Semuc Champey has a reputation as the most beautiful place in Guatemala. It also must be one of the most difficult to get to. From Coban which is the biggest town in the Northern highlands you must drive 40km along a winding mountain road to the turnoff for a small town called Lanquin. Lanquin is 12km down a steep and narrow road from the main highway (unpaved). This road is quite tricky but driveable in all but the worst conditions although it is susceptible to washouts.
On reaching Lanquin after taking 1.5 hours for the previous 12km we were in two minds about continuing on the further 10km to Semuc Champey. We knew of a hostel here who allowed camping and could arrange a tour so we went to check it out. Unfortunately they didn’t have space for us so we decided to press on.
Unless you are driving a 4×4 there is no way you should attempt the road from Lanquin to Semuc Champey. If we had known what it was like we would not have driven it. The road is very narrow, muddy – with a slippery clay base, and exceptionally steep. The journey down was not too bad but we did make a wrong turn and have to reverse about 200m up a narrow mud road. However just before we reached Semuc Champey we reached a bridge which is at 90 degrees to the main road. This is held up by cables reaching across the road and we were too high to make the turn because of the cables so we were stuck.
We had meant to stay the night at Semuc Champey (in the parking lot which actually was ideal) however as we couldn’t get there we knew we would have to drive back to Lanquin that night. Fortunately there was just room to turn around in the area before the bridge
The entrance to Semuc Champey itself was only a five minute walk from where we were parked and we paid the Q50 per person entrance fee and went in. The site itself is unique in that a big river disappears into an underground tunnel and then on top of the tunnel there are spring fed pools which flow into the main river when it reappears from the tunnel. The pools are beautiful.
There is a pretty strenuous hike up to a mirador (viewpoint) above the pools which takes about ¾ hour round trip. The trail is really slippery and the descent was quite difficult. The view is amazing though.
We didn’t spend as long as we wanted to at Semuc Champey as we knew we needed to drive out and the condition of the road was hanging over us. On top of this there was a heavy rain shower while we were there which had us a bit worried.
The drive back up initially went well – the beast was coping well with the steep inclines (albeit in 2 Low which has a top speed of around 9kph). There were some really slippery bits where we had to engage the diff lock to stop the wheels spinning but we kept forward momentum. One bit was particularly scary with a small washout and a steep drop to one side and the truck started slipping towards it – I managed to keep us going and breathed a big sigh of relief once we had traction and were past the washout.
All this was too good to last though and on a very steep incline we hit a deep patch of mud and dug in. We were stuck. After reversing and having a couple of attempts at different routes we kept slipping off the centre of the road into the deep mud on the left.
I leapt out of the cab and started to try to get rid of the rut and place stones in the worst bits to give us some traction. After only a few minutes though an ambulance arrived trying to get past us (a 4×4) and then a pickup truck full of locals also arrived. We were surrounded by people all giving advice in Spanish!
We managed to back up down the slope to a slightly wider section of the road where the ambulance could get past. It was quickly followed by the pickup truck which managed to scratch the side of the Beast. We didn’t notice at the time though.
When the road was clear I got our shovel and spent half an hour rebuilding the road. I dug out the big ruts and put tracks of stones in the main pathway. Then with the aid of our sand ladders to help maintain traction we tried another run at this section of the climb. We stormed on through. We were helped by a couple of locals in rebuilding the road – pretty ineffectually. One of them was really drunk and kept falling over and sliding down the road. When I was driving towards the sand ladders he kept moving one and Sarah kept moving it back – before they both had to jump out the way as I came storming through.
We now had a race against time to make it back to Lanquin before dark – I really didn’t want to drive this road in the dark. We just made it back to Lanquin as darkness was falling and pulled into the car park at the Grutas de Lanquin (a cave system with millions of bats). We were very relieved to get here but knew we still had the road up out of the valley from Lanquin in the morning.
It rained solidly all night – so this added to our anxiety about the drive out. In the end we made it and it only took an hour to drive the 10km out. I’ve never been so happy to see tarmac !