“In a few moments we entered the Rio Dulce. On each side, rising perpendicularly from three to four hundred feet, was a wall of living green. Trees grew from the water’s edge, with dense unbroken foliage, to the top; not a spot of barrenness was to be seen; and on both sides, from the tops of the highest trees, long tendrils descended to the water, as if to drink and carry life to the trunks that bore them. It was, as its name imports, a Rio Dulce, a fairy scene of Titan land, combining exquisite beauty with colossal grandeur. As we advanced the passage turned, and in a few minutes we lost sight of the sea, and were enclosed on all sides by a forest wall; but the river, although showing us no passage, still invited us onward.” – John Lloyd Stevens 1841.
Río Dulce (“Sweet River”) is one of the best known rivers in Guatemala (coordinates 15° 44′ 51? N, 88° 52′ 20? W), within the Izabal Department in the southern part of the country that is also home to Puerto Barrios, Santo Tomas de Castilla and Livingston.
As a large lake and river system it has become popular as a destination for the international boating community and as an economical retirement location for expatriates. Its proximity to Belize and on the way to the Mayan ruin at Tikal makes it a natural choice for exploring the southern interior of Guatemala.
The Rio Dulce area in near Lake Izabal is really an almost self-contained aquatic community. The highway that runs through the Town of Rio Dulce, also called Fronteras and the community at El Relleno on the way up to Peten is the only road to the area. From Fronteras and El Relleno there are no other roads save for the road that runs to San Felipe and El Estor. To get around to other areas in Rio Dulce one needs take a boat – these are readily available. Almost all homes and businesses on the Rio Dulce have a boat dock. Cruisers usually have a dinghy with a small outboard so getting around is not a problem. Travelers arriving by land will have to hire a lancha (speedboat) or fishing dory) to get around. Lanchas and dories work as fishing boats and water taxis and an economical mode of transport.
Rio Dulce And Its Natural Attractions
The river itself starts at the point where it flows out of Lake Izabal. At the entrance to the river there is a small Spanish colonial fort, the Castillo de San Felipe, built to stop pirates entering the lake from the Caribbean when this part of Central America was an important port for the Spanish fleet.
At the point where the Rio Dulce exits Lake Izabal it is spanned by one of the longest bridges in Central America. On the east side of the bridge is the town of Fronteras, more commonly called Rio Dulce. Fronteras is the area’s commercial hub with many shops, banks, fish, meat and vegetable markets, restaurants, hotels and boating supplies outlets. On the other side of the bridge is the smaller community of Rellenos.
From Fronteras the river flows east for a few miles. Here you can find many marinas, lodging establishments and resorts. The river then flows into a long narrow lake called El Golfete.
From El Golfete the river continues in a winding pattern for some six miles to a magnificent gorge. The gorge rises up to 300 feet (91 m) and is enveloped by lush tropical vegetation including mahogany, teak, and wild palms. Toucans and howler monkeys can be seen in this area. In the rainy season waterfalls flow over the lip of the gorge. One cruiser recently described his entrance into Rio Dulce: “The first turn in the river ushered us into the jungle, and the river was as beautiful as I had imagined with towering 300 foot cliffs on one side and lush jungle on the other. Just awesome.”
The Rio Dulce then flows into the Caribbean Sea near the Garifuna town of Livingston, Guatemala. This town is very popular with tourists and visitors and has an excellent hotel infrastructure. The town of Río Dulce is located 269 km from the capital Guatemala City. It can also be accessed by road from Belize’s western border at Melchor de Mencos in the Petén – a drive of approximately 3 hours.
North Americans and Europeans choose Guatemala as comfortable retirement location
A little know fact is that the Rio Dulce is very popular as an excellent location for a retirement home. A couple hundred catamarans, houseboats and yachts are anchored permanently in the various marinas that line the shores of Rio Dulce. Some cruisers come to explore, get hooked on the low cost of living and vibrant international community and never seem able to leave. Expatriates who are not mariners have built or rent homes in this picturesque Guatemalan region or go into business as lodge owners or provide marina related services.
According to the Guatemalan Tourism Institute (Inguat), around 500 yachts, sailboats and motor boats dock at the calm waters of Lake Izabal and the Amatique Bay during the Atlantic hurricane season. The exceptional climatic conditions, strategic geographical location, and the countless natural attractions, make sailors from various countries gravitate to the area to shelter their vessels. The authorities estimate that for each boat is invested around $ 300 per month, and some sailors remain in the zone for at least nine months.
One long time resident Valeria describes life in Rio Dulce in a forum post.
“I have lived here for 15 years, that’s half my life… and I have had the honor of meeting people here, cruisers and locals, who have enriched my life in so many ways. Every time I have had a problem, either financial, health, even a broken heart or a broken engine, there always has been somebody there to lend me a hand.
“There are people living here, cruisers and locals, that when I’m having a cloudy day, they bring a ray of warm sunlight into my day and put a smile on my face. Just for the fact of being them. Genuine people, not pretentious, not trying to be cool or interesting – that is so refreshing.
“I have laughed here so much, my stomach cramps. Sense of humor, light, dark, sour, cynic, whatever kind, you find.
“Local people particularly have such an easy time turning something bad into something good. Kids turn an old plastic bag into a kite! People turn old pieces of wood into a nice table or cayuco or a paddle. An awkward situation can turn around and become a funny joke since Guatemalans have the admirable capacity of laughing about themselves.”
There are several marinas in the immediate area, and two boat yards. The newest boat yard, Ram Marine has a Travel Lift, and the older boat yard (Abel Ramirez’s Haul Out Yard, Astillero Magdelena) has two railroad lifts to pull boats out of the water. The town has all the essential services that cruisers need. Fresh fruit and vegetable markets, fish and meat markets), grocery stores, banks, laundry services, and hardware and marine supply outlets. There is an abundance of bars, cantinas and nightclubs as is common throughout fun loving Guatemala.
For cruisers, one of the main benefits of Rio Dulce is the fresh water. A Belizean boater who recently reviewed the area commented: One attraction is the fresh water coming out of Lago Izabal. This cleans off your hull of barnacles and prevents toredo worms. Another attraction is that lightly constructed docks are adequate to anchor boats in such a sheltered water way. No wave, or high wind damages. You also have high speed internet wireless, electric plug ins, delivery of fiberglass propane and LPG cylinders, accredited marine surveying services and other essentials for cruisers. Rates at upper end marinas like at Susan Marina are about U.S. $300 a month, depending on boat length, but you can find cheaper for about half this price. Most marinas have security 24 hours.
It is the fresh water that is the advantage, over say nearby anchoring in Belize. This means that you can leave your boat for a whole year and go work back home or elsewhere, and not worry about accumulating morass, weeds and barnacles. There is also just past the old Spanish fort at the entrance to the lake under the highway overpass, a very good yacht haul out place. The shopping for food groceries is excellent.
You wouldn´t believe the fresh and crisp lettuce, carrots, avocado, bananas, plantains, tomato and other locally grown produce coming down from the mountains by daily trucks and buses. Many resident expats live on their boats. Most are away working in their home countries for months and even years at a time waiting to get back to their real homes in Rio for vacation or retirement.
Editor’s Note: Picture credits Rio Dulce Chisme and Belize.com Ltd. where you can find more information on Belize and Guatemala – the most beautiful tourism and retirement destinations in Central America.