One of Guatemala’s oldest parks, the waterway connecting the Caribbean Sea with Lake Izabal is protected as Río Dulce National Park, covering 7,200 hectares along the river’s 30 kilometer (19-mile) course. Much of the riverbank is shrouded in dense tropical forest punctuated at its most dramatic point by a large jungle canyon with hundred-meter rock faces known as La Cueva de la Vaca. The canyon is a 15-minute boat ride upstream from Lívingston. Along this route you’ll also come across a graffiti-covered rock escarpment known as La Pintada with the earliest painting in evidence dating to the 1950s.
Just after the canyon (heading upstream from Lívingston), you’ll come across the first of Río Dulce’s many accommodations. The Round House (tel. 4294-9730, $7 pp in dorm, $15 d in shared-bath private room) is a well-run, fun sort of place with dorms and private rooms. There’s a swimming pool and a Sunday afternoon pool volleyball game that includes lunch and drink specials. Kayaks are available for rent. Meals are served family-style in the open-sided dining room.
This small tributary diverts north from the Río Dulce just upstream from the canyon. Along its course, you’ll find some excellent accommodations built into the surrounding jungle and in complete harmony with their environment. It showcases the region’s wonderful seclusion while at the same time providing a comfortable base from which to explore the area.
Finca Tatín (tel. 4148-3332, $7-52) is a wonderfully secluded jungle camp and backpackers’ haven about half a kilometer up the river where you’ll find a variety of accommodations, including shared-bath dormitory beds for $7 per person, shared-bath doubles for $17, and bungalows for $26-52. Some of the bungalows are in the jungle area to the rear of the property, but the nicest ones are riverside and have patios. All rooms have mosquito netting and fan. The lodge gets major props for ecological consciousness. Water for the showers comes from the river, while water for the bathroom sinks is collected rainwater. All the bungalows have their own septic tanks with all waste material being buried.
Excellent meals are served in the lodge’s open-air restaurant housed under a thatched roof. Dinner is a family-style affair, allowing for opportunities to meet fellow travelers. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner cost $5, $7, and $10. The menu is a varied palette of creative vegetarian, Guatemalan, and international dishes.
Activities include bird-watching in the surrounding forests, hikes lasting from 30 minutes to four hours all the way to Lívingston, day and overnight trips to the Belize cayes, and kayaking in the Biotopo Chocón Machacas or down the Río Dulce to Lívingston. A two-person kayak rental costs $10 per day. The lodge is run by a friendly Argentine. Italian, English, and French are spoken.
A little farther down the Río Tatín is Rancho Corozal (tel. 5309-1423 in Guatemala, 866/621-4032 toll-free U.S.), an absolutely astounding private villa that can be yours for $250 per night for the entire villa for 2 people, or $82 per person per night for 9-10 people, including breakfast. The owners are quick to point out that it’s not a hotel but rather a private hideaway. There are five double beds with stylish safari netting.
The beautiful house, designed with soaring thatched roofs and attractive ceramic and stucco accents, is set right beside the river on its own 20-acre forest reserve. There are tastefully landscaped tropical gardens, a short nature trail, open-air living and dining rooms, and a hammock patio. The house is wonderfully watched over by its live-in caretaker, Sabino, who can show you around and take you to area attractions aboard the house skiff ($125 per day). At night, the villa is lit by the warm glow of gas lamps and torches. There is no electricity, but you won’t even miss it. Food can be arranged at the house or at one of a few local eateries. Try the freshwater crab cooked in coconut milk at neighboring Doña Lola’s.
Heading back downstream toward the Río Tatín’s confluence with the Río Dulce, you’ll find Ak’ Tenamit (tel. 5908-3392 or 5908-4358), a grassroots health and development organization helping to provide a better living for the local Q’eqchi’ Maya who inhabit the area in several villages. Thanks to this organization’s efforts, these extremely impoverished communities now have access to health care and education, among other basic necessities. There is a women’s handicraft cooperative, a 24-hour clinic, primary and secondary schools (including curricula in tourism and social welfare), and an ecotourism center. At the visitors center you can buy locally made crafts and enjoy light meals in a pleasant palapa-style café, which is open 7am-4:30pm. Volunteer doctors, dentists, and nurses who can commit for at least one month are always welcome.