Sliding into the Jewel of Semuc Champey: Guatemala at the End of Mayan Days (Part 8)

Mar 22, 2013 | Girls Hike Too, Girls Trek Too, Guatemala

In the middle of the night the Guatemalan sky unzips its pockets to spill a marimba of water on the tin roof of our wooden room. By morning, the downpour persists, offering both disappointment and relief: both “I forbid you to explore paradise,” and “I grant you heavenly rest.” After eating pancakes in the open-air lodge of Posada El Zapote, we stare at gray rain that sews up the garden, hemming in long red bromeliads, yellow trumpet flowers, coconut palms, and the vines of a jungle that threatens to take over.

We stare at gray rain that sews up the garden of our lodge, Posada El Zapote.

My husband, Dale, sways in the only good hammock, while two cheap fishnet hammocks attempt to strangle me. I retreat to our room to nap on the hard little bed and dream of Semuc Champey hiding beyond the rain.

I dream of Semuc Champey hiding beyond the rain.

I wake when silence strikes like a gong, announcing the rain’s halt at 10:15 a.m. Dina, one of the lodge owners, hurries to pack us dry cheese sandwiches and small yellow citrus from her garden. By 10:30 we’re waddling like penguins down a steep, muddy, ankle-twisting, one-lane road that Dina calls “la carretera,” (the highway) without a trace of irony in her voice.

Last night in Lanquin, a young local scoffed at our plan to walk to Semuc Champey.

“It’s only two kilometers,” I said.

“Yes, but you must walk back up.” He tilted his palm at a severe angle.

No hay problema. (No problem) I’m small, but I’m stronger than I look.”

“I believe you,” he said. “I can see it in your eyes.”

Now, as we skid downhill, standing far apart lest one of us take the other down, I over-enunciate defeat, “I was wronnnnng.”

We curve down through folded mountains and valleys, to the winding tourmaline jewel of the Cahabon River.

Thick air steams, compressing breath and wringing skin as we curve down through folded mountains and valleys, to the winding tourmaline jewel of the Cahabon River. Before we cross the steel-and-wood bridge, we stop to watch a small group of giddy twenty-somethings alternately dare, cheer, and avoid jumping off the bridge into the swift current 25-feet below. I’m tempted, but Dale reminds me it hasn’t yet been a year since I had spinal surgery on a ruptured disk. I’m both disappointed and relieved by this excuse not to take the dare.

I’m tempted, but Dale reminds me it hasn’t yet been a year since I had spinal surgery on a ruptured disk.

A few minutes further on, we pay 50 quetzales each to enter Semuc Champey Natural Monument. We hike into a canyon, following a charm bracelet of narrow trails and boardwalks through a rainforest of light and shadow. Jewels of green water sparkle in and out of sight, until the trail opens onto a small natural pool and waterfall where my joy bubbles into a giggle. It’s the first in a string of green-eyed winks from God, where rocky lips pout with water that cascades gently from terrace to terrace.

It’s the first in a string of green-eyed winks from God.

We tiptoe across the red-gold rocks that braid through it all, looking up- and downriver at pools spilling into pools spilling into pools. A middle-aged couple floats in inner tubes in the first pool, a handful of younger tourists swim in the next, Guatemalan families splash and play in the next.

Guatemalan families play in one of the pools.

At one lonely spot, yellow caution tape reaches halfway across the river, trying to scare us away. But a young woman beckons us from beyond the tape, from an apostrophe of rock that leans over the river. Her arm moves with a certainty that says, “If you miss this, you’ll be sorry.”

A young woman beckons us from an apostrophe of rock that leans over the river.

So we cross the river on slick rock, water sluicing between our feet, to the opposite bank. Then we follow the apostrophe until it hangs over the water. There, we’re stunned by a sight only visible from this angle: a roar of whitewater impossible to kayak. The untrammeled river beast thrusts under the stone shelf, and vanishes into a cavern, to later rejoin the tranquil pools downstream. It’s so loud that Dale and I can barely hear our own shouts.

It’s so loud, Dale and I can barely hear our own shouts.

The main trail next turns left up a jaggedy, slickety cliff to a mirador, or viewpoint. It’s a scramble up steep stairs and muddy, rocky chutes.“Vale la pena,” a sweaty couple huffs as they pass us coming down, “Worth the trouble.” After about a kilometer we reach a wooden platform overhanging a precipice. We put up with vertigo for a spectacular look at the shimmering green-and-white necklace stretched out below, tucked in the crevice of the canyon’s lush jewelry-box. Our sandwiches seem less crappy up here, and who cares if the citrus has too many seeds when we can spit them from such an exhilarating height?

We put up with vertigo for a spectacular look at the shimmering green-and-white necklace stretched out below.

“A place like this makes me happy to be alive,” I say. Dale isn’t the type to say such things, but his smile says it’s indeed vale la pena.

The steep trail down the other side is even more intimidating. One frightening chute is lined with log-posts to keep people from pitching head-over-keister. I whimper, just a little, when I can’t find a handhold.

We survive to return to the first pool, which we now have to ourselves. We quickly strip to our bathing suits and slide in among the fish. The water would have felt chilly before our hike, but now it’s refreshing. I swim until I stretch out a toe and can’t find rock. Panic tightens my chest, until I remember I can float if I grow tired. I relax and explore the pool’s depths and low-slung falls.

I relax and explore the pool’s depths and low-slung falls.

We leave around 3:00, just as the sky darkens and begins to sprinkle. We exit by a path closer to the river, and discover vertical falls marking the terminus of the pools. OK, now the river is just showing off.

Vertical falls mark the terminus of the pools.

We’ve walked more than six kilometers, and I’m dreading the trudge to our lodge in the rain. Then, just as we start uphill, a couple of locals in a pickup wave us onboard. We climb into the truck-bed, grinning at our luck. The bumpy road jolts my spine, making me glad I didn’t jump off that bridge, though I still feel two ways about it. There’s still time to decide: we’re coming back tomorrow.

About Cara

Cara Lopez LeeCara Lopez Lee is the author of They Only Eat Their Husbands. She’s a winner of The Moth StorySLAM and performs in many storytelling shows, including Unheard L.A., and Strong Words. Her writing appears in such publications as Los Angeles Times, Manifest-Station, and Writing for Peace. She’s a traveler, swing dancer, and baker of pies. Cara and her husband live in the beach-town of Ventura, California, where they enjoy tending their Certified Wildlife Habitat full of birds.
Cara Lopez Lee

Sign up for blog posts and to get my newsletter!