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Lone boat on Lake Atitlan

Geography, Environment and Wildlife of Guatemala

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Rugged and Mountainous Guatemala Geography

Guatemala’s geography has frequently influenced its history. Close to two-thirds of the country’s total land area is mountainous. The rugged terrain provided refuge that allowed the indigenous peoples to survive the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, while the fertile valleys eventually produced fine coffees and other crops that dominated the nation’s economy.

Frequent volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and torrential rains have often brought disaster to the country and made building and maintaining roads and railways very difficult. Guatemala is the most western of the Central American states, bounded on the west and north by Mexico, on the east by Belize and the Gulf of Honduras, on the southeast by Honduras and El Salvador, and on the south by the Pacific Ocean. Many people who travel Guatemala also include a trip to Belize in their itinerary – its close proximity makes for a easy day excursion over the border.

Guatemala’s total area of 108,889 sq km (42,042 sq mi) makes it the third largest nation in the region, after Nicaragua and Honduras. At its widest points, the country stretches only about 430 km (270 mi) east to west and 450 km (280 mi) north to south. Guatemala's Lake Atitlan comfortably boasts the title, "most beautiful lake in the world" with its sweeping views of volcanoes. Along with its beauty, the lake offers those on a Guatemala trip hiking around the foothills of Volcano Atitlan and great kayaking, horseback riding and mountain biking in the area.

Two mountain chains traverse Guatemala from west to east, dividing the country into three major regions: the western highlands, where the mountains are located; the Pacific coast, south of the mountains; and the Petén region, north of the mountains. These areas vary in climate, elevation, and landscape, providing dramatic contrasts between dense tropical lowlands and highland peaks and valleys. Guatemala's highlands lie along the Motagua Fault, part of the boundary between the Caribbean and North American tectonic plates. This fault has been responsible for several major earthquakes in historic times, including a 7.5 magnitude tremor on February 4, 1976 which killed more than 25,000 people.

In addition, the Middle America Trench, a major subduction zone lies off the Pacific coast. Here, the Cocos Plate is sinking beneath the Caribbean Plate, producing volcanic activity inland of the coast. The southern edge of the western highlands is marked by the Sierra Madre range, which stretches from the Mexican border south and east, almost to Guatemala City. It then continues at lower elevations toward El Salvador, in an area known as the Oriente. The chain is punctuated by steep volcanic cones, including Tajumulco Volcano (4220 m/13,845 ft), which is the highest point in the country. The northern chain of mountains begins near the Mexican border with the Cuchumatanes range, then stretches east through the Chuacús and Chamá mountains and slopes down to the Santa Cruz and Minas mountains near the Caribbean Sea. The northern and southern mountains are separated by a deep rift, where the Motagua River and its tributaries flow from the highlands into the Caribbean.

Guatemala: A Biodiversity Hot Spot

According to the World Conservation Union, Guatemala is number five on the list of Biodiversity Hot Spots in the world. It boasts an amazing fourteen eco-regions, ranging from mangrove forests, subtropical and tropical rainforests, cloud forests, and wetlands to dry and pine forests. A tour of Guatemala is sure to take travelers through at least a sampling of these regions, encountering the equally diverse flora and fauna along the way. The Guatemalan rainforest is characterized by high rainfall, with the minimum normal annual rainfall between 1750-2000 mm (68-78 inches).

Rainforests are home to two-thirds of all the living animal and plant species on the planet. It has been estimated that many hundreds of millions of species of plants, insects and microorganisms are still undiscovered. Tropical rainforests have been called the "jewels of the Earth," and the "world's largest pharmacy," because of the large number of natural medicines discovered there. The undergrowth in a rainforest is restricted in many areas by the lack of sunlight at ground level. This makes it possible to walk through the forest. If the leaf canopy is destroyed or thinned, the ground beneath is soon colonized by a dense, tangled growth of vines, shrubs and small trees called a jungle. Guatemala’s awe-inspiring Tikal ruins are in the lowland rainforest. During a Guatemala trip, travelers are commonly as impressed with the rainforest that surround Tikal, as they are with the ruins themselves.

Guatemala's location on the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean makes it a target for hurricanes, such as Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and Hurricane Stan in October of 2005, which killed more than 1,500 people. The damage was not wind related, but rather due to significant flooding and resulting mudslides. To the north of the western highlands is the sparsely populated Petén, which includes about a third of the nation’s territory. This lowland region is composed of rolling limestone plateaus covered with dense tropical rain forest, swamps, and grasslands, dotted with ruins of ancient Maya cities and temples. A narrow, fertile plain of volcanic soil stretches along the Pacific coast. Once covered with tropical vegetation and grasslands, this area is now developed into plantations where sugar, rubber trees, and cattle are raised.

Guatemala Wildlife Beckons the Birders

During a trip to Guatemala visitors can experience some of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. Some of the animals you may encounter on land include jaguars, pumas, howler monkeys, ocelots, wolves of prairie, coyotes, lizards, armadillos, iguanas and several species of serpents (oil lamp, chorale, mazacuate and yellow beard).

In the water it is possible to find catfish, shrimp, oysters, lobsters, crabs and turtles. Crocodiles can be found in freshwater, brackish water and mangrove swamps. Bird enthusiasts should not pass up the opportunity to tour Guatemala. A few of the sights include herons (white, pink, blue and gray), wild turkeys (chompipas), parrots, toucans, pheasants, and gorgeous (but endangered) scarlet macaws. The national symbol of Guatemala – the beautiful Quetzal with the long green tail and crimson chest – lives in the highland regions.

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