If you think of paradise on earth, then Rio Dulce, Guatemala comes close. It is the essence of the Mayan Caribbean: lush nature, warm weather and welcoming people. In this post you will find the ultimate guide to Rio Dulce: how to get there, things to do, transportation, tours, tips and prices.
Rio Dulce is a national park with a variety of aquatic ecosystems. The whole area constitutes a habitat for crocodiles, manatees, marine birds such as white herons, the “pato coche” (“pig duck” – explained below), shearwaters and more. The river flows for 43 km (27 mi) from the Rio Dulce bridge to the river mouth on the Caribbean Sea through the impressive canyon. In Río Dulce you find small islands, mangroves, Mayan communities settled on the shore, ecological hotels and gardens on the water.
Where Rio Dulce is located and how to get there
Location of Rio Dulce
Río Dulce is located 325 km (202 mi) from Antigua Guatemala, 285 km (177 mi) from Guatemala City and 207 km (129 mi) from the island of Flores in Peten.
Some websites and maps refer to the town of Rio Dulce as Fronteras – which is correct -, but this name is rarely used for this area. If you ask locals about the location, call it Rio Dulce or El Puente de Rio Dulce. This way you will avoid confusion because there are other towns that are also called Fronteras.
How to get to Rio Dulce from Guatemala City or Antigua Guatemala
The road to Río Dulce is in good condition. Here are the three safest options to get to Rio Dulce from Guatemala City or Antigua, Guatemala:
The roads leading to Rio Dulce are perfectly accessible with city cars. An off-road car is not necessary. From Antigua Guatemala you take the CA-1 and RN-10 highways that lead to Guatemala City. Follow the route drawn on the map below. There is no route that avoids the capital.
From Guatemala City it is 285 km (177 mi) to Rio Dulce. Due to heavy traffic, this will take 7 to 8 hours.
I suggest you leave early in the morning, starting at 7:00 AM with a full tank of gas. In any case, you will have several gas stations along the route. For safety reasons I recommend the following brands: Don Arturo, Puma, Shell, Texaco and Uno gas stations. At other gas stations robberies and overcharging scams can occur.
On the way you can visit the Mayan Ruins of Quirigua. It is an excellent stop near Rio Dulce, just a few minutes’ drive off the main road.
Litegua is the bus company that has coach buses from Guatemala City to Rio Dulce. Buses depart daily at: 5:30 am, 9:00 am, 11:00 am, 1:00 pm and 4:00 pm from the bus terminal in Guatemala City. One-way tickets cost up to 125 GTQ (16 USD). Book your trip at least 48 hours in advance because occupancy is usually high, especially on weekends.
The trip can take up to 9 hours, because the bus makes several stops. So, it is best to take the first bus in the morning. The bus terminal in Guatemala City is in an unsafe area of the Historic Center. So, to get there, take an Uber or a cab organized by your hotel.
There are no direct coach buses from Antigua to Rio Dulce. Your best option is to take a shuttle. It is more expensive to get to the coach bus station in Guatemala City from Antigua by Uber, the safest way, and take the bus to Rio Dulce from there.
You will find a sufficient number of tour-operators in Antigua and Guatemala City that provide shuttles to Rio Dulce. GuateGo is a website showing the available reliable shuttle services. There you can book your ticket.
How to get to Rio Dulce from Peten
It is a 207 km (129 mi) road in good condition. The CA13 will take you directly from the town of Santa Elena in Peten to the main street of Río Dulce. You will find several gas stations along the way. Again, for safety reasons, I recommend the ones I mentioned above: Don Arturo, Puma, Shell, Texaco, and Uno.
If you drive to Río Dulce, chose a hotel that includes parking or ask at your hotel for secure parking. The rate is around 75 GTQ (9 USD) per day/night.
By bus or by shuttle
To get to Rio Dulce from Peten by bus or shuttle I suggest you book online in advance. Use GuateGo to make a reservation with either of the two main coach bus companies: Maya de Oro and Fuentes del Norte. For the shuttle service you can book the transfers coordinated by Rio Dulce Travel on this same website. The departure times of the transfers are normally in the morning and the trip will take approximately 4 hours.
Where to stay in Rio Dulce, Guatemala
Rio Dulce National Park offers a variety of accommodations. You can choose from a wide range of hotels and lodges, including eco-lodges and cabins. Whatever type of accommodation you choose, you will be sure to enjoy the stunning views of the river and its surrounding forest. Click here to read my selection of the 5 best hotels in the area.
What to do in Rio Dulce, Guatemala
Manatees, or sea cows, are endangered mammals that inhabit shallow, slow-moving waters from Florida in the USA to southern Brazil. They resemble seals, and can grow up to 3 meters in length, and have broad snouts. They feed on plants and fish caught in fishing nets. The change in fresh and salt water composition gives rise to a wide variety of plants available to the manatees. Therefore, Rio Dulce is one of the few places where these animals can be seen.
To see the manatees, visit the Chocon Machacas Protected Biotope that was created for the protection of these rare mammals. Make sure to be there at 6:00 am. At this time, there is little boat traffic and the manatees come to the surface. There are two options to get to the biotope:
- Take a tour through a local agency (Happy Fish Travel or Rio Dulce Travel).
- Hire a boat taxi through your hotel.
Touring El Golfete and the Rio Dulce Canyon
The Golfete is the widest part (200 m / 650 ft) of the river, which you will pass after 10 km (6 mi) by boat from Rio Dulce. Immediately afterwards you enter the canyon. The river becomes narrow, with walls up to 150 m (500 ft) high. Lush nature surrounds you the whole way.
This tour is organized by tour-operators every day. Another option is to book it at the reception of your hotel. Taking this tour, you can also visit the town of Livingston, which is very close to the river mouth on the Caribbean. Livingston is well worth a visit for a couple of days.
The boat ride takes about an hour and a half. It stops at the following points:
- Isla de los Pajaros: This small island is densely vegetated and forms and idyllic wetland. The island is home to a local species of duck, which the Guatemalans refers to as “pato coche” (“pig duck”) due to its sound resembling that of a pig. The captain will stop near the island so that you can see and hear them.
- Aguas calientes: This is a stop at a small restaurant. Next to this restaurant there are hot springs where you can take a bath. This part of the river is no more than 1 m (3 ft) deep. Heere you can also explore two natural caves with pools of hot water inside. The entrance fee is 15 GTQ (2 USD).
- Water flower garden: In this garden on water, lotus flowers and lilies create a unique and beautiful landscape, with small Mayan cabins on the shore in the background.
Visiting the Castle of San Felipe de Lara
It is located right at the river mouth of Lake Izabal with Rio Dulce. From its towers it offers a beautiful panoramic view of the surrounding areas.
This castle was built in the 17th century by the Spaniards as a fortress against pirates and British soldiers. Later it served as a prison and finally as a customs house. The castle has undergone two major reconstructions: the first in 1688 after it was partly burned and destroyed in pirate attacks; and the second in 1955 at the beginning of its life as a tourist/historical destination. For historical accuracy, Francisco Ferrus Roig, the architect in charge of the last restoration, resorted to the original drawings in the General Archive of the Indies in Spain. As a result, it is now in good condition.
It is a small castle, yet its internal structure looks like a labyrinth. Every time you enter a hallway, you find yourself in an unexpected part of the castle. Of the places to visit in Rio Dulce this is a must for those interested in its history. I recommend arriving mid-morning and taking the tour with a guide that can be hired at the entrance.
Around the castle there are trails, beaches, grills and a cemetery with a very local touch.
The entrance fee is 75 GTQ (9 USD).
How to get to Castle of San Felipe de Lara
There are three ways to get to the Castle of San Felipe de Lara:
From your hotel you can arrange a boat transfer. It is around 100 GTQ (12.50 USD) one way per person. This is the fastest and most direct option, however it is not the cheapest.
You can take a microbus colectivo from the main street of the town heading towards San Felipe de Lara (junction with National Route 7E). When you get on the bus, tell the driver that you are going to the Castillo San Felipe and ask him to drop you off at the bus stop near the entrance. The one-way trip is 5 GTQ (0.60 USD) per person. The entrance to the castle area is about 80 meters (260 feet) from the stop. There are signs, so you can’t get lost.
The most comfortable option is by car. Take the road to San Felipe de Lara from the center of Rio Dulce and you get there in 15 minutes or less. The castle is signposted and the road is in good condition. Park your car in the private parking lot next to the main entrance. The parking fee is 20 GTQ (2.50 USD) no matter how long you stay.
Visiting Finca El Paraiso waterfall
The Finca El Paraiso waterfall in Guatemala is a breathtaking sight. This spectacular waterfall of more than 12 meters (40 feet) is situated in a lush tropical rainforest. Click here for more information and how to get there.
Visting the El Boqueron canyon
The El Boqueron canyon is one of Guatemala’s natural wonders. It is a deep canyon with towering walls on either side, filled with lush vegetation. It provides a home to a wide variety of wildlife. El Boqueron is a must-see destination for anyone visiting Guatemala. Click here for more information and how to get there.
Hiking in Hacienda Tijax
Hacienda Tijax is a hotel with a truly unique setting. Its rooms overlook the Rio Dulce wetlands. Exploring the hotel’s facilities – including the pool, restaurant, rooms and common areas – is done by walking along the connecting piers. If you’re lucky, you may even spot a crocodile passing by! However, a notice warns guests not to feed them.
Staying at Tijax you can also book a hiking tour. This hike takes you to hanging bridges, rubber plantations, waterfalls, an insect museum and the Torre del Shaman (“Shaman Tower”) with a great panoramic view of the river. The hike is easy and the trails are not steep. However, they can be slippery due to the humidity of the area. It will take 45 minutes to complete.
To access this hike, you pay 80 GTQ (10 USD) at the hotel reception. A good option is to take the tour because the guide explains the route and the history of the site. You can also go horseback riding through the surrounding area and go kayaking on the river and the lake. This way you can even visit the castle of San Felipe de Lara.
How to get to Hacienda Tijax
From the Rio Dulce Bridge (CA13), it is 2 km (1.2 mi) until you find the sign for kilometer 276 on your right. Turn right, then a bit later there is a fork, take the road to the right. After 50 meters (160 feet), you will arrive at the main entrance then follow the dirt road for 10 minutes approximately to get to the hotel parking lot.
Contact the Tijax reception via WhatsApp or phone call (+502 3732 8104). Arrange with them to pick you up at the main dock in Rio Dulce.
Zip line in Rio Dulce
Among the places to visit in Rio Dulce, Tenamit Maya Hotel and Adventure Park is the perfect spot for adventurers. There you can take on acrobatic challenges in the jungle, such as a circuit of 10 zip lines over the jungle and a river, kayaking, a dip in the hot springs, and climbing bridges and hanging stairs between the trees. The price for these activities is approximately 150 GTQ (19 USD), although it may vary depending on the season and the number of activities you choose to include in your challenge package.
How to get to Tenamit Maya
The best way to get to Tenamit Maya is by contacting Tenamit’s administration. Arrange for them to pick you up from the main dock in Rio Dulce. You can also take a taxi boat, but that is much more expensive.
The weather in Rio Dulce, Guatemala
The temperatures in Rio Dulce range from 25°C to 32°C (77°F to 90°F) and humidity is high. The best time to visit Rio Dulce is from the end of February to the end of June, as rainfall is scarce, so you can enjoy the sights without any interruption.
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