Castillo de San Felipe de Lara
More commonly known as “El Castillo de San Felipe,” (8 a.m.–5 p.m., $1.50), the fortress also gives its name to a small community on the northern shores of Lake Izabal. The castle was originally built by the Spanish in 1652 in an attempt to deter the activities of pirates, who would come up the Río Dulce to raid supplies. It would later serve as a prison but was finally abandoned and left to deteriorate.
The present fortress was reconstructed in 1956. It’s worth a look around for its thick walls enclosing a maze of small rooms as well as its old cannons. There are some nice lake views, a picnic area, and green grounds.
Accommodations and Food
One of the fancier options along the shores of the lake near the Castillo de San Felipe is Mansión del Río (tel. 7930-5020, www.mansiondelrio.com.gt, $109–133 d), a large, 95-room resort-style property popular with vacationing Guatemalans. Large and attractive rooms have air-conditioning, ceiling fan, cable TV, minifridge, gorgeous bay views, and nice decorative touches, including marble counters in the private bathrooms. There are a large swimming pool, a restaurant, two bars, a fairly well-equipped gym, and well-cared-for gardens. Paddle boats and a playground will keep the kids busy. The Cocodrilo Creek restaurant serves international dishes and has both an indoor, air-conditioned section, or a breezy outdoor dining room under a thatched roof with beautiful bay views. The Bonito River Bar has a nice lounge for relaxing as well as foosball and Ping-Pong tables.
A similar property, Banana Palms Resort and Marina (tel. 7930-5023 or 2331-2815, www.bananapalms.com.gt), can be found just down the road to the west. Here you’ll find modern rooms housed in attractive units with two rooms on the ground floor and one deluxe suite on the top floor. Rates range from $92 d for a standard room to $129 d for a deluxe suite. Junior suites ($116 d) have ceiling fan, large bathroom, living room, small kitchen, and a deck with lake views. The deluxe suite has all of the above plus a whirlpool bath with lake views. All rooms have DirecTV and air-conditioning. The pleasant thatched-roof lobby leads out to a thatched-roof bar next to a swimming pool with foosball and pool tables and DirecTV. There are a nice dock and marina, game areas, a fitness center, and a large, airy restaurant housed under a high-roofed palapa structure. The restaurant/bar serves seafood, Guatemalan, and international dishes.
From the castle, a road heads northwest to its juncture with the road back to Río Dulce. Along this road you’ll find Hotel Chang-Gri-La (tel. 7930-5467, hotelchangrila [at] yahoo [dot] com, $39 d), with modern rooms and bungalows (sleep six, $152), including hot-water private bath, air-conditioning, and cable TV. There are a swimming pool and a restaurant serving simple international fare.
A few paces away to the west, La Cabaña del Viajero (tel. 7930-5412) has charming tin-roofed cabins centered around a swimming pool. There are simple rooms with shared bath ($12) and much nicer rooms with private bath, air-conditioning, and TV for $22 d; all have mosquito netting and fans. There’s a restaurant here.
Getting to Castillo de San Felipe
Castillo de San Felipe is three kilometers along the lakeshore from Río Dulce or four kilometers by road, which you can walk in about 45 minutes. Heading north out of town on the main road, turn left after the Banco Industrial. After a few kilometers, you’ll pass the turnoff for El Estor on the right. Continue straight on the main road for another kilometer or so from here to the castle. Minivans ($0.50) leave every 30 minutes from the north end of the bridge, or you can hire a water taxi ($5).
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com