Ruins and Rainforests

The Mayan expression Quauhtitlan, meaning “between the trees,” gave the name to what is now Guatemala. With more than 30 legally declared protected areas, and 40 more proposed, Guatemala boasts some of the richest biodiversity in the world: 19 ecosystems, over 300 microclimates, 400 species of birds, a myriad of snakes, wild cats, and monkeys, and thousands of species of tropical trees and plants—many of which are threatened by illegal burning and harvesting.

Ecotourism, besides bringing much-needed jobs and recognition to Guatemala, is also aiding the country by establishing traffic near ancient Mayan ruins, which have suffered in the past from looting and defacement. According to Guatemala’s Minister of Culture, ecotourist traffic has kept away poachers, illegal wood harvesters and burners, and drug-runners with secret air strips in the north jungle.

Though Guatemala’s history is rife with political unrest and repression, last January marked the country’s first democratic elections in almost 30 years. Though armed guards are still seen throughout the major cities, they exist mainly as a policing force. Still, travel advisories remain in effect.

If you do decide to go, Guatemala’s diversity will make an impression. From black sand beaches on the Pacific coast to underground rivers in the Peten, ancient Mayan ruins to bustling Chichicastenango trading posts, Guatemala’s variety of mountainsides, cloud forests, tropical jungle, active volcanoes, sweetwater wetlands, mangrove swamps and colorful villages will give ecotravelers more than their money’s worth.

Most travellers will arrive at the capital, Guatemala City, and from there set off for destinations like Atitlan Volcano, which rises 12,664 feet above its famous namesake lake. Climbers willing to endure an all-day hike are rewarded with a spectacular view.

Also near Atitlan lies the old Guatemalan capital of Antigua. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, Antigua preserves its 17th and 18th century appearance and provides spectacular views of active volcanoes and tropical hillsides, not to mention centuries’ old churches, monasteries and plazas. Pensiones, rooms in residents’ homes, cost only a few dollars, and are an economical way to visit the larger towns like Antigua.

Quirigua (pronounced kitty-gua), famous for its carved stelae (intricately carved vertical monuments) is a majestic archaeological site that’s also great for nature watching. Iguanas, tropical birds, half-mile trails of leaf-cutter ants, and hundreds of species of tropical plants make Quirigua a nice daytime stop while travelling north.

Beyond Quirigua, ecotravellers can voyage up the Rio Dulce River, beginning at Lake Izabal. The Rio Dulce, Guatemala’s longest river and located between Lake Izabal and Amatique Bay on the Caribbean, is a tropical paradise. Natural sulfur hotsprings, Bird Island (covered with raucous egrets, brown pelicans and grebes), ancient Spanish forts amidst mangrove forests, cavorting manatees, acutus crocodiles, and blue-green waters create a natural Guatemalan experience. Accessible by water only from Livingston, Puerto Barrios, or the village of Rio Dulce, tours are very affordable (all-day including lunch is 75 quetzales, or $12.50 U.S.). El Chocon Machacas Biotope, a manatee reserve offering several hikes through tropical rainforest, allows hikers to see iguanas, scarlet macaws, and listen to the eerie screeching of howler monkeys.

Caving is also a fantastic option for ecotourists, especially the Lanquin Caves in Alta Verapaz further north, where spelunkers can see blind fish or magnificent limestone cathedrals. Also nearby lies the Semuc Champey Natural Monument, famous for its emerald-green pools) and raging Class III and IV rapids in the Cahabon River.

And while in the north region, don’t forget to stop in the Peten, home to thousands of acres of unspoiled rainforest, and the famous archeological site of Tikal. Graced with 500-year-old ruins standing guard over pristine rainforest, Tikal boasts six large temples, including the famous Temple of the Jaguar. Home to several endangered trees, including cedar and mahogany, as well as over 300 species of birds, Tikal blends the majesty of an ancient civilization with the harmony of nature.

Also in the Peten region is the Maya Biosphere Reserve, which includes 3.3 million acres of military-protected rainforest and tropical highlands. One of its rivers, the Rio Escondido, forms the largest sweetwater wetlands in Central America. The reserve itself is host to Baird’s tapirs, jaguars, pumas, spider and howler monkeys, ocelots, coati, and spotted cavy, and provides one of many sites for abundant nature watching.