By David Abel | Globe Staff | April 29, 2012
SEMUC CHAMPEY, Guatemala -- Before we arrived at one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen and among the most difficult to get to, there was nearly a mutiny on the 15-hour ride as the driver of our packed minivan sped down the dark, curving mountain roads.
Our long journey into the jungle began in a small town on the coast of the volcano-ringed Lake Atitlan and took us from the old colonial capital of Antigua to the sprawling modern capital of Guatemala City. From there, the roads narrowed and turned from pavement to dirt to a path that seemed to have been cleared by machete.
Around midnight, after the driver had agreed to slow down and our fellow passengers mellowed out, we stopped in the mountain village of Lanquín, where the stars provided more light than the few signs of human habitation.
A waiting pickup truck took us on the last and hardest hour of the trip, wheezing up a winding, nearly vertical slope that only approximated my idea of a road. Because Jess, my wife, was pregnant, we squeezed into the cab while other tourists bounced around in the back with all of our backpacks.
When we finally arrived at our hut in Semuc Champey, we had to use the light from our cellphones to find our way because the electricity had been shut down. At that moment, it was difficult to appreciate why we had come so far.
But when the humid breezes of morning filtered through the thin walls of our hut, we awoke to brightly colored butterflies, orchids and other exotic flowers, and got our first glimpse of the turquoise glory of Río Cahabón.
As we watched the river glow in the morning light, we gobbled a breakfast of pancakes, then followed our guide, who called himself Toto, to the foot of a hill, where we climbed a succession of ladders and hiked up steep paths until we reached a clearing in the vegetation.
It was there we realized why we had come so far.
From a lookout point, we saw the vast panorama of green, with the bright blue river cutting through the canopy of trees in a series of stepped waterfalls and natural pools. It seemed to beckon us, and we followed Toto down another path to see why the area is called Semuc Champey, which in the Mayan language of Q'eqchi means "the sacred water that hides beneath the rocks."
We followed the path of the underground river toward the shallow pools, where we slid down rocks from one into another, luxuriating in the clear water until we came to a 36-foot ledge over which Toto promptly disappeared. We were not sure he had survived until he bounded up the rocks and began urging us to jump.
Because it seemed easier to jump than hike down, while Jess waited there, I followed others in our group and took the plunge, a long, stomach-churning freefall that ended in the confluence of multiple waterfalls.
Back with the group, we spent the next few hours sloshing around in the water, tubing, and soaking up the beauty. As dusk neared, we followed another guide down another trail to the mouth of a large cave, where we were each issued a candle.
One by one, we entered the darkness, quickly finding ourselves in brisk, ankle-deep water that became knee deep and then waist deep, until we had to figure out how to swim while keeping the dripping candles from extinguishing. We followed our guide up and down ladders, from one pool of water to the next, using our candles to avoid the sharp stalactites and stalagmites.
At one point, we followed the guide up a gushing waterfall, which we climbed by using a rope and tucking our candles in our bathing suits. Some in our group jumped off small ledges into the dark water.
As our candles burned to our fingers, we arrived at the final, most terrifying part of the journey, as we watched the guide, once again, vanish. He disappeared in the fading light through a small hole in the rocks, which seemed no wider than his skinny body.
When I tried to follow him down what appeared to be a chute, I couldn't figure out how he did it without hitting his head on the surrounding rocks. It didn't seem possible, until someone else in our group squeezed through and jumped.
Jess and I weren't sure we would make it. We had no idea whether those who went before us survived. But with little light left and no way to turn back, we put aside our better judgment, twisted our bodies into what seemed like the safest possible position, and let go.
The drop was about 10 feet into a deep pool of water, and our guide was there to catch us as we resurfaced. With wobbly legs and our hearts in our mouths, we found our way back to the outside.
The next morning, on the pickup truck back, we squeezed in with about 20 others, and all of our backpacks. It was raining and we huddled for warmth while the truck heaved and sputtered down the steep path back to Lanquín.
It would be another daylong trip to our next destination, on similarly challenging roads, and while we were exhausted, we were exhilarated, too, after touching the splendors of a hidden jewel.
David Abel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel