Semuc Champey: Guatemala's most beautiful site

My guide Sam has just earned himself some serious brownie points. The climb to the El Mirador lookout is a one-kilometre-long thigh-punisher – a relentless series of uneven rocky steps and steep wooden ladders that would be taxing enough on a cool day, let alone in this 33-degree heat and 90 per cent humidity. If I was him, I'd have wished me good luck at the bottom and said, 'see you when you get down'. But he insists on accompanying me, despite having done it dozens of times before.

By the time we get to the top, I look like I've just been spat out of a car wash. Sam, who's Guatemalan and used to this humidity, has a slight sheen on his forehead.

Why subject yourself to such a torturous trek? For an aerial perspective of what many claim is Guatemala's most beautiful natural site – a 300-metre-long limestone bridge over the Cahabon River that harbours six cascading turquoise pools. It's called Semuc Champey, which translates roughly to "where the river flows under the earth".

Personally, I think Guatemala's jaw-droppingly scenic Lake Atitlan might have the edge in the beauty stakes, but there's no denying Semuc Champey is an impressive spectacle. From the viewpoint, it looks as if the river feeds into the pools but it actually flows underneath them. The pools are replenished by rainfall that trickles down the valley's vertiginous forested sides.

Getting to Semuc Champey is no trivial matter. The nearest town is Lanquin, an eight-hour drive north of Guatemala City. The scenery en route is beautiful – a photogenic montage of plunging valleys and steeply terraced hills – but the final 10 kilometres is rough dirt track. Sam says the government offered to pave it but the locals wouldn't let them. "They already get enough tourists," he explains.

Most people choose to stay in Lanquin and head to Semuc Champey early the next day. The town itself is unremarkable but it has a smattering of hotels, hostels and backpacker-friendly bars and restaurants.

The transfer from Lanquin to Semuc Champey is only 11 kilometres, but it's 11 kilometres of being thrown around in the back of an open truck. Suffice to say, when you finally reach El Mirador and gaze down upon this spectacular natural wonder, you feel like you've earned it.

Despite (or perhaps because of) its inaccessibility, Semuc Champey has become a popular backpacker hangout. And particularly with Israelis. Sam claims it's because Guatemala is cheap and the local Mayan language is similar to Hebrew. However, when I ask an Israeli girl, she has a different explanation: "Because it's far away from Israel."

By the time we get back down, I'm ready for a swim. After getting changed in a simple open-sided hut (BYO lock for the lockers), I carefully pick my way across the slippery rocks and plunge into the refreshing aquamarine water. The tiered pools are separated by natural rock ledges and the idea is to progress from the top to the bottom. For the next hour I relax in the soothing clear waters, marvelling that such a place even exists.

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While the pools are the main drawcard, the site also has other activities. There's an intrepid tour of the K'an Ba cave, where you scramble through water-filled caverns with only a candle for illumination. There's also a giant rope swing and a leap off the 10-metre-high bridge over the Cahabon River. Thankfully, I don't have time to try any of these risky-sounding pursuits, although I would have been keen to rent an inner tube and float down the river with an ice-cold beer.

As we wait for the joint-jarring transfer back to Lanquin, I ask Sam why he thinks this place is so popular. "Because it's paradise," he replies. "It's a long, hard journey to get here but it's worth it." I'll second that.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

www.traveller.com.au/guatemala 

www.visitguatemala.com 

FLY

Air New Zealand flies via Auckland to Houston with onward connections to Guatemala City. See www.airnewzealand.com.au 

VISIT

Semuc Champey is 11 kilometres from Lanquin, Alta Verapaz. Entrance costs 50 quetzales.

TOUR

Latin America specialist Chimu Adventures can create a tailor-made Guatemala itinerary including flights, accommodation, transfers and tours. Phone 1300 773 231; see www.chimuadventures.com  

Rob McFarland was a guest of Air New Zealand and Chimu Adventures.

See also: 10 places you (probably) haven't visited, but should

See also: Guatemala's sacred volcano might leave you spooked

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