Traveling through Guatemala was an unexpected pleasure; I traveled to Central America with the vague idea I would travel south from Mexico and stop in every country for a few weeks,a month if I loved a place. And then I crossed the border into Guatemala and instantly fell a bit in love. Over the succeeding three months, I would travel through major touristy spots like Tikal, Pacaya, and Lake Atitlán, Antigua, and into Western Highlands to study Spanish at a language school in Xela, or float on a boat down the Rio Dulce. I loved the cadence of life in Guatemala, the openness the people, and the colorful Guatemalan textiles—people walking around with a riot of colors on their woven shirts and skirts.
This month, the Amateur Traveler Podcast invited me onto the show to talk about all the things I love and recommend for short (think one- or two-week) vacations to Guatemala. We cover language schools, volunteering, traveling on and off the conventional route through Guate, and some anecdotes and fun in between. Chris, the host of the podcast, linked to tips and interest points we talk about on his site if your planning travels, and in the slideshow below the podcast link, I created a slideshow of my favorite photos from the trip—please peruse and enjoy as you listen. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click through to the site to listen and view! :)
The smell of burning wood hit me first as I ducked through the entrance of the small house – ducking saved my head from earning yet another gash and also put me right at eye level with the beaming smile from the Guatemalan woman nervously wringing her hands in the center of the room. As I stood up tall on the other side of the doorway I abruptly found myself in the center of her house.
She was eager to show off her functioning stove and welcomed our requests to snap a few photos –she was proud. I was one of several volunteers who had hiked to a rural town outside of Xela, Guatemala to help with a stove building project in the region.
I almost overlooked Guatemala’s sweetest little river on my travels through Guatemala. Running through the south of Guatemala and emptying into the Caribbean Sea, the Rio Dulce (translated as the Sweet River from Spanish) is 43 kilometers of pure beauty that also captures a slice of Guatemalan life you won’t find anywhere else in the country . The river is reminiscent of the swampy waters of the Everglades in Florida (my home-state), but has its own sweet flair you won’t find anywhere else. Located within the Río Dulce National Park, you won’t find the American alligator like in the Everglades, but the river and its lush surroundings is home to manatees, crocodiles, and a host of unique flora and fauna.
Why Visit the Rio Dulce
Visiting the Rio Dulce is worth the trip if you’re keen to: experience an entirely different aspect of Guatemalan culture (notably the Afro-Caribbean Garifuna culture), dive into a rich local history in the region, and explore an entirely unique ecosystem you won’t find anywhere else in Central America.
When traveling along the river, you have the chance to glimpse a number of indigenous villages and rural communities that partake in a quiet life of fishing and living off of the land. One of my favorite travel memories from my boat ride down the Rio Dulce to Livingston was a snapshot of giggling young Guatemalan children paddling around the lily pads on the river. I was so frustrated just minutes before I spotted these kiddos paddling amongst the lily pads and down a snaking tributary off of the main river. Our guide had been tight lipped about why our boat powered down down to a putter every 20 minutes, but I had a sneaking suspicion our boat was slowly dying en route to Livingston. I deeply wanted to know an update on the situation, but instead those children reminded me that travel experiences are all about the unexpected moments and the misadventures that lead to their own stories. Those kids were so at peace in their surroundings and lost in the moment of their own games. Their boats sliced through the blossoming lily pads and their joyous laughter floated over the rippling water.
A trip on Guatemala’s Rio Dulce is about the experience en route and not about getting to your destination. It’s a reminder not to sweat the little details.
Things to Do Along the Rio Dulce
I recommend starting your trip in Rio Dulce if possible, and using this as your base to explore the region. Livingston has a fascinating culture that is interesting for a day or two (and the food there is entirely different than Guatemalan cuisine), but Fronteras and the things to do around Lake Izabal are the most interesting part of exploring this region. Most everything you’ll do in Rio Dulces revolves around water of some sort, and many days involve boating or kayaking. These are a few highlights of going off the beaten path in Guatemala.
Swim at Finca El Paraiso Hot Springs
After landing at my guesthouse—a remote affair tucked away in the marshy waters just a short boat ride from Fronteras—I quickly found myself drawn to a nearby group of three women backpackers (all friends) planning a trip to a nearby waterfall. I had woefully underprepared for this part of my trip (it was a last-minute decision to re-enter Guatemala from Honduras for an extra week), so I surrendered to their research—and boy was I glad to have latched onto this group!
Finca el Paraiso is waterfall fed by volcanic hot springs. The toasty hot waterfall flows into an icy cold river, flowing perpendicular to the waterfall creating a bizarre experience of chilly river water, patches of lukewarm water, and truly burn-you-hot bursts of volcanic-warmed waters. It took all of us exploring and testing out various pools of water to find a cozy warm spot just next to the steaming falls where we could relax and breathe in the clean air.
Also, our guide shared a local tip with us that we would have never tried on our own: If you are willing to partake in a shallow dive under the low rock wall of the waterfall, a little nook hides. This nook was big enough for all four of us to tuck ourselves away behind the falls. In fact, this little cove put us right under a rock lip that had rushing sulfur water flowing down and thus created the perfect sulfur sauna. It was incredible! Our guide was spot-on, and we cleared our lungs and skin in the natural sauna for nearly an hour, ducking into the cold river water when the steam became oppressive (and sometimes it was the smell to be honest).
Visit Castillo de San Felipe
This hulking stone castle is gorgeous from several vantage points. You’ll spot the the fort from the water as you navigate the area by boat, but you can also visit the Castillo de San Felipe by land. The Rio Dulce was once on a strategic trade route within Central America, and this old Spanish fort was meant to stop British pirates from traveling up river from the Caribbean. The fort has some aspects dating back to the mid 1600s, but other parts have been destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries. A tour of the castle means exploring the interior rooms, as well as canons and other aspects that remain. You only need a couple of hours for this activity, and you can either catch a bus to it, or walk the 3km from the village.
Kayak and Canoe the Tributaries
Many of the hostels and best places to stay in the area are located right on the water. As a bonus, most of these places offer free kayaks and canoes to guests. That means you can simply hop into a canoe and start exploring the marshy waters, rivers, and other nooks and crannies all over the area. I spent several days canoeing myself around the narrow canals shooting off of the river like branches from a tree trunk.
Explore Lake Izabal
While you can also take your kayak or canoe onto Lake Izabal, consider taking a formal tour, which will include a chance to spot gentle manatees, many species of birds, and more. Some tours may even include a stop at the Mayan ruins of Quiriguá. Quiriguá is a little-visited Mayan site that has a lot to offer those who haven’t burned out on ruins (between Tikal and nearby Copán, it’s possible!). Note that there are also full day tours to Quiriguá, which is home to the tallest known Mayan stela.
Travel by Boat Between Livingston and Fronteras
During our four-hour boat ride from Fronteras to Livingston, our guide would slow the boat at intervals and point out local birds—drawing our gaze to a white heron gliding over the water and landing in nearby brush. He would explain the unique flora and fauna as we passed lush vegetation blanketing each side of the river. Taking this boat ride makes for a slow, unhurried experience and drops you at Livingston by the end. That said, the tourist boat that is focused just on getting you there lasts about 1.5 hours—meaning you could make Livingston a day trip. This is a pretty ride and should be coupled with a day or two in Livingston to make the boat trip worth it.
Enjoy Garifuna Culture and Food in Livingston
Located right on the Caribbean coast, Livingston is unlike any other Guatemalan city thanks to the prominent Afro-Caribbean Garifuna located here. The food features flavorful coconut dishes and a range of seafood, English is widely spoken, and the music scene is top-notch. This ethnic group descended from the Caribbean slave trade and is found all along the Central American coastline thanks to hundreds of years of slave history—here’s more on the backstory of how the Garifuna came to inhabit this small slice of Guatemalan coastline.
How to Get to the Rio Dulce
Stretching from Lago Izabal to the Caribbean Sea, traveling the Rio Dulce itself is easy once you’re in the area, but it’s not particularly close to any of the other top things to do and see in Guatemala. Namely, it’s quite a hike from Antigua to get to this ecotourism hotspot, but just four hours from Tikal. This Rio Dulce map shows the key area you’ll be exploring as you visit this area.
Getting to Fronteras (Rio Dulce Town)
Rio Dulce Town—a mere landing strip of a place called Fronteras—and Livingston are the two access points to exploring all that the river and the national park offer travelers. Fronteras is your starting point if you’re traveling from most of Guatemala, or overland from Honduras (that’s how I got there). When booking transportation to Fronteras, it will always route you through Guatemala City, even if booking a shuttle or coach from Antigua.
Note that Fronteras is a transportation hub that has bus routes to Petén and Flores, as well as Guatemala City and Puerto Barrios.
Getting to Livingston
Livingston, on the other hand, is equally tricky to access, but is accessible from Belize, or via a very long (12 hour) bus ride along the border from Flores (which is the town from which you visit Tikal).
Traveling from Fronteras to Livingston
Getting between Fronteras and Livingston is the fun part! At just 18 miles long, the Rio Dulce itself (the river not the town) is easily navigable by private boat rides, or on a set tourist route that stops at a few key places on its lazy route up or down the river and takes about four hours.
Getting Around Rio Dulces and Lake
The main boat dock in Rio Dulce town is a great place to independently organize a boat trip to El Castillo San Felipe, onward to Livingston, or around the area and Lake Izabal. That said, all accommodation in the area also organize this for you since boats are the primary means of transport all over this region.
Where to Stay in Fronteras & Livingston
Once you arrive in Rio Dulce, the accommodation that you’ve booked will likely pick you up directly from a couple of key restaurants that line the water right where the buses drop travelers. They provide the boat that then ferries you deeper into the river system and to your hostel or guesthouse. If you’re in Livingston, all of the best places to stay are walkable from the dock.
Opt for a river lodge unless you have an early departure the next morning, these have way better vibes and are one of the key reasons this region is so special! If you need to get up and out quickly, staying near the village is also an option.
You’ll likely only need a night or two in town before you head onward—either into Belize or to Puertos Barrios. If you’re coming from those towns, then you’ll enjoy the culture and food before heading to Fronteras to enjoy all the Rio Dulce offers.
Antigua is a directly on the tourist path; in fact, it’s a veritable hub of tourist activity in Guatemala. It’s also pretty swell. It’s an adorably livable city for a traveler in need of a break; these kiddos are in simply rapt attention of a street mime. I just loved the their five figures sitting so close and friendly—body language doesn’t lie and that kid in the orange shirt is intrigued!
The great thing about a mime on foreign streets—you understand everything that’s happening no matter which language you speak. This was a moment just after the long Semana Santa holidays in the country and there were still plenty of tourists and locals alike on the streets of Antigua, but without the fervor of preparing for Easter Sunday.
I ended up staying in Antigua for longer than I had planned precisely because of moments like this one—the city has pockets of art, culture, and conversation that took me by surprise. Even though it’s a tiny city in comparison to Xela or Guate City, there is a charm in Antigua that permeates. Whenever I needed to find some activities or something interesting, I headed to the town square area for the hum of people.
The other lovely thing about Antigua? The city has volcano views from nearly every street. It’s a photogenic city on the whole, made even moreso with unexpected encounters with cute kids and street mimes!
The bright colors of Guatemala take their palette from a kindergarten classroom, or perhaps from the toucans and macaws that inhabit the country’s forests. The brilliant reds mix with saffrons made of liquid sunshine and blues right out of the darkest depths of the ocean.
I’ve milked just about story possible out of Guatemala except for the markets. I love markets all over the world and until Guatemala India held the top spot in my heart; now the two countries compete for the honor of most diverse and brilliant hued marketplaces.
Chichicastenango—Huge, Dense, & a Tad Overwhelming
Rosie didn’t do Chichicastenango justice when she sarcastically mentioned this now iconic Central American market in Bye Bye Birdie (any other musical nerds? anyone? Bueller?), but Chichi market place is certainly deserving of a both a song and half a day. Held every single Thursday and Sunday villagers from all over the Western Highlands in Guatemala bring their wares and textiles to flesh out the permanent stalls in this medium size town that swells in size on market days.
I actually have mixed feelings about Chichi, another traveler referred to it as the Walmart of Guatemala – a name both a funny and apt. The experience was neat but I would actually skip it if I were traveling on a tight time line…but that’s just me, other travelers fell in love!
Antigua’s Artisan’s Market—Great Deals, Friendly Bartering, & High Quality
As far as market’s go the Artisan’s market in Antigua was my favorite place to actually to pick up some trinkets and presents for the kids in my life back home. The vendors pay a pretty penny to locate themselves within the Artisan’s market which results in a higher end selection of goods in most cases.
Additionally, and it cannot be overrated, just outside of the Artisan’s Market is Antigua’s local market for fresh fruit and veggies. A mere 5Q (about 60 cents) yields a heaping cup full of fresh fruit and when I parted with another 5Q a nearby stall handed over a plate full of freshly grilled plantain –does lunch get much better than that?!
Although India’s markets are legendary because you can find the absolute most random items, Guatemala’s gentle Mayan vendors with their soft sell and fun fabrics leave me still smiling now as I look at my questionably tacky purse with clashing fabrics, mixed patterns, embroidery and nearly every other style of handiwork all on one lovely little bag – it’s my favorite souvenir yet
Friends in LA once I got there last month informed me that this purse is actually really tacky. It sends me straight back to Guatemalan every time I look at it though! What do you think? Tacky or gorgeous?!
Nestled into the cozy, cushioned table beds in Café D’Noz on Lago de Atitlán I was taken off guard when my server climbed up onto the cushions to whisper in my ear. At first all I heard was a bit of hushed syllables inaudible over the blaring movie showing in the café. With a questioning look from me she repeated the sentence in a hurried voice and rapidly stilting English.
“If you have drugs – flush in toilet now, police do drug raid next door. Do now.”
San Pedro on Lake Atitlán is a really big party town; the tiny town is full of backpackers and has a lot of English speaking ex-pats running trendy little bars. It’s far from the quietest spot on the lake and was only going to be an overnight spot for me before heading a bit up the road to San Marcos for a couple of weeks of relaxing on the lake.
Because despite the drug raid in progress, which would taint my experience on the beautiful Lago de Atitlán, this area is one of the prettiest spots in all of Guatemala.
After our server moved on to the next table to quickly spread the message, my friends and I were torn – do we stay and finish watching the movie or just go home to avoid any interaction with the police? None of us had drugs so we figured we were safe to watch the last 20 minutes before heading back to the hostel.
Those 20 minutes probably saved me from spending the night in Guatemalan jail.
The police never showed up to our café so we walked straight back to our hostel, warning a group of travelers in the process about the current raid rumors before parting ways and going straight to bed.
About four hours later, in the dead of night, an incessant and soft knock woke me up. Earlier in the day I briefly met the woman sharing my hostel room and the woman now knocking at the door was not my friendly British co-habitant. In rapid Spanish she asked me to help me find my roommate’s passport as fast as possible – my roomie had gotten put in jail as a part of a street sweep (right at the time I was finishing my movie) and was trying to get out in time to catch her flight back to the UK later that day.
I helped. My roomie paid her way out just in time to run back to the hostel, grab her pack, cry a little, and then catch the shuttle heading to Guate City.
The rest of the day the entire town was buzzing about the backpackers still left in jail; two young male backpackers (with zero knowledge of Spanish) had actually spent the night cuffed wrist to ankle waiting for release.
Through all of this, I have no idea the drugs the police actually found on the travelers they arrested. What I do know is that roughly 40 backpackers got put in jail for not having their passports on them.
And what I find particularly interesting is the way this story evolved in the two months I spent in Central America after the drug raids (which were condemned by the Guatemalan police later that week once the embassies got involved and the San Pedro police were told to stop arresting backpackers for the passport issue).
Once I moved on to other parts of Guatemala and into Honduras I happened to overhear (twice!) travelers at the hostels gossiping about the “fake” drug busts in San Pedro designed to scare the backpackers. Their conversations ran something along the lines of: “ha, ha” clinking of beers, “like that really happens,” sharing of questionable substances, “ha, ha.”
Um, ok. I’m not here to sit on a soap box or be your mom and tell you what to do, so I’ll just share my two personal lessons from this story:
ALWAYS carry at least a photocopy of your passport on you. Apparently it’s illegal in a lot of countries to walk around without identification. Who knew?!
Tearfully calling my dad for help out of a developing world jail (or any jail for that matter) is not high on my bucket list so I’ll stick to a country’s legal activities.
Oh, and in case you couldn’t tell, beyond all of this drug raid story, Lake Atitlán is actually pretty gorgeous and worth a visit!
One full hour after starting our project we finally had the first layer of concrete blocks nestled next to each other, absolutely perfectly level and arranged in a large rectangular shape. Mitul and Grace, also volunteers from the Pop Wuj language school in Guatemala, carefully scrapped at the wet red clay while I was nearby hefting up each and every concrete block into tubs of pond water, allowing each block to soak for 10 minutes before taking it to Mitul and Grace. These concrete blocks were the first step toward creating an estufa, or stove, for a small and growing family in rural Guatemala.
This is one of the most instantly rewarding volunteer projects that I’ve worked on because I was right there with the family and creating something within just one week that they desperately need. The indigenous Mayans in rural areas of Guatemala often use small cook fires right inside their homes – these open fires stay lit and smoke up the house nearly all day and into the night. They are used for food, a source of light, and even heat. They’re also dangerous for the children and can cause severe respiration problems for the women and children who are so often inside of the home for long periods of time.
That’s where Pop Wuj steps in and lends a hand; with the help of locals within the community a selection process has been designed and Pop Wuj uses language school volunteers (and you don’t even have to be with the school to volunteer) to chicken bus it out to these remote areas twice a week to build cement stoves. (If you’re only in Xela for a short time this is the perfect way to give back for a day; they go out Saturday and Thursday every week.)
The base of the stove is used for height and to diffuse the heat – and it’s imperative that the base layer of bricks are level or else you spend the next four hours attempting to level other layers using cement compound under and around the bricks…the other group skipped the leveling process and had to strip down hours of work and start over!
The stoves were built in two stages – I was only able to help with Stage One stoves, the base, but the volunteer coordinator hiked with me over to a nearby village to see the finished stoves in action – the families were very proud to show off their stoves.
The entire project is incredibly rewarding and the families receiving our new estufa watched the building process with cautious excitement, the lunch photo was a simple but delicious lunch with an unlimited supply of tamales!
These children made me stop in my tracks when I was hiking through the remote villages in Guatemala—I can just exactly picture my three nieces and nephews in that same exact position and shooting those incredibly sweet grins (well, that baby’s not grinning, but the girls—too cute!). Part of what I love too are all the bright colors, which is precisely and entirely how I picture Guatemala in my memories, as a riot of colors from the clothes and the styles of the traditional fabrics. Though these clothes are more modern, they still show that the locals tend toward bright and happy colors (and that makes me happier even looking at them!).
And beyond that, I have a sweet spot for kids on my travels—I’ve nannied/babysat and cared for countless children over the years and couldn’t help kneeling down in the soft brown dirt alongside them to snap this shot. Promptly after they came running toward me and circled their grubby little hands around the camera screen, giggling over their own images. Then they modeled some more when they liked what they saw on the screen before running back to their hole to carry-on with the very serious business of digging a hole!
This trek was during some of my work building stoves in the rural areas outside of Xela, and it was gratifying as well to look at their happy faces and know that they were some of the people benefiting from the new stove construction.