After a very early start we left the tiny island of Flores and travelled south in a tourist minibus that cost Q120 (£10) and can definitely be done cheaper with public transport. After 8 hours and 282km we arrived in the tiny town of Lanquín. There was a lot of confusion, but we were soon loaded up into the back of a truck, holding on for dear life as it made its way through the winding mountain roads to the El Portal Hostel.
This would be an incredible place to spend a week. You either stay in bamboo dorm rooms or your own private bungalow overlooking the river. There was no phone signal, no wifi and barely any electricity. You could switch off from the real world and totally relax.
Or you could get talked into going with a group of people into a pitch black cave full of water with nothing but a candle that keeps going out and a guide that keeps disappearing. I’m a huge wimp; I’m scared of the dark, and of small spaces, and of drowning… but I’m also easily swayed by peer pressure, so of course I did this. I paid to do this. What. The. Hell.
We had an early breakfast in the restaurant and watched the raging river far below us, heard horror stories from other travellers about the tarantulas in their room and told our own about the cockroaches in ours. Then we made our way into the jungle.
Semuc Champey Pools
It took around half an hour of quite difficult hiking up and down the mountainside, I would definitely recommend buying some water shoes if you don’t want to walk bare feet… flip flops do not cut it. Your first stop is the look out, where you can take the obligatory selfie, before descending to the pools.
Semuc Champey is a breathtakingly beautiful natural wonder. A 300m limestone bridge sits above the raging Cahabón River. Along the bridge runs a series of bright turquoise pools that cascade into each other. It’s a popular swimming spot and an incredible place to spend the day. There are lockers to store your belongings, bring your own lock!
We made our way back to the hostel for lunch, they do a really good spaghetti bolognese! It was then time to head to the cave. At this point I felt physically sick with anxiety. I’d done Black Water Rafting in New Zealand and that was bad enough, but we had safety precautions: torches, helmets, life jackets, rubber rings and two guides. This? We had a candle.
Caving by candlelight
We followed our guide to the mouth of the cave, he handed a candle to each of us, lit it and shooed us inside before disappearing. I was in the middle of the group and was determined to stay there, it felt a little bit safer. The water was only ankle high at first, but within a minute we were swimming through the cave with one arm out of the water to keep the candle alight.
After 10 minutes the guide reappeared and pointed us in the right direction: up a tiny metal ladder into a small tunnel. It wasn’t easy having to hold a lit candle sideways in your mouth while climbing up, trying to avoid hitting your head, and I was shaking pretty badly at this point.
Again, we swam and crawled through the darkness. All I could think of were the warnings our guides in Waitomo gave us about hidden holes that could pull you down to another level of the cave and you’d be lost forever.
At one point the cave got so narrow that we came to a complete stop in a single line, I couldn’t see what was going on ahead but I could hear rushing water. As I got closer to the gap all I could see was the people in front of me disappearing. When it was my turn I freaked out; I didn’t know what was happening, the guide couldn’t speak English to explain, and the people ahead of me were nowhere to be seen.
The lovely people behind me were super nice about this and helped me calm down enough to avoid a full blown panic attack. I took the guides hand as he took my candle which was instantly extinguished in the waterfall crashing down from above us. He put a rope into my hands, shouted something and pulled me to the left, under the water. The force of it was enough to knock the breath out of me, but we soon made it to the other side. He went back through the falls leaving me on my own, pretty much numb with shock.
I soon realised I had to climb up again, and found everyone else struggling to relight their candles, the guide must have had a packet of waterproof matches. Once we had regrouped, and I had stopped panicking, we made our way to the end of line. There was a bottomless pool, and we each took turns to climb up the wall of the cave and jump in. It actually put a smile on my face and I’m glad I wasn’t one of the ones who chickened out!
The journey back took a slightly different route, avoiding the waterfall but with its own obstacles; more sketchy ladders and a few rock slides to throw you into the darkness. When I saw daylight appear I could have cried with happiness. I was alive! I made it! I had conquered about 5 different fears in one go and survived.
So….. to anyone who is as scared as I was: do it. Just suck it up, and do it. I’ve never felt such an intense sense of achievement as I did when I left that cave. If you’re not a total wimp like me then you will bloody love it!
Tubing in the rain
By the time we left the cave it was pouring with rain, but as we were already soaking wet we grabbed an inner tube each and walked back through the jungle. We spent half an hour floating down the river, got out and walked back to the hostel to have a (horrible) cold shower and to dry our wrinkly skin.
Semuc Champey is awkward to get to, but was one of the highlights of my trip to Central America. What a way to disconnect from social media and feel alive! It should be on everyone’s bucket list!
It was an easy ride back to to civilization after another bumpy ride in the back of a truck and a Q70 (£6) bus to Antigua. We got ripped off pretty badly by a guy in Flores who sold us this bus ticket in advanced for twice the price and when it came to using it the bus driver refused to accept it and almost kicked us off the bus, he did not care that we would have been stranded in the middle of nowhere. Be careful out there kids!
Click here to view the full album.