Castillo de San Felipe de Lara, overlooking Lago de Izabal

Why I spent 2 months in Rio Dulce despite scathing tourist reviews

Why here? 

This question was posed to us on numerous occasions by locals, fellow travelers, and even our Airbnb host. Why did you and your girlfriend come all the way from Canada to Río Dulce for such a long period of time? These somewhat cynical pressings, combined with scathing online reviews, challenged us to dig deep to defend our 2-month stay, and to rebelliously seek out positive experiences, grand and small, both in and around town. 

T-shirts hang to dry over a porch hammock, overlooking jungle foliage
The view from our porch hammock. Photo: Andrew Douglas

The Pros and Cons Of An Extended Stay In Río Dulce

This part of Eastern Guatemala (the Department of Izabal) is dichotomous, to say the least. At first glance, Río Dulce (sometimes called Fronteras) could be shrugged off as a hectic transit town. The main road lacks sidewalks, is lined to the edge with various establishments, and is regularly overwhelmed with giant, rumbling trucks and zippy tuk tuks that force pedestrians to attentively squeeze their bodies between the obstacles. Especially near the sole, highway-funneling bridge that crosses the titular river, the sweltering Caribbean climate pairs with the pollution to create a rather trying mix. But with all that said, fumes weren't the only thing in the air – so was adventure! Río Dulce is a wild and real place. For us, this was the perfect antidote to the hyper-sanitized nanny-state that our homeland had morphed into. Plus, we were able to rent a house on a private nature reserve, make several fascinating day-trips, and meet loads of interesting people while we were there. I don't know that I would permanently relocate, but I am glad that we defied the nay-sayers. 

A busy road in small town Guatemala - motorcycles, tuk tuks and pedestrians all share the way
An easy-going day near Rio Dulce bridge. Wait for the trucks to arrive! Photo: Lauren Squire

A Quiet Refuge Away From The Main Drag

A good homebase is key to long term traveling. I have certainly enjoyed hostel-hopping for shorter trips, but the preferred approach for the past couple of years has been to find comfortable and affordable places that allow us to settle into a workable rhythm (Irina and I are both "digital nomads"), and from which we can branch out to explore. 

A young woman works at a table under a single light bulb inside of a jungle cabin at night.
Irina working away under the one, solar-powered light bulb. 

The Quaint Bohemian Farmhouse was exactly what we needed. Make no mistake, it was rustic (no fridge, no hot water, no A/C, and solar-powered), but it was also cozy, authentic, and by fortune of being within the 400-acre Hacienda Tijax Nature Reserve and Marina, well-removed from the Río Dulce madness. 

A yellow cabin sits atop a grassy hill surrounded by lush jungle
The Quaint Bohemian Farmhouse. Photo: Irina Lipan

When we weren't cooking meals on our two-burner hot plate, having conversations with the geckos, or swinging life away on the porch hammock, we had access to Tijax's pool, restaurant, group yoga sessions, and trail network that wound through a small part of the jungle, to a stone lookout tower. 

A rope bridge spanning a canyon in the jungle.
One of the immersive, nerve-testing rope bridges on the jungle trail. Photo: Andrew Douglas
A blond female backpacker looks out over the jungle from atop a stone tower
A view of the trail, and the surrounding area from atop the "shaman" tower. Photo: Andrew Douglas

Wholesome Experiences Around Town

The virtue of not having a fridge is that it makes you go out to buy fresh food on a daily basis. I loved the little backroad circuits that revealed themselves over time. Mixing and matching tiendas (neighborhood shops) and roadside produce vendors allowed me to mingle with more people in the area. And engaging with the microcosm via regular errands added structure and necessity to my day greatly improved my Spanish, and unveiled lots of little moments that can't be planned for and are easy to miss if just hopping from one tour to the next. I always got a kick out of the two kids that ran the store closest to our house (the mom owned it but would leave them to steer the ship for entire afternoons), the barefoot kite-flyers, the free-roaming animals, and I even liked the high-octane energy of the highway. 

Two young boys playing foosbol at the local store
The two local tienda proprietors. They smoked me at foosball. Photo: Andrew Douglas
Two kids flying kites in the street while a woman carries items to the store.
One of those random, magical travel moments. Photo: Andrew Douglas

After working up a sweat, Irina and I might head for one of the numerous waterfront watering holes (some looked more official than others). They tended to receive a cooling breeze off the river, which took the afternoon edge off in a way our lonely fan couldn't contend with. The vibe was always casual, and I even played a handful of unplugged acoustic shows in exchange for beer and tips.

A wooden hut sitting on a waterside dock.
Our favorite bar on the water. Photo: Andrew Douglas

Compelling Day Trips Near Río Dulce

Río Dulce is within shouting distance of several stimulating places. The closest is Castillo de San Felipe de Lara – a 17th-century Spanish fort that sits right where Rio Dulce (the river) flows into Lago de Izabal. This impressive structure, erected to defend against both the British and pirates, is on the UNESCO World Heritage tentative list, as it marks a significant period in Guatemala's history. 

The exterior of a stone, waterfront Spanish fort
The exterior of Castillo de San Felipe de Lara. Photo: Andrew Douglas

The park can be reached via lancha or land (tuk tuk, taxi, bus, etc.), and general admittance includes nearly total access to the castle. Visitors will discover submerged dungeons, tight, byzantine hallways, tiny doors to duck under (people were a lot smaller back then), and lots of cool viewpoints. The rest of the grounds are also well worth exploring. There are pleasant nature paths to wander, and unlike the river, which is unfortunately bombarded with waste, Lake Izabal is more suitable for swimming (not just for humans, but manatees too). Dichotomies!

A simple rope swing overlooking a body of water.
A pleasant spot to relax, looking back across the river to Rio Dulce Bridge. Photo: Andrew Douglas

Further West along the North shore of Lago de Izabal, two natural wonders are accessible. Budget travelers with a propensity for quirky transportation will feel right at home in the jam-packed microbuses (commonly referred to as colectivos or kombis) that leave from the center of town – with barre-toned chaperones calling out potential destinations. This hop-on, hop-off vessels are perfect for exploring at your own pace. They are also great social lubricants (we instantly made a single-serving friend who accompanied us for the whole day). 

Our first stop was El Boquerón. We knew that there was supposed to be an impressive canyon with humble boat tours, but when we jumped out, there was no obvious fanfare. In fact, we were the only ones there. Period. After a bit of stone kicking (and contending with the most horrendous bathroom I've ever seen), a single paddle boat emerged from the canyon, dropped a few fellow tourists off on the shore, and then signaled us to jump in. The man took us upstream until we were practically engulfed by the mile-high walls and rainforest canopy, let us off at a small rocky beach, and agreed to return in an hour. Once again, I adored how informal everything was. This kind of litigious arrangement would be impossible back home. But here there was no bureaucracy, no guardrails, no waivers to sign – just a guy in a boat, a big old canyon, a bit of cash exchanged, and a win-win arrangement for this silly group of strangers. 

A man sits in the front of a paddle boat that is heading into a lush canyon
Our friend Jaime has the best seat in the boat as we move deeper into El Boquerón canyon. Photo: Andrew Douglas

For stage two of our outing, we flagged down another bus and backtracked slightly towards Río Dulce. We were let off at a minimally-marked stop (the guy riding shotgun simply had to tell us when we arrived), with a trail leading to a hot spring waterfall known as Finca El Paraíso. We had to pay the equivalent of $2 (USD) to a woman with no discernible qualifications, and then we were accompanied by a man who claimed to be the protector of the site. He was, in actuality, an unappointed local working for donations, but he had an undeniable connection with the place, and showed us a good time. 

A short hike through the woods brought us to the phenomenon. The area was supremely beautiful and also capriciously geothermal. Some parts of the river were ice cold, while others were dangerously hot. The main pool was invigorating towards the back, but upon swimming up to the falls, it felt like a hot tub was being continuously dumped on my head. This was a bit off-putting at first, but once I found the sweet spot, it was ridiculously relaxing. To cap off the therapeutic experience, our guide brought us up to the top of the falls, and slathered us in the mineral-rich mud. It may look like we're covered in diarrhea, but I can assure you it was a pleasant sensation. 

A mud-covered couple in bathing suits stand in front of a waterfall
Us mud-covered travelers standing in front of the Finca El Paraíso waterfall. Photo: Our mysterious guide. 

One word of warning for travelers who follow in our footsteps. Our unofficial guide (and some other online sources) spoke of a cave that was hidden underneath the waterfall. Several times he encouraged us to take a deep breath and plunge into the darkness, upon which time an air pocket would present itself. I was the only taker. I tried twice but only succeeded in banging my head, scrapping my body on the rocks, and growing legitimately fearful of drowning. Once you go under the massive rock, the only options are to either find the air pocket, reset, and then swim back out when ready; or fail to break through and frantically back-paddle your way out. I'm sure it's one of those things where once you do it, the method becomes obvious. But if going in blind, as most visitors will undoubtedly be, I wouldn't recommend taking the risk. 

Río Dulce is a polarizing place. We found ourselves there because of random chance (i.e. searching Airbnbs in Central America for something that we could afford and settle into long-term), and only found out about the hidden perks after we arrived. I'm not opposed to classically appealing places, in fact part two of this series will take us to the Mayan ruins of Tikal and the colorful island of Flores, but sometimes it's fun to just see what you get, go with the flow, and experience average life in a foreign land – warts and all. 


More in Travel