“I think this is paradise,” A said.
We were standing in a valley at the edge of a series of natural limestone pools filled with turquoise water that gently spilled down from one pool down to another. Yellow butterflies danced at the water’s edge. To our left and right the valley walls rose steeply, covered by rich green Guatemalan jungle.
I giggled and nodded. “Yep, this is must be the place.”
The place was Semuc Champey, a natural wonder just outside the tiny town of Lanquin. It was yet another place that had not been on our radar, in fact we hadn’t even heard of it until we got to Belize. Our Lonely Planet Bible had let us down somewhat. But after a fellow traveller spent half an hour describing it as the most amazing place he had seen in Guatemala, we had to go and see what the fuss was about.
At our hostel – Zephyr Lodge, amazing place – we signed on to a tour of the Kan’Ba Caves and Semuc Champey. We were up bright and early the next day and herded into the back of a ute with the six others on our tour.
I knew this was going to be my kind of day when the first thing our guide asked us to do was to grab hold of a rope swing and launch ourselves into the river. I had done this many many times as a kid, up at Millstream, and took great delight in it again. Ice-cold water aside, it was a brilliant start to the tour.
Next up was the caves. I was a bit sceptical when we were all handed a candle to see with, not least because the caves are in fact filled with water. But that was soon forgotten as we waded and swam through the chambers, at that point it became something of a challenge to see who could keep their candles alight the longest. Through the soft-lit chambers we charged, candles raised in one hand, scrambling up rocks, inching through tunnels, climbing through waterfalls, leaping from ledges into rock pools and swooshing down the naturally-formed waterslides. By the time the two hours in the cave had finished, I was positively a 10-year-old again.
Back out in the daylight the tour guide asked if we wanted to jump off a bridge?!?? Did I ever! And so on a 12m bridge the 8 of us lined up, considered the drop and the cold waters rushing below us. A was quick to leap off the bridge and into the water, I wasn’t far behind. First that sweet feeling of flying, and then the icy river wrapped itself around me, and then the slight feeling of panic as I surface with my bikini top wrapped somewhere around my neck. A hasty rearrangement was all that was needed.
“You want to jump again?” asked the guide. What a stupid question! A didn’t need to be invited, and this time rather than jumping from the flat of the bridge, he was jumping off the railings. Show off. I decided to play it safe and take my second leap from the same part.
Later that day I decided to send my mum a smart-arse email that read something like: “Dear Mum, you know how you used to ask me that annoying question ‘If everyone jumped off a bridge – would you?’. It appears the answer is yes. Yes I would. Twice. Because jumping off bridges is SO MUCH FUN.” I’m sure she appreciated that.
Next up came the hike, and of course, the best outfit in which to hike through the Guatemalan jungle is a bikini. (And I would like to point out here that I was not alone in this.) Forty minutes up a hill and we were brought to El Mirador where we got our first glimpse of Semuc Champey. I counted about seven stacked limestone pools with the most pale blue water I’d ever seen. It was so beautiful and I was bubbling with excitement at the prospect of swimming there. I couldn’t get down to the valley fast enough.
Standing down there, at the waters edge, we paused just briefly to take in the scene in front of us before launched ourselves into the water. And then for the next hour we all splashed about like 10-year-olds at a water park. We scampered about the pools, we jumped off rocks, we swam under waterfalls, we floated on our backs and gazed at the sun and there were even some piggy-back pool jousts going on. We smiled and laughed all day.
And then for the grand finale, our guide played his trump card. He led us to the last pool, and pointed to a rushing waterfall. “You want to jump off it?” he said. This was not such a silly question – it was more than 15m high and the lead up to was slightly awkward, you couldn’t just inch your way to the edge, stand there and decide whether or not to jump. It meant taking two steps and leaping out as far as you could to avoid rocks. So did I want to jump off it? Of course I bloody did!
With their masculinity clearly at stake, all the boys lined up to go first. I hung back and waited for my turn, watching them and listening to their excited whoops as they plummeted. My turn. I looked out into the pool – deep breaths, deep breaths – took my steps and jumped. My God, it was high. So high that I actually had time to clearly form the thought “This is quite a long way down”. No matter, a millisecond later I had hit the water in a perfect pindrop. I surface to cheers, with a grin plastered across my face.
Soon after it was back home and, like weary children after a hard day’s play, most of us went and took a nap. Now not that I’m going to start ranking countries or tours or attractions, but this place, this “Hidden Water” as the Mayans called it, is one of the most magical and joyous places I have encountered so far. I wish I could go back!