Monday, March 28, 2016

Semana Santa Part 2: Semuc Champey

The first time I went to Semuc Champey, it was with a group of 11 co-workers.  The weather was cold and cloudy our first day, and we stayed in a hostel where rats crawled through the thatch roof above my bunk bed each night.  I mean, it was a great trip and all, and I actually really enjoyed it (check out this post if you don’t believe me!), but when Liz came for Semana Santa this year and wanted to see Semuc, I decided we’d do it right. 

We researched our hotel and booked a private room for the three of us (Kenra joined in on the sister trip too) at the Utopia Eco Hotel, just a few kilometers from the Semuc Champey park.  The location, accommodations, and service did not disappoint.  No rats this time—but plenty of cacao trees, hammocks, and the view of the turquoise river flowing past our front porch. 

 The weather also helped on this trip, of course.  Each day was around 95F, which made the crystalline pools of Semuc Champey feel ultimately refreshing. 

On our first full day in Semuc, Kenra and Liz and I signed up for the tour offered through our hostel.  Just like the last time I was there, the tour started in the back of a pickup truck.  Then we went to the river caves.  We were given our candles, and we set off for the tour.  We swam through the chilly waters, climbed up ladders, and watched as our group’s daredevils climbed up the rock face and jumped 15 ft into a deep pool below. 

The rock jump is the last stop in the cave before turning around.  Our group waited while every male in the group proved himself by scaling the rock face and jumping off.  Our guide, who had climbed up to help each member of the group make the jump, was the last to catapult himself into the water.  He entered…and then he didn’t surface.  We weren’t really worried; we figured it was a trick of his (earlier on the tour, he’d hid himself behind a rock face and jumped out at us as we swam by).  But time went on and on, and we began to wonder just how long he could hold his breath when suddenly one of the girls squealed.  Our guide had jumped into the water, swam through a hidden hole beneath our feet and come up behind the girls, spooking them as he emerged from the water!  I definitely hadn’t seen that before. 

After that, the tour included jumping off a rope swing into the river (no belly flop this year; instead, I landed on my chest…and somehow also bruised my calf), followed by a short walk to the water fall (it amazed me how calm the waters were emerging from the cliff this year; much different than my last visit), then to the yellow bridge, where only three people made the jump.  Next it was time for a lunch break.  Our guide took us to a buffet and said it was “all you can eat,” but one of the guys in our group got yelled at for going up for thirds.  Haha.  

Random dude on the rope swing.

Calm waters at the waterfall

Jumping off the yellow bridge

And then, finally, it was time to hike up to the mirador and then down to the pools of Semuc Champey.  The entire place was thoroughly crowded, it being Semana Santa (Holy Week), so we only had moments at the mirador before being hustled down the hill.  But making it to the pools made up for the hot, sweaty walk.  We spent almost an hour relaxing in the water (I could have spent much longer), and then rounded up our group and met back at the yellow bridge. 

Since our hotel was so close to Semuc Champey, they offered an option to ride inner tubes down the river back to the park, rather than take the truck back.  That sounded lovely to us, and to most of the 17 people on our tour that day. 

Two years ago, I had a rather traumatic tubing experience (see the post here), so I was a little nervous about traversing small rapids in a tube again.  But thankfully, this trip went very smoothly.  The water was much calmer at this time of year than it was when we first went (to the point where some parts of the trip were just agonizingly slow), and when we did encounter rough water, our three guides were great about guiding us—to the left of this rock, to the right of that one, making sure everyone got through and stayed together.  The only downfall of the tubing trip was that by this time it was late afternoon, the sun was starting to set, and by the time we got to the hotel, I was shaking from the cold.  (Quite a difference from the heat of the day!) 


Friday morning, Liz and I signed up for a 3 hour hike of the surrounding highlands, while Kenra decided to do the chocolate tour offered by the hotel.  We were informed, though, that the chocolate tour needed at least 2 people to run, so Liz and I decided to do both the hike and chocolate. 

We left for the hike at around 10:30am—just as the sun was reaching its highest and hottest point of the day.  Our walk took us to two suspension bridges over the river and up a cliff for a mirador of the valley.  Along the way, our guide, Enrique, chatted with me in Spanish about the different plants and products grown in the area and about how the aldea (village) has changed in the past few years with the influx of tourists.  It was a great hike, although we were both a bit overheated by the time it finished.

Back at the hotel, we took a walk down to the river to soak our feet and cool off.  Neither Liz nor I felt hungry for lunch, despite having hiked in the heat, so we each ordered smoothies.  (Probably a sign that we were overheated and a bit dehydrated).  We took a quick nap before the cocoa tour, and then we felt ready.

The chocolate tour was actually a really neat experience.  The entire property of the hotel is littered with cacao trees, so the tour started there, in the shade, where our guide, Daniela, explained to us the properties of the tree and some of the history of cacao.  She broke open a ripe cocoa pod, and we sucked the slime from around the bean (quite delicious, actually).  After standing there for about an hour, though, Liz turned to me, informed me she wasn’t feeling well and needed to go lie down, and vomited up her smoothie, and headed off to our cabin. From there, Kenra and I continued the tour (with me assuring them both that Liz would be fine and it was probably just the heat).  We moved into a kitchen where Daniela roasted a batch of cocoa beans that had been dried already.  While they cooked, we took a seat and sipped ice water, wishing for a breeze, and Liz rejoined us, feeling much better. 

Daniela roasting cocoa beans

When the cocoa was roasted, we let it cool for a bit, then shucked off the husks.  (This process gave both Liz and I blisters on our thumbs; we must not have the technique mastered quite yet). 

Peeling the cocoa beans

From there, the peeled cocoa beans went into a food processor, along with some sugar, and were blended until they became smooth, melted chocolate.  (Normally, this blending process takes hours, and chocolate companies have special mixers that heat the chocolate slightly as they mix.  We took the quick process). 

When our chocolate was deemed smooth enough, we poured it into molds along with some fillings (coconut, peanut butter, cinnamon, etc) and let it cool, to be picked up and consumed a few hours later.

Ready to mold

The cocoa tour was really great because no step was skipped over.  We actually made the same chocolate that we took home.  The tour was almost 4 hours long in its entirety, and it was completely worth it. 

That night was our last at the Utopia Eco Hotel.  We enjoyed a delicious meal and were in bed early in order to feel well rested for the 8 hour drive ahead of us the next day. 

Utopia Eco Hotel

Our trip to Semuc Champey was a definite success.  

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