The stunning treasures of the Guatemala ecosystem

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The Guatemala ecosystem includes one of Earth’s most important and vulnerable rainforest habitats, but the country has even more to offer than the steamy, teeming jungle.

The country’s cooler highlands are home to many endangered species of all types, while the Pacific and Caribbean coasts are also full of life. Let’s explore this amazing ecosystem.

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Guatemala’s geography

Guatemala is made up of three distinct geographic areas, which creates an interesting diversity of animal and plant life.

The northern part of the country is low lying jungle and is home to the Maya Biosphere Reserve, the largest area of protected rainforest north of the Amazon.

The mountainous region in the middle of the country is known as the highlands, and this is where all the major cities are.

The south is also low lying and humid, along the Pacific coast.

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History has protected the Guatemala ecosystem

Guatemala’s name is taken from the Náhuatl word “Quauhtlemallan” which means “the land of many trees”, and the reason is obvious if you visit the northern lowlands, which are dominated by the rainforests.

This massive primary forest, which includes endangered mahogany trees, stretches into southern Mexico and northern Belize and has escaped human destruction for two key reasons: water and war.

The hot, humid conditions and lack of surface water during the dry season make the region much less attractive for settlers compared with the more pleasant coastal areas and highlands.

Logging and farming in the area was also discouraged by the presence of anti-government forces which used the region as a base during the 30-year Guatemalan Civil War, which ended in 1996.

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Rainforest preservation

Guatemala’s efforts to make the most of this historical quirk and so preserve its rainforests have met with some success, with a recent report showing a net increase in rainforest in the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

This enormous protected area is protected by buffer and mixed use zones. Logging and farming have had a negative impact, but the future is promising.

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The Maya Biosphere Reserve is home to one of the most important populations of jaguars in the world, possibly encouraged by the reserve allowing limited logging and farming.

This beautiful animal is listed as near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, having been considered vulnerable since 1982. One study has estimated that around 500 jaguars live in the reserve, which also enables the animals to move into neighbouring habitats in Mexico and Belize.

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The Guatemala ecosystem is estimated to be home to around 750 species of birds, around 10 percent of which are unique to the country. During the northern winter, the country also hosts many migrant species from North America.

If you are a keen bird watcher, Tikal National Park is a great place to visit to see some of these, including the keel-billed toucan, bat falcon, white-fronted parrot and jabiru.

The highlands have their own unique species, some of them endangered. The horned guan and bearded screech owl are among those at risk, while you can also see more common birds such as the Goldman’s warbler and azure-rumped tanager.

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Biodiversity on display in Sierra del Lacandon

Anyone who wants to experience the full beauty of Guatemala’s natural world can have their fill by visiting Sierra del Lacandon, in the western part of Maya Biosphere Reserve.

The central and western parts of the park are the real attraction here, as the forest in the north, south and east is being replaced by pasture and agricultural land. You can book day trips to the park through agencies in Flores or San Andres.

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Coasts and mangroves

Guatemala is not all about jungles and mountains though, as it is one of the few countries in the world with coasts on two different oceans: The Caribbean to the north-east and Pacific to the south-west.

The Pacific coast area near Monterrico in particular is important for endangered hawksbill sea turtles, as well as a number of other species, including the olive ridley.

The Caribbean coast features some important mangroves, which stretch across the border into Belize and are full of a diverse range of wildlife from howler monkeys and ospreys to alligators and ocelots.


Overall, the Guatemala ecosystem is one of the richest in Central America and has an amazing array of native animals. Visitors can see some of our planet’s endangered species in habitats as different as arid highlands and hot, humid rainforests.

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