If you’re traveling in Guatemala, someone has probably told you that you have to go to Semuc Champey. They’d be right – it really is that good, but what your probably wandering is how to get to Semuc Champey? Do you have to take a shuttle? Are there chicken buses? How long does it take? How do I even say the name?
It takes a day or two before you get your tongue around it. ‘Smokey Champagne’ is a common one; ‘Seamen Shampoo’ even had an outing on our minibus, but sooner or later you will eventually manage to correctly pronounce ‘Semuc Champey’ – a remote township where locals still live alongside wandering livestock, and a very popular tourist destination.
How to get to Semuc Champey: Flores to Semuc Champey
You can get to Semuc Champey from Flores either by private shuttle or the legendary ‘chicken bus’ (there are no chickens on board – but riding one is akin to being stuffed inside a cage with a hundred other chickens).
Shuttle Bus: Flores to Semuc Champey
The shuttle from Flores to Semuc Champey costs 100-125 GTQ, depending on if your bus has air-conditioning or not. You pay for ‘speed’ and ‘comfort’.
A quick search on Google Maps and you’ll discover that the journey from Flores in the north of Guatemala takes no longer than 7 hours. Well Google clearly hasn’t configured the frankly appalling conditions of Guatemala’s roads and the ramifications of an ungodly downpour into its mapping algorithms, since the journey actually takes 9 hours.
The highway from Flores until Cobán is in good condition, but from thereon you’re in for a VERY bumpy, 3-hour long ride – like, consider buying a crash helmet, seriously. While shuttle buses in Guatemala are more comfortable than chicken buses (on which you often have to stand), they are not actually very comfortable at all. The seats don’t have headrests and they are usually filled to the max, leaving not even an inch for more than the absolute minimal legroom. However, it’s by far and away the easiest way to get to Semuc Champey from Flores.
Departure Time: 8am (from Los Amigos Hostel)
Distance: 261 km
Journey Time: 9 hours
Standard Fare: 100-125 GTQ
Chicken Bus: Flores to Semuc Champey
This is how to get to Semuc Champey if you want the most fun possible at the same time.
Chicken Buses from Flores are not direct, but are much cheaper than shuttles. First you have to cross the bridge from Flores to Santa Elena. Here you board your first chicken bus (the terminal is by the market). This bus will take you as far as the not especially remarkable town of Cobán, where you make one more switch. This second chicken bus (costing around 25 GTQ) will take you along the bumpiest road of your life to Lanquin, where most travellers stay (from here it is another 30-minute ride to Semuc Champey). For a more detailed post of the Flores to Semuc Champey chicken bus route, check out this honest and hilarious post from Indiana Jo.
For more information on what to do and where to stay in Flores, head over to my post on Tips on Tikal and Flores.
How to get to Semuc Champey: Antigua / Guatemala City to Semuc Champey
I didn’t take this route, but there are shuttle buses leaving daily from Antigua and Guatemala City to Semuc Champey, and a multitude of tour companies to choose from (shop around before you buy). If you leave from Antigua, you will pass through Guatemala City, so the fare from Antigua is higher and the departure time earlier.
Chicken Bus: Antigua to Semuc Champey
You know a chicken bus in Guatemala when you see one. They are brightly coloured, badass-looking machines that growl their way through city centres and along the main highways. The chicken bus terminal in Antigua is next to the large outdoor market. If you want to get to Semuc Champey from Antigua by chicken bus, you’re better off making as early a start as possible, since they are much slower than shuttles and you can never be sure how long you will be waiting at each connection. The first bus will at least take you as far as Guatemala City, possibly continuing to Cobán. If you have to get off, you will have to place your trust in the bus driver, who will direct you to the bus to Cobán. From here there will be one more chicken bus – the longest, busiest and probably most uncomfortable – that will take you to Lanquin. The total cost is about $6 USD.
However, given the distance between Antigua /Guatemala City and Semuc Champey, it really is better to take a shuttle, if for a few dollars more.
Where to Stay in Semuc Champey
Bearing in mind that Semuc Champey is not actually a town but a tourist ‘monument’, there aren’t actually any hostels in Semuc Champey itself. The nearest town is Lanquin, where your chosen form of transport will take you as far as. There are a few budget hostels in Lanquin, and some very cheap homestays available, but Semuc Champey is another 45-minute 4×4 drive away.
There is a much more convenient alternative. Utopia Eco-Hotel (utopiaecohotel.com) – more an idyllic retreat than a typical backpackers’ hostel – is the nearest accommodation to Semuc Champey. I stayed for three nights and had never had a hostel experience quite like it. To get there, you are collected by a 4×4 truck in Lanquin (call ahead from your last hostel to arrange a free pickup) and promptly whisked away into the thick, overflowing jungle. I thought it would just be around the corner but I found myself clinging on to the rails in the back of the pick-up for 45-minutes as we ventured further and further up and down an even bumpier road than the last one (crash helmets on!). Once you arrive it is pitch black, but you can tell immediately what a special place it is. There are cabins by the river, quiet private rooms, low-cost dorm beds and shoestring-budget hammocks to enjoy under the stars as the jungle in which you are immersed sings you to sleep.
Utopia is completely isolated – no bars; no discos; no shops; no Wifi (although there is a neighbour who lets guests use his Wifi if they desperately need to) – and there is only one arrival and departure per day. The feeling of isolation and disconnection from the rest of the world is wonderful, even if short-lived! It also has its own restaurant which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner for 20, 30 and 50 GTQ respectively. Beers are 15 GTQ a piece and ‘special’ cakes are available too. The food is vegetarian only but of an excellent standard. Check out the video below that made me choose Utopia!
Getting to Semuc Champey from Utopia
Utopia offer a tour package that includes transport to and from Semuc Champey, the entrance fee (50 GTQ) and a guided tour of the nearby Kanbah Caves for 185 GTQ.
However, you can just as easily walk to Semuc Champey yourself – the journey is very pleasant and takes just under an hour. The staff at Utopia will give you a map and mark the turning points for you. You know you’ve arrived when you reach the footbridge that crosses the Rio Cahabon (this is the bridge people jump from in the video above).
To get to the caves, go past the bridge. To reach Semuc Champey, cross the bridge and follow the path up to the entrance. You will pass some food stalls on the way, and a cluster of them just before the entrance. A word of warning here – although the food sold here is incredibly cheap (15 GTQ per plate) and, admittedly, pretty tasty – I ate from one after leaving Semuc Champey and within two hours had begun the worst bout of food poisoning of my life. I was shivering, sleepless and pretty much glued to the toilet for the next 24 hours. So yeah, better off sticking with Utopia food me thinks.
But hey, Semuc Champey was fantastic! There are five or six rock pools descending in a staircase-like formation and you can dive into most of them. The hike to the Mirador is well-signposted, and the view from the top is unforgettable – dense green jungle as far as the eye can see, a few misty clouds and the rock pool staircase nestled in the valley below. It’s Neverland-ish. The noise is unforgettable too; howler monkeys abound here, and you can easily spy them once you’re high enough. They are enormous!
It is worth mentioning that Lanquin has a lot more to offer than just its prize asset. There are many hiking trails in the area, no doubt with access to other rock pools, though you may require a guide if you intend to wander off into the wilderness away from all the fuss.
Leaving Semuc Champey
You can either book a direct transfer to Antigua, Guatemala City or Flores (175 GTQ) through Utopia or via any of the other hostels in Lanquin, or strike a deal with the tour reps down at Semuc Champey for a better price – I got my ticket to Antigua for 125 GTQ, but had to be ready to leave Utopia at 5am! The pick-up truck will take you to Lanquin from Utopia and from here a shuttle will take you the rest of the way.
So that’s how to get to Semuc Champey from Flores, Antigua or Guatemala City, either by shuttle or chicken bus! One more thing you should be aware of before you go to Semuc Champey is that you will need to allocate a minimum of 3 days – two for getting there and away and another to see the attraction – so if you’ve not got much time in Guatemala then you may have to re-think your itinerary. Also, I can’t imagine it would be much fun during rainy season, but that’s just me! Have fun 🙂