The Rio Dulce in Guatemala is a Spanish name for the Sweet River. This river canyon and the surrounding area has lush vegetation and is completely embraced by jungle. Because of that, it’s an excellent location to do some wildlife spotting in Central America.
Rio Dulce connects Lake Izabal in the Guatemalan mainland with the Caribbean town of Livingston and the ocean beyond.
The Rio Dulce river leaves Lake Izabal as a wide open stream. It narrows along the way, as it finds its way through the lush canyon and the Biotopo Chocon Machacas.
Riverbanks show dense jungle vegetation and every now and then you’ll see small settlements where kids are playing. Over the years, the canyon and ‘El Golfete’ have become popular with cruise ships and sailors.
This area 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. Check out our Guatemala itinerary and backpacking guide!
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Where to stay in Rio Dulce
In this area, you have 2 major options for spending the night. You can either find accommodation in the village of Rio Dulce or spend the night in a river finca.
We tried both. And both are great options. The village is a good place to spend one night before you have an early start to continue your journey. But we definitely recommend staying in a river lodge as well. In this chapter, we offer the best and most appreciated lodging in the area!
Hotels in Rio Dulce Guatemala – in town
Tortugal Lodge is in Rio Dulce town, or right next to it. Its location gives you the village nearby, while still being surrounded by nature. This lodge is definitely one of your best options for staying in Rio Dulce.
Rio Dulce Hostel options
The Round House Hostel is an absolute traveler favorite. If you’ve been traveling around Guatemala for a few weeks, chances are good that you meet again with travelers you met before!
El Hotelito Perdido is a cute and cozy hostel in the jungle surrounding the Sweet River. This place gets an incredible guest score and people tend to stay longer than intended.
Rio Dulce River Fincas
Hotel Casa Perico is a river lodge, located in one of the side rivers of El Golfete. This hotel has an on-site restaurant and bar. With its stunning location, it’s one of Rio Dulce’s travelers’ favorites. A shuttle will bring you from town to your lodging.
Dreamcatcher Eco Lodge is located on the wider part of the river. The lodge has a private beach and an eclectic feel to it. This lodge is an excellent accommodation for romance.
Where to stay in Livingston Guatemala
La Casa Rosada is just outside the city center of Livingston. It has a private beach looking out over the Caribbean Sea. You can book private cabins, as well as, shared dorm beds.
Rio Dulce: The Town
We travel from Poptun, a small rural village, to Rio Dulce Town, a Walhalla for expats.
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 sailors 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.
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!
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.
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. If you plan on visiting Rio Dulce Guatemala, don’t skip a night on the river in one of the amazing river fincas!
Things to do in Rio Dulce Guatemala
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 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.
At Finca Paraiso two rivers flow 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.
Take a boat from Rio Dulce to 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?
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.
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.
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.