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Translated to Sweet River, Rio Dulce is an underrated part of Guatemala. It flows from Lake Izabal to the Caribbean Sea, bordered by lush jungle full of wildlife. If you’re a nature lover, Rio Dulce is the perfect addition to your Guatemala Itinerary.
I wasn’t planning to visit Rio Dulce, but I ended up having to stop there on my way to Utila, Honduras. I’m so glad it worked out like this, otherwise, I would have missed this unique gem. This Rio Dulce guide will go over everything you need to about visiting this part of Guatemala, including getting there, the best things to do, and tips on where to stay.
Best things to do in Rio Dulce, Guatemala
My original plan was to just spend a night in Rio Dulce and continue my journey to Honduras the next morning. However, the bus wasn’t leaving until the day after, which was truly serendipitous as it meant I got to spend an extra day exploring the gorgeous area.
There is plenty of things to do in Río Dulce, especially if you’re interested in nature and wildlife. I recommend spending at least one full day here, or more if you are happy to just relax in one of the amazing eco-lodges on the river. It’s one of the best places to enjoy outdoor activities in Guatemala.
El Boqueron Canyon
El Boqueron Canyon is a gorgeous canyon about 15 minutes away from Rio Dulce town. Once there, you can pay a local 15Q (approx $2 USD) for a boat ride down the canyon. The views are stunning, and it’s so peaceful to float down the river as you hear the sounds of nature around you. We also saw howler monkeys on this boat ride!
To get there you can grab a collectivo from the local market in Rio Dulce town or hire a taxi.
Finca Paraiso was the highlight of Rio Dulce for me. These natural hot springs are so magical to swim in. When you first get in the water is cool, but as you make your way to the waterfall it starts to warm up. The hot water is actually coming down from the 12m waterfall, so you can stand underneath it and get a free hot shower. The mix of hot and cold water is such a unique experience that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world!
To visit Finca Paraiso take a collectivo from the market in Rio Dulce town. We were already at El Boqueron Canyon so we grapped another collectivo from there to the Finca Paraiso. It should cost around 15Q.
There is an entrance fee of 15Q to swim in the hot springs, which doesn’t seem that official – it’s just a local man asking for money. In exchange, he will watch your bags while you swim which was well worth it for me.
Castillo de San Felipe
Castillo de San Felipe is an old Spanish fort that is well worth visiting while in Rio Dulce. The fort was built in the 16th century as a way to keep out Caribbean pirates when this area was used for trade. It was eventually destroyed by the pirates at the end of the 17th century, but there are still remains that have been restored. It was fun to walk around the fort and imagine what life was like then. It’s full of labyrinth style passageways to walk through.
Castillo de San Felipe is inside Rio Dulce National Park. Nearby there is also a beach which you can hang out on/swim in, although I’ve heard questionable things about the quality of the water.
To get to the castle you can grab a collectivo that leaves from the market area in Fronteras every 30 minutes or so. It cost 20Q to enter (2018 prices).
Explore the Quiriguá Ruins
Rio Dulce is home to one of three UNESCO world heritage sites in Guatemala, along with Antigua and Tikal. If you are interested in Mayan ruins, the Quirigua ruins are definitely worth exploring. These ancient ruins are thought to go back as early as 400 BC. That said, they are similar to the Mayan ruins of Copan in Honduras, so if you’re planning to go there after it may not be worth it.
Livingston is a small Caribbean community on the Rio Dulce where the river meets the Caribbean ocean. It’s a really unique spot to visit in Guatemala as this is the only Garifuna community in the country. There you can experience a laid-back Caribbean atmosphere that’s unlike anywhere else in the country. English is also widely spoken here.
It’s free to visit the city, but you’ll have to catch a boat there from Fronteras.
Take a boat ride on Lago De Izabel
Lago De Izabel is the largest lake in Guatemala, and offers visitors plenty of water-based recreation activities including boating, fishing, kayaking, swimming, and jet skiing. You can also see wildlife here, including manatees, howler monkeys, and birds.
Getting to Rio Dulce
You can catch a chicken bus or tourist shuttle to Rio Dulce from other cities in Guatemala, but Semuc Champey and Flores are the main places that people come from. I took the bus from Laquin (home of Semuc Champey) which takes about six hours.
Rio Dulce is about two hours from the border of Honduras. You can arrange a tourist shuttle that will take you across the border. I was going to the island of Utila, so I took the bus to La Ceiba and got on a boat from there to Utila. The border crossing from Guatemala to Honduras was surprisingly easy. Rio Dulce is a great stop if you are traveling through Central America from Guatemala to Honduras.
Getting around Rio Dulce
There was an option from my hostel to do a guided tour of Castillo de San Felipe, the Canyon, and Finca Paraiso, but we were able to do it all ourselves for about half the price via collectivos. Granted it was helpful to have a native Spanish speaker with me.
From Fronteras/Rio Dulce town, you can grab a collectivo to any of these places. You just need to know the name of the place you are going.Guatemalas are generally friendly, and will point you in the right direction. But like most of Laitn America, knowing a bit of Spanish will go a long way.
Where to Stay in Rio Dulce
The town of Fronteras, also commonly known as Rio Dulce town, is set along the headwaters of the river. The town is basically one road full of shops which leads to the bridge over Rio Dulce. It’s not the prettiest place, so although there are accommodation options here, I recommend instead staying at a lodge alongside the river. This will really add to your experience visiting this part of Guatemala.
If you are staying at a lodge on the river you will have to get a boat from town which is just a couple of dollars. Your lodge may also offer pickup in town, just be sure to arrange it in advance.
I stayed at Dreamcatcher Eco Lodge which was brand new at the time I visited. I’m always hesitant to book accommodation with limited reviews but I’m so glad I did. As soon as the boat turned in towards the lodge I knew I had made the right choice.
Dreamcatchers is set right on the river in the midst of a howler monkey preserve, it’s an absolutely gorgeous area. The owner and staff are so kind and will make you feel at home there right away.
The lodge also has a restaurant and the food is wonderful. Although a bit pricey on a backpackers budget in Guatemala, it is worth the price. I got this delicious dish below for $90 Quetzales/$12 USD. The fish was caught and brought there live that day, so fresh and tasty.
It’s funny how fast your perspective can change when traveling. At first, I was horrified by that price, as I had been getting by on less than that for all my meals in Guatemala per day. But in reality, it’s still much less then I would pay for a meal of that quality in Toronto. Plus, the portions are massive so they keep you full for a long time. Sometimes you just need to treat yo’self.
I loved my stay at Dreamcatchers Eco Lodge. There weren’t many other people there while I was staying, so I had a 4-bed dorm room to myself. They also offer private rooms. A cool option they have is a ‘flying tent’, which is a tent suspended in the air between trees. The hostel is next to a howler monkey preserve, so you will likely spot these little guys on a stay there!
You can also find hostels and hotels in Livingston.
Rio Dulce, which translates to ‘sweet river’, was indeed a sweet surprise for me. Many backpackers skip the Rio Dulce area but I am so glad I had the extra day to explore here. It’s a great addition to any Guatemala itinerary, especially if you are headed to Honduras afterward since it’s close to the border.
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