The Rio Dulce, Guatemala

A book, a story or in this case a quote by John Lloyd Stephens, served to fire up the imagination, with the knowledge that also arriving at the Rio Dulce, Guatemala on the Western Flyer is very much doable.  Why?  Because Old Guys Rule.


“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.

And for me another great looking cruising destination to dream about visiting one day; dreamt and thought of on a day like today, as it rained all day and night in Los Angeles,  California,  May 15, 2015. 

“Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things that escape those who dream only at night.”

Edgar Allan Poe

According to Wikipedia:  John Lloyd Stephens (November 28, 1805 – October 13, 1852) was an American explorer, writer, and diplomat and a pivotal figure in the rediscovery of Maya civilization, middle America and the planning of the Panama railroad. In 1839, President Martin Van Buren commissioned Stephens as Special Ambassador to Central America. While there, the government fell apart in a civil war.  Stephens was able to provide vivid first hand knowledge of the events in his book, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán.  

Stephens and his traveling companion, architect and draftsman Frederick Catherwood first came across Maya ruins at Copan (present-day Belize).  The city was built and occupied for about 2,000 years and left abandoned in the 10th century.  In 1570, Copan was discovered by Diego Garcia de Palaci, but it would not be excavated for another three centuries.  Palacio was a Spanish explorer sent by the Spanish crown to explore however, when he returned most did not believe his tales about what he saw.  It wasn’t until 1860 that his stories were proven true.

Stephens continued his investigations of Maya ruins with a return trip to Yucatán which produced a further book.

His books served to inspire Edgar Allan Poe.  You know, the guy credited with the invention of modern detective stories.

“Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things that escape those who dream only at night.”

Edgar Allan Poe

Río Dulce (“Sweet River”) is one of the best known rivers in Guatemala 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 expats.   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.

Like a Venice in the tropics, almost all transport in Rio Dulce Guatemala is by boat.

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 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.

“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.  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. Some cruisers come to explore, get hooked on the low cost of living and vibrant international community and never seem able to leave.  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.

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.”

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.

About trawlercat

Retired and now moving on from the cruising life jeeps, adventure bike, gardening, and travel. Always in search of the next great adventure!
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