Rio Dulce – Sweet River with Old Town Outfitters
Guatemala City and General || First Antigua Ride with Backshop Bikes || Second Antigua Ride with Backshop Bikes || El Zur with Old Town Outfitters || Tikal || Lake Atitlan with Old Town Outfitters || Acatenango with Old Town Outfitters
What do with three days in the Rio Dulce of Guatemala? The Rio Dulce is in the Izaba department/county of Guatemala about 200km East of Guatemala City. It’s a bit of a little brother to the more well known tourist attractions of Guatemala but is well worth seeing in its own right being located on the Carribean coast close to sea-level and therefore a totally different bio-geo-climatic zone than the higher areas closer to Ciudad or Antigua next to volcanoes.
We chose to see this area over three days and two nights from Antigua via a trip with Old Town Outfitters. You could also visit this area on your way to Tikal by driving from Ciudad aka Guatemala City and flying or bussing home from Flores.
The drive to the gateway town to Fronteras is through the dry Oriente part of Guatemala. It’s a way to see the country and to visit other places you might otherwise miss; particularly the major highway linking the Pacific to the Carribean through the interior and the many nondescript highway towns along the way. One noteworth thing to do is to get fresh fruit from many of the roadside stalls. Inexpensive and cooling. We arranged this trip through Old Town Outfitters since they have established relationships in these areas over the 20 years of doing tours in Guatemala.
You will likely base either out of Ciudad or Antigua before embarking on the road to the Rio Dulce (we were out of Antigua). Prior to driving to Rio Dulce, we stayed overnight at San Jorge Hotel in Antigua. They provided a bag lunch for us for the next day which was very welcome during the long drive.
San Jorge – great hotel in Antigua!
Welber from Old Town Outfitters picked us up at 5:00am for the start of our journey. After a 7 hour drive we arrived in the town Fronteras (often itself called Rio Dulce). The Rio Dulce drainage starts at Lake Izabal and drains a vast section of rainforest 43km (27miles) into the Caribbean Sea. Due to its low lying location it is a significantly warmer and more humid area of Guatemala. The area consists of tropical jungle comparable to South American jungles thus rich in flora and fauna typical of warm humid climates.
The town of Rio Dulce or Fronteras. It’s a hustle-bustle commercial centre
This area was popular for shipping, thus the presence of a Spanish fort, and UNESCO Heritage site – Castillo de San Felipe de Lara to (unsuccessfully) fend off English pirates from Belize. The castle is situated at the narrowest point of the river. Fronteras is now the major city in the area while commercial shipping and truck traffic has moved to Puerto Barrios further along the coast.
Super cool dugout canoe used by locals
After arriving in Fronteras we visited the thermally heated waterfalls of Finca Paraiso. This site is about a 20 minute drive from the town on private land so you must pay a fee to visit the waterfalls, and an extra 3Q to use the Banos. The waterfalls fall into a slow flowing river that creates a cool, deep swimming pool to relax in. It’s a beautiful spot and well-worth the 1/2 hour drive to get there.
Bring a post swim beer! The kids here and the stores could make a fortune selling refrescos to the many tourists who pass through.
Enjoying a warm bath
Once back at Fronteras we were met by David the driver of the Lancha (water taxi ) from Finca Tatin; our jungle accommodations for this night. We had a river tour to the Castillo, then headed East 32km to Rio Tatin where Finca Tatin is situated. Our ride down the ever widening river as the sun was setting made the long drive a distant memory. As we went further down I was reminded of the Amazon Jungle as the Herons, Cormorants, Pelicans, Vultures, Falcons, plus many other birds that can be found by dedicated bird watchers were perched nearby. The howls of monkeys could also be heard.
We arrived at Finca Tatin, a 20 year old Eco Lodge built by Carlos, anArgentinan expat and closet carpenter. This is his dream home and hobby. Carlos hires local people as well as the expats to help him build, modify and maintain the lodge. We were greated by Chris, a German who came here and never left. His enthusiam for the place was tempered only by his devotion to it and desire to ensure your time here was well spent. Finca Tatin is a gem; a labour of love and a work of art in and of itself.
Tips when visiting Finca Tatin (and the Rio Dulce generally)
- Since you are in the jungle bug spray is useful. Athough when we were there in November the bugs weren’t bad.
- There are no ATMs or credit card machines in the lodge, so carry cash to pay your bill. There are ATM’s in Livingston and Fronteras.
- We were advised to check for scorpions before getting into bed, putting on clothes, or using a towel to dry off. We didn’t see any, and they aren’t deadly here, but you probably don’t want to get stung.
- While you can book on Trip Advisor, they prefer you call Finca Tatin directly to book. (502) 4148-3332 or (502) 479-7744.They don’t check for online bookings regularly, and the staff running the lodge is small so direct contact would be most efficient to allow them to prepare for guests and your transportation .
- Electronic devices aren’t necessary here (unless that’s where you keep your reading materials and camera). You can recharge in the evening. There is also cell phone data service here
As we arrived later in the afternoon we were able to enjoy the communal dinner served at the long table where we were able to chat with other visitors to the Lodge. One of the visitors was an Englishman who works in Sweden who is working with the Indigenous Community at the educational center Ak’Tenamit a short hike from the lodge. Finca Tatin’s guest are an eclectic bunch!
The lodge is powered by a generator that runs from 6 to 10pm. This is the time when the lights are on. On either side of those times there is no power so charge your devices then! There is cell reception at the lodge but they don’t provide wireless. I found I did not miss it since listening to the jungle provided enough entertainment. It’s at night when the sounds of the jungle come alive only tempered by the sound of the river running endlessly.
Inside our room
Chilling on the balcony
After we had an incredibly restful night we ate breakfast and hiked to Ak’Tenamit, run by the Mayan Q’eqchi people. Here you can see the kids and locals making their local crafts (marketed through the store or online), learning construction techniques with jungle materials and doing repairs to the place.
Agricultural research into how to maximize food production is also a big part of the community as well as an IT centre which maintains computing devices to allow the locals to connect to the outside world. You can see their fish tanks and area where they have pigs and chickens right next to the computer building.. This place has made a huge difference to the community since it’s become a centre to educate kids who commute here from many kms distance by dugout canoe. Ak’Tenamit has empowered the locals, educating them, giving them tools for improvement and allowed them to make a better living away from or on the river.
Crafts, building and cooking school.
Aquaculture, Chickens, Pigs and recycling at Ak’Tenamit
Hiking trail to Ak’Tenamit
Once back at the lodge you can dive into the river, or swing from the rope to wash the humidity from your body. After we relaxed some more, had a Liquidos and pizza for lunch we hopped into our Kayaks for a 2 hour paddle downstream to Livingston on the Carribean coast.
Finca Tatin lodge also offers other activities if you didn’t come with your own. So even if you go there independent of a tour such as offered by Old Time Outfitters, there is plenty to keep you entertained from Kayak trips, sightseeing, checking out a hot spring, visiting the Tiger Caves or nature reserve – Biotope Chocón Machaca, or heading to Belize to go snorkeling.
Our paddle downstream was relaxing as we looked upon the towering cliffs to see what nature awaited. We did see a Pelican catch a fish and other birds fly overhead but the amount of human traffic and the heat of the day tends to keep wildlife senescent. . It’s on the river that you get a true appreciation for the tropical jungle and its depth and the sheer vibrance and saturation of shades of deeper and deeper green.
The walls of the Rio Dulce canyon, its white cliff, the massive expanse of trees and the eternal progress of the river are in stark contrast to the monoculture of the clearcut palm oil plantations of Fronteras and other more populated parts of Guatemala (deforestation is a problem here). .
Finca Tatin has regular boat rides to Livingston so ferries your overnight bags ahead so you can go light in kayaks. Gradually the river widens as one approaches the Carribean. There are many dugout canoes used by the locals as their main commute; the closer one gets to the coast, the more human impact increases. As the river widens unfortunately, the garbage in the river increases and derilict vessels started dotting the shore.
The town of Livingston at the end of the Rio Dulce is populated by the Garifuna people. These are a mixed race descendants of West African, Central African, Island Carib, and Arawak people. The only way to this town is by boat, although it does have roads, plenty of cars and commerce, the only roads are in the town.
You could see Livingston was more of a working town. We paddled to our next hotel La Casa Rosada on the shore. While not as serene as Finca Tatin, it was quiet and walking through the town was an interesting experience. We awoke the next day at 6am, picked up again by David for our boat ride back to Fronteras and our drive back to Guatemala City.
The dock in front of the hotel
On the way back to Ciduad we stopped at the Mayan UNESCO Heritage site – Quiriguá. This area was inhabited by the Mayans as part of their trading route from AD200-900. The unique feature about this site are the 17 monuments of sculpture constructed with the abundant sandstone to create carved stelae and calendars as a testament to the rulers of the time. After the Mayans had left the area it became private land but nothing was done there until 1840 when it was again visited by friends of the land owner. Again nothing was done until another archeologist visited and made extensive investigatio and observations about the site. The area was then bought by United Fruit Company in 1910 (now Del Monte) who used the area to grow Bananas. Del Monte set aside this area as an archaeological park bequething it to Guatemala.
After a long drive home, Welber from Old Town Outfitters braved three heinuos hours of Guatemala City rush hour to drop us off at the Hotel Casa Blanca in Ciudad. Another HOT TIP. Do not expect to get through Ciudad traffic quickly so if you have a plane to catch leave lots and lots and lots of time. From there we caught our flight back to Vancouver and back to the rains of late fall.