Posted by: Jack | November 9, 2007

Guatemala – Las Marias on the Rio Cahabón

After a quick but rather rough descent into the jungle of the river valley, our pick-up truck dropped us off at the tourist destination Las Marias. This collection of small cabins is like a mini river-side resort and offered a variety of accommodations. Being ever so frugal, we opted for the cheapest of these which provided us with a tin-roof over our heads (no walls), a couple of thin foam pads and two sheets. It wasn’t the best sleeping situation I’ve experienced but at $8 for two people for two nights, it’s still a pretty good deal.

With plenty of daylight left we threw on our suits and jumped in the river. The completely opaque and very fast moving water was a little intimidating but we found a small eddy and enjoyed the break from the heat and humidity. There was a tempting rope swing nearby which the resort staff continually encouraged us to use but having kicked a number of hidden logs in the water, we declined.

Feeling refreshed we set out on a short walk, crossing the river and heading for Semuc Champey, the premiere tourist destination in the area. The area is setup like a state park and has limited hours and entrance fees so we made plans to come back the following day when we would have more time.

On the return hike we noticed a sign for the Kan’Ba Caves and took a little detour down that way. In just a few minutes we came across a spectacular cascading waterfall.

There was a small hut nearby where we encountered another person employed by Las Marias and he told us about the cave entrance at the top of the falls and the guided tour which is offered at a discount to guests at the resort. Planning to sign up for the tour tomorrow, we continued on the trail to view the entrance. Immediately at the top of the falls pictured above is a calm pool where the water flows out from the cave. The anticipation was almost too difficult to endure. We moved further up the trail and found some excellent views of the river valley. The picture below is hardly of acceptable quality but I wanted to include a shot of my perfectly coordinated, market-bought outfit.

We returned to the resort where we enjoyed a larger, but still rather bland, plated dinner at the resort. By this time, a number of other traveler’s had arrived and everyone enjoyed the customary “Where are you from and what are you doing here?” conversations. A couple of especially nice young women had come from Texas and were on a very lengthy trip starting in Mexico and moving all the way down through Central America. Their months of travel made my two weeks — which seemed like a pretty lengthy stay to me — look like a quick layover.

After dinner, the lights, being powered by a generator, were turned off so we called it an early night. As such, we were awoken early the next morning to the roaring sound of insects, birds and the occasional rooster crow. When the sun came up the heat quickly followed and we spent a short time relaxing next to the sparkling river.

Mid morning we were escorted to the entrance of the Kan’Ba caves where we met Julio, our Mayan guide for the tour. As a Mayan, Spanish is his second language which meant that we didn’t do a whole lot of verbal communicating. In my past spelunking experience it’s been recommended that explorers wear warm and tough clothes, bring a minimum of two light sources, strap on a helmet and maybe even knee pads. For this tour we were sporting swimsuits, shoes selected from a pile used only for the cave tours and one candle each.

Entering the cave involved immediate submersion into the thankfully cool but not cold river. Julio did have one dim headlamp which he used primarily as a place to hold his candle as it burned ever closer to his hair. In moments we were completely cut off from external light and I was quite surprised at how much could be seen with a mere three candles. The cave was rarely tight but often reached pools of indiscernible depth which meant that while being very careful to hold our candles well above the surface, we would swim with one arm, hoping not to kick random submerged stalagmites too often. I don’t know if I can fully describe the sense of adventure that came from this primitive style of exploration but just understand that it was pretty sweet.

After coming across numerous bats and bizarre stone formations which rang like metal after a good knock, we found ourselves climbing across a sketchy, steep wall, far below which we could hear but not see the raging river. Just a little farther along we were again swimming and came around a corner to be confronted by a powerful wind which promptly blew out the candles. The source of this wind, as only illuminated by Julio’s headlamp, turned out to be a ~fifteen foot waterfall crashing into the pool where we were swimming. Adjacent to this waterfall was a wobbly old ladder which at first I thought Julio was directing us to climb. As I began to do just that, he stopped me and I realized he wanted us to go behind the ladder and waterfall where we found a small knotted rope hanging literally in the falls. After triple-checking that he in fact expected us to climb directly up into this torrent, we decided that Anna should go first…ya know, so I could spot her. With virtually no light, she braced her feet on the wall and began climbing as we were both thinking how one single slip could easily lead to immediate death or possibly worse; serious injury which this deep in the cave would lead to a long and slow death. Eventually she climbed out of my reach and with the roaring water I could neither see nor hear if she had made it. After enough time for her to have succeeded or failed critically, I began climbing. The power of the water was just astounding and it was quite frightening, not knowing how long it would be before I emerged at the top. But I did, and was greeted by a bit of light which allowed me to see the modest bamboo poles to which this rope was secured.

Our first reaction to the challenge was that it was super cool and we were no worse for wear but a short while later Anna discovered that the current had sucked out a contact lens, leaving her quite disoriented for the remainder of the trek. And a while after that I found that the crotch on my market-bought shorts, which we later discovered was hand stitched, had completely ripped out.

Edit: I can’t believe I almost forgot to mention this. Just after the crazy waterfall climb we came to another area where we had to swim. Julio had us stop for a second while he tried to communicate that there was a spot on the rock from which one could jump down into the water. Cliff-diving is generally considered a risky or stupid idea but to do it in the dark, into totally dark water which likely contains numerous stalagmites, in a cave where rescue would be hardly possible even if there was a rescue team within a hundred mile…well thats probably just risky AND stupid. We politely declined and watched very nervously as Julio climbed way higher than expected and leaped without hesitation. As you can probably guess, he came up just fine. End edit.

We reached a dead end in the cave with some more interesting formations and turned around to retrace our steps. By this time our candles had burned well past the halfway mark but thankfully we made better time on the descent and encountered natural light with approximately an inch of wax left among the three of us. The final leg of the cave tour package entailed a giant rope swing out over the river (an actual sit-down-swing, not the kind you jump off of) followed by tubing back to the resort. While a majority of the floating was along a calm and flat stretch, the first minute was pretty exciting as we entered right where the photo below was taken later on. Keep in mind that we had little car-sized inner tubes and no life-jackets or helmets as we navigated these class 3 rapids.

The amazing falls pictured above mark the lower edge of the Semuc Champey park. While plenty of water flows over these rocks, a vast majority of the river’s current plows its way through underneath. The lighter flow on top slowly makes its way through a series of pools which are warmed by the sun. After more than a day’s worth of adventure, it was not yet noon and so these pools were our intended destination for the afternoon. Much to our dismay, as we ate our lunch a torrential thunderstorm rolled in and lasted to the time that the park closed for the day. It was at this break in the weather that we hiked back up past the cave and took the above photo. Moments later the storm picked up again and we ran back to the resort to wait it out. A group of four young travelers from Germany had arrived in the afternoon and after dinner the six of us as well as the two girls from Texas sat around playing card games all night by candlelight as the generator could not operate in the rain.The Germans were also on nearly year-long trips, exploring all corners of the world.

With a foreknowledge of upcoming bus schedules, we knew that we had to depart Las Marias late the next morning so we were desperately hoping that the weather would improve over night allowing us to actually experience Semuc Champey; the main reason anyone travels to this area. Much to our dismay, we woke to continued storms. Feeling quite devastated, we decided that we might as well catch the first ride out to insure that we catch our bus later that day. But, upon speaking with the resort manager we were told that the roads were flooded and there would be no ride. This was quite distressing as our cash was running very low and another night here would leave us without enough money to even reach the nearest bank.

After a bit of sulking, we remembered that we are super hardcore so we packed and waterproofed all our bags and set out to hike the nine uphill kilometers back to Lanquin — with instructions to send vehicles to pick up all the other traveler’s hoping to leave as well. The rain let up a bit as we progressed and it was actually quite a pleasant hike with awesome scenery. About half way along we encountered some trucks heading the other way but they assured us that they would pick us up on their return trip. So we made it to Lanquin with plenty of time to bus to Cahabón where we needed to catch the one daily bus which leaves for El Estor.

Now if you ever find yourself in Lanquin, which is half way between Cobán and Cahabón, be very careful when trying to catch a bus to either of these locations. As the buses pass through town, the driver’s assistant leans out the door and calls out the name of the next destination. But each location has a shortened nickname for ease of calling and in this case both Cobán and Cahabón come out sounding a bit like “boon” but with a sort of whistling tone to it. So even after attempting to confirm where we were going, we found ourselves heading out of town in the wrong direction. And after relaying this to the driver, he assured us that if we wanted to goto El Estor we should in fact go to Cobán and take the seven-hour chicken bus that evening. That was not what we intended to do. So despite everyone’s disagreement, we got off and waited for the bus heading back to Lanquin and on to Cahabón.

Upon arrival we found that the bus schedules had changed in the last year and what once left at 1 pm now departed at 4 am each day. Although a slight discouragement, we were more than happy to spend a day in this tiny little village.

Purple Line on the Progress Map

Next: Cahabón to El Estor



  1. […] Next: Cobán to Semuc Champey to Cahabón […]

  2. […] Next: Cobán to Semuc Champey to Cahabón […]

  3. […] Guatemala – Las Marias on the Rio Cahabón November 2007 2 comments 5 […]

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