shots, solo shots, scenery shots and lots of ohhs and ahhs. The exciting part was were were going to hike down and swim in the pools using the rocks as slides into the pool below. There were caves to be explored that required us to swim underwater to reach them. Sounded dumb but whatever off we went down to the pools. Everywhere I go there are caves to be explored. What's up with that?

The Cahabón River at the top off the pools
The Cahabón River actually rushes under the pools. The water in the pools are accumulated from the streams and run off of the surrounding mountains. We hopped in the top pool and it was clear, warm and maybe 8 feet deep in the middle. We swam and worked our way down the pools using the smooth surfaces of the rocks as slides with everyone squealing like children at a water park. Wait, we were children at a water park. It was 2 hours of sheer joy and fun with NO cameras. Everyone just enjoying the moment. Yes, we swam into low laying caves near the bottom pool which freaked me out a bit as there was only about 6 inches of headroom once you surfaced from the 5 foot underwater swim. We swam and followed our guides underwater and then back up again like a school of happy dolphins.

We cleaned up and bounced along  back to town a tired but happy satisfied group. Semac Champay did not disappoint. As I said earlier it is always cheaper to do these hikes on your own but paying for a tour accomplishes so much more. You have guides to make the day interesting and enjoyable. You meet up with new people for the day which is as important as anything when you are a solo traveler and finally its just more fun when your in a group. 

The El Retiro Jungle Lodge was a great setting for my time in Languin. It was remote enough from the town to be quiet yet the 20 minute walk made it an easy hike into town to explore. I paid $10 a night to stay and if you wanted they had a themed buffet every night for $10. I had Italian night and Thai night. The restaurant had a decent bar where beer was reasonable and a great place to be social if that was your thing. There was lots of space if you wanted to read, or just hang by the river plus there were friendly lodge dogs everywhere who would just stroll over, tails wagging and hang with you.

Guatemala. You can enjoy your time in this beautiful and mysterious place with it's friendly kind people. You should bear in mind that more than 200,000 people were killed over the course of the 36-year-long civil war that began in 1960 and ended with peace accords in 1996. About 83 percent of those killed were Mayan. That was less than 20 years ago so tourism is a relatively new thing for this generation of Guatemalans.

Look deep and you will see that the Civil war was started when the American Government over threw a democratically elected government due to land reforms and the United Fruit Company.  Yes democratically elected. They used fear of Communism as a pretext to war. Sound familiar?

Do not let that deter you from coming here. As with many countries in Latin America the people and places are wonderful, kind and peaceful. However I think you need to keep perspective when your touring around enjoying yourself with a credit card and pockets full of cash. Please try and not barter with a farmer over the price of a pineapple trying to save .10 then walk over to a foreign owned coffee shop and pay $2 for a coffee without issue.

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