Rio Dulce Guatemala – what you need to know!

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What we talk about in this article

Rio Dulce is a magical jungle destination in the East of Guatemala. We visited the place more than once already and we loved it each time. But there are a few things you need to know about the area before including it into your Guatemalan trip!

If you are wondering what to expect on your backpacking trip in Guatemala, check out this post: interesting facts about Guatemala.

We will tell you all about it!

Rio Dulce is a very enjoyable place to travel to, as long as you take in account what it is.

We read some reviews of other travellers who didn’t fully enjoy their visit to this place. We can see why, but again, you have to appreciate the place for what it is and you have to make up how and why you want to visit. There is so much beauty (and fun) in the Rio Dulce area that it would be stupid to let a first impression of one place ruin it for you. Not sure what I’m talking about? Keep reading, I’ll explain!

In any case, if you inform yourself about a destination before you go there, you will have a better idea of what to expect and about how to find the coolest things to do!

In this backpacker guide, we explain everything you need to know: how to get there, things to do in the Rio Dulce area, how to get to other hot spots like Livingston, and much more!

So keep scrolling!

Rio Dulce town - place of divided opinions

If, or when, you read negative opinions about Rio Dulce, it will be about this little town. 

The town of Rio Dulce is located in the South-East of Guatemala, not too far from the border to Honduras. In fact, it is located in the shortest, fastest, land route from Belize to Honduras.

This means, it has some heavy traffic. And, the town road is not actually great for heavy traffic.

So, there’s one main road leading up to the bridge over the river Rio Dulce. Alle traffic passes over this road. Think about cars, buses, trucks, you. On this road, all town life enfolds. There are dozens of shops and restaurants, but there’s no sidewalk. 

There, now you know where the nay sayers get their peanut butter. (yes, that’s a ancient saying where I come from)

Now that we’re past the fact that the main road is not suitable for the heavy traffic, let’s get into the fun stuff.

Boat on the Rio Dulce, taken over by birds
Boat on the Rio Dulce, taken over by birds

A few Rio Dulce Facts which might help you understand the area better

  • Rio Dulce in Guatemala is a Spanish name for the Sweet River
  • In the past, Rio Dulce was the gateway to the mainland
  • This river canyon has a lush vegetation and is completely embraced by jungle
  • It’s an excellent location to do some wildlife spotting and bird watching
  • The town sits in between Lake Izabal and the Caribbean Livingston
  • The Rio Dulce river narrows along the way, as it finds its way through the lush canyon and the Biotopo Chocon Machacas
  • Over the years, the canyon has become popular with cruise ships and sailors

The Rio Dulce Area divided into places of interest

When people talk about ‘Rio Dulce’, they generally mean all of this vast area surrounding the town. In fact, you need to get to this town first, before you can explore any of the other interesting places and sights.

Let’s check out the different parts of Rio Dulce.

Rio Dulce town

We already mentioned the town, more in a reasoning to get the sometimes negative feedback out of the way. Let’s get a little more informative now. 

This town is not the most charming destination you will ever visit, but it is the destination for you bus or collectivo ride. This is where you get off your regular Guatemalan land transportation, ready to explore further. The busy road might be overwhelming at first and you may feel as if a truck will run over your toes any second now. Just move into a restaurant and get yourself a nice almuerzo or move on to your accommodation in the town.

We recommend spending one or more nights in this area to begin with, because there are a few things to see and do. We’ll get into that in a second!

Been in Rio Dulce many times, but never took a picture... So, here's a street view image
Been in Rio Dulce many times, but never took a picture... So, here's a street view image

Lago de Izabal

Lago de Izabal is a large body of water, located near Rio Dulce. If you walk up to the bridge, the lake on your right hand side (West side) is Lake Izabal. From the bridge, you can already see the Castillo. Lago de Izabal is the largest lake in Guatemala, with asize of almost 600 square kilometers. 

There are some villages on the banks of the lake and probably, this lake offers quite a few other sights and things to do. 

We stayed near Rio Dulce, as most travellers and backpackers do. So, we only have acitivities listed that are near the town. 

One thing is certain for Lago de Izabal, as is also for the rest of the region: there is an abundance in wildlife in this area, in the water, in the air, and on the surrounding land.

Rio Dulce River

The Rio Dulce river is the reason for most of us to come here. It is not just a river, though.

It al starts in the town of Rio Dulce itself, where you can get a lancha or slow boat on the river. These slow boats will take you to Livingston, if you get the right one, that is. Regular lanchas, which are the ones locals also get to travel to Livingston, will take the shortest route to Livingston.

These boats take of at the docks in Rio Dulce, not far from the bridge. Your journey first takes you through a narrow bit of the river, before it opens up into El Golfete. This part is like another lake and there are tons of smaller rivers flowing into this part of the river. So, if you booked accommodation in one of the jungle lodges, then you might take one of the side rivers here to reach your accommodation.

Then, the most beautiful part follows! After El Golfete, the lancha takes you into El Canyon, the canyon. At this point, the river banks rise up steeply and the jungle is dense. Every now and then, a few shacks or small villages show up. You can see small children running along the wooden shacks and you’ll find yourself wondering how life is for the families living on these river banks.

We also saw fishing boats, sometimes with very young boys, throwing out nets into the river. For me, this part of the boat trip was amazing. Even though the canyon is more narrow, it’s still wide enough for cruise ships to sail through.

When the canyon starts to widen again, you know you’re entering the Caribbean Seo, or actually the Bay of Honduras. Other types of birds are showing up and the general look and vibe starts to change. It won’t be long until you reach Livinston.

Boys fishing in the Rio Dulce in Guatemala
Boys fishing in the Rio Dulce in Guatemala

Livingston

Livingston is the last part we discuss in this Rio Dulce blog post.

If you want to know more about this destination, discover all the things to do in Livingston.

This town on the Caribbean side of Guatemala has a mixed community, which offers something completely different than what you know of the rest of Guatemala.

In Livingston, there’s a  mix of Garifuna, Afro-Caribbean, Mayan, and Guatemalan people. The result is a very laid back, reggae kind of vibe. Most backpackers fall in love this the atmosphere in Livingston and stay here for a while.

Now, let’s dive into the things to see and do in the area!

Livingston Guatemala
Livingston Guatemala

Things to do around Rio Dulce town

Because there are a few fun things to do around the town, and we don’t like to rush, we recommend spending a few nights in the town. This way, you get a chance to discover the town and engage in a few fun activities.

Have a look at the best lodges and hostels in Rio Dulce !

Castillo de San Felipe de Lara

The Castillo de San Felipe de Lara stronghold is located on the banks of Lake Izabal in a location where the lake narrows. It was built in 1644 and served as a lookout and as a prison at some time in history.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 defence for the Guatemalan mainland. 

Getting there: The Castillo de San Felipe is a five-kilometer uphill walk from Rio Dulce Town. It took us ages to get there on foot and the bus only costs 5 Quetzals. Eventually, we discovered the slow boats. They bring you back from Castillo de San Felipe to Rio Dulce for a few Quetzales.

Castillo de San Felipe
Castillo de San Felipe

Finca Paraïso hot springs

Finca Paraiso is a must-visit, if you have the time. It is a very special and relaxing place to visit for an afternoon.

The Finca Paraiso 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 for centuries 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.

Getting there: Collectivo’s from Rio Dulce town to El Estor pass by the Finca Paraiso hot springs, which are located near Lake Izabal Guatemala. The collectivo costs a few quetzales one way. 

Read all there is to know about visiting Finca Paraïso from Rio Dulce

Go check out the sailors harbour

The harbour in Rio Dulce is a popular place for long term sailors. They sail into the canyon, all the way to the village of Fronteras / Rio Dulce where they stay until the weather gets better. 

In fact, Rio Dulce regularly hosts sailing events, where sailboats pick up new crew before they head out into the Caribbean. 

There are quite a few places where yachts and sailboats are harboured and the area is dotted with docks everywhere. 

A good place to get an idea of the sailing community in Rio Dulce is at the lanchas dock.

Rio Dulce harbor
Rio Dulce harbor

Visit the Grutas El Encanto

Grutas El Encanto are located a few kilometers from the town of Rio Dulce. You can reach these cave system by tuctuc or bus, as they are located on the main road to Poptun and Flores. 

At the Grutas El Encanto, you can take a tour of the caves with an expert guide. Inside the cave, there are natural pools where you can swim. You also have to wade through chest-high water in order to get through the cave system.

Afterward, you can easily take a shower and change into dry clothing for your trip back to Rio Dulce.

We haven’t visited the Grutas ourself, but you can find more information about this half-day activity on their page.

Ruinas de Quirigua

The Ruinas de Quirigua are located South of Lago de Izabal, not too far from the border with Honduras. In fact, they’re actually pretty close to Copan Ruinas in Honduras.

Unfortunately, we didn’t visit these ruins, so I can’t get into the details. One thing is certain, if we ever visit Rio Dulce again, these ruins are definitely on our itinerary.

Check out the other Mayan ruins in Guatemala as well!

Ruinas de Quirigua - near Rio Dulce Guatemala
Ruinas de Quirigua - near Rio Dulce Guatemala

Things to do on the river

Well most people visit Rio Dulce to get onto the river and move forward to their jungle lodge. The river and the lake is the main draw of this location.

Boat tour to Livingston

A boat tour to Livingston is one of 2 ways to explore the area. We call it the ‘boat tours’ as they follow the touristic route and obviously, they’re a bit more expensive.

The touristic boat tours can be booked in your hostel in advance. 

These tours usually start in the town of Rio Dulce (aka Fronteras) and they take the touristic route. Most of the tours follow a route like this: 

  • Lanchas dock in Rio Dulce
  • Underneath the bridge, past the petrol station
  • Large tour around the Castillo de San Felipe de Lara
  • U-turn towards the other direction
  • Quick fly by the Isla de pájaros (to see the birds)
  • 15-minute break at the Rio Dulce hot springs (don’t expect too much of this)
  • Through El Golfete
  • Through the Canyon (which is really magical)
  • To the docks in Livingston

 

So, these tours have a few extra’s for tourists, but if you ask me personally, I don’t think it’s worth the extra cost, just to do a few quick detours that are not really worth it. 

Yes, the Castillo is worth the visit, but you don’t really visit it with the boat, you just go by quickly. The other things, you also see when you get a lancho to Livingston for a fraction of the price.

Livingston Guided Tour (from Rio Dulce)

7 Altars - Livingston - Cocoli River - Playa Blanca

Embark on a relaxing Caribbean tour! Experience the serene beauty of Siete Altares with its seven natural pools and a waterfall, explore the Cocoli River's mangroves, and relax on the pristine white sands of Playa Blanca. Discover Livingston's unique Garifuna and Maya cultures, shop for handicrafts, and enjoy a cozy lunch in a local restaurant.

7 hours tour - hotel pickup

Check out the tour

Lancha to Livingston

Get a lancha to Livingston.  

The difference with the tourist boat is mostly the price. You can get a lancha for a few quetzales. I won’t mention the exact price for the boat, as it changes all the time. But you can rest assured: the tourist boat is much more expensive.

Lanchas are the boats locals use to travel between these locations. So, you can expect it to stop at a few places, where other people need to get off. This actually adds to the local feeling as you travel exactly like the locals do.
In Livingston, the boat drops you at the exact same dock. 

Before you head into Livingston, make sure to ask when the last boat returns to Rio Dulce, unless you want to spend the night in Livingston (which is perfectly possible in one of these Livingston hostels)

Boat trip on the Rio Dulce (on a cloudy day)
Boat trip on the Rio Dulce (on a cloudy day)

Things to do in Livingston

Livingston is a beautiful Caribbean destination in Guatemala. It’s actually the only touristic destination on this side of the country. 

While Guatemala has a few beach towns on the Pacific side, Livingston is the only Caribbean town. And the best way to get there is through the Canyon from Rio Dulce. 

We dedicated a separate guide to visiting the town of Livingston and the things you can do there. So, click through to our guide with things to do in Livingston Guatemala!

How to get to Rio Dulce town?

Rio Dulce is a destination in Guatemala which is not on the radar for everyone. You’ll mostly encounter long-term backpackers and the occasional tour group from Intrepid or G-Adventures, as they pass through on their trips. 

As this destination is located a little further from Antigua, it is skipped by most travellers. This might be an extra motivation for you to go there, or it might not 🙂 

You can get to Rio Dulce by taking a regular bus or getting a tourist shuttle. 

We got there from Poptun with a regular bus, but you can get the same bus, straight from Flores in the North of the country. 

Just go to the bus terminal in the town you’re at and ask about the right bus!

If you’re coming from Semuc Champey or Lanquin, chances are good that you have to get een shuttle or collectivo at your hostel. This is also quite straight forward. Just ask in your Semuc Champey hostel about the options to get to Rio Dulce. They might better know the destinations as ‘Fronteras’. And then, they will book you a seat on one of the shuttles.

Arranging things to do in Rio Dulce

If you want to do the activities mentioned in this post, you ‘ll have to find a way to do so. 

Depending on the activity, you can take care of this in your hostel or do it on your own. As Rio Dulce is not that touristy, some things must be handled on your own, but, it never hurts to ask. 

For instance, if you want to visit Finca Paraïso, and you’re staying in a hostel in Rio Dulce town, ask around in your hostel. They might arrange t’ansportation or you might find a few buddies who want to make the journey with you. (Read our in-depth guide about Finca Paraïso)

On the other hand, if you want to take a boat tour to Livingston, which is a popular activity, chances are good that you can book this activity at your hostel, whether you’re staying in town or in a finca on the river.

Spending the night

Now, where to stay in Rio Dulce… An important question to ask.

We wrote a detailed guide with the very best accommodation in Rio Dulce town and the very best hostels and finca’s on the Rio Dulce River. So, if you’re still looking for accommodation for your visit to this area, make sure to check out our guide with the best river lodges and hostels in Rio Dulce.

Casa Perico River Lodge - Rio Dulce - Guatemala

Casa Perico River Lodge in Guatemala offers serene jungle stays by the Rio Dulce, blending rustic charm with a laid-back atmosphere. It accommodates all budgets with private and dormitory options, featuring amenities such as a restaurant, bar, and family-friendly accommodations for an authentic experience.

Check Prices on Booking Check Prices on Agoda
El Hotelito Perdido - Rio Dulce - Guatemala

El Hotelito Perdido, located on Rio Dulce's banks, provides a magical jungle experience with a laid-back vibe perfect for couples and solo travellers. It features common areas for relaxation and activities like cooking classes, cultural tours, and hiking, fostering a communal atmosphere.

Check prices on Booking Check prices on Agoda
Tortugal Boutique River Lodge - Rio Dulce - Guatemala

Tortugal Boutique River Lodge offers a peaceful retreat near town with a rustic vibe, stunning water views, and rooms with essential amenities. Facilities include an on-site restaurant, bar, outdoor terrace, garden, and picnic area for dining and socializing.

Tortugal Lodge on Booking Tortugal Lodge on Agoda

How to integrate Rio Dulce in your Guatemala itinerary?

Rio Dulce is located a little bit off the tourist trail, which is a good and a bad thing, all at once. If you truly want to get to know Guatemala, this is definitely not too far off the tourist trail.

Have a look at our Guatemala itinerary ideas to check out the route options in this beautiful Central American country. You’ll see that Rio Dulce is not in every Guatemala itinerary. It appears more often in the longer trips.

But of course, you can always adapt a trip to your own travel needs and style!

Join a tour group to travel to Rio Dulce?

Want to explore Guatemala and Rio Dulce but not sure if you want to do it on your own?

You’re not the only one! My first visit to Guatemala was with a tour group as well, because I didn’t have a travel buddy and I was a little anxious to do it on my own. 

Back then, I joined the Central American Journey, all the way to Costa Rica. It was the adventure of a lifetime. Later, Lobke and I traveled back to Guatemala a few times on our own.

There are a few other guided tours that go through Rio Dulce. 

The best one, the Central American Journey, starts in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico. It takes you through all the beautiful nature and colonial cities along the way, all the way to San Jose in Costa Rica. It lasts for a month.

These are a few other tours that pass through Rio Dulce:

Explore more in this region

There is so much to see in Guatemala, beyond Antigua and Rio Dulce. We have spent a few weeks in a row in this region, and we went back again and again because we just fell in love with all the nice things in this country. 

That means, we have a lot of guides and articles to talk you through this beautiful destination.

Visit the Caribbean town of Livingston

Livingston is a small town on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala. The best way to get there is by lancha from Rio Dulce. If you are already in Rio Dulce, it would be crazy to skip Livingston. So, have a look at Livingston and the things you can do there!

Finca Paraïso hot springs

We already mentioned these as one of the best things to do from Rio Dulce, so, why not mention it again. Our day trip to Finca Paraïso was more than worth the detour. So, read all about it and add it to your itinerary as well!

The natural pools of Semuc Champey

Semuc Champey is a natural highlight in Guatemala. You’re definitely not allowed to skip this destination! Read more about the how and why in our detailed guide about the pools of Semuc Champey.

Flores and the Mayan ruins in the North of Guatemala

For us, Flores and the Mayan ruins of Yaxha were one of the stops before coming to Rio Dulce, but you might as well switch the itinerary all around. 

The area around Flores, Lago Péten, and the ruins of Yaxha or Tikal are a region you can’t skip when visting Guatemala.

Antigua, the cultural capital of Guatemala

While Antigua is a little further away, and, you might want to visit other destinations first, it might still be a next stop for you. If you plan to visit Antigua and Rio Dulce, then we recommend making a detour to Semuc Champey. 

But, if you’re in a hurry, then Antigua is a very good next stop!

Read about the best things to do in Antigua Guatemala!

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Rio Dulce Backpacker guide
Rio Dulce Backpacker guide
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