A Little Relaxing…Unexpected Sweet Life on the Rio Dulce

Last updated on November 2, 2021

A sea of lotus flowers on the boat ride from Rio Dulce Town to Livingston.

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.

Local children paddle along a tributary in the Rio Dulce National Park.

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

Gorgeous waters near Finca El Paraiso Hot Springs.
Enjoying waterfalls 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 

Views of the Castillo de San Felipe from the river.

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

Scenic views on the boat ride along the Rio Dulce.

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)

The town of Rio Dulce/Las Fronteras

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.

Don’t forget to book travel insurance for your trip—a great policy provides coverage in case of medical emergencies, lost or stolen gear, adventure sports riders, and more. I used World Nomads for this trip (and since 2008!) and highly recommend it! It also covers COVID—a very important consideration for travel in 2021 and beyond.

Where to Stay in Fronteras & Livingston

View of the communal area at my hostel, El Hotelito Perdido, in Rio Dulce, Guatemala.

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.

Rio Dulce

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.

Budget: The Round House Hostel

Mid-range: El Hotelito Perdido

Eco-friendly: Dreamcatchers Eco Lodge

Stay near the village: Tortugal Boutique River Lodge

Livingston

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.

Budget: La Casa Rosada Hostel

Mid-range: Casa Nostra

Guatemala Travel Guide

A download on everything I learned from backpacking across Guatemala. It’s one of top three favorite countries in the world—here’s where to go, my favorite places and everything you should know before you go to Guatemala!

16 thoughts on “A Little Relaxing…Unexpected Sweet Life on the Rio Dulce”

  1. How did you like Livingston? I loved it…so relaxing. I didn’t do anything but lay in a hammock on a pier for 3 days.

    Reply
    • It had SUCH a different vibe from the rest of Guatemala and I spent my
      evenings hanging out near the basketball court in town, watching the locals
      play games. It was sublime :)

      Reply
  2. Such a great point Shannon. It is easy to become agitated. I would love to say that I am completely Zen, but I find myself reacting the same way many times. And then these little reminders happen that snap me out of my mood. What is great is, you were aware enough to notice and realize that “Hey, Life is meant to be enjoyed.” Many people would stay in their agitated state and never notice the little things.

    Reply
    • That’s one of the first things I notice in some markets, the travelers getting so irate at what is amounting to 75 cents…but in the moment it’s hard to grasp perspective…I definitely still have my moment’s where I’m not exactly Zen either, so you’re in good company :)

      Reply
  3. Sometimes I get really frustrated with things taking so long and then I realize if I’m not in a rush or have to be somewhere, why do I really care

    Reply
    • Exactly! That’s always something I struggle with…why do I care if something takes an extra day or two when I have no set plan anyhow. Happy wandering Ayngelina, have a great weekend :)

      Reply
  4. Yeah we waste so much time complaining about the little things in life we forget to enjoy the time we have. Thanks for the reminder to actually enjoy today!

    Reply
  5. So true. Back when I was guiding small groups to Belize and Costa Rica, there seemed to always be one that spent seemingly every waking moment preoccupied with wrangling the very best currency exchange rate possible. They’d walk 8 blocks and wait in line an hour, just to get a 5 colone higher exchange (about 1 penny). And/or grumble about what amounted to a few cents “rip off”.

    Sadly, even if they added up the difference over an entire 2 week trip, it would only come out to about 3 bucks. And meanwhile… they spent much of their precious travel time focused on nonsense, whilst no doubt missing the wondrous sights and kind Ticos that surrounded them.

    Reply
    • I have been guilty of that in the past – it’s really easy to get caught up in the local currencies and the whole notion that vendors are “ripping you off” – but it was about half way through India, when I was peeved over paying what amounted to .50 cents. Ah perspective :) Have a wonderful weekend!

      Reply

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