Last updated on March 18, 2023
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.
A Brief History of the Rio Dulce Region of Guatemala
The Rio Dulce region of Guatemala has a long and varied history. The area has been inhabited for thousands of years, with evidence of human settlement dating back to the Pre-Columbian era. The Maya civilization, which flourished in the region for centuries, left behind a rich cultural legacy that can still be seen in the architecture, art, and traditions of the area.
During the Spanish colonial period, the Rio Dulce region became an important trade and transportation hub, with the river serving as a key transportation route. The region was also a center of economic activity, with the cultivation of crops such as tobacco, coffee, and sugar driving the local economy.
In modern times, the Rio Dulce region has continued to be an important economic and cultural center in Guatemala. It is known for its stunning natural beauty, with the Rio Dulce river and the surrounding rainforests and mountains attracting visitors from around the world. The region is also home to a diverse mix of indigenous and Afro-Caribbean communities, who have contributed to the rich cultural fabric of the area. Overall, the Rio Dulce region has a rich and fascinating history that reflects the many different cultures and influences that have shaped it over the centuries.
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.
- Budget: The Round House Hostel
- Mid-range: El Hotelito Perdido
- Eco-friendly: Dreamcatchers Eco Lodge
- Stay near the village: Tortugal Boutique River Lodge
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.
Rio Dulce Travel Planning Tips
Here are some general travel tips to help you make the most of your trip to the Rio Dulce region of Guatemala:
- Plan ahead: Book your accommodations and transportation in advance, and make a list of the places you want to visit so you can book directly through your hostel or hotel once you arrive. This will ensure your trip runs smoothly, and that you make the most of your time in this gorgeous region of Guatemala.
- Pack wisely: Bring only the essentials and leave valuable items at home. Bring copies of important documents (such as your passport and insurance documents) in case the originals are lost or stolen—plus, you are required to have your passport on you when you travel in Guatemala, so at the very least have a copy with you at all times.
- Stay healthy and hydrated: Drink bottled water and refill your reusable bottle at the guesthouse. It’s buggy in this area, so use insect repellent like Off! Botanicals to protect yourself from diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.
- Learn basic Spanish: Knowing a few basic phrases in Spanish can go a long way in helping you communicate with locals and navigate your way around the Rio Dulce region.
- Be flexible: Be open to new experiences and be prepared for the unexpected. Sometimes, travel plans don’t go as smoothly as we’d like, but being flexible will help you make the most of any situation.
- Know your limits: Be aware of your physical limitations and don’t push yourself too hard. This is especially important if you’re planning on participating in any outdoor activities, such as hiking or water sports.
- Stay connected: Purchase a local SIM card—here’s how—to stay connected with loved ones back home. This can also be helpful in case of an emergency, and is pretty much essential these days in helping you navigate your day-to-day. Many tour operators and hotels use WhatsApp to communicate with guests, so you need a SIM card.
- Shop locally: Support local businesses and communities by shopping at local markets and stores. This can help you get a feel for the culture and traditions of the region, and it also boosts the local economy and is a way to use tourism as a force for good.
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!