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Published: November 26th 2013
As we were warily wading through the passages of a pitch black water-filled cave with a candle in hand, hearing the sounds of interior waterfalls and squeezing between rock formations, the thought crossed my mind that Indiana Jones is just a film, but this is the real thing.
Deep in the jungles of Guatemala after a 15 hour journey over bumpy, rain-ruined roads, we had found ourselves in the village of Lanquin and exploring nearby Semuc Champey. We had been looking forward to visiting Guatemala to such an extent that it was often a little hard to appreciate the other places we were exploring. Now that we are here, I’ve realised that even the greatest expectations could not possibly lead to a sense of being underwhelmed in what must be Central America’s greatest jewel. Guatemala is a country of surging volcanos, lush vegetation, highland lakes, Pacific and Caribbean coasts that are home to two completely different cultures (Garifuna and Maya),whilst for thrill-seekers there are more adventure pursuits than could ever be undertaken in a single visit.
Our visit to Semuc Champey began by bouncing in the back of a flatbed truck for half an hour, seeing valleys drop away
between competing green ridges below the clearing morning sky. Upon arrival at the caves, we were soon stripping down to our swimming gear, taking a candle in hand and having Mayan war paint from a local plant layered upon our faces. We ascended one side of a waterfall then stepped into the dark unknown from which it emerged. The seven of us from our hostel followed the flickering light of the candle ahead, feeling for the jagged rocky ground below the water. Sometimes it was so deep all you could do was swim and try to keep your candle’s flame above the water. I wasn’t always successful in this venture and would sometimes find myself swimming in the dark, groping the rock wall and listening for the sound of voices. I couldn’t have been happier – this was a travel experience unlike any other I had ever undertaken.
Picture this: absolute darkness being illuminated by a bobbing line of handheld candles, yellow light shimmering off the water of the running river being waded through, lighting up rock formations above our heads and casting ever-moving shadows upon the rock walls and ceiling. Sometimes we would crawl between crevices, shoot down
a natural waterslide on a section of smooth rock or have to take a leap of faith and walk through a waterfall in the darkness, not knowing what was on the other side. This provided one of the more memorable moments for all involved, for as Caroline emerged from the tumbling torrent, her bikini top was all askew and her bikini bottoms were around her knees. Even the meagre flames from our candles provided enough light for all those who had already passed through the waterfall to know EXACTLY what Caroline looks like when she emerges from her morning shower! All you can do is laugh at times like this and not have a care in the world. Living these moments is just too much fun to worry about one’s modesty.
When we reached the innermost point of the cave, we scaled a rock wall like crabs and then jumped into the darkness, splashing into the water four metres below, avoiding jutting rocks and the next little waterfall that would otherwise gush us further back down the cave system. After this plunge, we wound our way back to the entrance and by the time we saw daylight again, two
hours had passed, our candles had burned down and the day had only just begun.
Next stop was a swing that took you way, way, way out and above the river below. It looked as fun as it was, although a few of our group came up from the water with stinging red skin from their bellyflop. Others, such as our Irish companion, left the swing at its zenith, piked and dived perfectly into the cool waters of the raging river. Such a sublime display brought on a round of genuine applause – a stark contrast to the unbridled laughter that accompanied everybody else’s ungraceful and ungainly tumbling crash into the water. (Note: this was a far better performance than on the previous day, when we were tubing down a river and our Irish friend was whacked by an unmoving tree.)
After a few minutes of going downriver in a tyre tube and eating cardamom growing in the wild, those of us who were game jumped off a bridge eight metres above the river. I shared this moment by jumping with our German friend Tobi whilst Caroline ate a sandwich (apparently there was no need to provide the
perfect scenario for another bikini malfunction).
Our final adventure for the day was visiting the site that lends Semuc Champey its name. In one of the valleys, a natural rock bridge hundreds of metres long has formed. The river flows below the land formation, whilst above there are a series of descending natural pools, invitingly clear and the colour of lapis lazuli. We first viewed this surreal site from a lookout point, before descending to swim in what no swimming pool could ever replicate. Lush valley walls on either side, mountains in the distance, the sun creating a play of light and shadow, more little caves and cascading falls to explore and that clear blue/green water to splash around in and laugh together.
This, without a doubt, was the best day of our Central American travels. A day when our smiles, wonderment, joy, adrenaline and peaked senses were all evenly matched and coalesced into blissed out happiness at day’s end.
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