Rough guide to Gautemala’s rivers
Guatemala’s rivers play a vital role in its landscape, culture and history, as well as fuelling the country’s economy from Mayan traders to modern tourism.
Rivers also act as internal and external borders, playing a key role in the identity of the country and, crucially today, providing precious ecological niches for increasingly endangered wildlife.
The origins of Guatemala’s rivers
Guatemala’s landscape is dominated in the public imagination by the immense volcanoes of the highlands and the sprawling jungles in the lowlands, but the rivers which flow between them are the lifeblood of the country.
Most of Guatemala’s rivers begin in the Central Highlands, as rainfall trickles down into small streams, which swell and join to form rivers. Over many thousands of years, these have carved valleys which carry the water south towards the Pacific Ocean, east to the Gulf of Honduras, or north via Mexico to the Gulf of Mexico.
They also feed major lakes, such as Atitlan and Izabal, which have thriving communities around them and are major tourist attractions in their own right.
The Motagua is Guatemala’s longest river
Two Motagua is the longest river to flow entirely within Guatemala, and it is one of the most important waterways in the country for a number of reasons.
Its 460km length begins in the central highlands, near the town of Chichicastenango, and it flows first east and then north-east to eventually empty into the Gulf of Honduras.
Its valley separates Guatemala’s northern and southern mountain chains and the entire river basin is home to an estimated 5 million people.
It is a key part of the country’s agriculture industry, supporting crops of coffee, bananas and other fruits. The Matagua also has potential as a source of gold and silver in the El Pato mining district, which is centred around Chiquimula on one of the Matagua’s tributary rivers.
The Usumacinta forms a link with Mexico
Although the Motagua is the longest river in Guatemala, the Usumacinta is longer overall but most of its length is inside Mexico.
The Usumacinta forms from the meeting of two other large rivers, the Pasion and Chixoy (also known as the Salinas or Negro), and from there it flows north and eventually empties into the Gulf of Honduras.
You can see the ruins of two once-powerful Mayan cities on the banks of the Usumacinta: Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras. The river might have acted as a trade route, but the fast-flowing waters and rapids would have made transport challenging between them.
The construction of major highways in the 1990s usurped the river as the region’s major transport link, but you can still take rafting trips along it.
Guatemala’s longest Pacific rivers
Most of Guatemala’s longest rivers flow towards the Gulf of Honduras and Gulf of Mexico, but several important ones also empty into the Pacific.
The two longest Pacific rivers are the Suchiate and Coyolate, and both are around 160km long.
The Suchiate forms a large section of the border with Mexico, including the key border crossing point at Ayutla. The Coyolate is notable mainly for the gentle rapids which are popular with beginner rafters.
Rivers literally help to power Guatemala
Guatemala has enthusiastically pursued the possibility of hydroelectric power, which now provides an estimated 41 percent of the country’s electricity.
More projects are in development, which could generate income for the country through the sale of electricity to neighbouring countries, but the difficult terrain and environmental risks are a challenge.
In early 2002 the government revoked the licence of a 40MW hydroelectric plant on the Icbolay River because developers failed to meet key environmental impact requirements.
Nature on the rivers
Guatemala’s rivers and their valleys are home to many unusual or endangered species, including the Central American river turtle. These creatures still live in rivers in the Peten department, but have been hunted close to extinction for their meat.
The World Wildflife Fund (WWF) is working to protect parts of the Usumacinta in Guatemala and has designated the Motagua Valley as a special ecoregion. The valley is home to the unique russet-crowned motmot, as well as the endangered Motagua spiny-tailed iguana.
One of the country’s lesser-known natural treasures is hidden along the Yul Witz River, in western Guatemala. This is where the Sleeping Child Reserve provides a protected habitat for 10 different endangered species of amphibians.
Tourism along Guatemala’s rivers
Guatemala’s rivers are popular for white-water rafting, including challenging rapids on the Motagua, Usumacinta, Cahabon, Los Esclaves, Nahualate and Naranjo. Rafting trips along these rivers will often include visits to nearby Mayan ruins, which are difficult or impossible to access any other way.
You can also take the well-known river trip along the Rio Dulce, which means Sweet River Spanish. This beautifully clear river runs from Lake Izabal to the Caribbean through the imposing canyon walls of El Canyon.
Guatemala’s rivers are among the country’s most important natural resources, supporting agriculture and energy generation, and providing homes for important native wildlife. If you visit Guatemala, make sure you take the chance to visit these beautiful waterways.