Giant travertine dams and placid pools at the enchanting Semuc Champey

Rutahsa Adventures, in cooperation with the Cincinnati Grotto of the NSS, has organized a special trip for cavers to Guatemala, scheduled for March 29 - April 13, 2003. This excursion will be an amazing mix of caving, exploring Mayan ruins, and whitewater rafting, all topped off with a climb up an active volcano. We will visit six or seven caves, most of which are active stream systems, and we will spend a half day at one of the world's most amazing karst features, the fabulous Semuc Champey travertine bridge. Mayan sites to be visited include Tikal, Quiriguá, and Dos Pilas. And all along our way we will enjoy spectacular tropical scenery, jungle flora and fauna, and the friendly Maya and Ladino people of Guatemala.

Participation will be limited to approximately 18 cavers (with a minimum of eight cavers needed to make the trip go), and participants will need to be experienced and properly equipped cavers. Ground transportation in Guatemala will be by private bus. At this time (May 2002) a few details of the itinerary remain to be worked out, but the final itinerary should not differ much from one of the two tentative itineraries described in detail below. The main itinerary is illustrated with numerous photographs, but unfortunately none taken in the caves. Cost information is given at the end of this webpage, as is contact information for cavers interested in being on a mailing list for trip updates as the itinerary and costs are finalized. Comments and suggestions are invited.


Day 1, Sat. Mar. 29: Flight day. Cavers arrive in Guatemala City airport; taxi to Hotel Pan American, in the heart of the capital city, where rooms will be reserved for the group. A guided walking tour of the central plaza area, including the Palacio Nacional, the national cathedral and the colorful central market, will take place at 2 PM. Late-arriving cavers can meet the group in the Pan Am during the evening.

Day 2, Sun. Mar. 30: This morning we will board our charted cavemobile (30 passenger bus-- plenty of room), piloted by Erick, one of Guatemala's most accomplished drivers, who has already gone over most of the road we will be traveling just to verify that he can get the bus where it needs to go. On the way out of town we will stop at Minerva Park to see the famous giant relief map of Guatemala-- so big it has to be viewed from observation towers to be properly appreciated. Here we'll get an overview of our route to come, and a graphic introduction to Guatemala's mountainous national territory.

We head northeast out of Guatemala City, down into the Motagua Valley-- a plate tectonic boundary separating the North American and Caribbean plates, and the source of many earthquakes, including the devastating 1976 quake that killed nearly 23,000 Guatemalans. We pass through a small intermontane desert area, and then into hot and humid tropics as we move on east towards the Caribbean. Along the way we'll have a lunch break, and a one-hour stop at the small but very important Classic Maya site of Quiriguá, which features the tallest known Maya stela, richly carved with glyphs and the figure of Quiriguá's most famous king, Cauac-Sky. Quiriguá is also noted for its strangely carved zoomorphic boulders.

Eventually we turn north, leaving the Motagua Valley behind, and continue on into the Petén, a relatively flat limestone plain that comprises much of northern Guatemala. Just before reaching the town of Poptún we will turn into Finca Ixobel where we will overnight. The finca, or farm, run by Carole DeVine, a gutsy American woman who settled here some 30 years ago, is a delightful and unusual place with accommodations ranging from very comfortable modern bungalows with private bathrooms to tree houses! The food is home cooked and some of the finest in all Guatemala. We will spend three nights here.

Day 3, Mon. Mar. 31: Our first Guatemala caving day! We will hike to an unmapped river cave called "One Day Cave"-- apparently because it is a full-day trip. Not much information is available on this cave, other than it is large, and that to reach the rear portions of the cave a near-sump has to be passed; we should plan to take flotation gear (an excellent but simple and economical flotation device can be made from the inner tube of a fat-tired bicycle: you remove the valve core but retain the valve cap; carry it deflated, then blow it up orally when needed; twist it into a figure-eight and put it on like a vest). If we get serious and a little ambitious, we'll map this cave. Second night at Finca Ixobel.

Day 4, Tues. Apr. 1: We April Fools are up early today to drive an hour and a half to a major river cave for a through trip. The cave is not particularly long, perhaps a kilometer and a half, but is of very large bore, and scenic. The through trip involves swimming stretches of wall-to-wall water (fortunately the water is a very pleasant temperature), passing from one scenic collapse sinkhole skylight entrance to another. This will be a good warm-up for the Candelaria trip. Howler monkeys were roaring in the background as we entered the cave in May 2001, adding a special touch to the jungle scene.

After the cave trip, if time permits, we'll stop at Las Conchas, a gorgeous series of travertine dams and pools, to wash the remaining cave mud off our bods and partake of refreshments at this popular local spa. Gonzo-types can wash off high impact style! Then it's back to Finca Ixobel for a third and final night.

Day 5, Weds. Apr. 2: Drive on to Tikal National Park, which includes the sprawling ruins of the Classic Maya ceremonial and civic center of Tikal, plus beautiful tropical hardwood jungle and great wildlife and bird watching. Tikal is the "New York City" of the Maya, its skyscraper-like pyramids soaring up out of the jungle canopy. Today airspace over Tikal is restricted, to better preserve the calm ambience of the jungle; however it is still possible to view how the roof-combs of the temple-pyramids emerge above the canopy by climbing Temple IV and taking in the view from this lofty perch.

The ceremonial center of Tikal is the Plaza Mayor, seen here with Temple I on the left and the Central Acropolis in the background. Looking across the Plaza Mayor from the Central Acropolis, we see the North Acropolis, where archeologists have discovered the remains of more than 100 temples. There are some tunnels to explore here, so you'll want to carry a flashlight into the ruins. Excavations have revealed the remains of giant stucco masks that adorned earlier temples, now buried by more recent ones.

The ruins of Tikal amply justify a visit here, but now add to this the fact that after over 30 years of protection in the archeological zone, tropical birds and other wildlife are far easier to see and approach at Tikal than under normal circumstances. You will certainly see spider monkeys. Howler monkeys are shyer and require more stealth to see, but you will certainly hear them, and the first impression is quite memorable, especially should you find yourself alone on a jungle trail: they don't "howl", they roar like a lion!

The birds you can count on seeing include parrots (go to the Lost World section of the park and sit on the pyramid at dusk to watch parrots come in to roost for the night), parakeets, toucans, toucanettes, oropendula (making their weird, "bubbling" cry and living in colonies of hanging basket nests), the ocellated turkey, black vultures, and others. Sighting a scarlet macaw would be a rare, but not impossible thrill. Hummingbirds, crested guan, the Central American curassow, the tiger bittern, trogons, hawks and many other bird sightings are possible.

Other animals you will likely see are agouti (known locally as "guatuzas"), foxes, and coatimundi (known locally as "pisotes"). Deer, peccary ("jabalí"), anteaters and alligators also are seen from time to time. The jaguar and other cats live here too. You would be very lucky indeed to get a glimpse of one, but in fact one of Rutahsa's travelers on the June 2001 Guatemala trip walked up on a jaguar sprawled out on a trail-- he and the great spotted cat stared at each other for about 10 seconds before the cat got up and ambled down the trail with the astonished visitor following behind taking pictures! What a lucky sighting!!

All this and the wonderful lush flora of the tropical jungle too!

Our lodging tonight will be the Jungle Lodge, a mere five-minute walk from the entrance to the ruins. The lodge has a small swimming pool, which will be very welcome after long walks through the far-flung ruins: it is HOT here!

Day 6, Thurs. Apr. 3: Early risers can--with a bit of luck-- get into the ruins before dawn and make their way to the top of Temple IV for a view of sunrise. Officially the ruins do not open until 6 AM, but often there is no one at the guard station early in the morning, or if there is, sometimes you can sweet talk your way in early. In any case, you'll want to spend a good portion of this morning in further explorations of the archeological site, and to pay a visit to the Tikal Museum, which displays stunning artifacts and features a replica of an important tomb and burial.

Before lunch we should board our bus and head for the town of Santa Elena, about an hour's drive away from Tikal. Here we'll stop for a light lunch and maybe visit Aktun Kan ("Serpent Cave"), a semi-commercial cave (but bring your own lights). Then it's southeast on a gravel road for another two hours to the town of Sayaxché, situated on the banks of the Río de la Pasión. We will stay the night here at the Hotel Guayacán, a remarkably nice hotel, considering the remoteness of the location.

Day 7, Fri. Apr. 4: Morning: travel two or two and a half hours by large motorized dugout canoe along a jungle river to visit another important Classic Maya site, one not seen by many outsiders (at the time of this writing it is not certain whether we will visit El Ceibal or Aguateca). After visiting this site we will roll along southward toward fabled Candelaria Cave.

At Candelaria we'll overnight in a lodge owned by a French caver, who also owns the principal entrances to the huge river cave known as Candelaria. Lodging is in thatched cabañas, and all meals will be included in the cost of lodging while we are at Candelaria.

Day 8, Sat. Apr. 5: About the Candelaria Cave: The Río Candelaria goes underground through a cave of very large dimensions, (typical passage widths: 20 - 30 m; height 10 - 60 m; the largest room is 200 m long, 200 m wide, and 60 m high). The main gallery is said to be 22 km long, and is broken here and there by skylight entrances formed by collapse. The cave was considered by the ancient Maya to be the entrance to the underworld of Xibalba, and the cave contains archeological sites. The Q'eqchi' Maya still come to pray in Candelaria. It is said that the Lacandon Maya (living in Mexico, just west of the border with Guatemala) believe that every night the sun is carried in a basket by the Dioses del Mundo Subterraneo through a long cave from west to east, to emerge again at daybreak. Perhaps Candelaria is this great cave and nocturnal pathway of the sun.

Obviously, Candelaria Cave is a cave worth seeing! And here we come to an uncertainty in our plans. A portion of the cave near the lodge is open to the public, and we can visit this; this section is truly impressive, big stream cave. But we plan to traverse part of the large river section downstream from the lodge, a section normally off-limits to visitors. We obtained permission to enter this section of the cave in 2001 and anticipate permission will be granted for 2003 also. Assuming the water levels are acceptable, we will spend all day seeing more of this huge river cave, returning to the lodge for a second night. If it turns out not to be feasible to enter this part of the cave, we will proceed with an alternate itinerary described later.

Day 9, Sun. Apr. 6: After breakfast in the lodge we pack and load the bus, and then go caving in Candelaria again, emerging at a second entrance, with the bus awaiting us not too far away. To avoid trashing the bus, we'll change out of caving clothes in the bush, and then it's head on down the road towards the town of Lanquín.

The drive to Lanquín, about four hours, takes us up into limestone mountains, leaving the Petén lowlands behind to the north. Karst features are abundant, and near Lanquín are good examples of haystack karst. The town, with its ancient church, sits on a knob a short distance above the rustic hotel El Recreo, where we will take our lodgings and meals for the next two nights.

Just before reaching the town we drive by the Nacimiento del Río Lanquín, or place where Lanquín River is born-- and indeed a river emerges full-blown from a great resurgence just below the entrance to the Grutas de Lanquín. The two-kilometer-long cave (explored in 1966 by an NSS group led by Russ Gurnee) is a national park, and the well-decorated front portions of the cave have been partially, if somewhat rudimentarily, developed with lights and trails. The rear of the cave is undeveloped, but entry is permitted for those equipped with lights. We will watch an impressive bat flight at the entrance at dusk, and perhaps visit the cave tonight. [We'll have to make some special arrangements for a night visit after we arrive at Lanquín; if we don't visit the cave tonight, we'll do it tomorrow afternoon.]

Day 10, Mon. Apr. 7: Today should be a relaxing day, and yet one of the true highlights of this trip. Today we will visit the famed Semuc Champey, a karst feature that is truly thrilling and breathtakingly beautiful. But let's start with a caution: a single misstep at the Semuc could easily be fatal.

At the Semuc Champey , the Río Cahabón has cut a narrow canyon down into the limestone, to a level somewhat below a number of spring orifices. The carbonate-charged springwater has built immense travertine dams and platforms that completely bridge the raging river for a distance of some 340 m. Thus the foaming river plunges into a tunnel that passes beneath a series of utterly placid, crystalline spring-fed pools that must rank very high amongst the world's most beautiful natural swimming holes. A selection of photos follows.

In 1993, during an unusually dry spell, a team of cavers led by Steve Knutson attempted to force a passage of the Semuc Champey. From the upstream maw they were able to penetrate only a few 10s of meters of highly risky cave. Then from the downstream end they made it to within 50 meters of the upstream survey, but no connection could be made through the sumped passage. For full details of this valiant (but perhaps a bit beyond the pale) effort, see the Sept. 1994 issue of the NSS News.

We'll take food and drink to the Semuc and spend a half-day here swimming, taking photos, and just being amazed at the contrasts between the Eden-like tranquility of the inviting pools, and the raging watery hell below.

If we didn't visit Grutas de Lanquín last night, we'll do so this afternoon shortly after our return to our hotel. Second night at Hotel El Recreo.

Day 11, Tues. Apr. 8: Today we drive a short ways towards the town of Cahabón to a put-in point, to start a one-day whitewater trip down the Río Cahabón. Needless to say, we are putting in downstream from the Semuc Champey! Nonetheless, expect some Class III & IV rapids on this stretch of the Cahabon. Our rubber rafts, life jackets, river guides, camp gear, food, etc. will all be supplied by Maya Expeditions, an outfitter well-experienced on this run.

At the end of the whitewater run we reboard our bus, which Erick has brought 'round to meet us. We then ride through and across limestone mountains to descend into the great basin of Lago Izabal occupying a graben (a down-dropped fault block) along the plate boundary. Though large, the lake is shallow, as sediments shed from the uplifted mountains fill it in almost as fast as the graben sinks. We drive along the north side of the lake an hour or more to reach Finca El Paraíso, or "Paradise Farm". This working finca includes a row of lakeside cabañas that will be home for the next two nights. You can expect good fresh lake fish for supper, and a pleasant swim for your evening bath.

Day 12, Weds. Apr. 9: You might be tempted to just hang out in a hammock all day, but our goal as cavers today is a through trip of Cueva San Antonio. Explored and mapped by French cavers in 1992, this 3.6 km long stream cave descends 206 m from the insurgence to the resurgence, passing through chambers up to 110 X 40 X 50 m, including some very well decorated sections, and a few drops (none exceeding 20 m). The last 100 m of the cave is a swim (hardly the first swim encountered in the through trip), so we should be pretty well cleaned up by the time we exit. However, if we are still in need of a bath, just a few hundred meters downstream from the cave is a swimming hole where a cascade of hot water from a nearby thermal spring provides a wonderful pounding hot water bath and massage. The finca is about a half hour's walk from here.

Day 13, Thurs. Apr. 10: In the morning Erick will leave us to head around Lake Izabal, while we indulge ourselves in sleeping in or more swimming. Later we'll hop in a powerboat for a straight shot across to the south side of the lake to meet up with Erick again. From here we rejoin the main highway in the Motagua Valley and head back up through Guatemala City to the old Spanish colonial city of Antigua Guatemala, lying in a fertile valley between the gigantic, soaring composite cones of volcanoes Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango. This romantic city is full of massive colonial ruins (earthquake devastation), fine hotels, museums, and an amazing variety of eateries. Our hotel will be the Posada de Don Rodrigo, an 18th-century Spanish aristocrat's home turned into a charming hotel. [We've stayed here many times, but we've never brought them a group of cavers before...not sure if they are ready for this!]

To see what Antigua is all about, click here: Antigua.

Day 14, Fri. Apr. 11: The morning will be free time for exploring some of Antigua's many intriguing ruins, markets, and stores selling Mayan textiles, jade, and many other items. In the early afternoon we leave for Volcán Pacaya. After about an hour's drive to reach the village of San Francisco de Sales we have a two-hour hike and non-technical climb to summit Pacaya at around 2560 m (8400 ft); the actual peak elevation varies from year to year as the cone continues to build upwards, then blows itself away. Whether or not we can actually get to the peak depends on the degree of activity, which can vary from quiet steam emissions, to small ashy steam explosions, to streams of lava, to violent blasts flinging boulders for kilometers. If eruptive activity is mild, it may be possible to look right into the crater and see what's going on. In June 2001 we stood right on the rim and looked down into glowing redhot lava rock. If steam explosions are occurring we may have to hold back a hundred meters or so from the actual vent; if powerful blasts are taking place, we have to watch from a safe distance on an old, lower, crater rim. Volcanoes are moody, and we will judge the situation when we get there. Whatever Pacaya is doing, it is always fun and fascinating. And if we have the luck to have the right combination of favorable weather and explosive activity, the nighttime fireworks show can really be awesome.

To see what the climb is like, and see Pacaya volcano in a variety of moods over the years, click here: Volcán Pacaya.

Day 15, Sat. Apr. 12: Today we have a full day to spend enjoying the colonial ruins, excellent restaurants, markets, museums, historic sites, and romantic scenery of Antigua Guatemala, the former capital of the Spanish colonial Kingdom of Guatemala.

Cavers on a tight schedule can skip this part of the trip and fly back to the U.S. today.

Day 16, Sun. Apr. 13: All good things must come to an end, and this is the date the Guatemala caving excursion officially ends. Participants can plan to fly out on this date, or spend a few days longer in Antigua-- what a fine place to hang out for a while! Antigua is also a great place to stay a few weeks and study Spanish at one of the numerous Spanish schools, while living with a Guatemalan family. Lots of choices...all you need is time, and a few extra dollars!


Instead of spending two days at Candelaria Cave, a second itinerary is also possible: Days 8 - 11 could be rearranged as follows, to include an additional cave:

Day 7, Fri. Apr. 4: As planned. Visit Dos Pilas ruins, overnight at Candelaria Lodge.

Day 8, Sat. Apr. 5: In the morning, visit the section of Candelaria that is regularly visited by guests of the lodge. Afternoon: Drive to Lanquín, check into the Hotel El Recreo. Walk to Lanquín cave to see the bat flight; possibly visit the cave tonight.

Day 9, Sun. Apr. 6: Most of the day at the fabulous Semuc Champey. Return early enough to visit Grutas de Lanquín if not visited night before.

Day 10, Mon. Apr. 7: One-day whitewater trip on the Río Cahabón. Upon ending the river trip we will be met by Erick and our bus, then drive about two and a half hours back up into the karst mountains of the town of Senahú to stay the night at another Hotel El Recreo.

Day 11, Tues. Apr. 8: Through trip in Seamay-Sejul river cave. After emerging and cleaning up, we reboard the bus to head to Finca El Paraíso on the north shore of Lake Izabal. Here we overnight in thatch-roofed bungalows right on the lake, swim, enjoy good fresh fish for supper, and plot the next day's trip into Cueva San Antonio.

Day 12, Weds. Apr. 9: As planned. We are now back on our original schedule.

COST of the TRIP:

The cost varies according to the number of participants to share the fixed costs usch as bus rental. Based on quotes for 2003 from our Guatemala suppliers, we can offer this caving excursion at the following costs:

At the time of this writing (Aug. 30, 2002) these costs are believed to be firm. However, in the event one or our Guatemala suppliers arbitrarily increases their prices, Rutahsa Adventures, Inc. would have to pass this increase on to the participants, raising the above prices an amount equal to, but not exceeding, the increase in cost.

The basic in-country trip price will include the chartered bus, a professional driver (who has driven for Rutahsa Adventures for several years and who has already reconned the route for this trip and knows what he has to do), all lodging, archeological site entry fees, the one-day whitewater river trip, boat transportation to a Mayan ruin on the Rio de la Pasion and across Lake Izabal, volcano climb, plus meals while at Candelaria Lodge and on the whitewater trip.

The trip price does NOT include travel to and from Guatemala, but we know good agencies that sell flight tickets at discount prices (example fare: round trip Nashville, TN to Guatemala City and back: about $450 in 2002). The cost of meals, except as specifically mentioned in the above itinerary description, are not included; allow about $15 a day for food and drink. Other expenses to be borne by the participants: airport shuttle service ($6 to $8 each way), Guatemala exit fee ($30, paid at the airport when you leave the country), souvenirs, tips, and other personal expenses.

Participants must have a valid passport to enter Guatemala, but no visa is needed for US citizens.

Participants are expected to have sufficient caving experience, must have their own caving gear (including floatation gear), be in reasonably good physical condition and be able to swim.



Dr. Ric Finch, NSS5560RL, is a lifelong caver, with significant caving experience in Honduras, and minor caving experience in Guatemala. He is a geologist, and recently retired from 25 years of teaching geology at Tennessee Technological University. He has been poking about Central America for over thirty years, as a geology graduate student, mining exploration geologist, caver, and sometime vagabond. Since 1987 he has led an annual geology or cultural adventure trip to Guatemala, and in 1997 incorporated a small eco-adventure travel company, Rutahsa Adventures. The present cave trip is being offered under the aegis of Rutahsa Adventures for economic/insurance reasons, but is not an ordinary commercial venture. It is a cavers' trip in which all participants will share the responsibility for the success of the venture.

Mike Shawcross is a British ex-pat who has made Antigua Guatemala his home. Although he is truly a citizen of the world-- having traveled, caved, lived and worked in various corners of the world-- he has been now in Antigua for over 20 years, and Guatemala is his adopted nation. Mike is well known in international speleological circles, and has done a lot of caving over the years in Mexico and Guatemala. His home in Antigua has served as base of operations for numerous caving groups. We are fortunate to have Mike making the in-country arrangements for this caving excursion. Mike can also supply carbide for visiting cavers, so you don't have to worry about sneaking carbide (considered a hazardous material) into Guatemala hidden in your luggage!

Photos on this website by Janie and Ric Finch, @copyrighted.