The famous natural pools of Semuc Champey are a “must see” destination in Guatemala. Do they live up to the hype?

View from Semuc Champey mirador

A short but steep climb above the pools brings you to a view point where you get this awesome aerial view of the tumbling, crystal-clear natural pools at Semuc Champey in Guatemala.

Getting to Semuc Champey

You’ve got to endure a slow, bumpy, curvy road to get to Semuc Champey. First we passed through the grotty, congested city of Coban before turning off the pavement. From there it took 45 minutes to drive 7 miles (11 km) to reach the dusty town of Lanquín. From there it took another half hour to drive a steep, windy, narrow, and rocky road another 6 miles (9 km) down to the Cahabón River where the pools form. You could say we were ready for a soak.

Free fish pedicure

At Semuc Champey limestone deposits have built up over time, forming cascading rims in the riverbed which then fill with water creating natural crystal clear pools. Some pools are deep enough to dive into. All are filled with tiny fish that like to nibble on the dead skin on your legs and feet as you soak. Yep, just like that spa craze from a few years ago, only here its free (save for the 50Q, or about US$6.50, entrance fee per person).

Semuc Champey pools

Soaking in the natural, crystal-clear pools at Semuc Champey in Guatemala.

But it’s not all about soaking at Semuc Champey. A steep trail takes through the jungly hillside to a great lookout point above the pools. This is absolutely the best place to really appreciate this natural wonder as the pools spill out before you and the turquoise  and green  water looks impossibly clear.

Semuc Champey pools

Soaking in the natural, crystal-clear pools at Semuc Champey in Guatemala.

Where the river hides

There’s also a natural limestone bride at Semuc Champey which crosses over the Cahabón River. At one point the entire river “hides” under a rock ledge, disappearing from view completely. This ledge is actually where the pools form, fed by run off and side streams. So, as you’re soaking in the tranquil pools the river is raging below you. Crazy. This phenomenon of rock and water explains the name. Semuc Champey means  “where the river hides” in the Mayan Q’eqchi’ language.

River disappearing under the pools of Semuc Champey

Semuc Champey means “where the river hides” in the Mayan Q’eqchi’ language. This is the point at which the Cahabón River “hides” under a massive stone ledge.

Watch the Cahabón River “hide” under a massive stone ledge in our video, below.

A must-stay near this must-see

We’d heard whispers about the laid back vibe, cool art work, and great food El Retiro Lodge on the road heading out of Lanquín and it, too, lived up to the hype. Private rooms and private cabañas (120Q or US$15.50 double for a cabaña) are scattered around a lawn-covered hillside which slopes down to a lazy river. Most rooms share a strip of clean bathrooms and showers which have been entirely decorated in pottery shards, glass beads, whimsical murals, shells and more.

Eric fixed El Retiro’s Wi-Fi so the manager gave us a free dinner one night. It’s a good thing we hadn’t eaten since breakfast because dinner at El Retiro is an all-you-can-eat buffet affair. Choose the veg option or the meat option (selections change daily) and get to work. At least 10 dishes were laid out in addition to the entrée and all of it (vegetables, salads, breads) was delicious.

El Retiro also has a riverside sauna made from empty glass bottles and that slow-moving river to cool off in. Things can get a bit raucous in the riverside restaurant and bar at night, so choose a room further away if you don’t want peace and quiet.

Lower pools at Semuc Chamepey, Guatemala

A lower, deeper stretch of pools at Semuc Champey.

Here’s more about travel in Guatemala