The most popular rafting destination in Guatemala, Rio Cahabon, runs 121 remote miles between steep slopes covered in misty cloudforest. The river can be rafted year-round, running clear and blue in dry season and becoming churning and chocolate-colored in rainy season (mid-May to mid-October).
A four-day trip with Maya Expeditions starts with a roughly 200-mile bus journey from Guatemala City to Lanquin in the highlands of Alta Verapaz (one of 22 Guatemalan departments, or states). The final seven miles follow a narrow, unpaved track snaking down slopes that look like something out of Jurassic Park.
The next day, hit the water on the Rio Lanquin, riding to its confluence with the Rio Cahabon, where you'll navigate some of the river's Class III and IV rapids. Dinner is served and camp pitched on a scenic beach near the village of Tamax. Tents and sleeping pads are provided, but bring your own sleeping bag or sheet and blanket.
Day three continues through more unspoiled scenery and challenging rapids, with stops to swim in quiet pools, explore caves, soak in natural thermal springs, and catch glimpses of toucans, parrots, great blue herons, king fishers, oropendula and other exotic birds. Boats reach the take-out point at Oxec by mid-afternoon, where you'll catch a shuttle back to Lanquin for dinner and overnight.
On day four, the tour visits Semuc Champey before returning to Guatemala City, but you'll want to take extra time at this place. In Queqchi Maya, Semuc Champey means "sacred water" or "where the river hides beneath the earth," depending upon whom you ask. Either makes sense.
From Lanquin, we rode in the muddy bed of a pickup truck with bad shocks down 5.5 miles of road even worse than the one to Lanquin. Springs and streams flow from the jungle into a stairway of pools with unreal hues of blue and green, which cascade from one end to the other of a 1,000-foot-long limestone bridge above the Rio Cahabon. Above the pools, the river abruptly plunges into a hole in the Earth, running unseen below the pools to roar back above ground past the last one.
There are several lodging options near the park and buses from Lanquin back to Guatemala City, to Flores for Tikal access, to Rio Dulce and Lago Izabal, or to the Caribbean coast. Utopia Eco-hotel, about a 30-minute pickup-bed ride from Semuc Champey, overlooks the Cahabon. Bunks, cabanas with shared bathroom and shower, or cabins with private bathrooms. Three meals a day are served family style for an additional charge, full bar. You can book buses here. Day trips on the Rio Cahabon also are available from GuateRafting, a community-run outfitter in Coban, and from Aventura Grande in Languin, which includes an authentic lunch with the Queqchi.