My take on Rio Dulce, Guatemala and why you should visit this part of the country. Plus all the possible advice I could come up with!
Guatemala is a country of lush jungles, stunning rivers and dramatic volcanoes. It is much more than this – but those are the most prominent features of the country. At least for me. And rivers in Guatemala are just something else. And that includes Rio Dulce.
Rio Dulce is one of the most beautiful rivers I have seen (after the Semuc, of course), and I was very much surprised that travellers very often overlook this place.
This part of Guatemala is a bit different from what most travellers associate the country with. For this reason, I think you will not have a complete picture of Guatemala if you don’t venture into Rio Dulce. It is slightly out of the way, but it is also a great starting point to visit Livingston, and you can carry on into Flores and Tikal from there. Probably much more straightforward than from Lanquin. Rio Dulce is also often a getaway to Honduras.
Rio Dulce is a town and a stunning river located in the Izabal department of Guatemala, connecting the lake Izabal (the biggest lake in Guatemala) with the Caribbean sea. I first experienced it when I visited for a couple of days while I stayed in Livingston. I read a couple of opinions that Rio Dulce is not all that, so I wasn’t expecting much. Oh, the sweet surprise!
The river starts its life at Lake Izabal. It is a wide river surrounded by hills covered in lush tropical vegetation reflecting in the water, giving it a spectacular green colour. On its banks dotted are numerous colourful houses, hotels, restaurants, many literally built on the water.
After leaving Lake Izabal, the river is spanned by one of the largest bridges in Central America. On one side of this bridge lies the town of Río Dulce (Its actual name is Fronteras, but I doubt anyone is actually using this name).
I liked the town’s hectic and vibrant atmosphere. It is busy, really busy. Big cars, bigger cars, smaller ones and a myriad of tuk-tuks. Markets, shops, vendors. It is hot and sticky. As you walk along the road, you really need to watch out not to get run over by the tracks or motorbikes. It’s authentic and very Latin American. Rio Dulce town is probably not everyone’s cup of tea – but I honestly liked it.
In Rio Dulce town, you can find many good restaurants, with a few located at the waterfront where you can enjoy lovely lunch overlooking the marina filled with sailboats. The Sundog cafe on the waterfront offers great views and sells awesome sandwiches and pizzas! The majority of the tourists there are either one night stayers or those staying and living on the boats.
After leaving Rio Dulce, the river flows for a few kilometres and eventually flows into a smaller, narrow lake called El Golfete. There, the river goes wild into small nooks and between the jungle islands where you will sail along the water plants and flowers, birds sitting on water lillies and kids having fun and cooling down in its waters. It is spectacular!
From there, the Rio Dulce river winds for 10 kilometres towards the Caribbean, surrounded by a spectacular gorge covered in lush vegetation. After the rainfall, waterfalls can be seen flowing down towards the river. It is where the Tarzan movie was filmed, and I completely understand why!
If you asked me how many days you should stay in Rio Dulce, I would say at least two full days. There are many great eco hostels hidden in the river jungle, and the only way to get to see other parts of the river and the town is to take a water taxi or a boat. That said, the majority of those hostels provide everything you might need so if you just want to relax by the river and close to nature you don’t have to move at all.
You can rent a kayak, do tours and activities, eat, drink and be merry. But if you would like to make a day trip or go for a day to Rio Dulce town, I would say three days stay is optimal.
So why should you visit Rio Dulce, Guatemala? Is Rio Dulce worth visiting? Definitely yes! If you are a nature lover seeking that perfect retreat and an enthusiast of the off the beaten path destinations – Rio Dulce should be on your list. If following the typical backpacker route and splashing money in Antigua doesn’t satisfy your wanderlust and you want to get the complete picture of the country you are visiting – Rio Dulce, Guatemala is basically a must-do!
So, what is there to do in Rio Dulce apart from cruising the river and falling asleep to the sound of the jungle?
Here is the list of all the things you can do in Rio Dulce from which you can pick and choose your favourite. Or do it all!
Things to do in Rio Dulce, Guatemala.
Visit a town and watch the busy life goes by. And take some fascinating photos.
As I mentioned above, maybe Rio Dulce town is not everyone’s cup of tea – but I really enjoyed it! For a couple of days though, as it is very hectic, noisy and jam-packed with cars and people. But it feels very Latin American and boasts numerous photo opportunities! Great place to stock up on whatever you might need or get some money out of the ATM. Or just sit by the lake, eat great food and watch the boats sail by.
Rent a kayak or take a boat trip.
You can rent a kayak from your hostel and enjoy the tranquillity of the river. Also, consider taking a boat trip if you don’t have enough time to see it all. The trip will take you around the lake. You will be able to visit the Castillo de San Felipe and possibly sail towards Livingston and Playa Blanca. Find out on your arrival, though, as some tours are currently unavailable given the pandemic situation. Nevertheless, kayaking on Rio Dulce is equally awesome and much cheaper!
Visit the Castillo de San Felipe.
You can get the lancha to Castillo de San Felipe from the main dock of Rio Dulce for around Q15. Castillo de San Felipe has an interesting history and is a great sight to visit in Rio Dulce.
The Spanish used this Spanish colonial fort for several centuries, during which time it was invaded and destroyed numerous times by mostly English pirates. After the Spanish departed the area, the fort was abandoned and again rebuilt in 1956.
It is also surrounded by a park where you can have a picnic and offers incredible sunset views.
Try the best chocolate in the world. I’m not kidding! And homemade bread followed by yoghurt.
The first time I tried the handmade chocolate produced in Hotelito Perdido was when I was still in Livingston. I am not a big chocolate person – but this was something else. Later on, I learnt that Hotelito Perdido also produces its own yoghurt and homemade bread, and after I have passed by the hotel (on a boat), I can now heartfully recommend it. It is beautifully set on the river and offers a true jungle eco-experience. And the chocolate is out of this world!
Fall asleep to the sound of the jungle and forget the world in Casa Perico.
I stayed in the Casa Perico, and it is spectacular. I have not met a traveller that would not love it either. It is right in the middle of nowhere and a perfect place to hideaway. The deco and the food are great, and the sound of nature as you are falling asleep is mindboggling.
Enjoy hot and cold waterfall at Finca Paraiso.
This farm has a hot water waterfall, which enters the cold waters of the San Antonio River in the form of a waterfall. It is around 8 meters high, and it is possible to dive from the waterfall.
The volcanic activity heats the stream’s water, and as the hot waterfall enters the pool, it looks as if there was a mist rising from a splash, but it actually is hot steam. How cool is that! There is a number of cold water natural pools where you can swim. It’s very refreshing on a hot day.
Near the source of hot water spring, you will find a mud bath which has a spa-quality and its said to be great for your skin. This place is a true natural spa experience. On the site, you will also find a restaurant and hotels nearby in case you want to stay for longer.
Finca Paraiso is private property, and you will have to pay an entry fee of Q20.
The best way to get to Finca Paraiso from Rio Dulce is to hop on a minibus just of the main street not far from the Litegua bus stop. The bus ticket costs Q20 (€2.2)
Take a boat or kayak trip to The Boqueron.
This trip is not very well known, so even more worth taking. It is a stunning natural river canyon. The river flows between large slopes, and as you kayak into the area, it feels like you are being swallowed by the mountain – hence the name of this spot.
The Boqueron is located 15 minutes from Rio Dulce, where you can take a colectivo towards El Estor. I have, however, not made this trip, and the information I found isn’t comprehensive. Also, things change these days, so I do recommend asking at your hostel. I have heard, though, that this trip doesn’t need to be done by organized tour, so do check before you go.
Visit Quirigua Mayan ruins
There are two sets of Mayan ruins in Guatemala that made it to the UNESCO World Heritage List. The first one is Tikal, and the second is Quirigua, located near Rio Dulce.
Quirigua is a magical ancient Mayan city where you will find an extraordinary collection of handmade carved monuments and sculptures that will take you back in time. In Quirigua, you will find eight monumental stelas built to honour the end of the period Ho’tun and register other significant events. Tikal is the most famous Maya ruin in Guatemala, but if you are not planning to visit Tikal, you should definitely see Quirigua. You will not find massive Mayan pyramids there, but the site is equally interesting. It will be a great addition to your Rio Dulce trip.
The entrance fee is Q80 (so cheaper than Tikal), and 2 hours is enough to see everything. To get to Quirigua, you need to get the morning Fuente del Norte bus (Q25) from Rio Dulce and ask to be let off at the Ruinas de Quirigua. To return, you just need to catch the bus from the same place.
Head to Livingston to experience the Garifuna culture
In theory, you could take a day trip to Livingston, but it is on the more expensive side, so I recommend staying at least one night. Livingston is a fascinating town located on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala. This is the only place in the country where you can experience Garifuna culture and have a taste of a different kind of Caribbean. If you are wondering why – read my article about why Livingston should make it to your travel list.
You can only get to Livingston by boat, and the lancha from Rio Dulce will cost you Q100 one way. I am sure there are day trips and tours you could also find, which often will include a visit to Playa Blanca or Siete Altares. This is also the best way to fully marvel over the beauty of the Rio Dulce river and the Caribbean coast of Guatemala.
Important tips for visiting Rio Dulce Guatemala
Pack the mosquito repellant. If you plan to stay in one of the eco hostels on the river – this is a must take.
It is hot but take a rain jacket. The weather around this part of Guatemala changes often. While I was in Rio Dulce, I enjoyed glorious weather, and it wasn’t even that humid. But during my stay in Livingston, I experienced a lot of evening showers.
Before booking, remember that most of the hotels around Rio Dulce are in the middle of nowhere. In the jungle and on the river. You will be forced to buy your meals and drinks there provided often there will be no kitchen. I found this in many hostels in Guatemala, especially in more remote areas. I haven’t found a single hostel in Lanquin with the kitchen, and Rio Dulce is no different. It is a clever concept as the dorms are often pretty cheap, but you will spend more than you planned. Keep that in mind. I have now learned to pack a couple of cans of tuna and bread roll or something that doesn’t need to be cooked and doesn’t spoil very quickly to save at least on a couple of meals. On my way to Lanquin, I also packed a carton of red wine I bought in the supermarket in Rio Dulce town. Just an idea 🙂
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How to get to Rio Dulce, Guatemala
From Antigua / Guatemala – There are direct private shuttles from Antigua to Rio Dulce, which are usually organized by hotels or private tour companies but will cost around Q250 and more. You can also take a local bus to Guatemala City from Antigua, and from there, you can take a public bus to Rio Dulce. FDN company operates a bus from Guatemala City to Río Dulce every 4 hours. The journey will last between 6 and 8 hours depending on traffic or roadworks.
If you are visiting Lanquin/Semuc Champey and would like to go to Rio Dulce from there, the best way is not to go this way. Seriously, it is complicated, with many changes and a lot of hard work. I would suggest you reroute yourself. My suggestion is to go to Flores from Lanquin (much easier and directly), enjoy Flores and Tikal and then make your way down to Rio Dulce. From there, you can make your way back to Antigua or Guatemala City. Simples.
The best way to get to Rio Dulce from Flores is by shuttle operated by this company. It costs Q175 one way, but it is direct, comfortable and safe. I travelled from Rio Dulce to Flores this way and was very glad I did. Your hostel in Flores will also be able to organize this, and there is plenty of tour offices in town where you will be able to negotiate the price.
So this was supposed to be a quick guide, but I don’t think I am capable of writing those. I wanted to give you all the essential info so you can fully enjoy your stay at the beautiful Rio Dulce, Guatemala.
I hope you will enjoy Rio Dulce as much as I did and if you have already visited – let me know what you think.
Until then – happy travelling!
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