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The Best of Alta Verapaz: Semuc Champey and Candelaria

Written by Jared on March 27, 2012

Semuc Champey.

Start: March 17, Antigua
Finish: March 22, Raxruja
Spectacular Natural Wonders Seen: 2
Car Parts Replaced: 2
Hours Spent Spelunking: 4

Back on the road at last! For those of you following along at home, you may recall that one of our last articles before arriving in Antigua covered our short stay in Lanquin. It was our last stop before arriving at our home stay, and we decided to skip seeing the nearby natural wonder known as Semuc Champey due to horribly rainy weather.

But never fear, we said, we will return! And we did. And it was AWESOME! Not only did we get to see Semuc Champey, but we drove even further north to visit the caves of the Candelaria where we spent an afternoon spelunking and tubing down a river. What we saw was beyond compare. Words can't begin to describe it, hopefully these photos will do the trick.

Our cabin in Lanquin.

After a seven hour drive back north, we returned to the little piece of paradise known as Zephyr Lodge in Lanquin. This time we opted to reserve a cabin instead of pitching our tents on the hill.

The view of the valley from our cabin in Lanquin.

You may have seen this photo before, from our last time here, but I think it deserves a revisit. This was the view out of our cabin windows. It's not hard to see why so many people show up here and decide to stay put for a while.

The ride to Semuc Champey.

Off to Semuc Champey! We decided to DIY the tour rather than buy into the package. It wouldn't have been that bad except for the hour-long bumpy ride standing in the back of a pickup truck caged in with 20 other people. One of those things you look back on as "a memorable experience" rather than "a great time". Can't win 'em all.

The river leading into Semuc Champey.

Semuc Champey is a natural limestone formation. A river flows through the area, partially underground. As the river passes under the limestone shelf, water is forced upwards and over time results in the formation of some spectacular water pools. The photo above shows the river entering and falling under the limestone shelf.

The river leading out of Semuc Champey.

And this is a picture about half a mile downriver showing the underground exit of the river.

A view down the valley of the pools at Semuc Champey.

And in between, we have Semuc Champey in all its blue-green glory. This definitely goes on my list as one of the most unique and beautiful natural wonders I've seen.

Swimming in Semuc Champey.

One of the best activities at Semuc Champey is to go for a dip in the pools. Above, the kids take a break from the heat.

Semuc Champey panorama.

These are two of the largest of the seven pools. Click this panorama for a larger version. It should give you some idea of what Semuc Champey looks like. Even with a wide-angle lens it's difficult to portray how magical this place is.

Blue gets yet another inner axle seal.

Unfortunately our return to Lanquin also brought the return of a problem we faced after our last visit. The other rear axle seal sprung a leak. We noticed it when we pulled up to the Zephyr Lodge, and we were not looking forward to having to return to Guatemala City for repairs again.

Our mechanics take apart our axle with a hydrolic press.

So we decided to roll the dice and try a local guy in Lanquin. Big mistake. His idea of car repair involved a hammer, a chisel and pounding very hard.

He knew what the problem was, more or less, but he wasn't able to actually take the axle apart completely. Lacking the proper tools he resorted to brute force, which pretty much destroyed the axle bearing.

Fortunately all was not lost, we were able to put the car back together and drive it out of Lanquin, although that forced us to leave paradise a day early. Kobus got in contact with our friends at the Guatemala City Toyota dealership and they were able to recommend a shop in Coban, the closest big city on our way. A special thanks to David of Toyota Guatemala for recommending the guys at Puente Nuevo.

In Coban, our masterful mechanics (pictured above/right) actually had the proper tool, a hydraulic press, capable of separating the bearing from the axle. In two and half hours they were done (compared 7 hours we spent in Guatemala City) and at a cost of only $75 (compared to $250), including a new bearing. We dodged a bullet on that one, plus our Spanish lessons paid off big time.

The sign leading to our tour in the Candelaria.

At the end of that long stressful day, we managed to make it to Candelaria, an area full of limestone caves about two hours north of Coban. We struck out trying to find a campground. Everything was well off the road without vehicle access. Bummer. Eventually we found a hotel, and opted (for the first time) for rooms with AC. It was very hot, and very sticky.

Our guide friend Jose, whom we met in Tikal, recommended the caves of Candelaria, especially a tour that involved viewing the siete ventanas (seven windows), as one of the best natural experiences in Guatemala.

What taking pictures in a cave is supposed to be like.

Caves, you say? How do you take pictures in a cave? Sort of expecting to look like this, aren't you? Not quite!

A window in the caves in Candelaria.

It looked a bit more like this! It's hard to give this photo scale, but the roof of the cave is at least 150 feet over our heads. The "window" is around 50 feet by 80 feet, and opens to an area of jungle that is impossible to access without climbing half way up the cave wall.

All told there were a dozen or so of these windows, areas of the cave that have collapsed allowing sunlight and plants to grow inside. This one is called "The Garden" because of the huge variety of greenery growing in the area.

Water makes the cave grow.

This is a shot in "The Garden" shows the cave continuing the grow. Water drips everywhere, slowly forming limestone pillars, stalactites and stalagmites. Add the backdrop of sun shining into the cave and you have the makings of a spectacular scene.

A light ray shines into the cave.

Mayans used to live in this cave. In many ways it was, and still is sacred to them. Our guide showed us evidence of Mayan offerings, ritual fires, pieces of ceramic, altars and living areas carved from the cave's structures. It's not hard to see why the Mayans would worship in a place like this.

Ready for tubing!

The second half of our tour was spent tubing down the river that formed the caves. It's been a very long time since we've done anything quite like this! Luckily the water wasn't too cold, nor did it move all that fast. It was more of a relaxing float down a few long, dark tunnels.

Tubing in the dark.

Oh yeah, did I mention dark? We had headlamps (well, our guide and I did), but it was still difficult to see where we were going. Drift a bit off course and you're face to face with jagged pointy rocks that could pop your tube or break your face. It was exciting enough, at two miles per hour.

Another window in the caves.

We passed a few more windows in the tubes, and got out once or twice to take a look around. We stopped for apple pie and lemonade in front of this window. Not bad scenery for a snack.

Exiting the cave in our tubes.

After an hour and a half of tubing in the caves we hit the exit, out into the river for an hour of floating in the sun.

Tubing down the river in the sun.

We passed through some serious jungle, and saw lots of freshwater fishes - the kind you buy in the pet store. The water continued its lazy pace, and other than dodging a few sunken logs and sharp limestone rocks, it was smooth sailing.

Carrying the tubes back to the restaurant.

Four hours after we entered the cave we arrived at the end. All that was left was a 10 minute trek with our tubes through the jungle, and a couple frosted glasses of ice cold beer! Mmmm.

Thanks to Jose for recommending this trip to us. We aren't usually the type to sign up for guided tours, but we made an exception this time. Even after enduring a very long stressful day on the road, getting the car repaired and finding a place to sleep after our first three options fell through. Regardless, it was well worth it!

Up Next: We hunt for the elusive quetzal, Guatemala's national bird, and then head off to El Salvador.


#1 James 2012-03-27 19:30
Glad you got the axle leak fixed, again... damn thing.

Those are some epic caveshots, Im jealous of your cave shooting skills.

Where you guys headed now? We are STILL in GuatCity, hopefully the car will be done today. Were beelining for Honduras, probably going to just jet across it to Nicaragua. Need to be in San Jose, CR on April 25th to pick up Laurens folks.

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