Inland from Lívingston, the spectacular Río Dulce weaves upstream through a breathtaking six-mile gorge with sheer cliffs of over 100 meters on either side. This freshwater channel is popular for boating, swimming, and simply relaxing It is surrounded by the Río Dulce National Park, a 132 km2 plot of wetlands and tropical rainforest filled with innumerable species of exotic birds and plants. Further upstream, the Río Dulce opens into El Golfete, a narrow lake surrounded by secluded nature preserves, eco-hotels, and waterways patrolled by reclusive manatees. At the western end of El Golfete, one of the largest bridges in Central America stretches through Río Dulce town and serves as the dividing line between the Río Dulce and its source – Guatemala’s largest lake, Lago de Izabal.
Where the Río Dulce reaches the mouth of El Golfete, the river branches north along the Río Tatín, a secluded tributary that slices its way through the region’s dense mangrove jungle. Near the confluence of the two rivers is Ak’ Tenamit, a grassroots community development organization with eco-friendly projects in nearly 40 surrounding Q’eqchi’ villages. Ak’ Tenamit runs health and dental clinics, a women’s cooperative, and several primary and secondary schools. At the organization’s ecotourism center you can explore an interpretive hiking trail, buy hand-made crafts, or enjoy a Q’eqchi’ meal. Long-term volunteers, especially medical professionals, are always welcome. Upstream from Ak’ Tenamit is an underwhelming but intriguing sulfurous hot spring.
On the northern shore of El Golfete is the Biotopo Chocón Machacas, a preserve dedicated to protecting the elusive manatee, a massive mammal occasionally spotted in the area’s clear green waters. If you want to catch a glimpse of these gentle floating giants (as few as 100 are estimated to remain here), sunrise boat tours can be arranged at any of the area’s hostels (see the travel guide for more information on where to stay). You can also take out a kayak and hope to get lucky. Slightly west of the entrance to Río Tatín on the south bank of the Río Dulce is the Cayo Quemado, a small island at the entrance to the Río Lampara, a remote estuary that makes for a cayuco-ing paradise. Activities in this area include bird-watching, hiking, and more kayaking. Río Dulce is truly a sublime escape from civilization, and well worth a few days of your time.