Most travellers come to Guatemala to see Mayan ruins and the historic centres of colonial towns–beautiful in their own right–, not typically for serious nature and wildlife travel.
While the country has certainly drawn and continues to draw serious birders, as well as the odd fieldherper, most people, if they’re looking for wildlife and spectacular nature in Central America, head a few countries south to Costa Rica or to neighbouring Belize–places that have done far better nature travel PR.
But with over 30 national parks and home to three UNESCO biosphere reserves, this small nation of 108,889 km2 (an admirable amount of it, at least officially, conserved land) has a lot to offer those willing to go a little bit out of their way.
Guatemala, one of the world’s small number of megadiverse nations, ranks 5th in biodiversity by country, home to some 1,246 known species of reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals, is first for endemism in Central America and contains the largest protected area in the region, the Maya Biosphere Reserve, which comprises nearly 20 percent of the country’s total territory.
Laguna del Tigre National Park, within which the Las Guacamayas Biological Station sits, is one of the most important tracts in this reserve and the largest national park in Guatemala.
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Las Guacamayas Biological Station
“Guacamaya” is a colloquial term used throughout Latin America, from Mexico to Peru, to refer to the iconic Ara (Macaw) genus of true parrots–most commonly the Scarlet (in Central America) and the Blue-and-gold (in South America).
Aptly named, Las Guacamayas is home to one of the largest populations of this threatened and, in many parts of its range (particularly in northern Central America), extirpated bird.
Founded in 1994 as a joint partnership between the Guatemalan NGO Pro Petén and Conservation International, the station was built on the site of an old logging camp that had been, throughout the early 90s, subject to illegal timber extraction, archaeological looting and poaching.
Not surprisingly, a tumultuous several years ensued the station’s inauguration, including the torching of its infrastructure in 1998 over land-use disagreements, which were, thankfully, eventually mediated and resolved.
Since 2008, the Guatemalan non-profit BALAM, an environmental consultancy and capacity-building organization that promotes strategic public-private partnerships to manage places like the Maya Biosphere Reserve, has run Las Guacamayas.
Located in Petén Guatemala, home to one of the largest stretches of uninterrupted humid tropical forest in Mesoamerica, Las Guacamayas sits inside the borders of the Laguna del Tigre National Park, undoubtedly one of the best places in the region to experience the MBS.
A combination of primary Petén–Veracruz Moist Forest and thriving wetlands in the upper San Pedro River Basin, Las Guacamayas and the Laguna del Tigre represent not only the best the Maya Biosphere Reserve has to offer but constitute one of the most spectacular neotropical lowland rainforest experiences in Central America–comparable with the best patches of preserved forest anywhere in the “Five Great Forests” of Mesoamerica.
A research station primarily focused on conservation biology and the development and promotion of sustainable community-based tourism, Las Guacamayas also opens its doors to nature and wildlife travellers.
There is a range of accommodation options–all of them simple, but comfortable–and the station offers multiple guided tour packages at affordable rates. There are dedicated packages for birders, and generalist ones for those looking to see a bit of everything–reptiles and amphibians, mammals, macro photography of insects, and butterflies, etc.
Petén–Veracruz Moist Forest
Covering the northern half of Guatemala, most of Belize and southern Mexico, the Petén–Veracruz Moist Forests in the northern neotropics form an important habitat bridge between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean and contain some of the most crucial fragments of moist forest left in northern Central America.
A critically endangered ecoregion, the remaining patches of protected forest (in places like the Maya Biosphere Reserve), are home to over 200 species of snakes and lizards (72 of which have been recorded at Las Guacamayas), 170 species of mammals, 450 species of birds (338 of which have been recorded at Las Guacamayas), and nearly 100 species of amphibians (22 of which have been recorded at Las Guacamayas).
Herpetofauna at Las Guacamayas
Las Guacamayas, in the heart of some of the richest and best preserved Maya Biosphere forests, is a fieldherper’s paradise, so a good flashlight is a must.
Laguna del Tigre’s aquatic ecosystems, fed by the San Pedro River, provide ample habitat for a wide range of arboreal and terrestrial species–22 (so far).
Clockwise (top to bottom): Common Milk Frog (Trachycephalus-typhonius), Red-eyed Tree Frog (Agalychnis callidryas), Morelet’s Tree Frog (Agalychnis moreletti), Mexican Climbing Salamander (Bolitoglossa mexicana), Small-headed Tree Frog (Dendropsophus-microcephalus), Casque-headed Tree Frog (Triprion-petasatus)
Las Guacamayas is also home to wonderful snake diversity–45 recorded species (so far).
Clockwise (top to bottom): Boa constrictor, Yellow-red Rat Snake (Pseudelaphe flavirufa), Ringneck Coffee Snake (Ninia diademata), Speckled Racer (Drymobius margaritiferus), Guatemalan Milk Snake (Lampropeltis abnorma), Redback Coffe Snake (Ninia sebae)
Clockwise (top to bottom): Faded Black-striped snake (Coniophanes schmidti), Terrestrial Snail Eater (pidodipsas sartorii), Banded Snail-eating Snake (Tropidodipsas fasciatus), Variegated False Coral Snake (Pliocercus elapoides), Fer de Lance (Bothrops asper), Variable Coral Snake (Micrurus diastema)
Lizards, crocodiles and turtles
The diversity of freshwater and terrestrial habitats around Las Guacamayas hosts some 26 recorded species of lizards, as well as Morelet’s Crocodiles and turtles.
Clockwise (top to bottom): Barred Whiptail (Holcosus undulatus), Brown Basilisk (Basiliscus vittatus), Hernandez’s Helmeted Basilisk (Corytophanes hernandesii), Bighead Anole (Norops capito), Morelet’s Crocodile (Crocodylus moreletii), Furrowed Wood Turtle (Rhinoclemmys areolata)
In terms of vertebrate species diversity, it is the birds that reign supreme at Las Guacamayas–338 recorded species–including the eponymous Scarlet Macaw (aka La Guacamaya Roja).
Hundreds of native and migrant forest and wetland bird species make Las Guacamayas one of the best birding destinations in northern Central America.
The platform near the station is the perfect observation spot.
Below (Clockwise top to bottom): King vulture (Sarcoramphus papa), Central American Pigmy Kingfisher (Chloroceryle aenea), Red-capped Manakin (Ceratopipra mentalis), White-fronted Parrot (Amazona albifrons), Ocellated Turkey (Meleagris ocellata), Keel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus)
And (Left to right): Black-collared Hawk (Busarellus nigricollis), Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle (Spizaetus melanoleucus), Ornate Hawk-eagle (Spizaetus ornatus)
Laguna del Tigre National Park, inside of the expansive Maya Biosphere Reserve, provides a critically important refuge for large mammals like the Jaguar and the Baird’s Tapir.
At least two of Central America’s other feline species (the Ocelot and Puma)
And a litany of others (clockwise starting top left): Central American Grey Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), Northern Tamandua (Tamandua mexicana), White-nosed Coati (Nasua narica), Black-handed Spider Monkey, Tayra (Eira barbara), Yucatán Black Howler Monkey (Aloutta pigra)
It would take a lifetime to inventory all of the invertebrate species at a place like Las Guacamayas (and even then, you would always be discovering new ones). Still, they have done an admirable job of putting together a photo collection of some of the myriad butterfly species seen around the station and throughout Laguna del Tigre National Park.
Neotropical freshwater fish
The Rio San Pedro, which cuts through the Laguna del Tigre National Park and feeds its creeks and flooded forest areas, is also home to some 55 known/suspected neotropical freshwater fish species, according to a 2000 RAP Bulletin of Biological Assessment published by Conservation International.
These include Cichlasoma species like Black Gullet Cichlids, Firemouth Cichlids, Redhead Cichlids and Heller’s Cichlids, livebearers like Pike Killifish, Teardrop Mosquitos, Shortfin Mollies and Delicate Swordtails
as well as invasive armoured catfish (seen below in the bill of a Great Blue Heron).
Las Guacamayas has gone and put together a wonderful inventory of some of the station’s many beautiful orchid species.
Clockwise (top to bottom): Encyclia bractescens, Epidendrum imatophyllum, Epidendrum stanfordianum, Prosthechea cochleata, Encyclia guatemalensis, Oncidium sphacelatum
Clockwise (top to bottom): Trigonidium egertoniamun, Schomburgkia tibicinis, Prosthechea Radiata, Brassavola cucullata, Oncidium luridum, Maxilaria ternuifolia
Laguna del Tigre under threat
The Peten-Veracruz Moist Forests are critically endangered.
Human settlement and the clearing of land for agriculture (especially highly destructive slash-and-burn methods), as well as large-scale industrial developments, have decimated the ecoregion.
Given the scale and the importance of the ecosystem services provided by these forests, there are comparatively few protected areas in the region, making places like the Maya Biosphere Reserve, Laguna del Tigre and, perhaps most importantly, the outposts like Las Guacamayas which oversee and protect them, invaluable.
But the entire reserve (and the Laguna del Tigre National Park, more specifically) is under severe threat from logging, farming and energy development, as well as land clearing for illegal airstrips.
A Mongabay article titled “Fire, cattle, cocaine: Deforestation spikes in Guatemalan national park” details the dynamics and the timeline, providing satellite images from the University of Maryland which show that between 2001 and 2018, Laguna del Tigre lost nearly 30 percent of its tree cover.
As the title suggests, a range of factors contribute to the destruction, including (most prominently) the clearing of land (via cutting and burning) by peasant farmers living within the park, but also industrial cattle operations and drug traffickers.
How local people and organizations respond to these threats is what will make the difference when it comes to preserving these remaining swathes of moist forest in northern Central America.
The Las Guacamayas Biological Station as a conservation initiative
The site’s homepage reads
“Our main areas of work are: Conservation, biology research, community development, and environmentally and socially responsible tourism. This approach is based upon the principles of social and environmental responsibility, which is achieved by promoting the protection and conservation of natural and cultural resources in this important rainforest, as well as expanding the economic alternatives of the neighboring communities.”
Expanding the economic alternatives for communities living around and within important protected areas like the Maya Biosphere Reserve is critical to the long-term survival of these forests and wetlands.
Throughout the tropics, and especially the world’s biodiversity hotspots, farming, poverty and nature are at odds. For many of the peasant farmers living in places like Laguna del Tigre, farming is a matter of survival.
A 2020 World Bank report stated that some 49 percent of Guatemalans are poor or live below the middle-income poverty line. That number rises to 80 percent for indigenous Guatemalans (40 percent of the country’s population).
It makes sense then that there has been a marked uptick in the number of Guatemalans leaving their country over the last several years due to crushing rural poverty and violence, and that in 2019, Guatemala was the largest source of illegal immigrants to the United States.
In remote areas like Laguna del Tigre, you either cultivate the land, leave–northwards to Mexico and the United States or to slums on the outskirts of Central America’s hellish urban areas–or perish.
Of course, there are more and less environmentally damaging ways to subsist, with education and knowledge key components of the conservation equation, but the bottom line is that poverty and a lack of economic opportunity are always bad for the environment.
This is why the educational, research and sustainable tourism initiatives mounted by places like Las Guacamayas are vital.
Every local with knowledge of Laguna del Tigre’s waterways and trails who captains a boat, works as a bird guide, and helps transport visiting nature tourists and researchers to and from the site, is given a chance to learn and grow through their association with a place like the Las Guacamayas Biological Station and, importantly, is provided alternative means to sustain themselves and their family in a way that does not require environmental destruction.
This is a formula I have seen work all over the world, from Raja Ampat, Indonesia, to the Colombian Amazon.
How to Visit Las Guacamayas
Visiting Las Guacamayas involves a two-and-a-half-hour drive along an unpaved road from either Lake Petén Itzá or the town of Flores to the village of Paso Caballos.
Following that, it’s a 20-minute boat ride up the San Pedro River to the station.
Visits must be arranged beforehand.
See it while it’s still here
Las Guacamayas Biological Station, and the Maya Biosphere Reserve, more broadly, allow visiting nature and wildlife enthusiasts to step into a time machine, providing a glimpse of the biological richness that once blanketed what is now one of the most impoverished and environmentally devastated regions in the neotropics.
It is one of the very few places spread across Mexico, Belize and Guatemala that can claim to showcase large, relatively pristine swathes of Petén-Veracruz Moist Forest and the ecoregion’s many thousands of plant and animal species, including healthy populations of megafauna like Jaguar and Baird’s Tapir.
The threats facing places like Laguna del Tigre and the Maya Biosphere Reserve will continue to mount, and any nature and wildlife traveller interested in the idea of tourism as an act of conservation would do well to spend their tourism dollars at a place like Las Guacamayas.