By Armando Rivera
Photos: Andrea Torselli
Every river retains the memory of its route to the sea. This is no less true for the Cahabón River, which wends its way down Guatemala’s high central plateau over a distance of 121 miles. The river forges a path through the lovely department of Alta Verapaz. The most striking section of its journey is the iconic intense turquoise of the pools of Semuc Champey. The river imposes its majestic presence on the land where it was born.
Visitors encountering the pools of Semuc Champey are moved to new emotional heights by the sumptuous environment. At this point in its meanderings, the river is cloistered by high mountains. Before it is channeled into a series of tranquil pools, the water roars toward the underworld, disappears, and then hurries into the bowels of the earth, to emerge perhaps a thousand feet ahead and reclaim its sunlit course.
The local geology, which features karst formations (a pitted landscape of carbonate deposits and dissolved rocks), creates mysterious netherworlds beneath the surface. The region contains caves that run several miles into the earth where the constant drumming of millions of water droplets has sculpted stalactites and mirror-image stalagmites. Visitors now have access to this nocturnal world. Those who have traveled to the innards of the earth find a harmony reminiscent of an impressionist painting as they experience the liquid sensation evoked by life lived to the rhythm of water in the depths of the earth.
With the passage of geological time, stone and water in concert have shaped myriad, ever-changing formations, which become roosters and sails in the imagination of travelers. We can marvel at how nature refines and polishes these sculptures through the interaction of water and time. The geography of the caves encouraged the original inhabitants of these lands ―as happens in any cultural process― to invent myths about deities and the origin of the world. The area’s inhabitants believed that part of life originated in the underworld, meaning that the collective imagination could consider Xibalbá as both the beginning and the end. These legends explaining their origins are a point of reference for the region’s current inhabitants, who now provide services to tourists.
In Xibalbá we meet a group of youngsters who offer to share their time as mountain guides or cave explorers for a modest fee. These trips allow travelers to admire the beauty of the landscape as they listen to legends of the underworld. To reach the pools of Semuc Champey, visitors must first travel the 133 miles from Guatemala City to Cobán, a city in the department of Alta Verapaz in northern Guatemala.
The department of Alta Verapaz has an average altitude of 4265 feet above sea level. This altitude is conducive to cloud forests filled with varied flora and fauna, including howler monkeys and the white nun orchid (Guatemala’s national flower).
Spanish is currently the dominant language, so aside from their native Kekchi, local tourism operators speak two or three other languages, such as Spanish, English, or German. The annals of national history record that, at the end of the 19th century, there was a steady influx of Germans, who introduced the cultivation of coffee into the department, creating a high-altitude variety ideal for export.
The city of Cobán offers several lodging options, each of which provides a slightly different experience. Choices range from small inns handy for city walks to stays at more luxurious hotels. The next part of the journey —from Cobán to Semuc Champey— covers thirty-seven miles, the last eighteen of which are by dirt road. Since the rutted road does its best to imitate a ride on a bucking horse, this trip requires an all-terrain vehicle; visitors can also use local transportation services.
The road skirts the Lanquín caves, where the music of a tributary of the Cahabón soothes visitors. Travelers can make their first forays into the underworld, admiring the rocky formations and observing the habitat of a certain species of bat that, according to legend, guards the entrance to Xibalbá.
Far from discouraging intrepid travelers, this “picturesque” experience seems to please them with its new sensations, since a jaunt in the back of an uncomfortable pick-up truck is standard fare for budget-minded travelers, making them feel like adventurers. Although adventure tourism offers only basic services, this is compensated for by the peaceful beauty of the pastoral environment, especially along the course of the Cahabón River.
Near the pools of Semuc Champey, visitors have two lodging options along the banks of the river: the El Portal Hostel, with small cabins and a choice of meals, and the Hotel Las Marías, which includes a guided tour of the Kambá caves. The accommodations are within walking distance of the Semuc Champey pools, the Cahabón River, and the Kambá caves. Continuing with the theme of exotic adventures in distant lands, visitors can go tubing on the river or try bridge diving.
Along the river and about half a mile from the Semuc Champey pools lie the Kambá caves: the only equipment provided is a candle, letting visitors feel a bit like Indiana Jones exploring a mysterious cave. It is even possible to take a plunge in total darkness in some of the underground pools.
Some seven miles of the Kambá caves have been explored to date, with a little over one mile open to tourists. Visitors enter the depths of the earth through nooks and crannies whose acoustics, imposed by water and magnified by the vast spaces, project a hypnotic peace in this underground river.
The Guatemalan countryside is possessed of a lovely simplicity that highlights its stark beauty, but these areas have been neglected by both local authorities and the federal government. This official apathy has unintentionally protected tourist areas from the human impact that could result in irreversible damage or even destruction.
Fed by more than fifty tributaries, the Cahabón River follows its inevitable course until the streams swell to become one with the Polochic River and then empties into Lake Izabal with the cadence of life-giving water. The water imprints its desire upon the rocks: it etches them, resounding in a perpetual echo and presenting us with a heretofore-unimaginable view of a gorgeous landscape, showing us the reality of life lived to the sound of water.
How to Get There
Copa Airlines offers flights to Guatemala City from North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean through its Hub of the Americas in Panama City. From there, Cobán can be reached by the Jacobo Arbenz Highway (a nearly 4-hour trip of 133 miles). An 18-mile dirt road leads to the Semuc Champey pools.
Where to Stay
Near the pools of Semuc Champey, visitors have two lodging options along the banks of the Cahabón River: the El Portal Hostel and the Hotel Las Marías. The accommodations are within walking distance of the Semuc Champey pools, the Cahabón River, and the Kambá caves.