How to visit Semuc Champey, Guatemala, on a cheap backpacker budget without a guide.
Semuc Champey is one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala.
It is located in the middle of the jungle, where the natural world flourishes free from the constrictions of humankind.
Well, almost free. As Semuc Champey becomes more and more popular among tourists, the area becomes more developed. Backpacker lodges and hotels keep popping up and locals congregate outside the park entrance eager to sell plastic bottles of soda and snacks to the tourists.
Despite this growing touristy atmosphere around Semuc Champey, the area itself still remains pure.
With this article, I’ll answer some of the questions that budget travelers may have about visiting Semuc Champey. Do I need a guide? How do I get there? What should I bring? Where should I stay and how long should I stay?
If you’re asking any of these questions, read on and find out how to visit Semuc Champey on a backpacker budget.
What is Semuc Champey?
The Cahabón River flows fiercely through the jungle, but one section of it has miraculously turned into different layers of pools lined with limestone. Throughout history, the water slowly began to erode the rock that it flowed over, eventually creating space to slip underground and leave these stunning pools behind.
Semuc Champey translates to “where the river hides under the earth” in the indigenous Mayan language of Q’eqchi.
It is an incredible natural phenomenon, and I can only imagine how awestruck the first person to find this place must have felt.
How To Get To Semuc Champey from Around Guatemala
Semuc Champey is extremely remote.
The closest actual town to the pools is Lanquín, and you can get direct shuttles to here from major destinations around Guatemala including Flores, Rio Dulce, Antigua, Guatemala City and Panajachel in Lake Atitlan.
But the journey from any of these places to Lanquín will be a minimum of eight hours. The average cost of these shuttles is around 200Q ($26), but the prices vary depending on who you book with.
Not only will you be in a bus or van for at least eight hours, but most of the roads are winding, unpaved and extremely bumpy. After reaching Lanquín you’ll need to drive for another 45 minutes in a local pick up truck or 4WD through more rocky, curving jungle roads to reach Semuc Champey.
You can organize this 45 minute drive to Semuc Champey with your accommodation as many hostels offer free pickup from Lanquín.
How Many Days Do I Need In Semuc Champey?
Considering the driving time, it takes one full day to get to Semuc Champey, and one full day to get to your next destination afterwards. You only need one day in the area because besides exploring the natural pools there isn’t much else to do.
So if you have a total of three days to spare while traveling through Guatemala, and you don’t get carsick easily, definitely make a trip to Semuc Champey.
Budget Accommodation in Semuc Champey
Lanquín has more accommodation options, but you’ll need to get transport to and from the pools. I recommend staying as close to Semuc Champey as you can.
For a social atmosphere also within walking distance of the pools, stay in Greengos Hostel.
Personally, I stayed at Pachamaya Eco Lodge. This place is great for budget travelers because a dorm bed costs only 25Q a night (about $3) and it is a five minute walk to the pools. It doesn’t get much more affordable than that!
The following photos are of Pachamaya Eco Lodge.
What To Bring To Semuc Champey
Because the area is so remote, there are basically no facilities or shops out there. Bring as much cash as you’ll need because there are no ATMS.
Stock up on snacks and drinks. You’ll stop at a few convenience stores and gas stations on the bus journey in, but you can only buy packaged and processed food here.
Most hostels and hotels have a restaurant and bar, but in my experience the food was not very good and extremely overpriced. So to save money, bring your own food if you can.
We were unsure whether to wear sneakers or flip flops to Semuc Champey. We knew we’d be swimming a lot, but it is also the jungle. Ideal footwear would be sturdy athletic waterproof sandals, but we were perfectly fine in flip flops. The trail to Semuc Champey is a bit muddy and rocky, but the walk was do-able in sandals.
And of course, bring a bathing suit, towel, sunscreen and a camera.
Do I Need To Book A Tour To See Semuc Champey?
You do not have to book a guided tour to Semuc Champey.
The pools are open from 8am to 4pm.
The entry fee is 50Q (about $7).
If you are staying within walking distance of the pools, you can walk there and explore without a guide very easily.
However, you do need a guide to visit the neighboring caves. It costs 75Q (about $10) to enter the caves, and then your guide will take you through the darkness by candlelight. If you get claustrophobic, maybe skip this part.
The benefit of doing a guided tour is that you’ll have other travelers to enjoy the day with if you are traveling alone. Guided tours normally include your entrance fee, free time to swim in the pools, entrance fee to the caves and a candlelight tour and inflatable tubes that you can use to float down the river.
At Pachamaya, a tour cost 175Q (about $23), which worked out to be the same as paying for the entrance to Semuc Champey, the caves, and lunch. So it was the same price with or without a tour, we just wanted the flexibility of being on our own.
What Is Semuc Champey Like?
After looking at the gorgeous photos of Semuc Champey online, I figured the serenity of the pools would falter a bit under the crowds of tourists but I was wrong. I had a beautiful experience at Semuc Champey, and for the first few hours my friend and I had the entire place to ourselves.
Most tours begin at 9am. Because we left the hostel around 8am and arrived around 8:15am, there was literally no one else there besides some local workers cleaning the bathrooms and verandas. We were able to roam around, take photos, and swim freely in the heavenly water with no other tourists. The feeling was surreal.
After an hour or so, the tour groups started trickling in. Most people start swimming in the highest pool and work their way down. Once others started swimming in the top pool with us, we just migrated down and continued to have every pool to ourselves.
The water is refreshingly cold and crystal clear, even though it looks turquoise from above. There are lots of little fish that kept nibbling at our skin, and the small waterfalls that tumble down each level were great for back massages.
We swam in the water, climbed up rocks, dove off of waterfalls and slid from pool to pool. Some of the rocks are super slippery so you always have to move around with caution.
Unfortunately, the hike up to the Mirador was closed for maintenance. So I didn’t get to see the famous viewpoint that you see all over the internet when you Google “Semuc Champey”.
But I am still happy with my time in the pools, and here is that famous photo from Christopher Crouzet on Unsplash.
Was The Trip To Semuc Champey Worth It?
I spent more time on buses than I did at Semuc Champey, but there is no quicker way to get there. And that one day in nature’s paradise was worth the transport in my opinion.
The only thing I would change about my trip to Semuc Champey is skipping lunch at Pachamaya. The burrito I ordered was horrible and cost almost as much as my two nights accommodation, so I wish I had just brought more of my own food. But that was the only downside.
I also got a discount on my shuttles to Lanquín. In Panajachel the day before my trip, I walked around town asking every tour company what their shuttle price was. The standard was 200Q, though one place offered 175Q. My last stop was Magic Travel on Calle Santander, and they offered an even lower price of 160Q. I was also able to book my shuttle back from Lanquín to Antigua with them, so I bought both of my tickets together.
Because I booked my shuttles through an outside company, Pachamaya charged me a small fee of 20Q for the 45 minute ride back to Lanquín on my day of departure.
So my total expenses for this three day trip to Semuc Champey were:
Shuttle bus from Panajachel to Lanquín: 160Q
Snacks for bus ride: 50Q
2 nights at Pachamaya Eco Lodge: 50Q
Entrance fee to Semuc Champey: 50Q
Lunch at Pachamaya Eco Lodge: 45Q
Shuttle from Pachamaya to Lanquín: 20Q
Shuttle from Lanquín to Antigua: 160Q
Total spent: 535Q, or about $70.
I think a day at one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala was worth $70.
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