Visiting the small town of Lanquín is on the Guatemalan tourist’s radar mainly for the beautiful, crystal blue pools known as Semuc Champey. Extensively photographed from a lookout point above, the limestone pools are filled with calm, turquoise waters from the Río Cahabon that flows beneath the earth. Getting to Lanquín may be the biggest deterrent for this small tourist spot. Approximately 6 hours from Guatemala City, the miles go by slowly through winding, mountain roads. Although the views are incredible, the ride can be quite nerve-wracking as the bus porter hangs out of the open shuttle door, and the driver has no qualms about taking risks passing slower moving vehicles around curves and up and down hills. Once you reach the turnoff, there is another 10km of narrow gravel roads filled with pot holes that can severely damage almost any vehicle. For this reason, and the fact that the roads are not lit at night, buses depart and arrive during daylight hours.
Once in Lanquín, there are a variety of accommodation options to choose from. The town is small, but graced with a beautiful church dating back to the 1540s. There is a handful of hostels catering to the budget traveler within walking distance to the center of town, but many people opt to stay beside the Río Lanquín, or up near Semuc Champey, another 12km drive accessible only by rugged 4x4s, usually packed with tourists standing in the truck bed. I stayed at El Muro Lanquín, a backpacker hostel located in the center of town, overlooking the beautiful verdant hills. Owned by Max, a Guatemalan who has lived and worked in the US and in other parts of Guatemala, the hostel beckons with hammocks and a lively bar area. Zephyr Lodge is popular with backpackers as well, mainly because of the party atmosphere and infinity pool overlooking the river, however quieter options would include El Retiro and El Mirador, both owned by a local. El Mirador is a newly constructed hotel with a pool, restaurant, and amazing views from the rooftop of the building. There are nicely appointed private rooms and they are considering a few shared dorm rooms, but at the time of writing the hotel was still under construction. El Retiro is a riverside retreat located in a nicely manicured garden setting with thatch-roofed huts housing private and shared rooms. The offer a nightly buffet with different international cuisine options, and have a small swimming area that cuts off the river current if you’re looking for a relaxing and refreshing escape from the heat. There are a few other options located near Semuc Champey, but they tend to be very isolated and off-the-grid.
Getting to Semuc Champey can be done through an arranged full-day tour, which costs approximately $27 at the time of writing. It includes a guided 1.5 hour walk through the Kan'Ba Caves by candlelight, twenty minutes of river tubing, a hike to the mirador over Semuc Champey, and two hours exploring and swimming in the warm blue waters. Going without a tour will cost $7 roundtrip for transportation and $7 to enter the park, but would not include the caves, tubing, or guide. Food options are limited at the park and more expensive than in town, although a hearty, all-you-can-eat BBQ buffet is offered on the tour for another $7.
Most people arrive in Lanquín in the evening, do the tour the next day, and depart the following morning. However there are other activities to do if you’re looking to spend a day off the road. There are plenty of hikes to take through the hills, there are places to swim in the river, and of course, there are the Grutas de Lanquín, a huge cave system where a guide will walk you through the caves, explain the historical significance of the site, point out large cave spiders and interesting formations of the stalactites and stalagmites. Then, you watch the thousands of bats exit at sundown for a feeding frenzy. This was an exceptionally cool experience as you can hear them and feel the air in the cave start to flow as they begin to fly towards the exit.
I spent a month getting to know Lanquín, and absolutely loved it. Its a beautiful town that has remained small and relatively quiet even though hundreds of tourists pass through each month. Although the town recently got its first ATM, decent wifi is hard to come by, and the twice weekly market has a very limited selection of produce and other goods. However, it is home to one of Guatemala’s most beautiful spots, which makes it a must-see if you have the time to travel there. Onward shuttle buses can get you to any of the other tourist destinations in the country within 12 hours. If you have the time, spend three nights in Lanquín. You won’t regret it.