From Lake Izabel to the old port town of Livingston, the wide Rio Dulce winds its way to the Caribbean Sea, making its way through lush jungle and soaring canyons; past old Spanish forts and giant marinas, old stilt houses and new extravagant mansions, Mayan locals fishing from their dugout canoes and international voyagers in their yachts. The blend of old and new in this beautiful natural setting adds to the charm
There are few roads here; the river is everything. For ages the Mayan people of the region lived off the river, and many still do today. The Spanish built forts here, using the Rio Dulce as a staging area for Atlantic shipping. Today the river is used as a base for Caribbean sailors
A spur of the moment decision, we made our way to the shores of the Rio Dulce from Semuc Champey in the shuttle ride from hell. An hour into our 5 hour journey, I asked the driver if all of the trip would be like this… pot hole and rock ridden single track that hugged the hillsides. “No, not all like this”, he said. A few hours later we hit a patch of fresh asphalt and breathed a sigh of relief… 100 meters later the van dropped back into the dirt. We hit more asphalt an hour later as we entered the town of Fronteras, more popularly known as Rio Dulce. We had arrived. 10 minutes of asphalt out of 5 hours isn’t bad
The town of Fronteras, a major thoroughfare, is not pretty. Most people here are just passing through or coming to the markets, and the town has a feeling of neglect. The people touting boat trips to the tourists are aggressive and relentless, they know once you get on the river they’ll never see you again.
After getting a little ice cream to battle the heat and using the ATM, we were picked up by our hotel in their water taxi. Without our own boat, we were 100% dependent on the hotel for everything. Food, drinks, entertainment, transportation… so where you stay is important. El Tortugal is a nice place, with free use of kayaks and canoes, a swimming platform, wifi and a large lending library, and a free water taxi ride to town several times a day. The staff is great, super friendly and helpful. The restaurant has the potential to attract people from up and down the river, if only they had a great menu. Instead it is simply average
It is hot in Rio Dulce in July, and the mosquitoes are lean and mean. Normally I don’t notice the mosquitoes, but during our first night I was eaten alive. I had 12 mosquito bites on one wrist alone. Winnie is normally a mosquito buffet, and on this night they came back for thirds. On our second night we changed rooms, and with extra netting we fared slightly better
We awoke early our first morning, in time to catch the sunrise. With our mosquito bites in tow, we rode out west of town 30 minutes in a small van to Finca el Paraiso, where a hot spring waterfall drops into a natural pool in a small stream. We followed a dirt path along the stream as it wound its way through the jungle. The smell of sulfur and the sound of falling water let us know we were close.
We hear at times the water can be scalding hot, but due to the recent rains the temperature was comfortable, if not a little cool. Patches of sand on the bottom of the stream varied from cold to uncomfortable to the touch. It was a great way to spend the morning
After a refreshing swim, we wandered along the road back to town. Horses and cows relaxed in the nearby pastures, and half naked children washed laundry in the streams or played along the roadside. The midday heat pushed us into the shade of a large oak until we waved down a van back into town
Back on the river, we took out one of El Tortugal’s canoes and headed towards the Castillo de San Felipe de Lara, an old Spanish fort built to protect against pirates. The current and wind were not in our favor and our going was slow, such that we arrived at the gates at 5:01 pm, 1 minute past closing. The guard was nice though, and let us run inside to get some photos
Having exhausted the entertainment options in town, we headed down river, which we found a bit confusing. A cooperative seems to run the transport service for the boat trip between Rio Dulce and Livingston, which they combine with a “tour.” Calling it such is a bit generous, as they point at the Castillo, point at some water lilies, and then make an awkward stop at a hot spring for 10 minutes. A 1-way trip seems excessively priced at 125Q (~$16.) A round trip is 200Q, but only if you return on the same day. Transport only part way down the river, no matter how far, is the same price.
It wasn’t clear to us where things were located on the river. Several hotels say they are “in Rio Dulce”, which could mean near Fronteras/Rio Dulce, or somewhere on the river. Anywhere on the river. So we were a little surprised when our boat dropped us off at our new hotel, Round House, and we had only gone down the river 1/2 way.
The owners of Round House (Casa Rotunda) have a great place on the river, just west of the canyon. 1 1/2 years in the making, they built the place with their own hands. Solar panels provide all the electricity, and they even have a cool bicycle powered blender. It is a beautiful space.
The night was still and our room had no fan or airflow of any kind, making it impossible to sleep. I went outside and tried a hammock, and then a lounge sofa, and eventually settled on laying half on a chair with my legs draped over a coffee table. The mosquitoes found me, but it was better than sweating to death.
The next morning, we paddled one of Round House’s kayaks down river 2 hours to the Caribbean and the town of Livingston. They brought our bags into town just shortly thereafter. Without a fan it was just not possible to stay another night
Kayaking is definitely the way to see the Rio Dulce. You can feel the current and the wind, and there are no motors to scare away the birds. As we came out of the canyon, the wind off the Caribbean came at us with the smell of salt and a refreshing feel, and a better workout due to paddling upwind. We almost felt like old world explorers, following the river to the sea
In Livingston we stayed at the lovely Casa Rosada, a charming old house near the mouth of the Rio Dulce river, with a view towards the Caribbean. We waited out the heat of the day sitting on their porch, with the sea breeze pouring over us and an iced beverage in hand. This is the life
Livingston is an old port town. Since the shipping business has moved elsewhere, the town seems to have devoted itself to tourism. The main street is full of tourist focused restaurants, all of them selling tapado (the local seafood soup) and coconut bread, both of which are quite tasty.
Off the main street, the town is run down and littered with garbage, as are each of the beaches we visited. Unfortunately for Livingston, a lot of garbage carelessly tossed upriver ends up here
Way off the main street, a 2 hour walk outside of town, is a series of pools and waterfalls called Siete Altares, the 7 altars. We took a taxi from our hotel to minimize our walking time, and still walked an hour along the beach before reaching it. It’s a nice lazy stroll when done outside of the hottest hours
The cool pools are a deep blueish green and the water is a refreshing temperature. The jungle filters out the sunlight, leaving a beautiful place to relax for an afternoon. We spent hours, jumping off waterfalls, swimming, and having the fish nibble at our feet.
For some reason, the water flow is low in the rainy season so the waterfalls were greatly diminished, beautiful as they were. And they still can give a good massage
After a week along the Rio Dulce, we are headed back inland to visit the Mayan ruins at Tikal near Flores, Guatemala. Since the only way to Livingston is by sea, we will catch the bus to Flores back upriver in Fronteras/Rio Dulce
Shuttle from Lanquin to Rio Dulce: 150Q per person (~$19)
1 night at El Tortugal: 200Q (~$26)
1 night at Round House: 110Q (~$14)
1 night at Casa Rosada: 160Q (~20.50)
Entrance fee to Finca de Paraiso: 20Q (~$2.50)
1-way van ride to Finca de Paraiso: 15Q per person (~$2)
1-way boat trip between Rio Dulce and Livingston: 125Q (~$16)
Kayak rental from Round House with bag delivery: 70Q per person (~$9)
Bowl of tapado: 100Q (~$13)
Entrance fee to Siete Altares: 20Q (~$2.50)
Taxi ride in Livingston: 30Q (~$4)