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With my two weeks in Belize up and over, it suddenly felt like I was in the home stretch of my Central America trip. With exactly three weeks left before my flight from Roatán to the Cayman Islands, it was time to sit down and plot a route that would eventually get me to that departure gate. While Point A (Ambergis Caye, Belize) and Point B (Roatan, Honduras), are technically close on a map, it’s either easy or cheap to get between them — the combination of the two doesn’t exist. The simplest and most cost effective route involved going through Guatemala. Having not reached the Eastern side of the country during my previous month there, I was happy to return.

East Guatemala

Two commuter flights (the second twelve person plane stopped three times to let passengers off in tiny coastal Belizean cities), one taxi ride, one boat trip, and one sweaty slog later, I arrived in Livingston, Guatemala. Livingston is the main tourist hub of Guatemala’s , though that’s not saying much. This part of the country still has a frontier-town feel and doesn’t make it onto too many itineraries, despite being the country’s epicenter for Garifuna culture and a connection point for boats to Belize, Honduras, and beyond.

Casa Nostra Livingston Guatemala

Livingston Guatemala

Livingston Guatemala

Arriving back in Guatemala by boat meant that I needed to take the initiative to wander into town, find the immigration office, and get an entry stamp in my passport. Apparently some travelers either forget to do this or don’t realize that they need to, as there’s no immigration checkpoint that you need to pass through in order to get off the dock. As I’m sure you can imagine, this leads to trouble for some travelers!

After making sure I was an officially documented visitor to the nation of Guatemala, I checked into a $20 per night private room at the area’s one true hostel, . However, I quickly realized it wasn’t the right fit for my current needs — catching up on work after two weeks of playing in Belize with the fam — and was also overpriced for what it was. Had I not been feeling a slight budget pinch I may have splurged at the $100 per night , the area’s one true luxury accommodation choice, complete with a pool you could fill with a backpacker’s grateful tears. Instead, I switched to waterfront and well-reviewed , where I had a room to myself for less than $10 per night. With just a few beds and a friendly atmosphere, I felt like I was the personal guest of Stuart, the charming owner.

Livingston Guatemala

Livingston Guatemala

Livingston Guatemala

Even if you don’t stay at Casa Nostra, you should eat there — the pizzas are fantastic, as are the hearty salads. Due to the meat quality being pretty uniformly low everywhere I went, I ate mostly vegetarian in Livingston — one exception being at , a waterfront restaurant that enticed me in with promises of Thai food and delivered on a delicious yellow curry.

Livingston doesn’t have much in terms of tourist activities. The vast majority of travelers pass through on their way to or from the famous boat ride down the Dulce River to Rio Dulce town. Once you’re in Livingston, attractions are more or less limited to a beach accessed by boat and a waterfall accessed by long trek. I hadn’t heard raves about the beach and was warned that the waterfall was completely dried up at the moment. Hence, I was content just to sit on the water’s edge with my laptop catching up on work in the morning, stroll through the town with camera in hand in the afternoon, and go jogging through the scenic hills at dusk (the startled expressions of those I passed hinted that a white girl huffing past in spandex is not an everyday sight ’round these parts.)

Livingston Guatemala

I ended up staying in Livingston for three nights, which was enough to get a feel for this tiny town. Had I been traveling with someone or less bogged down by backlogged work I might have been a bit more adventurous, but I try to remind myself that I don’t have to do every thing in every place every time.

And as far as offices go, this wasn’t a bad one for a few days.

Casa Nostra Livingston Guatemala

Gecko on Computer Screena gecko on my screen!

My next move was to Rio Dulce, which was to make for a gorgeous journey. Rio Dulce and Livingston are connected by the Rio Dulce river, and the scenic boat ride between the two is the major draw bringing travelers to this area. Within a few moments in the wooden seat of my lancha, slowly following the languid curves of the river, one word came to mind: cinematic.

These photos don’t do justice to the experience, which I mostly put my camera down in order to quietly enjoy.

Rio Dulce Boat Trip Guatemala

Rio Dulce Boat Trip Guatemala

Rio Dulce Boat Trip Guatemala

Rio Dulce Boat Trip Guatemala

We stopped a few times, once at a hot springs that we could only stand to stick our toes in, and other times to take photos. But my favorite parts were when we were moving, and I could rest my chin on the side of the boat and watch another world go by, the humid breeze blowing my hair in the wind.

Rio Dulce Boat Trip Guatemala

Rio Dulce Boat Trip Guatemala

Rio Dulce Boat Trip Guatemala

Rio Dulce Boat Trip Guatemala

I could tell we’d arrived in Rio Dulce when I lost count the number of sails in front of me. The sheltered waters around this Wild West-feeling town are lauded by the US Coast Guard as one of the safest places to dock through the hurricane season, and such, they are filled with boats of every kind from all over the world. There’s a crusty old yachtie feel to the place, and several of the older Western captains who’d approached me in Livingston waved me over again in Rio Dulce (two had offered me rides on their boat within moments of meeting, which seemed to me like the kind of adventure a man could embrace but a single young woman ought to steer clear of).

Rio Dulce, Guatemala

After lunch and a serious internet session at (one of the best wifi connections and menus I found in all of Guatemala), I called and asked for a ride — by boat. My eyes widened as we approached the hostel’s private dock — tucked down a quiet estuary, Kangaroo is reachable only by boat. The thatch roof of the building pierced a thick jungle, and a welcoming menagerie of dogs barked to signal our arrival. I loved it. The charm wore off somewhat when I was assaulted by mosquitoes and other unknown insects while I slept that evening — the hole-ridden mosquito nets did little to protect us from the unpaying inhabitants of the top-floor, open-air $8-per-night dorm — but that initial Robinson Crusoe impression is a lasting one.

The owner of the hostel is Gary, an Australian expat straight out of a Paul Theroux novel. Each evening, he holds court over the guests of the hostel and gives a painfully detailed, monotonously delivered speech on the activity options in the area, which he has compiled into one day’s tight itinerary. Upon arrival, I had hoped to leave the next afternoon — the small, quiet towns of East Guatemala had me feeling isolated after the hustle and bustle of family time in Belize, and I was ready to move on. But Gary’s encyclopedic knowledge of the area is impressive, and also convinced me to tack on another day in Rio Dulce.

Rio Dulce, Guatemala

Rio Dulce, Guatemala

I couldn’t help but wonder why Gary didn’t simply print up a PDF of his DIY tour of Rio Dulce, but I suppose if he had I might not have formed a group that agreed to tackle the itinerary the next day. We were a group of six — a honeymooning couple from London, a hilariously mismatched Guatemalan Canadian couple, a Swiss girl traveling alone, and myself.

The next day, our morning began with a brief spin past the Spanish Fort Felipe, which I had been tempted to kayak out to and explore the previous afternoon but didn’t follow through. The best views, it seemed, were from the water anyway.

Castillo de San Felipe Guatemala

Castillo de San Felipe Guatemala

We had quite the journey ahead, anyway. After the hostel’s boat driver dropped us in town, we obediently began following Gary’s lengthy instructions — first, gathering supplies at the local grocery, second, waiting for a collectivo to take us to Finca Paraiso. This is the only part of Guatemala that does not feature the country’s famous — brightly painted decommissioned American school buses — but rather, their smaller, squater, and much less colorful cousin the collectivo.

Eventually, enough passengers were assembled to begin driving the road ringing Lago Izabal (in , Finca Paraiso is marked by a black plane halfway to El Estor). When the collectivo driver hollered at us to get out, we jumped, following homemade signs for las cascadas.

Finca El Paraiso Hot Spring Waterfalls, Rio Dulce, Guatelama

Finca El Paraiso Hot Spring Waterfalls, Rio Dulce, Guatelama

This was the stop that had sold me on staying. A hot waterfall, Gary had promised, the only one in the world — at least as far as he knew. At the entrance to the path we paid a fee that included the services of a guide. He led us to the waterfalls,which at first glance looked like dozens — more? — that I’ve seen around the world. Then I saw the steam curling off the surface of the still water the cascades were flowing into.

We dipped our toes into the cool, flat waters of the stream and swam towards the waterfall. As we got closer, we could feel it — heat was radiating from where the two waters met. Treading water and inching closer, I could barely stand to keep my hand under the pounding falls for a moment. The water was boiling. It was incredible.

Finca El Paraiso Hot Spring Waterfalls, Rio Dulce, Guatelama

It’s hard to describe what a surreal sensation it was, swimming in a cool stream and feeling nature’s pressure jet shower head pounding boiling water down next to me. What’s easier to describe is how it happens. Below sits a stream that feeds into Lago Izabal, above sits a hot spring from which searing waters escape. Where we swam is where they meet.

When we’d had our fill, our guide led us across the stream and up atop the waterfall, where we saw water bubbling over and boiling at the source. In a slightly cooler stream, he scooped up handfuls of clay and indicated we should rub them on our skin. Without realizing everyone else in the group was going for their arms, I plopped some right on my face. Whoops.

I quickly recruited some other soft skin enthusiasts.

Finca El Paraiso Hot Spring Waterfalls, Rio Dulce, Guatelama

Finca Paraiso Guatemala

Finca El Paraiso Hot Spring Waterfalls, Rio Dulce, Guatelama

We knew a pretty good spot to clean up, after all.

Finca El Paraiso Hot Spring Waterfalls, Rio Dulce, Guatelama

Riding on top of a collectivo, Guatemala

Back on the road, we waited for another collectivo to pass and bring us to El Estor. This time, when the driver stopped he indicated the van was full — and we were to hop up top. We were pretty giddy with this development.

Riding on top of a collectivo, Guatemala

Riding on top of a collectivo, Guatemala

I was almost disappointed when we arrived at our next destination, the Boqueron Canyon outside El Estor. I was a little confused about what was going to happen here (frankly, I was confused about the whole day, but that made it pretty fun). Thankfully we had a native Spanish speaker in the group who spared us from hacking apart her language and negotiated a price for us to take a boat up the canyon.

Boqueron Canyon, Rio Dulce

Settling into the wooden canoe, we marveled at the beauty in every direction. Monkeys howled in the distance, the only sound apart from the paddle hitting the water. But the ride didn’t last long — water levels were low, and we soon reached an impassable set of boulders.

What happened next was one of my favorite memories from Guatemala, and I don’t have a single photo of it. Arranging with the boat driver to return in an hour, we climbed out and clamored over the boulders, stripping down to our swim suits and leaving everything we had into cracks in the rocks. And then, we swam. We swam hard against a tough current, buckling down and laughing and fighting against the rushing waters. Though I ached for my camera, I also felt in some way like this memory belonged just to us who had been there — it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. With no watches or cell phones or cameras we lost track of time, and only finally turned around out of fear that we’d miss our ride. The way back was easy as the waters carried us downstream, occasionally leading to a less-than-graceful collision with a boulder below. But no matter. It was well worth the bruises.

Boqueron Canyon, Rio Dulce

We breathed a sigh of relief when we made our way back and found our things still intact, and a few moments later, our smiling boat captain returning. En route back to Kangaroo, crammed into another tiny collectivo, I totaled the day’s expenses — including buses, guides and boatmen, tips, snacks, lunch, and entrance fees, I’d spent a whopping $19 US dollars.

It couldn’t have been a better note to end this chapter of the trip on. I hadn’t read about Finca Paraiso or Boqueron Canyon in any guidebook, seen them on anyone’s instagram, or heard anyone raving about them on the backpacking circuit. Yet there they were, making up one of my most memorable and adventurous days in Guatemala. It was a poignant reminder that some of the most beautiful moments in travel simply can’t be planned and can’t be captured — they just have to be lived.

Tell me about a beautiful travel moment that you stumbled onto and embraced!

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49 Comments...
  • Erin
    August 5 2015

    Love this post Meihoukai! Especially that last sentence, so true 🙂

    • Meihoukai
      August 6 2015

      Thank you Erin! Sometimes I need a reminder of that 🙂

  • Katelyn
    August 5 2015

    This couldn’t have been published at the perfect time! I’m debating on paying a sick flight deal (RT from BOS to Belize for $350) so I can do my PADI in Rotoan. I was googling last night how to get form Belize City to Rotoan. I just might have to do this now! Can’t wait to read more about this part of your trip!
    Katelyn recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 6 2015

      Perfect timing indeed! I took a little detour to go to Guatemala City to visit some friends, but I’d say it was a pretty well worth it side trip in general!

  • Tsatsa
    August 5 2015

    Superb post! There are some great points mentioned in the post like Imigration etc which is still lighter concern but worth considering at every level if you want a peaceful trip. Great Job Meihoukai!

    • Meihoukai
      August 6 2015

      Immigration was indeed a concern on this trip — I’ve never had to make my way to the office independently to “check in” before!

  • Carolina
    August 5 2015

    What a great post! Instantly made me want to go to Guatemala and Rio Dulce.
    One thing though, which I as a Spanish speaker found funny, ‘rio’ means ‘river’ in Spanish, hence Rio Dulce river literally means river Dulve river. 🙂

    • Meihoukai
      August 6 2015

      I thought that was pretty funny too 🙂

  • Jessica @ MJ Sailing
    August 5 2015

    I know Rio Dulce is such a rural town, but we absolutely loved it. Back in 2013 we would have been one of the sailboats there hunkered down for the hurricane season. Glad you got to see some of the great sites, I can’t believe you had a collectivo ride! On ours we had 22 people squished in for our ride to Morales, haha.
    Jessica @ MJ Sailing recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 6 2015

      I definitely preferred to ride on the roof 🙂

  • Britt
    August 5 2015

    Some of my favourite places have been ones like this- where you don’t expect to find anything. It’s one of the reasons I love to couchsurf, more than saving money I end up in random places like this that just wow me.

    I love how rural Guatemala you got! Did you feel a lot safer in these more remote places than in mainstream Guatemala?
    Britt recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 6 2015

      Well, I guess one difference is I wasn’t really going out at night in these two towns — they were small and sleepy and so I ate dinner and went to bed early and thus wasn’t really out and about after dark. I was still pretty hyperalert about my bags and things but overall yes, I think I did feel more comfortable!

  • Kacy
    August 5 2015

    I loved reading this post! Even during the parts where you didn’t capture photos, I felt like I was there. Such a unique and amazing experience! Now I’m dying to visit that hot waterfall…
    Kacy recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 6 2015

      Thanks Kacy! I often rely pretty heavily on my photos to guide my posts so feels funny to write without them 🙂

  • Katie
    August 5 2015

    This might be one my favorite of your Central America entries. Sounds like a perfect day made all the more amazing by not necessarily being in control or knowing where you were going. A HOT waterfall?! And that swim…I kind of love that you don’t have photos to share.
    Katie recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 6 2015

      It was all indeed a mystery, and that did make it even more fun! I think knowing exactly what to expect and over researching leads me to being underwhelmed at times (example: my upcoming post on Semuc Champey!)

  • Rebecca
    August 5 2015

    I literally miss the boat each year when the sailboats from Ambergris are headed down there for maintenance. THIS YEAR I AM GOING! Your pictures and description sound incredible. 🙂 Loved your Belize posts too.
    Rebecca recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 6 2015

      Thanks Rebecca! This would be a great detour for you, I think 🙂

  • Mary
    August 5 2015

    Wow, amazing trip! I have been to Guatemala before- but I have never canoed through a canyon of wildlife like you did! This must have felt amazing to be able to do. Next time, say hi to the monkeys for me! Safe travels if you’re traveling today!
    Mary recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 6 2015

      Thanks Mary! It’s always a good day if I get to come across a monkey on my travels 🙂

  • Camels & Chocolate
    August 6 2015

    Sounds like trying to get from Grand Bahama to Angie’s wedding in Abaco…as the crow flies, they’re literally within visibility but you have to pretty much fly back to Nassau and then connect there so it makes it a five-hour trip. Boo!
    Camels & Chocolate recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 6 2015

      I mean if you can just charter a private plane, that’s definitely the way to go. (Lol.)

  • Hmood
    August 6 2015

    everything in this trip is Adventure, Awesome, natural and simple.
    I like the waterfalls so much.
    thanks Meihoukai

    • Meihoukai
      August 6 2015

      They were the highlight of East Guatemala for me! Thanks for reading.

  • Heather
    August 6 2015

    Thank you for posting the name of that hot waterfall! I visited the same place in March and had no idea what it was called. That place was magical, one of my favorite memories!

    • Meihoukai
      August 6 2015

      It did take a little research, I admit! 🙂

  • Jade
    August 6 2015

    Ah, I haven’t commented in so long but have been reading every word in the email subscriptions! Sadly bad internet means I’ve been missing your beautiful photos but the last one in this post loaded and forced me to get on the site.

    It. Is. Gorgeous. And completely captures the moment you described! It’s so special to have that kind of unexpected and amazing travel day 🙂

    Your Central America coverage has been so fun to read!

    • Meihoukai
      August 6 2015

      You are so sweet Jade! Thank you for following along despite infuriating internet (I understand it better than anyone!) Can’t believe I’m almost finished writing about Central America!

  • Marni
    August 6 2015

    I can’t get over that there is no immigration right after you exit the boat. That concept seems so alien to me, and like you said I can only imagine how many headaches it causes travelers. I LOVE the sound of your day out! It seems like Gary really gave you the perfect day. It’s exciting sometimes to not know what to expect out of your destinations.

    • Meihoukai
      August 6 2015

      Ha, right? I was only in the country for about an hour before I got stamped in but it was a funny feeling to basically be an undocumented alien!

  • Izy Berry
    August 6 2015

    Great post i live in Guatemala i am in love with this country !! when you get to explore Guatemala you will find a lot of amazing places, people and food.
    Izy Berry recently posted..

  • Stella
    August 7 2015

    Great post, your pictures are stunning. I’m going to cut out loads of them and stick them on my walls for when I need inspiration from far off places.

    Your last sentence is so true, I have just come back from travelling around Europe for a month and my favourite memories are the ones I didn’t expect to have.
    You can read about my adventures on my travel blog.
    Stella recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 10 2015

      Aw, I love that idea Stella! If you do, send me a picture 🙂

  • Allison
    August 7 2015

    Amazing pictures! I loved reading about the hot waterfalls, and how affordable your amazing sounding experience was! I’m excited to read about how the remainder of your trip plays out!
    Allison recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 10 2015

      Just to posts left for Guatemala, and then onto Honduras! It’s going fast suddenly…

  • Katie
    August 8 2015

    I ended up spending two weeks in Eastern Guatemala and stayed at the Hotel Kangaroo, visited Finca Paraiso (one of my Guatemala highlights) the Canyon, the Fort and we did the boat trip to Livingston then back a few days later. I loved Sun Dog Cafe – especially the vege burgers. Gary wasn’t correct about Finca Paraiso being the only hot waterfall in the world, I have also been to one in NZ and one in Canada
    Katie recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 10 2015

      Aw well, I’d definitely visit those as well! Glad to hear from someone else who really enjoyed this part of Guatemala!

  • Rachel
    August 9 2015

    “A white girl huffing past in spandex is not an everyday sight ’round these parts” preachhhhh. This desrcribes a few of my travels. The looks I’ve gotten on some of my runs…

    • Meihoukai
      August 10 2015

      I do enjoy it though! The waves and curious looks keep me distracted from my agony while running, ha.

  • Camille
    August 9 2015

    I love those days that end up being a lot more than you expected… You were well-inspired to spend an extra day in Rio Dulce!
    Camille recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 10 2015

      Indeed! I might have even stayed longer had I not been feeling a little lonely after my family left 🙂 I Was ready to be around more people!

  • Kiara
    August 13 2015

    Lovely pictures. From these pictures, I can imagine how wonderful the trip was. 🙂 I am also looking forward to go to Guatemala.

    • Meihoukai
      August 14 2015

      Definitely don’t miss East Guate when you do, Kiara!

  • Leigh
    August 16 2015

    What a fun, unexpected adventure! I so admire posts like this that really get off the beaten path!
    Leigh recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 17 2015

      It was an adventure indeed 🙂 One of my favorite memories from Guatemala!

  • Lisa
    January 18 2017

    HI

    Great read and you’ve convinced me to do Rio Dulce instead of Semuc Champey (I only have time for one sadly)!

    Random question – where was the photo taken where you are looking out to the river through the a-frame thatched roof? Is that Kangaroo hostel? Just looking into accommodation at the mo and if I can wake up to that view every day then I’d be a happy camper/hostel goer.

    Thanks in advance.

    • Meihoukai
      January 31 2017

      Hey Lisa! Good choice, in my opinion 🙂 That shot was taken from a restaurant we stopped at on our boat trip up the Rio Dulce, but it actually is fairly reminiscent of Kangaroo Hostel! I think you’ll love it!

  • Jay D
    February 19 2017

    In Livingston we stayed at Flamingo, $20 per night, pool with fake waterfall, AC was very useful a night. Happy fish was excellent an cheap. There is a boat that will take you north Q80, is this the boat you took south? Is southern Belize worth going for 2 days?

    • Meihoukai
      February 27 2017

      Hey Jay! Considering the length of the journey, I probably wouldn’t head to Belize for just two days from East Guatemala… but I don’t really like to go almost anywhere for just two days, ha ha. Where in Southern Belize are you considering?