Río Dulce is tropical. It’s hot, humid and intermittently very rainy. The terrain is jungly, the city proper is noisy and the culture is super languid. There’s a substantial retirement-and-beyond aged crowd of foreigners who are permanent or semi-permanent residents, due mostly to the fact that Río Dulce is a well known, easily navigable seaport - a magnet for sailors and yachtsmen.
Top reasons backpackers visit Río Dulce (skip to highlights if you're rushed):
- Beautiful, jungly riverside eco-lodges
- Tropical climate, plants and animals
- Tours and day-trips around the river and lake
Welcome to Río Dulce
Don’t be fooled when you step off the bus in Río Dulce — the main strip and the town itself situated around the foot of the bridge are not the central attractions. In fact, Río Dulce as a town (or Fronteras as the locals would have it) is a little overwhelming if not oppressive. The main street is often packed with people, trucks, tuk-tuks and eighteen wheelers squeezing through highway CA13, one of Guatemala’s primary connections to the northern region of Petén. There is loud music blaring from small shops and tons of traffic noise. The Jake Brakes — loud, machine gun sounding compression brakes used by diesel eighteen wheelers — from incoming commercial traffic can be heard clearly a half-mile down the river.
The main street in Río Dulce (Fronteras), choked with loud trucks
The best way to enjoy Río Dulce is to spend your time on the Río Dulce — the river itself. The river connects the Atlantic ocean, after miles of beautiful winding through canyons, with the broad body of water El Golfete, then to the huge Lago Izabal further along. There are plenty of jungle lodges along the river — quiet, isolated hostels with lots of good swimming, kayaking, local tours, jungle wildlife and an open invitation to warm, lazy days.
Municipal dock, the hub of river traffic
Virtually all jungle lodges in the Río Dulce area can only be reached by boat. It’s always best to arrange accommodations beforehand. Most lodges and hostels will offer to pick you up from the Municipal Dock (embarcadero municipal) located under the bridge on the Río Dulce side, or from another convenient location. You can always poke around at the dock for information, too, as there are plenty of public transit boats and tour boats moving in and out of there on a regular schedule.
Take a look at our full list of Río Dulce hostels and hotels here.
The best way to experience the river is via kayak. Most hotels & hostels in the area offer kayak rentals or even free kayaks for guests. A few hours’ kayak trip could put you face-to-face with monkeys, fish, all kinds of birds and maybe even a manatee — and of course some quiet jungle-side villages and local fishermen, etc.
A monkey relaxes in an Aldea near Río Dulce
The owner at Kangaroo’s is a super helpful nature enthusiast who would be happy to get you set up with a kayak and a good plan for a couple of hours. The Round House is another great option. They’re much farther out into the river so you’ll gain views of the dramatic cliffs and banks along the river at the cost of finding fewer quiet, shaded marshlands to slowly paddle through.
Here’s our full list of Río Dulce hostels that have kayaks.
If you decide to stay in the actual town of Río Dulce for a night or two, there are plenty of options in terms of local hotels and things to do. There are also a couple of decent restaurants and a plethora of street meat, taco stands and comedores (mom & pop eateries). Make sure to try the Tortilla de harina, a huge flour tortilla covered in goodies and browned on one side.
The Río Dulce, lilied along its edges
Some worthwhile places to visit around the town of Río Dulce include:
- Finca Paraíso (Paradise Farm): Hot springs, waterfall and river.
- Castillo San Felipe (Saint Philip’s Castle): Historic 17th century castle and gun-fort along the river.
- Ruinas Quiriguá (Quiriguá Ruins): Most intact Mayan stone carvings in the area. Very impressive totem-like structures, although not ruins of buildings or temples.
- El Estor: A small nearby town with lake beaches, hotels and restaurants.
- El Río Dulce (The river itself): Tour boats are available, but most simply drive around the river and point out some areas of interest. It’s probably best to stay at a riverside lodge and explore yourself via kayak — that way you can also swim.
Know of some other day-trips in and around Río Dulce? Let me know in the comments below.
A man casts a net along the Río Dulce
Your major takeaways are likely to be the River itself, some warm and shady lounging, and the jungle ecosystem (monkeys, birds, etc) — all mostly accessible via riverside jungle lodges & hostels. History buffs will enjoy Castillo San Felipe and of course the Ruinas Quiriguá.
Quiet, isolated homes and lodges along the Río Dulce
Remember, if you aren’t wild about Río Dulce ask yourself these things: Am I on the river? Do I have access to a hammock? A kayak? Some local inside info? If any of your answers are no, fix it and reassess.