Izabal is one of 22 departments in the Republic of Guatemala and with its 9 reserves it truly is a natural wonder. Izabal is nestled in two large valleys the Motagua and the Polochick-Izabal lake, both watersheds empty into the Caribbean and are important from a hydrological point of view: the first is Guatemala’s longest river running all the way from western Guatemala ( In the Quiche) and the second is the largest body of fresh water and navigable waterways in the Western Caribbean Basin and the best “Hurricane hole” in the area. This combination of forests and water can be the backdrop for a remarkable experience in Eco-Tourism .
The reserves are clockwise from the south: Sierra de Las Minas, Bocas del Polochick, Sierra de la Santa Cruz, Rio Sarstun, Parque nacional Rio Dulce, Biotopo Chocon Machacas, Cerro San Gil, Punta de Manabique, Sierra del Carral. With these natural assets Izabal is probably one of the best protected areas on the planet and one of the most valuable as well from the point of view of the potential for eco tourism, it is world class birding area and in its forests are kept myriads of creatures large and small making this on of the worlds most important gene pools. Not all the reserves are properly managed and neither are they accessible to the occasional traveler on a modest budget and with little time. Nevertheless it is to be noted that Bocas del Polochick, Cerro San Gil and both the Parque Nacional Rio Dulce (PNRD) and the Biotopo Chocon Machacas are accessible and organized tours are available.
In fact the Rio Dulce park has Hotels and Marinas in its midst such as the Hacienda Tijax Jungle Lodge and Marina, Catamaran Hotel, Hotel la Ensenada, and Finca Tatin the first three are member of Eco-Rio an association of conscientious Hotels and other business that contribute to the effort of protecting the PNRD. From these hotels you can get tours on launches to go see Manatees (hard to find most of the time) at the Chocon Machacas reserve and some of the NGO.s that operate in the area also offer very interesting experiences: for example Ak’Tinamit is a Keck’chi (a Native Guatemala Mayan ethnic organization) offers a one night two days guided tour starting in Livingston (at the end of the Rio Dulce) which includes hiking for two to three hours to a Keck’chi village and spending the night at their Tourist center and experiencing what life is like in the millenary fashion of a Mayan village, amidst the jungle and the corn fields. I have done this hike myself and just the scenery getting to and from the village called Plan Grande Tatin is breathtaking: in front of you the jungle, on the sides; cornfields in the karstic hilltops, and behind you the full view of the Caribbean opens up as you climb, once there you will find the villagers are friendly and well versed in eco-tourism and one should feel good after all to contribute to their financial success and support their community initiatives in areas such as health, nutrition, education, etc.
Another worth while visit in the Rio Dulce Area if you are a nature lover or just like tropical plants is don Emilio’s botanical Garden ‘El Siritcote” located just 6 kms. From the Rio Dulce on the road past Seja village, Don Emilio speaks English and is a wonderful person that has collected and planted thousands of local plants like pepper, vanilla, orchids, gingers, heliconias and hundreds of varieties of trees and he has samples of the wood as well. Don Emilio accepts donations and he well deserves them, you will have spent a very entertaining and educative two hours at his place.
At the other end of the lake Bocas del Polochick can be visited as well and here we recommend you contact the tourist office in El Estor, there they can make arrangement for you to go with a guide who is a knowledgeable fisherman who takes passengers out early in the morning to see manatees, monkeys and crocodiles, dona Eloyda is in charge of the small office across the street on the north side of the Park she guarantees sighting of the wildlife as the fisherman is knowledgeable of the area, both are members of Amigos del Lago, another association that works on behalf of the preservation of the Lake Izabal. Another must near El Estor is the “Boqueron Canyon” you can catch a chicken bus and arrive in just a few minutes from El Estor or about an hour from Rio Dulce. Once there you can hire some local kids with a dugout canoe to take you up the canyon. I recommend floating downstream looking up at the trees as often there are monkey there and toucans as well, the waters are generally calm once you get past the one rapid and it easy to swim about. For a really cool adventure in that are contact Maya Expeditions (see their ad in this magazine) and ask for their White Water package for the Cahabon River, This is a world class level 3-4 white water rafting adventure. Ask for the one that ends in the Rio Dulce and that way you get to see the whole area and take a nice relaxing break after three days of non-stop excitement. You can top off your vacation in Izabal with a sailing experience anywhere from a “sunset” tour around the lake to a full charter and end your trip in the Belize keys or return to Guatemala to continue your trip southwards.
The Hacienda Tijax Jungle Lodge and marina located just north of the bridge spanning the Rio Dulce is part of a larger farm with a rubber plantation and a nature reserve which offers a guided tour through their privately owned and managed Tropical Forest. The 2.5 kilometer trails has canopy bridges for better observation of the flora and treetops, great bird watching and a lookout tower offering a panoramic view of the entire area. Tours to the Cerro San Hill reserve can be arranged through some of the Hotel mentioned above, the trip is quite an adventure and well worth it. It takes a full day from early morning to sunset and it involves renting a minivan or a pick up truck to go to the foothills of the reserve, there one orders chicken for the return trip and then an hour’s hike to the Research station San Gil Sur, one must contact Mike the bird watching guide he has an incredible knack for finding birds and San Gil is known to have over 350 species of them, the amazing thing is that since the reserve is really pristine birds aren’t scared of humans so as you bathe in the pristine waters of the tributaries to el Golfete like Rio Frio the hummingbirds will buzz you less than a meter from your face, Howler monkeys are quite common and at night (if you stay in the rather austere station) you might spot an ocelot or a leopard rifling through the chicken bones in the yard.. The San Gil reserve is managed by FUNDAECO another NGO active in the region.
The other Hotels such as La Ensenada offer a canopy zip line and boat tours can be arranged through almost any Hotel. A warning: most boat operators will try to get you out of the Rio Dulce park and on to Livingstn thus having missed all the attractions on the way or on the lake and river, other tours are available but one has to insist, say you’ve read it on your Guide book or this magazine and point out the name of the place where you want to go. Unfortunately not all the inhabitants are eco friendly so many will just as happily herd you to the next place on a fast speed boat rather than go to the trouble of giving the proper directions to the more remote but beautiful destinations. Please remember to be a responsible traveler, do not buy wildlife, or take out rare species, avoid sleazy places and danger spots, always ask at your Hotel for security related information or the local Toursim Comitte (CAT’s ) there is one in every town in Izabal. See the list below for relevant phones and web sites. I sincerely hope you enjoy your vacation here as much as I have enjoyed living and cruising here the past 25 years…