Semuc Champey

**NOTE: The following events were in 2017. Catching up on old posts before I leave for another adventure in a couple of weeks! Stayed tuned for new adventures soon!!**

Day 803 – 12 May, 2017

It was dusk and I was crammed in a minivan with 8 other passengers and a reckless driver. We left Flores nearly 10 hours earlier. We had been driving on highways at first, stopping for restroom breaks at bodegas with heavy artillery for sale. We veered off of the main highway just as the sun was slinking lower in the sky and still had another hour or so to arrive in Lanquín down a bumpy mountainous dirt road, our driver cutting perilously close to the steep drops every time he rounded a turn. I had just leaned back and closed my eyes, trying to block out the thought of impending death, when we came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the road.

The driver began moaning, “oh, no, no, no.” When I leaned forward to see the problem, there was a man lying askew in the road, his motorcycle pinning one of his legs underneath. He was face down and completely still. A passenger forward of me, who claimed to be a doctor (but was actually a medical student), opened the door and ran to the man’s aid. Then chaos ensued.

The driver frantically yelled, “NO! NO! Ellos me culparán!” They will blame me. Someone behind me was convinced it was a trap to rob us. The van was immediately split between whether we should help an injured person or if we should leave so that we wouldn’t be robbed. Everyone was yelling at each other. The driver wanted the “doctor” to get back in the van so we could leave and he wouldn’t be blamed for hitting the motorcyclist. I seemed to be the only one who could kind of speak Spanish and translate the drivers’ protest, which everyone completely dismissed. By now, someone else had gotten out of the van to help, but came back asking if anyone had any snacks or water. I could see the motorcyclist was now sitting up with his head in his hands. I didn’t know what to think, but I was probably more in the camp thinking this was a trap. They gave the man some water and lifted the motorbike off of his leg. He began to stand up, his knees wobbling as if his legs were made of jello, at which time it became obvious he was very very blindingly drunk.

I felt relief that this probably was just an accident and not a robbery attempt, but conflicted in that we were now going to let the guy get back on his motorbike and continue on his way in the dark on these dangerous twisty roads. Once we were all back in the van, the driver just clicked his teeth and repeated, “Todo está bien. Todo está bien.” Everything is ok.

My hostel was set on the banks of a river in the jungle near Lanquín. I had come a long way for the privilege of seeing Semuc Champey, a national monument of turquoise pools on a limestone bridge with nearby caves and waterfalls, a backpackers’ playground.

Semuc Champey is super easy to visit independently if you’re open to a little adventure, but I had wanted to see the caves and this was only possible with a guide, who painted our faces with black clay and led us into ankle deep water. We were each handed candles and told to hang on to a rope that would lead our way. I mistakenly wore flip flops that would suction in the thick guano mud when they weren’t trying to slide off my feet. At times, the water was so deep we had to swim while attempting to hold the candle above the water and trying to keep the rope underneath the opposite armpit. I stubbed my toe on a sharp obstruction under the water and could feel the torn skin flapping in the vibration of the pool. Eventually, I took my shoes off and slid my arms through them instead. I hit knees and elbows on the cave walls. The final obstacle was a natural slide at the mouth of cave. The guide stayed at the top of the slide and would position each person just so they wouldn’t whack their head on a rather deadly-looking rock before shoving them through a tight passage. When it was my turn, he took my candle, extinguished it, and sent me on my way. I was propelled through a pigtail curve before I pinched my nose and plunged into a deep pool. When I surfaced, natural light illuminated the tunnel toward the exit. The whole route probably only took 20-30 minutes, but I was bloody and bruised enough that I needed a reprieve.

We walked to a waterfall and some people jumped into the river on a rope swing. We floated down the Cahabón River in inner tubes and pre-teen boys would paddle out to us with floating coolers of beer trying to make a sale. Many of us didn’t have any money while we were in the water and they said that was ok; we could pay them when we got back to land. We hiked to El Mirador and this was our first view of the famous pools. From this height, it looked like a turquoise-adorned bracelet.

The water was clear and cool, but refreshing in the muggy weather. We jumped from the limestone steps and baked in the sunshine. One guy in our group dislocated his shoulder by horsing around, but with quick thinking someone popped it back in and someone else made him a sling out of a sarong so that it wouldn’t ruin his day.

I wasn’t sure if Semuc Champey would be a place where you could come back again and again and not feel bored, if it was a place where each visit would feel new, but for that day, I was enchanted by the fairytale landscape of ancient rounded peaks shrouded in mist and lush tropical valleys. When we piled into the bed of a pickup for the 30 minute drive back to Lanquín, splashing through muddy potholes, I already wanted to go back. I was willing each day that I had left in Guatemala to go by just a little slower.

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