The sparkling Rio Dulce (Sweet River) may not be the longest river in Guatemala but it is arguably the most famous amongst cruisers and the sweetest of them all, with no pollution from heavy industry, just clean fresh water. This makes it an ideal habitat for a myriad of different wildlife and vegetation and of course a great, protected cruising ground for sailors.
Spanning a distance of 26-miles, the Rio Dulce begins at Lake Izabal, the largest body of fresh water in Guatemala. On the lakes north shore is El Finca, a working ranch. Strolling through the verdant pastures and meadows you come to a 12-meter high Agua Caliante (hot water) waterfall where you can bathe in the cool water of the river while the warm water of the springs pour down on you from above. To the east of the lake, the Rio Dulce is guarded by El Castillo de San Filipe, which was built in 1652 to protect against pirates entering this part of Central America, an important staging point for ships at that time. In 1686 the fortress was captured and burned, by the turn of the next century the fort was used as a prison. Later restored and protected, the fortress now forms part of a park.
As the river flows out of Lake Izabal it narrows and the sister towns of El Rellenos, to the south, and the slightly larger town of Fronteras, to the north, can be found on either side. Fronteras is a vibrantly shabby town where street vendors sell their wares on the dusty road. Colorful vegetable markets arouse your senses and a plethora of small tiendas (stores), selling an assortment of odd items, will cover most of your needs. The town also boasts a reasonable hardware store and good supermarket.
Traditionally dressed Mayan women going about their daily business adorn the streets. The towns are linked by one of the largest bridges in Central America designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. These towns have the only access roads, thus many waterfront properties along the river have a dock and a boat attached. The preferred mode of transport is boat rather than bus. Mayan women and children wash clothes at the river’s edge and surly men fish with hand-lines under the bridge. Fast launches (pirogues) jet about carrying people across the river.
From here, small hotels and some of the most reasonably priced marinas in Central America dot the shoreline as the river runs northeast. Eventually, the river opens into El Golfete (The Little Gulf), a ten-mile long stretch of bay, past the luxurious villas of Guatemala’s oligarchy and home to a dwindling manatee population with less then 100 now thought to be inhabiting the waters. These great aquatic creatures are protected by Chocón Machacas Biotope (protected nature reserve) on the northeast corner of the bay where the 186-square-kilometer park, run by CECON, have waterways through several jungle lagoons as well as a nature trail running through the park and its protected forests.
The river then twists and turns past sulphur springs and through spectacular scenery, which over millennia has carved its way through the mountains leaving behind the deep gorges. These magnificent lime-scale cliffs are bordered by thick walls of dense tropical jungle. Mayans paddle about below in wooden Cayucos to a cacophony of tropical bird song and the screech of howler monkeys in the lofty vines above. Names carved into the lime-scale cliffs from centuries ago still leave their mark today.
The Rio Dulce now flows into the Bahia De Amatique (Honduras Bay) and into the Caribbean Sea where you come across the town of Livingstone and the only Garifuna settlement in Guatemala. Local cafes and restaurants give the place a laidback feel—where not much goes on. This colorful town is the gateway between the river and the Caribbean and can only be accessed by boat. The sandbar at the entrance to the Rio, with depths of 6-7ft at MHWS, limits the number of boats that enter, making it even more appealing to visit.
Rosie and her husband Sim Hoggarth, both from the UK, have cruised the Caribbean and North America for the last seven years on Alianna their Corbin39.