Travel: Guatemala’s Semuc Champey is Heaven on Earth

10151612885471742The decision to backpack around Guatemala was a surprisingly quick one. My best friend and I had batted around the idea of traveling internationally to celebrate turning 30. The intent was real, but the discussions were vague, until one day she received a text from me.

“We should go to Costa Rica” was my suggestion based on a friend’s recent trip. “How about Guatemala?” was her suggestion based on a friend’s recent trip.

Four months later, I departed from Lexington, Kentucky, and she from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and we arrived around the same early afternoon time at La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City to begin 10 days of backpacking around the country.

The night before, the question “What have I done?” sprinted through my head.

My 12-year-old L.L. Bean backpack was stuffed with just enough to sustain me. (Once home and unpacked, I proudly realized I had packed two shirts too many.) I registered our trip online with the U.S. Department of State and emailed pictures of my passport and credit card to my most level-headed friend.

However, I hadn’t brushed up on my Spanish nor had I done a recent Google news search on the country. My public-library borrowed Frommer’s Guatemala was only halfway read. And while I’m normally able to effectively shut out my father’s isolationist commentary, his concise voicemail from a few weeks ago reared its ugly head in my own: “Did you know that Guatemala borders Mexico?!”

Guatemala was my first time traveling abroad.

Exiting Aurora International Airport, I closed my eyes and savored the hot Central American sun on my face and arms, a luxury after a long Kentucky winter. Guatemalan women, men, and children rushed about, many anticipating arrivals and others pushing their wares. Trips to Chinatown in New York City came to mind as I received offers to purchase disposable cell phones, handmade bracelets, and round, gold foil-wrapped pieces of chocolate. Leaving the country nine days later, I’d be searching for them all, eager to share my unspent quetzals, but then those people were nowhere to be found.

We decided early on that this trip wouldn’t be held captive by a concrete itinerary, but we did make a list of the places we had to visit. Semuc Champey, a Guatemalan national park, was on that list. And on day six of our journey, after hours of sitting on a bus and miles of standing in the back of a pickup truck crammed with other tourists, we found ourselves there.

Semuc Champey is an isolated, hard-to-reach area located in the Q’eqchi’ Maya town of Lanquín. Nestled in the valley of a jungle, turquoise freshwater-filled pools have been etched atop a natural bridge of limestone, under which rushes the Río Cahabón. The pools are full of warm, barely moving water, and visitors spend hours basking in the Eden, sliding down perfectly formed rocks, and jumping from cliffs. Fish swim in the pools, their nibbles on your legs and feet a bit unsettling, actually, until you get used to it.

With my snorkel and mask, I spied fish big and small living their lives, and I wondered if they knew how lucky they were to be there. After I popped up from the water, a young Guatemalan man walked determinedly along the slippery bank toward us.

He pointed to my face and shook his head from side to side.

No molesto were the only words I could decipher, and he pointed to my face again impatiently. My snorkel, I realized, wasn’t allowed in the pools. It was a disturbance. I put it away on the bank, hiding it underneath my towel and feeling a little ashamed.

Aside from the pools, the park’s other incredible feature is El Mirador, an outlook located 1.7 kilometers (a little more than one mile) through the jungle that overlooks the limestone pools and the Río Cahabón. The only way to reach El Mirador is by hiking a narrow, rocky path that is, in places, nearly vertical.

Less than halfway up the path to El Mirador, my travel mate decided not to continue the climb. Perhaps it was the day’s heat; perhaps it was last night’s many cans of Gallo, the country’s official beer.

My heart sank. We hadn’t gone anywhere alone since arriving in the country, and I automatically assumed I’d also be sitting this one out. We stopped at a level, wooden bridge.

“You could go by yourself,” she said. “I’ll just wait here, maybe I’ll take a nap.”

She did take a nap. And I went by myself.

Wiping away the sweat stinging my eyes and ignoring the occasional thought of passing out, I continued the mile-high climb up to El Mirador. I rested often and took small sips from my bottle of hot water.

Crawling on my hands and knees up the rocky path alone, the question “What have I done?” sprinted through my head.

When the ground became level again, I started to jog. The outlook was just ahead. I came out from under the forest of trees and into the sun, stepping, almost like it was a stage, onto the small wooden deck with the engravings of lizards and so many Spanish words I didn’t know.

The blue-green, crystal-clear ponds unfolded below, and for five minutes, I couldn’t stop crying.

Boarding the plane back in Kentucky, everything had seemed so uncertain, so questionable. I was traveling with someone who had been my best friend for more than a decade but we’d lived 1,000 miles apart since graduating high school. We hadn’t spent more than three or four days together at a time. And on the other side of the globe, my long-term significant other was on a research trip in South Africa. It was the furthest we’d ever been from each other, and the actual continents separating us were both terrifying and liberating.

None of it mattered now. From that wooden perch high in the jungle, I peered down into the valley at the turquoise pools dotted with tiny humans and those even tinier biting fish. No molesto, I whispered, releasing those fears into the jungle and embracing the peace that came from being completely alone.

Turning my face toward the warm Central American sun, the question “What have I done?” sprinted through my head.

I had found heaven, tucked away in Guatemala.

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