The Pristine Wilderness of the Rio Dulce

The Rio Dulce stands out in my memory as one of my favorite places in Guatemala. I had been once before, about 10 years ago, while on vacation with my father and my niece. The name Rio Dulce literally means “Sweet River” in Spanish and includes 8 biologically rich protected areas. I remember embarking on a river boat ride full of mangroves, gorges, palm trees, wild flowers and water lilies. While on our way to Livingston, our boat dropped off two backpackers at a hotel located about halfway through the journey and I thought to myself, “one day I will stay there”.

So in preparation for this trip, I did my research and found the hotel, Finca Tatin. Unfortunately I hadn’t planned my journey well enough. Early in the morning, I took a shuttle from Antigua to Guatemala City, where I then caught a pullman coach to Rio Dulce. What I hadn’t realized is that there are only two lanchas colectivas (water taxis) per day that go to Finca Tatin and I had already missed the last one.

Hiring a private lancha was too expensive, so I booked a hostel to spend in the night in Rio Dulce. The town of Fronteras, generally known as Rio Dulce, is not very special but it is the main transit point and is a good place to go to the bank or pharmacy. There are also restaurants, food vendors, souvenir shops and hotels. Most accommodation, though, is located along the river itself. I chose to Kangaroo’s, which was nice enough, but not the experience I was looking for.

The next morning I caught the 9:30 am lancha colectiva to Finca Tatin by route of Livingston. The boat ride was just as lovely as I remembered it. It passes by the Castillo de San Felipe, a historic fort that once protected Guatemala from pirates. The area is a national park and looks like the perfect spot for a picnic. It also passes by the Isla de Pajaros (Bird Island), which is almost always full of birds. In addition, there’s a 15 minute stop at Aguas Calientes, where you can enjoy a natural hot spring,d so don’t forget to put on a swimsuit beforehand.

Rio Dulce
Castillo de San Felipe
Rio Dulce
Water lilies along the Rio Dulce
Rio Dulce
Small villages along the Rio Dulce

Finca Tatin is located in a remote part of the Rio Dulce, about an hour away from Fronteras. So there are very few tourists, which to me is perfect. The property is a series of bungalows situated within the mangrove forest. The area is powered by solar energy, so if you want to charge your electronics, you have to do so in the main area and it operates from 7am to 7pm. Internet and phone service is inconsistent, but I found it nice to be unplugged for a while. I spent the majority of my time lazing in a hammock watching the mangrove forest. If you look closely, there are dozens of tiny crabs scurrying about. Birds dart through the trees. Butterflies flutter around. At night, you’ll see the fireflies. One time, I spotted a turtle. Another time, I saw river otters.

Since I had missed the lancha colectiva the first day, I had a bit less time than I wanted at Finca Tatin. I had hoped to hike from the property to Livingston and spend the day there. The hotel can hire a guide for you and then you can either take the lancha back or have your stuff shipped to you. I guess it’s a good excuse to go back!

Rio Dulce
Finca Tatin
Rio Dulce
River otter at Finca Tatin
Rio Dulce
School of Ak’Tenamit

Instead, I took a short hike to Ak’Tenamit, a nonprofit that provides healthcare and education to the Q’eqchi Maya people. They also have a community tourism training program and it is through them that Finca Tatin organizes guides to Livingston and some nearby caves. The hike there is about a 20 minute walk through a dense forest. You’ll also have to cross a river and you should be aware that the water level can be quite high after heavy rains. There are a few markers that will guide the way. Be sure to wear good shoes and bring a liter of water. Rio Dulce can be quite humid so you need to be mindful of staying hydrated. The grounds at Ak’Tenamit are quite pretty and it was nice to see all of the projects they are working on. The locals there are friendly too and I felt safe walking around by myself.

After my hike, I enjoyed a temescal, Mayan traditional sauna. These saunas are dome-shaped and quite small; you have to crouch down in order to enter one. This particular one was heated by an old fashioned wood stove that you spray with water on the outside of it in order to produce steam. The bottom of the temescal is covered in water so you can splash some on yourself if you get too hot. Or you could jump into the river, which just outside the temescal. I did a bit of both. It was so refreshing to swim amongst such natural beauty. About an hour after I entered the temescal, the sun began to set and turned the sky a beautiful golden color. Another hour later, it was dark and I swam beneath the stars.

Dinners at Finca Tatin are communal, so it’s a nice and easy way to meet fellow travelers and make new friends. The meals are delicious and made with fresh local ingredients. Be sure to try the chimichurri sauce, it’s delicious! There are both vegetarian and vegan options.

The Rio Dulce is probably one of my favorite places in Guatemala, yet very few foreigners know about it. So if you’re looking to get off the Gringo Trail, go here! I also can’t recommend Finca Tatin highly enough.

Know Before You Go to Rio Dulce:

  • The boat between Rio Dulce and Livingston runs just twice a day (at 9:30am and 2pm) and has a fixed price of 125Q
  • If you’re arriving later in the day and would like to stay at Finca Tatin, I suggest going to Puerto Barrios, where boats run later at night
  • Buses and shuttles run from Guatemala City, Flores, Coban, Lanquin and San Pedro Sula. Here’s the full schedule.
  • Dorms at Finca Tatin cost 60Q. They can organize lots of activities for you and have both vegan and vegetarian meal options.
  • It’s cash only at Finca Tatin, so make sure you’ve got plenty of money on you beforehand

 

  • This is really cool! Guatemala is my favorite country in Central America and I have not even scratched the surface. I like to go to not so popular places so, this place feel right.

  • Michelle Chumbley

    The water lilies look so beautiful! I’d love to see this place!

  • This place looks lovely! I’d love to go here one day

  • Lisa Rivera

    Your photos are so beautiful! I’ve yet to visit Guatemala, but I would like to see Rio Dulce when I do go. Great tip on the water taxis, now I’ll know the time and won’t miss it. Still, you found a beautiful place in the end.

  • That’s a good tip to wear comfortable shoes for the hike, also useful about paying attention if the weather has been bad. Finca Tatin sounds like a wonderful location to stay, peaceful and away from tourists. You took some stunning images of Lake Dulce.

  • I have not heard this place Rio Dulce before and it looks so raw and untouched. Water lilies/Lotus pond is very photogenic. You have given nice tips on buses, shuttles and water taxis.

  • Lois Alter Mark

    Travel logistics are always tricky but I’m glad you ended up enjoying your journey. Finca Tatin sounds dreamy- the perfect off-the-grid spot. I can only imagine what it was like to be surrounded by fireflies in that beautiful greenery! Plus, those otters!

  • Raghav

    Breathtakingly beautiful and so wonderfully captured by your words. A part of the world I know next to nothing, so all of this is new information and so great that you incorporated your travel with visiting the non-profit organization. I just wish it was closer to home, as it’s literally on the other side of the world for me.

  • Those water lilies are gorgeous and I don’t ever think I’ve seen an otter in real life besides the zoo! I’ve never been to Guatemala and I’d love to see this in person.

  • AdventuresAbroad

    I love the Castillo de San Felipe… it looks so beautiful right on the water! I also love the water lilies. When I make it to Guatemala I definitely have to take a trip to the rio dulce!

  • Sujenne Macaay

    Beautiful place. Never heard of it before but glad to have found your post

  • Mary M

    Getting off the Gringo trail sounds good. Thanks for the tip. Duly noted on my LOPTG. Thanks

  • caroekg

    This looks like such a beautiful place! Look at all that lush greenery, how incredible! Those water lillies are gorgeous as well! Would love to visit someday

  • Lucy Williams

    Rio Dulce looks beautiful and I love the name! I wouldn’t mind sitting in a hammock taking in all the nature around me & unplug!

  • jacklyn.

    I’ve totally also found myself in a “missed the last” public transport while abroad which is the worst. But it seems like you rolled with the punches well and made the best of it! Your photos are gorg and totally inspiring a trip to Rio Dulce!

  • valerie teves

    Yay, there’s otter in the river, how cool is that.
    Would love to see more photos of Finca Tatin, what lies ahead of the path. Gorgeous photos!

    Valerie
    http://www.weekendhaven.com

  • What a cool experience. Sounds like you had an interesting time, especially with missing the last boat. I don’t know what I would have done. haha.

  • maninder k

    Love the photos! Place looks so secluded would love to visit.

  • Suma Shah

    Finca Tatin sounds magical, surrounded by mangroves with butterflies and fireflies playing around you. I would love to visit the place someday, it is beautiful. I would also be happy to take a break from gadgets as it would let me truely let me relax and enjoy the moment.

  • kristen gill

    Love this article! Brought me back to my special time spent in Rio Dulce about 10 years ago. Such an amazing place. Now I need to go back! Thank you for the inspiration!

    Kristen Gill
    http://www.kristengill.com