Semuc Champey: This Is How I’m Gonna Die

Perched on top of the yellow railings I stare down at the Cahabón River rushing past 10 metres below and think ‘This is how I’m gonna die.’ It’s not the first time the thought has crossed my mind in the past 24 hours. It began the night before. 

We arrived in Lanquín, Guatemala after a typical Central American 9 hour shuttle journey. Typical in the sense that it actually took closer to 12 hours. I foolishly assumed the worst was over until I realised that every last person from both shuttles was going to the same hostel and all of us were being packed into the cabs and trays of two trucks. One truck also had all the luggage strapped to the roof, pieces hanging comically over the side and a nervous employee sitting on top holding on to some of the less securely strapped bags. It was clear that even the drivers weren’t happy about the unstable loads as we set off amidst a barrage of shouting. 

The mountains of Alta Verapaz, Guatemala.

The reason soon became clear. Our “20 minute” (read: 45 minute) drive took us along steep, unpaved, single lane mountain roads with hairpin corners and frightening dropoffs to the valleys below. My favourite part was when we had to find space to pass vehicles coming in the opposite direction! I was certain we were surrounded by glorious views but at night during an apocalyptic rainstorm it was impossible to tell. Anyone experienced in Latin American or Asian overland travel is familiar with the it’s-outta-my-hands mindset which I quickly engaged after briefly flirting with the idea that ‘This is how I’m going to die.’ 

After a series of desperately sincere conversions to various world religions we arrived at Utopia Eco Lodge. We ate. I had quiet conversations with all of my new gods to let them know that actually, I needed some space. ‘It’s not you, it’s me.’ We slept. 

Home for a short while.

I woke up in a hammock in the clouds. Utopia sits just above Río Cahabón, surrounded by jungle. The main building has no walls so I looked straight out into dense jungle and heavy cloud. As the rising sun slowly burned off the clouds I watched the world reveal itself accompanied by choruses of birds, monkeys and insects blessing the day. 

After breakfast we were picked up by my new favourite form of transport for another hair-raising journey, this time to Semuc Champey National Park. We started our day with a tour of the cave network on the opposite side of the river to the national park. We were each handed a candle and one by one followed a guide down into ankle deep water. Just inside the entrance the guide gleefully applied ‘war paint’ to each of our faces before we headed deeper into the caves. He was having far too much fun not to raise my suspicions and I later heard someone say they thought the ‘paint’ was bat shit. 

Ready for action.

Soon we were swimming through deep water, one hand aloft to keep alive the burning candles which provided our only light. Over two hours we swam, clambered up rapids, climbed sketchy ladders and negotiated narrow footholds underneath a pounding waterfall. At every opportunity the guide would hide and jump out to scare someone or rush ahead, letting out maniacal laughs that echoed around the caves. This is a man who obviously loves his job. Near the end of the tour I found myself standing on a tiny rock platform five metres above a black pool. The guide pointed down at a slightly blacker spot in the pool and said “Jump there. Don’t think, just jump. GO!” and as I leapt into the inky darkness I thought “This is how I die.” 

Eventually we emerged back into the light, intact but for a few new scrapes and bruises. We lunched then had a couple of hours to explore the national park. Semuc Champey is a natural limestone bridge above the Río Cahabón. On top of the bridge is a series of cascading pools ending in a waterfall which rejoins the river below. It is stunning. Being Central America, safety precautions in the park start and end with rope fencing. I stood at the top of the waterfall looking down and thought about the consequences of an innocent slip. And then I went back to enjoying the splendour. 

The cascading pools of Semuc Champey.

Finally it was time to head home. We were given the option of tubing down the river back to the hostel instead of riding in the suicide trucks. I thought hard for about two seconds before choosing to tube. But the day wouldn’t be complete without one last challenge. The options for accessing the river to tube were a) climbing down the bank and gently pushing off from the side or b) jumping off a 10 metre bridge and having your tube tossed unceremoniously behind you so you can gaspingly grasp for it while trying to recover from your mad leap. Which is how I find myself perched on top of the railings staring down the barrel of my own sense of mortality. 

‘This is how I’m gonna die.’ 

I jump, and in the long moments before impact I exalt in the free fall. Until I hit the water and come up howling, scrambling to dislodge the most painful wedgie of my life. As I haul myself gracelessly onto my tube an 8 year old Mayan kid floats past and offers me a cold beer. 

I love Guatemala.

Life Lessons Learned:

  • Making a hammock is way harder than making a bed.

Soundtrack: K’naan – In The Beginning

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