If you ever cruise Western Caribbean/Central America you will quickly find out the best place to be during hurricane season is in Guatemala’s Rio Dulce (or Sweet River). Given that Guatemala only has about 40 miles of Caribbean coast and the Rio Dulce is the only place to visit, you might think you should simply bypass the area. I am here to tell you that you are dead wrong. The Rio Dulce is amazing and below is our Top 10 favorite spots up the 20 miles of river.
10) Ak’Tenamit School – For orientation purposes you can break the Rio Dulce up into four sections. From the entrance at Livingston you have a section of river then a shallow lake called El Golfete then a second section of river and finally Lago de Izabal (Lake Isabel). There are many smaller rivers and creeks coming into Rio Dulce and just inside one almost at the end of the first river section you will find a school for local children. To help support the school there is a museum, restaurant, and handicraft store. You can also take a short hike to the cold water spring that feeds this creek. This gives an excellent look into the lives of the native Mayan population.
9) Hot sulfur springs – Less than a mile upriver from the school you will come to a hot springs right at the water’s edge. The water comes out of a hole around a foot or two long and will scald your back while your front is cold. You can feel the effects of the hot springs in a 20 foot area. It is a nice place to relax and when you are done you can have lunch at the restaurant on site (Centro Ecoturistico Agua Caliente).
8) Lago de Izabal (Lake Isabel) – the Rio Dulce ends at a 25-mile-long lake. The further upriver (or southwest) you go on the lake the more remote you will be. In this area you could be the only boat within five miles as you explore small rivers with the dinghy or simply anchor in a cove with the monkeys and parrots almost overhead in the jungle. If you want more civilization then the town of El Estor offers eating opportunities on the lake’s edge and Denny’s Beach is known as the place to be for a full moon party.
7) Restaurante El Viajero – Back at the first section of river, in between the first two entries, is an awesome two-story restaurant. What makes this restaurant so much fun is everything you can do here. I never had time to relax in the hammocks they have strung up on the lower part, because I was too busy on the two-story water slide and using the rope swing out into the river. We easily spent 2-3 hours playing here!
6) The jungle & river – After spending 14 years cruising the Caribbean, I found it very cool to be cruising a fresh water environment. The most beautiful part of the Rio Dulce is the first river section where you feel like you are in a small canyon. Upriver in the second section of river there is more civilization, but even there I found it fascinating to watch as the local Mayan population used their boats on the river as we use our cars on the highway. Because the jungle is everywhere, for them the river is simply the way you get to work, shop for groceries, or visit a friend. Imagine waking up to the sounds of monkeys and parrots.
5) Castle of San Felipe de Lara – A small fort was built at the point where the second section of river meets Lake Isabel on the south shore of the lake to protect the main port of Guatemala from pirates. The current fort was begun in 1644 and was in use well into the 1800’s. The fort has three levels and even has a moat and drawbridge. We love almost anything historic and this fort did not disappoint. It is even on the World Heritage Site tentative list.
4) Seven Sisters Waterfall – On the coast, before you enter the river, just outside the town of Livingston is a very fun waterfall. You can anchor just off the dock in calm weather or take a tuk-tuk to the foot bridge and walk half a mile. It is called Seven Sisters because there are seven different levels to it. Some are several feet tall and others are stories tall. Lots of fun to be had in this fresh water set of waterfalls right before it drains into the Caribbean Sea.
3) El Boquerón Canyon – On the north shore of Lago de Izabal there is a canyon you can hike to the top of and then tube down the stream. When we went, there was a lot of water so it was a fast trip back down the canyon. Another option is taking a local 6-8 person boat up the canyon a ways if you are not inclined to hike and tube. You can reach the beginning of the canyon from a boat anchored on the lake, but a much better option is to take a day long tour with this stop included.
2) Hot Springs Waterfall (Aguas Termales y Spa) – On the same tour we stopped at a hot spring fed waterfall and loved it. We were told the source of the stream is another hot spring several miles upstream that has a cave from which the water comes out. However, when we visited the water was too high to go into the cave. Instead, we simply enjoyed the waterfall on the side of the stream that has a hot spring feeding it. We played in the stream as it came screaming down from between two rocks and under the warm water of the waterfall, but the part we liked most was climbing to the top of the falls and laying in the hot water.
1) Cruising Community – While on the Rio I “ran into a chum with a bottle of rum” …oh wait that line has already been used ;). The reality is that I actually ran into several boats I know, because the best part of the Rio Dulce is, of course, the cruising community. Most of the cruisers are docked at the many marinas within the 3 miles of river between El Golfete and the lake. There are lots of restaurants on the water’s edge that you dinghy up to and the grocery store even has a dinghy dock. There is a cruisers net on the VHF so you can find out the day’s activities. I met boaters that came into the Rio Dulce for a month and have now been here for several seasons. It even seems like most of the marinas are ex-cruisers that loved the Rio so much they swallowed the hook and set up camp here.