Sometimes the travel experiences where everything seems to be going wrong turn out to be some of the best.
We only decided the night before, while still in Belize, to stop at Rio Dulce. We couldn’t do Antigua in one day so it seemed like a natural stop, but we did very little research. After a long and bumpy bus ride from Santa Elena, we were dropped off in Rio Dulce. We imagined it would be a quiet town by the river, but what we got was wall to wall fried chicken shops straddling a busy highway with huge trucks fighting with pedestrians.
We had a hostel in mind that we had found online, which was only a short walk from the bus station. So we stumbled along with our bags trying not to get run over and tried to find it. Except it wasn’t where it was supposed to be – there was no sign of a hostel nor anything else. Asking at a pharmacy and hotel brought only blank stares.
Luckily we found an expat restaurant – Sundog Cafe. It was full of Americans who had boats moored nearby, rather than backpackers, but the main thing was there was English speaking staff we could ask. Straight away one of them said they thought the place we were looking for had closed down. After one last check we admitted defeat and asked the staff where they suggested staying, and they recommended a place across the lake.
I shudder at what we would have done if we had not found that restaurant – we had no idea there were places on the water, and we’d probably have felt we’d have to stay in one of the extremely grotty hotels on the main strip of the town. And then we would have left the next morning.
The hotel seemed reasonable so after some tasty wood fired pizza and a few beers/cocktails, we asked for a boat ride over.
It was only when we started across the lake that I realised quite how far this place was – it was about a 15 minute boat ride across the lake, down a small little river and incredibly remote. I started getting worried – we’d booked this place blind and had no choice now if we hated it.
But it turned out to be a great decision.
The whole place was fairly basic and literally built on stilts in a swamp but it was right in the middle of nature. It was easily the most remote accommodation we’d stayed at – after dinner we saw an opossum just chilling in the trees and various other unidentified animals running around.
The next day we woke bright and early, devoured a very tasty omelette, and caught a boat back to the smog filled Rio Dulce town. Our destination was Finca Paraiso, a waterfall crossed with a hot spring. Colectivos (shared minibuses) left regularly so we hopped in and an hour later we were dropped off outside the gates.
After paying the entrance fee and buying a refreshing coconut to drink, we had a short hike before we reached the falls. Once there, a worker looked after all our belongings and told us the best places to go.
It was a very strange feeling getting into the water. The water flowing from the river was icy cold, but the waterfall was bath temperature hot, creating little pockets of warm water which would have felt…well a bit suspicious if you didn’t know where you were!
We explored a bit and saw some people swimming through a small cave so decided to follow them. Inside we squeezed over rocks and swam through torrents of hot water gushing down, until we emerged outside again. It was scary but fun.
Afterwards we scrambled to the top but as we were barefoot we decided not to go and see the source of the spring – apparently it is worth seeing though.
Eventually we dried off and trudged back to the road to wait for a colectivo. It had been a unique experience and there were only 4 other people there the entire time!
After some greasy fried chicken with a side of smog in the town, we got a boat back to Casa Perico and then set straight out in another boat of our own. They were free for guests so we took full advantage.
It didn’t start well. We had a wide wooden boat, with very heavy oars, so each of us had to paddle a different side, and we were completely out of time. It was probably hilarious to anyone watching as we paddled in circles many times before actually getting going.
We made it out of the small inlet that led to the hotel and onto the enormous lake. Although we could actually move in a straight line now we decided not to get too cocky, and just rowed out to a floating island that belonged to our hotel. Here we could lie back and absorb the late afternoon sun in complete solitude…apart from the speedboats passing every few minutes.
I took a quick dip in the water before we headed back, tired but happy with our day.
The most stupid thing is that we then decided to leave the next day. I’m not sure why. It was a great place, and we could have done a cruise to Livingston had we stayed an extra day. Instead we left after 2 nights to stay 4 nights in Antigua when we could have done 3 and 3.
Leaving Rio Dulce so soon will definitely go down as one of our few travel regrets.
We arrived on a Fuente Del Norte bus from Santa Elena which cost 65Q (£5.70) each. The bus was a pullman (coach) bus though had definitely seen better days – we narrowly* missed decapitation from a flying overhead bin door. I think it took around 4 hours in total.
A colectivo from Rio Dulce can be caught on a side road a short walk from Sundog and costs 15Q (£1.32) per person each way. To enter the waterfall costs 10Q each and there is a guard employed to look after your stuff while you swim.
As mentioned we stayed at Casa Perico which we would really recommend. Our double room with shared bathroom cost us 140Q (£12.32) per night, and the attached restaurant had decent food. The boat ride before check in and after checkout was free, but 25Q return per person for other trips. Incredibly being in the middle of nowhere, they even had decent WiFi.
When we left, our bus to Guatemala City with Litegua (their terminal is next to Fuente Del Norte’s) cost 80Q (£7.04) each.