The town of Rio Dulce, Guatemala, is often only a transit stop for backpackers traveling up the Rio Dulce River to the port town of Livingston. I had a few days to kill in the area, though, and was thrilled to find that the town has a handful of attractions that are well worth the stop.
The Hot Spring Waterfall
Yeah, you read that right: Rio Dulce is home to one of the world’s few hot spring waterfalls.
I made the trip to this unique sight with a group of people from my hostel. The owner of the hostel had an established day plan for people visiting the site, and explained to us in detail how to reach the waterfall and continue onward to an “add-on” activity. Then he sent us on our merry way.
We piled into a collectivo, a shuttle-like minibus that departs for its destination when full. After ten increasingly sweaty minutes of sitting in the parked vehicle, we began to whisper to each other in confusion. Every seat in the van was taken; what could we possibly be waiting for?
This was a very naïve question.
When we finally took off twenty minutes later, three more people had forced their way into the bus. Along the way, we picked up at least a half dozen more people. The new additions found whatever way possible to squeeze their bodies into the bus. They stood hunched over other passengers, sat on wooden boxes and plastic crates in the aisles, and gripped the side of the car, riding with their upper body hanging out the door. It was a bona fide clown car experience.
We were ecstatic when we finally arrived and tumbled out of the rolling, human-sweat-powered sauna into fresh air. We were even more ecstatic when we caught our first glimpse of the waterfall.
The falls are just a few hundred meters downstream from a (extremely) hot spring. The water tumbles over a cliff and falls twenty feet into a regular river below. This means that the falling water is very hot, the water in the river is very cold, and the place where they meet is, well, perfect.
Combine them and you have this experience.
We bathed for at least three hours, in which time I leapt from the top of the falls (obviously), explored some nearby caves and boulders, and rubbed the nutrient rich sulfur mud of the spring on my skin. Outdoor adventure meets spa day – what more could you want?
El Boqueron canyon
After the waterfall, we caught another minivan onwards to El Boqueron canyon, the “add-on” part of our day.
None of us knew much about Boqueron, except that the experience involved both a boat ride and swimming. When we arrived, we spotted several Guatemalans hanging out on the banks of a river. One of them quickly approached, ushered us all into a rickety wooden canoe, and started paddling upstream.
He paddled us into an incredibly beautiful and peaceful canyon. The cliffs slowly got higher around us to a soundtrack of echoing birdsong and the gentle swish of a canoe oar in water. It was perfectly tranquil: besides the six of us in the canoe, there wasn’t another human being within earshot.
Eventually we reached a point where boulders prevented the canoe from going further, and we got out and left our belongings on a small beach: moving forward required swimming.
For the next hour we swam, scrambled, and climbed through a gorgeous, high-walled canyon without ever seeing another human. At times the current was very strong, and we would have to dart carefully from rock to rock to move forward. Eventually we reached a point where the river turned into rocky, violent rapids and we knew it was time to turn back.
The sweetest part? The way back, when we got to relax and let the current carry us back to the canoe.
It was a challenging and incredible experience—I would never have considered the canyon an “add-on” adventure!
Castillo San Felipe
I had one more day to kill in Rio Dulce, so I rented a kayak and paddled from my hostel to the Castillo San Felipe. The Castillo is a hold-out from the days of the Spanish in Guatemala, when the fort was built to protect the area from pirate attacks.
The castle is a simple, pretty affair overlooking the enormous Lago Izabal. It only takes about half an hour to see the whole castle, so I then spent a lovely lazy afternoon strolling around the lush green grounds and staring out at the lake. It was a nice relaxing day after the excitement and activity of the waterfall and canyon the day before.
All-in-all, Rio Dulce was well worth a few days’ visit!