Few visit Cobán without making the trip east to Lanquín, a pristine riverside town with a series of fascinating caves and a trio of first-rate backpacker hostels. In fact, nearby Semuc Champey is the well-justified reason most visitors come to Alta Verapaz in the first place. A requisite stop along Guatemala’s gringo trail, Semuc’s clear turquoise pools, raging subterranean river, and hiking trails can easily keep you occupied for days, not to mention the park’s opportunities for tubing, bridge jumping, and spelunking by candlelight.
Located 62 kilometers from Cobán, this charming Q’eqchi’ village was put on the map by Semuc Champey but is thoroughly enjoyable in its own right. Situated below lush green hills, next to a refreshing river, and a stone’s throw from an intriguing cave system, Lanquín offers a pleasant blend of rural simplicity with just a touch of international flair. A pair of phenomenal backpacker hostels are supplemented by a few budget cheapies and plenty of quaint comedores and tiendas. At the time of writing there was a Banrural in town but no ATM.
To get here from Cobán, head 50 kilometers through San Pedro Carchá and endless plots of coffee and cardamom to El Pajal, where the blacktop ends and a turn-off veers another 12 kilometers to Lanquín. Buses from Cobán leave hourly (Q20, 2hrs, 62km). Cobán Travels offers the cheapest tourist shuttles between Antigua and Lanquín (Q100, 8hrs, 303km). Buses from Lanquín to Semuc Champey leave hourly each morning from the center of town (Q10, 1hr, 14km).
Grutas de Lanquín
One kilometer northwest of town, this bat-infested, stalactite-lined cave stretches several kilometers into the earth and makes for a fun few hours of exploring. Be careful, though – the first few hundred meters are equipped with walkways and generator-powered lighting, but after that it’s easy to wind up on your caboose covered in bat guano. Admission to the caves cost Q30, and any of the hostels in Lanquín can organize round-trip transportation. Be sure to be at the cave entrance around dusk, when an interminable horde of bats blackens the sunset sky. Afterwards, take a dip in the cool river that emerges from the cave’s mouth.
Nine kilometers south of Lanquín along a rough but scenic dirt track is the majestic Semuc Champey National Monument (admission Q50). Despite being well off the beaten path, a visit is definitely worth the trek – this is arguably Guatemala’s most beautiful natural attraction. A geological masterpiece, Semuc is a bridge of natural limestone terraces and waterfalls, each magnificent step filled with crystal clear, mountain spring-fed water. While the Cahabón River passes underneath, you can spend the day swimming in the refreshing turquoise pools, exploring the K’an Ba caves by candlelight, or hiking up a challenging trail to an impressive lookout point. Guides are available in the parking lot, but you’ll be better off exploring on your own. To have the place to yourself, avoid visiting on holidays.
Visitors typically stay at one of several hostels in Lanquín and take an hourly pickup (Q10, 1hr, 14km) from near the central park each morning, but more options are opening up near the park. Semuc Champey is usually un-crowded, but unless you spend two full days in the park, you may leave feeling you should have stayed more time. Any of the tour services in Lanquínor Cobán can organize shuttles. To reach Semuc in a car you’ll need 4WD after El Pajal, as the road deteriorates greatly with the winter rains. Alternatively you can walk from Lanquín to Semuc in around 2½ hours.
K’an Ba Caves
Right before the entrance to Semuc Champey, the Posada Las Marías, offers an exciting candlelit tour of the Cuevas de K’an Ba (admission Q50), an underground passageway carved by the Cahabón River. Inside, you’ll find numerous stalactites, subterranean waterfalls, and the chance to jump several meters from a cave ledge into a pool below – in almost complete darkness. Tours can be arranged at the Posada or in Lanquín and include cliff jumping, a giant rope swing, and tubing on the green river. To participate you’ll need to be physically fit enough to climb slippery rope ladders and hold a candle above the water in one hand while paddling through deep water with the other.
Make sure to check out the guide for more information on where to eat and sleep in and around Semuc Champey and Lanquín!
Photo Credit: Boris G