Rio Dulce or the sweet river connects the Caribbean with the Guatemalan mainland. The canyon leaves Lago Izabal as a wide river and narrows along the way. River banks show dense vegetation and every now and then 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!
Rio Dulce – the village
We travel from Poptun, a small rural village, to Rio Dulce, Walhalla for expats. 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. The village itself isn’t pretty. All life, stores, and shops are located on the 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. A few years earlier, we slept in Tortugal Hotel, which was an excellent hotel on the river.
Castillo de San Felipe
The castle is a five-kilometre uphill walk from the village. It takes us ages to get there and the bus only costs 5 Quetzales. The castle is located on the banks of Lago Isabal in a location where the lake narrows. Shooting holes are pointed in the direction of the lake and I can imagine the dozens of ships lying on the bottom of this narrow gate into Guatemala. The inside of the castle is filled with secret rooms and narrow 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 mainland. Eventually, we discover the slow boats. They can bring you back to Rio Dulce for a few extra Quetzales.
Finca Paraïso hot springs
Collectivo’s to El Estor pass Finca Paraïso. 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 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!
The jungle surrounding the river hides many Finca’s with different accommodation possibilities varying in price and amenities. We booked a private room in one of the jungle hostels. I remember saying: let’s not take river side, because of the mosquitoes. Yes, let’s forget about the spiders and other crawling creatures. 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 Finca’s 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.
The boat trip from the 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 species to be studied on the Rio Dulce.
Livingston is a small Caribbean community who 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, you can get a boat into Guatemala or to Belize or Honduras. 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?
Lago Izabal and the Rio Dulce area are very accessible to travelers. It’s fairly easy to catch a bus in and out. You can also arrange a collectivo to take you to your next destination. Would you rather join other travelers to explore Guatemala? We recommend this cool 3-week trip by G Adventures which will get you to all interesting destinations in Central America, including Rio Dulce.