After Rachel and I parted ways, I had 10 days left before my flight to the USA and I still hadn't been to Semuc Champey, Tikal or the Rio Dulce, so I enlisted the help of a local travel agent to sort out all the shuttles and buses, places for me to stay, and tours, to make sure I could fit in all that I wanted to see and do and still make it back down to Guatemala City in time for my flight.
The shuttle from Antigua to Lanquin was probably the most uncomfortable 10 hours in all my travels in Central America. The very old minibus was crammed packed full, even the shitty fold down seats were in use. Even the regular seats were worn thin with pretty much no padding or structure left to them. It seemed like pretty much everyone on the shuttle was Israeli, all speaking Hebrew amongst themselves, so I felt like I was in an little isolated bubble even though I was crammed in shoulder to shoulder between someone and a very hard window. These are the experiences nobody thinks about when they're romanticising travel.
When I finally got to Lanquin, the shuttle dropped us off and there were pickup trucks with hyper-aggressive touts trying to get you to come and stay at their hostels. It seemed like everyone on the bus already had their hostels decided, so the crowd of idiots swarming the door of the minibus did little other than block us from getting off. Nobody else from my bus was staying at the same hostel as me, but I met a nice couple from England, Cathy and Dave, in the back of the pickup truck taking us to our hostel right at the entrance to Semuc Champey.
The next day I had breakfast and met the group I would be doing the tour with; a nice mix of British, Canadian, Austrian and Israeli people.
Semuc Champey itself is an incredible natural water feature, where the very fast flowing Cahabón River has carved out an underground river underneath a large rock shelf. The rock shelf actually forms a bunch of beautiful aqua coloured pools that you can swim in. Apparently towards the end of the wet season the river level can get so high that it rises up and flows both over and underneath the rock shelf.
The tour first took us up a long muddy, quite slippery path to a lookout to see the view of Semuc Champey that would be on all the post cards. Not having been in hot humidity in a few months I was entirely not acclimatised and sweated until everything I was wearing was dripping wet, but it really is a breath taking view from up there.
We then went down a different path that led us to the point where the river plunges underground. Seeing the force of the water pounding down and the rate it was flowing was a bit intimidating, with only a rope fence to stop you from slipping down from the pools we were standing in and falling down into the turbulent water.
After we'd checked that out, we went to an area where they had lockable boxes where we could leave out cameras and clothes, after which we went and swam in the pools.
Our guide led us around, showing us the best places to jump down from pool to pool. In one place he showed us a natural slide where there were some slippery rocks you could sit down on and slide down to the next pool. It was actually pretty bumpy and jarred the hell out of my poor tail bone. I would rather have just jumped down from the high ledge he later showed us.
At the other end of the pools we got to see where the river returns out from underground. Our guide told us that someone had been drunk and tried to go through the underground route in a tire tube, and that their body had come out the other side without a head or legs. The jagged rocks and the powerful water had just ripped the guy apart. Thanks for cleaning up the gene pool guy!
We we shown some hidden little caves at the edge of one pool, where you were neck deep in water and had to tilt you head back to keep your mouth above water in the tiny air space inside. It continued along sideways for a few metres like that and was surprisingly well lit via light reflections through the water. At the other end you had to duck down underwater and swim out for 3-4 meters with blind faith that you would come back out to the open air at the other end.
After out swim we went back to the hostel to have lunch before the second part of the tour, the Kambuci Caves. The Kambuci caves are a long cave that has been carved out over thousands of years by the underground river flowing slowly through it.
At the entrance to the caves we were each given a wax candle with which to light our way. The river starts off being about waist deep with a rope to help guide you along the way. There were a few parts where there were ladders to climb up and over steep rock faces, challenging to climb with a candle in one hand, and the rock face against the ladder preventing you from putting your foot securely through the rungs.
After a while we got to parts where the water was too deep to stand, so we were swimming along with one hand in the air trying to keep our candles dry and lit, feeling like we were Indiana Jones. We would look for hand holds along to wall to grab onto and let us be a bit lazier with the swim.
The guide had a waterproof head torch, but I quite enjoyed the challenge of keeping the candles going, and you could always get a light of someone else if yours did go out.
We came to a bit where you could climb up a fairly fast flowing waterfall with a rope, kind of like abseiling in reverse. There was also a ladder next to it for those who didn't want to go the hard way. I almost didn't try because I wasn't sure if I would have the strength to do it, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it much easier than it looked. I did manage to have both contact lens come out of place from all the water smashing into my face. I managed to blink one back into position but the other was lost under my eyelid somewhere for the rest of the day. There was no way up the waterfall without having your candle go out, but once we were past that part the guide helped us light them all again.
At the end of the caves there was a part where you could climb up and jump down about 3 meters into a pool of dark black water. The pool was actually a bit shallow, so you did hit the sandy bottom although not with great force.
After backtracking out of the caves, we set off on the third adventure of the day. We all got given tire inner tubes and walked back to where the Cahabón River comes out from underground again, jumped in and floated gently down the river for about half an hour. A nice relaxing way to round out a great day of adventuring!