Guatemala’s Semuc Champey offers thrill-seeking travelers turquoise-colored pools—and the real bat cave!By David Jenison
The water reaches chest level as the nervous tour group wades through the watery caverns. Each person carries a candle, and only its flickering glow keeps us from sheer darkness. The occasional bat zips overhead as stalactites on each side take every form and shape imaginable. As the water level rises, the group must swim from rock to rock with the candles held high in the air. Climbing up and over several rocks and ladders, the group soon hears the crushing sound of a large waterfall hidden deep within the caves. Past the waterfall, there is even a ledge that only a few thrill-seekers dared climb for an eerie, 14-foot cave jump. Limited to shadowy candlelight, it felt like a plunge into the abyss. Sorry Cole Hauser, but The Cave has nothing on this Guatemalan adventure.
Welcome to Las Marias Caves, one of the many reasons Semuc Champey has become Central America’s hot new destination. Located a few miles from Lanquín, the “Sacred Water” (per the native tongue) boasts gorgeous cascading waterfalls and turquoise-colored pools with a 1,000-foot limestone bridge stretching across the Cahabòn River. Many people tube down the river or brave its 30-foot cliff jump, but most enjoy the refreshing pools and beautiful mountain views.
Dark Knight fans will also enjoy the Grutas de Lanquín, which is also called the Bat Cave because of the thousands of winged ones that fly out each night at sunset. The Mayans believed this cave was a gateway to the underworld of the Gods, and inside there is a rock-pointed sacrificial altar where bloodstains remain. After viewing the exodus of the bats, travelers head inside for an hour tour of the giant cave itself, which features massive stone structures and thousands of stalactites. Bring a good camera because the photo opportunities are endless.
The Lonely Planet guide recommends staying at El Retiro in Lanquín, but this riverside lodge has long since stopped trying. It is a mess. The Zephyr Lodge is now the better option, though the low-maintenance traveler can opt for Hostel Las Marias (no hot water or daytime electricity) right on Semuc Champey. For shuttle service between cities, avoid Aventuras Turisticas, which notoriously cons travelers out of extra money.
As Lanquín is a tiny town, acquire smoke in another Guatemalan city, and never try to bring it across the border. San Pedro la Laguna on picturesque Lake Atitlan is arguably the best bet for finding good product. This volcano-ringed lake offers better scenery in San Marcos and more luxury at Casa del Mundo in Jaibalito, but San Pedro has the most smoke-friendly backpackers thanks to lively watering holes (e.g. the Buddha Bar) and inexpensive Spanish-language courses.
“San Pedro is infamous among the rest of Guatemala for [marijuana] as it has been cultivated there for a long time before we got there,” says George, a 29-year-old who used to throw legendary Full Moon Parties on the lake. “Locals grow dirt weed, which we called ‘Mango,’ and it was damn cheap, but most people smoked Oaxaca, the Mexican Skunk.”
Need another reason to visit? Guatemala is the heart of the old Maya Empire, and with their calendar counting down to Dec. 21, it is hard to think of a better way to use that Christmas vacation.