El Golfete and the Rio Dulce

Navigating the river to El Golfete is an experience in itself. Leaving the anchorage at Livingston, we entered a vast canyon, the river winding through up to 400ft high, rainforest lined walls, eerily wreathed in clouds of water vapour. The contrast with the open anchorages of the islands of Jamaica, and Turks and Caicos, couldn’t be more marked. Local fishing craft were dotted along the edges of the river, whilst the more rapid outboard powered lanchas transported residents and tourists between Las Fronteras, the many smaller villages spread along the river, and Livingston. We were captivated by the style of buildings by the waterside, many constructed from wooden frames with open sides or screened off areas, with palm-leaf roofs. Churches that appeared to only be accessible by water, restaurants with waterslides directly into the river, a hot spring….

The river broadens about half-way between Livingston and Las Fronteras into a lake called El Golfete. Here, there is a well-used anchorage at Cayo Quemado, on the south side. We had obtained a map of the river from Raul that showed some of the main sites of interest along the river, and we decided to anchor at the north of El Golfete close to where a bioreserve and a couple of lagoons were marked.

The lake is peaceful and beautiful, surrounded with rainforest barely interrupted by habitation, or other signs of human life, with a backdrop of mountains with lush slopes. It can become a bit choppy in heavier winds, especially out in the open rather than tucked in closer to shore- mostly a problem if you need to sail east from Fronteras towards Livingston against the wind. It’s also worth looking out for the numerous small plastic bottles used as floats for fishing lines that were dotted all around areas closer to shore.

We explored some of the narrow channels and creeks that feed the river, one time making in into the Laguna Salvador. Here, we took some channels that became increasingly narrow until it was almost a squeeze with the dingy, taking in the amazing beauty of barely touched rainforest. We also encountered some extremely remote communities, situated on the edges of tiny creeks, accessible only by water, complete with churches and small tiendas selling everyday basics. It felt a bit voyeuristic to crawl past peoples’ homes without stopping to interact, but at this time COVID was still a big concern throughout the world, and we felt that these communities were perhaps more vulnerable given the obvious distance from even basic medical care or consultation. The children we saw looked as interested in us as we did of their lives, and we waved as we passed, watching them play in their family boats and splash in the shallows.

There is a wonderful, short trail located in this area of the lake. For a small fee, you can walk the approximately 750m loop from the dock, taking in the sights and sounds of undisturbed rainforest- birds calling, insects chirping, wonderfully camouflaged frogs hoping and enormous blue butterflies flitting. And the most amazing leaf-cutter ant colonies, who have built enormous nests to house the up to 50 million individual ants, and who, rather than eating leaves, feed to them to the fungus which they cultivate as food. They quickly became one our favourite creatures! The trail branches off towards the end, where a separate path leads to a research station, a restricted area that normal visitors can’t access. We aren’t sure how well used it is, but we can only imagine how immersed in nature you would feel to be based there.

Dave had some work, including a video call, that required fast internet access, so unfortunately we couldn’t stay as long as we had hoped in the lake, where internet coverage was non-existent 95% of the time. We made plans to visit again when we left Guatemala, wanting to explore further in the dinghy and try the anchorage over at Cayo Quemado as well. The journey from the lake towards El Golfete was different in character to that from Livingston, and it’s clear that you are reaching the hub of life in the Rio, at least for the cruising community, at Las Fronteras. The river is wider and there are more houses, bigger than those we saw previously and with varied architectural styles. The iconic bridge is visible from a distance, and I think we were all surprised at the amount of activity and development in the area- I had certainly pictured something a little more quaint, maybe small marinas tucked into creeks, local fishing boats creeping along the banks, peace and tranquility, a feeling of being immersed in nature. And in some areas, in some marinas, it’s there. But on first impressions this is a thriving, busy, loud and slightly chaotic area, with those slow fishing craft sharing the water with fast motorized lanchas, and with the constant background drone, or sometimes racket, of traffic and trucks on the bridge.

The Rio was definitely a surprise to us in lots of different ways! Finishing this more than 10 months after arriving, just as we are in the process of leaving, we have had plenty of time to get settled in and figure out how the Rio worked and didn’t work for us as a family, and as cruisers.

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