Guatemala sits at the top of the Central American isthmus, due south of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. It covers an area of just more than 100,000 sq. km (40,000 sq. miles), slightly smaller than the state of Tennessee. It's bordered on the north by Mexico, on the east by Belize and the Caribbean Sea, on the southeast by Honduras and El Salvador, and on the southwest by the Pacific Ocean. Mountains cover nearly two-thirds of Guatemala, with the largest range being the Cuchumatanes in the northwest, really a southern extension of Mexico's Sierra Madre. South of the Cuchumatanes is Volcán Tajumulco, Guatemala's and Central America's highest point at nearly 4,200m (14,000 ft.). There are 32 other volcanoes in Guatemala, many of them active. Amid these mountains, Guatemala's landscape is coursed with caves, caverns, sinkholes, and underground rivers. Non-mountainous regions of the country include the narrow Pacific and Caribbean coastal plains, and a limestone plateau in the Petén, which is geographically part of the Yucatán.
Guatemala contains large expanses of lowland rainforest and highland pine forest. In an effort to combat the degradation of the rainforest brought about by widespread slash-and-burn agriculture, the Guatemalan government created the Maya Biosphere Reserve in the Petén Region in 1990. The reserve is the northernmost tropical forest in the Western Hemisphere and the largest contiguous tropical forest north of the Amazon, covering almost 800,000 hectares (2 million acres), or 10% of Guatemala's land area. The country is also home to rich mangrove forest on both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. These saltwater-tolerant environments are major breeding and life-support grounds for a broad range of fauna.
Flora & Fauna
The diversity of Guatemala's wildlife is as striking as the diversity of its people. The country is home to more than 8,000 higher plant species, 250 species of mammals, and 800 species of birds. Wildly colored butterflies swarm around the Laguna de Lachuá, manatees have been spotted off the Caribbean coast, and jaguars prowl the forests of the Petén.
Revered by the ancient Maya and feared by most jungle dwellers, the jaguar is the largest New World cat, and can reach more than 6 feet in length and weigh more than 250 pounds. In addition to the jaguar, Guatemalan forests are home to four other wild cats -- the puma, ocelot, margay, and jaguarundi -- as well as such quintessential jungle dwellers as howler and spider monkeys, scarlet macaws, green iguanas, and boa constrictors.
The most famous resident of the Guatemalan rainforest, however, is the resplendent quetzal. Associated with the snake god Quetzalcoatl by Maya civilization, the national bird has a blood-red breast, almost electric-green feathers, and a tiny golden beak. The males of the species have tail feathers that can reach more than 2 feet in length. A good place to watch for them is in the Biotopo del Quetzal in the Verapaz highlands, though they can be quite difficult to spot. They are most active in the early morning.
Searching for Wildlife
Animals in the forest are predominantly nocturnal. When they are active in the daytime, they are usually elusive and on the watch for predators. Birds are easier to spot in clearings or secondary forests than they are in primary forests. Unless you have lots of experience in the Tropics, your best hope for enjoying a walk through the jungle or bird-watching excursion lies in employing a trained and knowledgeable guide.
Here are a few helpful hints:
- Listen. Pay attention to rustling in the leaves; whether it's monkeys above or pizotes on the ground, you're most likely to hear an animal before seeing one.
- Keep quiet. Noise will scare off animals and prevent you from hearing their movements and calls.
- Don't try too hard. Soften your focus and allow your peripheral vision to take over. This way you can catch glimpses of motion and then focus in on the prey.
- Bring your own binoculars. It's a good idea to practice a little first to get the hang of them. It would be a shame to be fiddling around and staring into space while everyone else in your group "oohs" and "aahs" at the sight of a quetzal.
- Dress appropriately. You'll have a hard time focusing your binoculars if you're busy swatting mosquitoes. Light, long pants and long-sleeve shirts are your best bet. Comfortable hiking boots are a real boon, except where heavy rubber boots are necessary. Avoid loud colors; the better you blend in with your surroundings, the better your chances are of spotting wildlife.
- Be patient. The jungle isn't on a schedule; however, your best shot at seeing forest fauna is in the very early-morning and late-afternoon hours.
- Read up. Familiarize yourself with what you're most likely to see. A good all-around book to have is Les Beletsky's Traveller's Wildlife Guide: Belize and Northern Guatemala (Interlink Books, 2004). Other relevant field guides include Thor Janson's Maya Nature: An Introduction to the Ecosystems, Plants and Animals of the Mayan World (Vista Publications, 2001), and Birds of Mexico and Central America (Princeton University Press, 2006).