Guatemala’s biotopes are administered by CECON (Avenida La Reforma 0-63 Zona 10, Guatemala City, tel. 2361-5450 or 2331-0904), the Center for Conservation Studies of Guatemala’s San Carlos University (USAC). The biotopes are the brainchild of former USAC Dean Mario Dary Rivera, who was murdered when the establishment of the Quetzal Biotope in Alta Verapaz conflicted with local lumber interests. The biotopes were created with the protection and study of a particular animal species in mind. Biotopes protect sea turtles on the Pacific Coast, manatees in the Izabal region, and bats in the Petén forests, among others.
Biotopo Mario Dary Rivera, also known as the Biotopo del Quetzal (Quetzal Biotope), is a cloud forest preserve conveniently situated along the road to Cobán near the village of Purulhá, in Baja Verapaz department. It covers 1,022 hectares with ranges in elevation up to 2,300 meters (7,500 feet). In the early morning, it is easily one of the best places to see Guatemala’s national bird, the resplendent quetzal. The cloud forest vegetation consists largely of conifers, broadleaf trees, orchids, mosses, ferns, and bromeliads. There is an excellent network of nature trails, some of which lead to waterfalls and excellent views of the surrounding areas. Other amenities include information and visitor centers, a store, a cafeteria, showers, and cooking facilities. A variety of accommodations are found nearby.
On Guatemala’s Pacific Coast, Biotopo Monterrico-Hawaii was designated for the protection of Guatemala’s endangered sea turtles, which come to lay their eggs on its black sandy beaches. Between May and September, local residents are actively involved in collecting eggs for hatching at a local nursery in exchange for being allowed to keep part of the booty. After incubation, the hatchlings are released with the help of tourists, who jump at the opportunity to hold one of the tiny hatchlings in hand before sending them on their journey across the sand and into the sea. Monterrico is a popular beach with Guatemalans and foreigners alike. Nearby Hawaii is substantially quieter. The park also protects important mangrove forests and marshes in addition to several species of plants and animals. There is also an iguana-breeding program at the site.
Chocón Machacas Biotope, within Río Dulce National Park, encompasses 7,600 hectares and was created with the protection of the manatee in mind, though studies suggest very few of these creatures remain anywhere in Guatemala. The park is in an area known as El Golfete and features old-growth forests, flooded forests, mangrove swamps, canals, and lagoons. In addition to manatees, the park also harbors important populations of crocodiles, otters, and jungle cats.
“Zotz” means “bat” in Mayan dialects, and the multitude of furry little creatures emanating from one of Biotopo El Zotz–San Miguel la Palotada’s caves at sunset is a dead giveaway for the park’s nomenclature. Adjacent to Tikal National Park, 34,934-hectare El Zotz covers substantial areas of tropical forest and wetlands with unexcavated Mayan temple mounds breaking the landscape here and there. It is possible to hike from the park to Tikal and vice versa. The Tikal temples, about 23 kilometers away, can be seen far off in the distance from Devil’s Pyramid, the tallest of the unexcavated mounds at El Zotz.
Also in Petén, on the shores of Lake Petén Itzá, Cerro Cahuí Biotope covers 650 hectares and consists of a small hill varying in altitude 200–300 meters (650–985 feet). The preserve was created to protect the Petén oscillated turkey and consists mostly of secondary-growth forest. There are several lookouts with excellent views of the lake along the park’s well-marked trails. It is a popular spot for bird-watching, with a good range of nearby accommodations.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com