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.
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!
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