Take a canopy tour in Tikal. Climb a volcano outside of Quetzaltenango. Lounge on the sunny shores of Lake Atitlan. Guatemala offers a variety of places to partake in both adventure and relaxation, but no place combines the two more perfectly than the rural village of Lanquin and its enticing surroundings.
Lanquin is located in central Guatemala near the city of Coban, about halfway between the better-known tourist destinations of Panajachel and Tikal. From Coban, I took a microbus two hours down curvy dirt roads through mountainous coffee and cardamom plantations to the center of the village, at which point there are choices to either walk or catch a ride to one of the few accommodation options in the area.
While the rustic and laid back hotel Las Marias is closer to the natural wonders of the region, Guatemalan-English owned El Retiro beats all competition in terms of ambience and style. It’s a great place to meet fellow travelers or simply relax in the pristine, lush surroundings.
About a 10 minute walk downriver from the drop off point in Lanquin, El Retiro flaunts a superb setting perched along the Lanquin river and is comprised of thatched cabana-style dorms and singles (some with private bath) strewn across a verdant, hilly riverbank.
The restaurant sits a stone’s throw from the water and hosts breakfast, lunch and nightly family-style dinners for all guests. The menu is extremely veggie-friendly, and decently priced ($4.50 US). The restaurant also features an internet loft and plenty of hammocks to lounge about in.
Regardless of El Retiro’s charm, the area’s main attractions lie just outside of Lanquin. The hotel does daily tours of the surrounding area, which blends a perfect mix of adventure and relaxation.
My tour began at the jungle-fringed river Rio Cahabon. The guide distributed to all attendees a single long white candle, and lead the group up a short trail to the mouth of a cave.
Wading single file through waist-deep water, guests clutched the walls of the narrow chamber and soon swam with one arm, held the fragile light source above water and kicked ferociously. To look back and see a trail of bobbing heads illuminated by candlelight invoked a spooky and energizing rush. The cave adventure involves swimming through murky tunnels, scaling underground cliff faces, rope-climbing up a subterranean waterfall, and jumping 20 feet into a hazy pool of darkness.
After safely making it out of the cave, my group embarked on a steep, slippery hike through lush vegetation up to a view that overlooked the entire Semuc Champey gorge and gave a bird’s eye view of the area’s beauty and wonder. It’s a good idea to start with this hike, as it gives a good feel for what visitors see and thoroughly tires everyone out before getting to relax in the pristine water below.
Semuc Champey is an enormous natural limestone bridge with tiers of astonishingly turquoise pools covering its surface. Waterfalls, little fishes, and crystal clear water are all surrounded by jungle with the raging Rio Cahabon plunging underneath. The tour group will stay here, unwinding in the tranquil water or exploring the many footpaths for several hours before returning to El Retiro for dinner.
If the candlelit cave swim doesn’t satisfy one’s thirst for underground adventure, Lanquin also features a series of bat caves, called Grutas de Lanquin. A small portion of the caves are illuminated, but experienced spelunkers and adventure seekers should bring their own flashlight and do some exploration. The floor is wet and slippery with guano, and one of the most interesting spectacles to see in the entire region occurs at dusk when millions of bats shoot out of the cave, obscuring the sky.
Other activities offered around the area include inner tubing down the serene Lanquin river, hiking through the vibrant, hilly countryside and river rafting down the Rio Cahabon.
For more information, visit http://www.semucchampey.com
Jeni Stembridge is a Portland-based travel writer and photographer. She spends most of her time and energy finding new ways of getting out into the world. You can check out her photography at http://www.jenistembridge.com