The Maya Biosphere Reserve
The largest protected tropical forest in North America, the 1.7 million-hectare (4.3 million- acre) Maya Biosphere Reserve is Guatemala’s last chance for preserving a significant part of the forests that once covered all of Petén. It is gradually gaining notoriety among international travelers for its vast expanses of tropical forest and the remote Mayan ruins that lie buried within.
It is hoped that ecotourism here will take hold as a major industry, providing jobs and a viable alternative to ecological destruction, as in neighboring protected areas in Belize and Costa Rica. A cursory glance at a map of Guatemala reveals that Petén is a sparsely populated region harboring an unusually high concentration of Mayan sites, remote jungle wetlands, rivers, and lagoons. Those with a strong sense of adventure will find plenty to see and do in one of Central America’s last ecological frontiers.
Although the biosphere reserve has been in existence since 1990, many of the parks that compose it remain little more than “paper parks,” as the government entities charged with enforcing protection of these areas are woefully underfunded and understaffed. Several of the parks are now being administered jointly between Guatemala’s National Protected Areas Council (CONAP) and local conservation organizations. Foreign NGOs have also joined the battle to preserve the Maya Biosphere for future generations against seemingly insurmountable odds.
Threatening the continued existence of this unique area are traditional factors common to tropical forests in Third World countries, including the expansion of the agricultural frontier by land-hungry peasants and changes in land use such as cattle grazing. But there are also more sinister forces at work here, and the reserve is under serious assault by wildlife and timber poachers, both from within Guatemala and neighboring Mexico, as well as from the activities of drug smugglers occupying large extensions of the park to move their product.
Guatemalan authorities have stepped up their efforts to regain control of this vast wilderness area and not all of the above-mentioned forces are in operation throughout the park. There are many areas within this vast biosphere reserve that are easily and safely explored. In some cases, these are not so easily accessible, but the rewards for those putting forth the effort to reach some of Guatemala’s least-visited attractions are well worth it.
Among the highlights of the reserve are the Mirador–Río Azul National Park, which is home to the largest manufactured pre-Columbian structures in the Americas, found at El Mirador, and at least 25 other smaller Mayan sites. Some, such as Wakná, have been discovered only as recently as 1998 and many more undoubtedly await discovery. At the site of San Bartolo, archaeologists uncovered the earliest evidence of Mayan writing in a wall mural discovered in 2001. The area is also home to the last remaining undisturbed tropical forests in Guatemala and is being considered for special protection as the Mirador Basin National Park. There are many stakeholders in the Mirador Basin Project and negotiations are ongoing.
Much of the western part of the reserve, particularly Laguna del Tigre National Park, has unfortunately been lost due to population pressures. Still, the area around the Mayan site of Waka' (also known as El Perú or Waka’-Perú), remains well preserved and is the home of Las Guacamayas Biological Research Station and a project dedicated to Saving Guatemala’s Scarlet Macaws.
In 2006, The Nature Conservancy helped local conservation organization Defensores de la Naturaleza secure the purchase of 31,000 hectares (77,000 acres) of privately held land to help ensure the preservation of Sierra del Lacandón National Park, an area of incredible biological diversity due to the ruggedness of the terrain, which includes mountains, freshwater lakes, savannas, and rainforests running along the magnificent Río Usumacinta.
Squatters were evicted from the park soon after (not without much difficulty), and how this area will be managed and opened to low-impact tourism is yet unknown.
The Maya Biosphere was also featured on U.S. television with the filming of Survivor Guatemala at the Mayan ruins of Yaxhá. The spectacular ruined city is rivaled in magnificence only by Tikal and El Mirador, and its splendid setting next to a tropical lagoon complete with hungry crocodiles is second to none.
Survivor Guatemala certainly catapulted Guatemala and Yaxhá into the collective consciousness, and many people believe it is just a matter of time before the treasures hidden in the Peteén forest gain greater notoriety and become an engine for the preservation of this incredible but often-overlooked adventure-travel destination.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com