Exploring the land of the Sweet River Rio Dulce in Guatemala

Castillo de San Felipe
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Rio Dulce in Guatemala is not just the best known river of the country but also offers a mix of history and relaxation that makes it an ideal destination.

“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.

Boat ride to Castillo de San Felipe
Boat ride to Castillo de San Felipe

Water World

Hopping off the Norwegian Pearl Cruise Line from the port of Santo Tomas was built in 1976 one of the busiest in Central America, Rio Dulce was the destination I was headed to. And an hour’s ride and I was at the terminal to jump into a speed boat to take me to the pretty place. And John Lloyd Stevens’ words certainly could be truer. Surrounded by trees and vegetation on all sides, the river is lovely with small islands that are inhabited by lots of birds. Along the shore are homes of the local and you will see a boat parked in front of all homes, well it is the principal means of commute here. Río Dulce that means Sweet River is one of the best known rivers in Guatemala within the Izabal Department in the southern part of the country. The river starts at the point where it flows out of Lake Izabal so you can see the merging of the lake and the river here. This is where you can take a boat ride and also stop at a restaurant nearby for some local snacks before you explore the place. Located on the edge of the river, the views are lovely too.

Exhibits at Castillo de San Felipe
Exhibits at Castillo de San Felipe

Fort Calling

A must see sight here is a small Spanish colonial fort, the Castillo de San Felipe that was built to stop pirates entering the lake from the Caribbean. In the past this area was a strategic spot for trade and the Spanish built a fort here to protect their wares. A fire destroyed the fort towards the end of the 17th century and what remains now are the ruins that were restored in 1956. Within the fort you can see how the prisoners were kept as well as how the soldiers lived. A large kitchen area which could accommodate 18-20 soldiers can also be seen here. There is a small chapel as well that has a small confession room too. While there has been a lot of restoration, there is one room where you can compare the difference between the original limestone walls (that feel cooler) and the newer cement stones. The small fort has a ticketed entry and after you are done you can enjoy the surrounding areas that overlook the lake. Boat rides are available from here. The best part is that you can get a fair idea of the kind of lives the locals live here. While you are here ensure that you do not miss out on the local flavours especially the rich and flavourful Guatemalan coffee and the specialty soup called kak’il soup a traditional Mayan turkey soup that comes complete with a drumstick. Also check out the colourful local handicrafts that make for the perfect souvenir to take back home. And what better way to remember this quaint town than its handicrafts?

Canon at Castillo de San Felipe
Canon at Castillo de San Felipe

Tips

  • There are a few stores within the complex but make sure you carry enough small denominations of US dollars as change is usually returned in the local currency.
  • The locals here do not speak English so there will be some communication challenges. Remember to bargain (using a calculator) so that you can get a good deal.
  • A port town, you can best explore this on a cruise vacation so do check the sailings on www.ncl.com.

This story first appeared in Gulf Air’s inflight Magazine Gulf Life Nov 2019 issue here:

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