Drive two hours through lush mountain roads from Coban, Guatemala towards El Estor, and you will eventually come to a dirt road, and a lonely sign that reads Lanquin. From here it’s another 30 minutes down the slowest 11 km stretch of trail road you can imagine
until finally you are in the hive of Lanquin itself. From every angle, the words ‘Semuc Champey’, ‘Greengos’, or ‘Retiro’, reverberate in the air. Obviously, coming from Canada, this makes me a tourist in the eyes of the local Mayans, who speak mostly Ke’qchi, and some Spanish, but know enough English to harangue you into their tourist nets. Lanquin is the central vortex for travelers visiting the Semuc Champey cascading pools. So without sounding too much like a Gringo tourist, I will relate my time hiking the jungle trails of Alta Verapaz.
Lanquin is on the active side of the mountain so to speak, on the main route from Antique to Flores, Lake Izabal or Tikal. Amidst lush vegetation, cacao plantation, breadfruit trees, and several rivers, namely the rio Coban, rio Lanquin, and rio Dulce. In a single day you may hear dialect of English, Mayan (Ke’qchi), Spanish, French, Australian, German, and Portugese from the horde of novelty seeking backpackers making their deals and tours with the locals. The mountains of Lanquin breathe with such a pregnant diorama of life. It is simply compounded, and occupying every niche, both plant, animal and human. The scrappy dogs roam the streets looking for a morcel to fill their belly, the men work sweatingly on the roads, while young girls hustle their cacao of many flavors at every turn.
The market is bustling with energy, but one can see the massive importation of American goods that wait to be gobbled up. Meanwhile there is a traditionalist backbone of farming; cardamom, cinnamon, cacao, coffee.. one is bare to the old world as much as the new. They also really love their Jesus here, and Sundays can be an important fiesta for song, and a celebration. I was lucky to stumble into a shrine room where three men were playing beautifully made wooden guitars and a full harp. The music under the influence of cannabis at the time was quite hypnotically beautiful.
Semuc Champey itself is steeped with expectation, and tends to deliver. Once out on the trails, the jungle enshrouds you with tender greenery, like a paradise found especially when you are alone. Hiking here, I headed to the Mirador lookout where one can have a vulture’s eye view of the cascading pools. The mineral crystal deposits on the rocks create fascinating globules of color which adorns the forest on the way up. A foray off trail leads one into more dense machete worthy jungle, where foraging for red bananas, or hunting for rare orchids and butterflies may be possible. On this occasion, a side trail leading off from El Mirador, I found myself in a stand of high canopy, and above crawled five howler monkeys, one of them being only a young kid. I watched them for nearly half an hour as they brachiated through the branches, using their tails to climb and hang while eating leaves, and occupied their nests.
Descending the trail proper from here, they began their howl in full sensurround effect, and their throated syntax filled the forest. Finally reaching the pools themselves, and the chromotherapeutic colors of the cascading water. The pozas, are filled with small minnows that crowd around you when standing in the shallows, and nibble on the dead skin on your feet. According to my partner it is quite luxurious. One can swim from each of the six pools, down river over gleaning rocks, and slimed moss. The call of the monkeys
echoes into the rift. I did not witness any of the rare lizards or geckos, but did catch a sight of some tremendously beautiful moths and butterflies with psychedelic colors and patterns. I felt fulfilled with my time here, and thrilled to see our simian cousins thriving in their natural habitat.