Rio Dulce Guatemala or the sweet river connects Lake Izabal and the Guatemalan mainland withthe Caribbean town of Livingston and the ocean beyond. The Rio Dulce canyon leaves Lake Izabal as a wide river and narrows along the way. Riverbanks show dense jungle vegetation and every now and then you’ll see small settlements where kids are playing. Over the years, the canyon has become popular with cruise ships and sailors. Rio Dulce is one of the reasons to visit Guatemala and it’s a popular destination for backpackers! Keep reading to discover some must-visit destinations and things to do in Rio Dulce Guatemala.
Rio Dulce Town
We travel from Poptun, a small rural village, to Rio Dulce Town, a Walhalla for expats. Rio Dulce can also be reached from other destinations, like Antigua or Lake Atitlan. As Rio Dulce offers a nice harbor, a lot of expat sailors have stranded here and fell in love with the place, so they seem to just stay there forever. Each year, there’s a big sailing event which attracts sailor from all over the world. When we visited, sailors were already gathering and some backpackers hoped to find a job on a sailing boat in order to travel some of the seven seas.
Down by the river, next to the bridge, we find our hostel. Bruno’s place has some expensive rooms, but we choose the cheap dorm. The dorm library holds the weirdest collection of books I’ve ever seen. There isn’t one decent book to be found. A few years earlier, we slept in Tortugal Hotel, which was an excellent hotel on the river.
The village itself isn’t pretty and it consists mainly of one big road, leading to the bridge over the Rio Dulce. All life, stores, and shops are located on the Rio Dulce main road, which is heavily used by trucks and buses. Cheap food is available on the main road. Restaurants by the water charge a lot more for basically the same food. The main road in Rio Dulce town leads to Honduras and there is a lot of traffic. When standing on the bridge, you can see Lake Izabal and Castillo de San Felipe, the stronghold that used to protect the Guatemalan mainland from the Pirates of the Caribbean! On the other side, the river widens before it leads into the canyon. Underneath the bridge, you’ll see a very large hostel, which we checked out but abandoned quickly, and a petrol station for boats!
Castillo de San Felipe
The Castillo de San Felipe is a five-kilometer uphill walk from Rio Dulce Town. It took us ages to get there and the bus only costs 5 Quetzales. The stronghold is located on the banks of Lake Izabal in a location where the lake narrows. Shooting holes for canons are pointed in the direction of the narrow opening in the lake and I can imagine the dozens of ships lying on the bottom of this narrow gate into Guatemala. The inside of Castillo de San Felipe is filled with secret rooms and small labyrinth style passages. This place brings up visions of earlier days, where pirate ships and hostile sailing boats tried to conquer this beautiful country. Castillo de San Felipe was an important defense for the Guatemalan mainland. Eventually, we discover the slow boats. They can bring you back from Castillo de San Felipe to Rio Dulce for a few extra Quetzales. Castillo San Felipe is a must see when backpacking in the Lake Izabal area.
Finca Paraiso Rio Dulce
Collectivo’s from Rio Dulce town to El Estor pass by the Finca Paraiso hot springs, which are located near Lake Izabal Guatemala. The driver drops us off at the entrance to the hot springs, where visitors pay an admission fee. Dozens of children gather around us, hoping for some change. We don’t give money to children, but we do have some pens to hand out. The Finca Paraiso Rio Dulce hot springs are two rivers flowing together in a natural pool. One of the rivers is smoking hot, while the other is freezing cold. This exact location has been visited by indigenous people forever and it is believed the water has healing powers. It’s also a place where you can enjoy small fish nibbling at your skin. It a great, relaxing activity. On our way back, a collectivo stops to pick us up. It is completely packed with people, but the driver doesn’t hesitate to send a few younger boys up on the roof, so we can sit! Visiting Finca Paraïso is another activity to add to your list of things to do in Rio Dulce Guatemala.
Rio Dulce Hostels and Fincas
Aside from spending a night in one of the Rio Dulce hostels, you should definitely spend a few nights in a finca on the river and experience the feeling of being surrounded by dense jungle.
The side rivers of the Rio Dulce river hide many Fincas with different accommodation possibilities varying in price and amenities. We booked a private room in one of these jungle hostels. I remember saying: let’s not take a riverside cabin, because of the mosquitoes. Yes! Let’s forget about the spiders and other crawling creatures and spend the night in a cabin in the jungle. Our cabana is spider infested and promises a horrible night. We change rooms two times and end up in the dorm, where we hope others will rescue us from our fear. If the crawlies don’t creep you out, these are perfect hideaway places. Most Fincas have a deck and swinging rope for river fun. Our hostel owner reassured us there were no predators in the water, but you can never be sure. We passed time swimming, reading, kayaking, and sweating in the sauna hut. Check out Finca Tatin on the Rio Dulce. If you plan on visiting Rio Dulce Guatemala, don’t skip a night on the river in one of the amazing river fincas!
Rio Dulce Canyon
The actual Rio Dulce Canyon is the part of the river that meanders through the jungle and where you can only get through by boat. Steep shorelines look impenetrable and if they are penetrable, they don’t look like you’d want to make your way through! The canyon consists of a part of the river that connects Lake Izabal Guatemala with the town of Livingston, which can only be reached by boat.
The boat trip from our Rio Dulce Finca to Livingston is amazing. We regret to reach our destination so quickly. Despite the occasional cruise ship, life on the river is still pretty rural. Scattered along the river, we see small houses and huts. Children are playing with their dogs, girls mostly. The boys are out on the river, fishing old school. The closer we get to the sea, the more birds we see, sitting on abandoned shipwrecks. For the avid birder, there are many different bird species to be studied on the Rio Dulce in Guatemala.
Rio Dulce Livingston
Livingston is a small Caribbean community on the banks of the Rio Dulce where the river meets the ocean. The original inhabitants of Livingston ended up here after their slave ship sank. It is also the only Garifuna community in Guatemala. This makes Livingston very different from the rest of Guatemala. The laid-back vibe, the Rasta people, the colors, it all fits together as one vibrant village on the banks of the Rio Dulce river. From Livingston Rio Dulce, you can get a boat into Guatemala or to Belize or Honduras.
Livingston Rio Dulce also offers some of the only beaches in Guatemala on the Caribbean side. Even though you can spend the night in Livingston, we didn’t. There are a few cool hostels, but the town also has loads of people who are constantly trying to chat you up and we didn’t like that part too much. Oh! You’re from Belgium? I’ve been to Belgium too! Travel scams are pretty common in this area, so make sure to read our blog post about how to avoid travel scams when backpacking.
Fun fact: Livingston has a big pit in the village center which holds one or more huge crocodiles. A local guy told us they caught them in the river. Shall we swim in the river again?
Backpacking Rio Dulce Guatemala
Lake Izabal and the Rio Dulce area are very accessible to travelers who are backpacking in Guatemala. It’s fairly easy to catch a bus in and out. We traveled from Rio Dulce Guatemala to Semuc Champey, which is another great reason to visit Guatemala. Don’t forget to read these things to know before visiting Guatemala and check out our other posts about Guatemala.
Would you rather join other travelers to explore Guatemala? We recommend this cool 3-week trip by G Adventures.