So after a noisy new years eve which we largely ignored, going to bed at nine and getting up for fireworks, we set off at 0800 to head for Semuc Champey by shuttle.
The journey was a long 8 hours cramped into a small mini bus. Stopped for some lunch half way (a nice veggy platter, rice and beans) and one other time for a loo break. The sky slowly clouded and it started to rain. After 7 hours we swapped to a large 4x4 vehicle for an hours drive through the mountains to Semuc Champey and our lodge.
Susanne I and another couple (Marcel and Maki) got seats in the cab as the the rest of the bus crammed into the back seeing this as the more fun option. Traversing the steep, bumpy, rocky track down to the lodge we laughed at those eager to take the ride in the back.
After arrival we ate and I had a large Cuba libre (rum and coke). As we looked out of the restaurant at the blue river below we wondered what delights awaited us on the tour we had booked for the morrow. The clouds thickened and the rain turned torrential.
We retired fairly early that night to our plantain-leaf-clad roof cabin and the lights died at ten leaving us and the camp in darkness. We slept fitfully Mosquitoes having their share of us and rain beating down upon the roof.
Morning came and we got up early for a walk around the garden. The river was no longer blue!, a raging coffee brown mass of water now cut through the valley bottom. Wondering if the tour would be ruined we asked our hosts. ¡No señor! he assured, ¡it is different, very clear!. We waited doubtfully watching the river rise as the rain reminded us of home.
Our guide arrived and off into the park we strolled. Winding our way along a steep rugged mountain track for an hour we climbed rickety stairs and eventually arrived at a lookout point to see Semuc Champey for the first time. Sure enough the constant rain had no effect on the pools and our spirits rose as we now headed towards the natural wonder. Semuc Champey is a natural limestone bridge, a huge river cuts under it to reappear hundreds of meters away. Springs rise through the limestone to form the pools. Our guide took us to look at the opening where the river disappears, an awesome spectacle and surely the site of many sacrifices in times past. Beckoned on we were told to leave our bags and taken to swim in the pools.
This was amazing, the water was cool but not too bad and a clear blue green. The pools stepped down and we headed towards where the river re-emerged, sometimes jumping or diving to the next pool, sometimes sliding down natural limestone flumes.
Eventually we got to what was meant to be the highlight, a 12m jump to where the river resurrects itself from the ground. Two park rangers looked at our guide shaking their heads, the river spoiled this bit of our fun, it's obvious power making the jump too dangerous.
We returned to camp and ordered our dinner then all picked up rubber inner tubes and headed down to the river to tube. Approaching the foaming brown water we wondered if we were all insane! The worst part of this was actually getting in, the water being very cold. Although fast it was fairly safe in the tubes and only one rock lay in our path to negotiate. A guide awaited us down stream and called us to the bank where we left the river and strolled back for lunch.
Then came the highlight. River caving. This had us all in a state of anticipation to begin with. We got to the entrance and left our clothes behind keeping shorts or bikini and shoes only. Our guide gave us all a candle and lit them one by one, then we stepped into the extremely cold water of the cave. ¡Adios mis huevos! I gasped.
Soon we realised that we we being taken on a trip to be remembered. We walked for about 10 mins and then were told we had to swim. Have you ever tried swimming in the dark holding a candle? it is not easy! many were extinguished and darkness thickened. Arriving at a ladder made from duck tape and wood we all trod water hoping those at the front would make a speedy assent. A girl slipped beneath the water and reappeared eyes wide with terror, more candles hissed out as those of us close enough helped her stay above the water. Marcel found a ledge and we got to relative safety.
Climbing the ladder we left the river. We rose 15 meters or so and then after relighting our candles, turned a corner back on ourselves and descended tape fastened treaders to re-immerse ourselves in the river which disappeared into a dark hole to our right. Turning left we headed upstream, looking around I was glad to see other's eyes wide open, pupils like black pennies, the thought of the ever falling rain on all our minds. Again we swam the river this time we were slightly more relaxed and at times we used the cave sides to half swim half climb though the Casa de Gollum that we had foolishly entered. Climbing more ladders, squeezing though gaps, swimming more depths and then climbing a waterfall, some by rope, most by ladder. Eventually candles diminished in number and those left alight half burnt away we reached an open pool where we were beckoned to climb to a ledge and jump into the black water below. The few that managed this task gained our deserved claps before we turned tail to head out of the cave. The candles now were burning low. Holding onto our inch long remains we made haste down stream. This time we did not worry so much about our candles, swimming quickly and relighting them off the remains of burning candles left by our guide on the way in. The dark didn't seem so terrifying when we knew what lay ahead.
Eventually near the entrance the guide stopped us to look up at some bats, zots in the Mayan tongue. Before the final swim to the entrance and the welcome sunlight. The rain had even stopped and the sun poked long fingers of radiance through the mountain-blanketing clouds.
We all looked at each other in disbelief at the events of the last two hours and headed off back to the lodge. ¡Muchos Cuba libres por favor!
Upon googling these caves I have since read that regular broken limbs occur and even broken backs and deaths have been known. Didn't put that in the leaflet did they. The nearest hospital was about 5 hours away! :-%