Guatemala's unique position between two continents and two oceans makes it one ofthe most bio-diverse countries in Latin America. This "land of eternal spring" has the perfect climate for over 19 ecosystems ranging from the mangrove forests on both coasts to the pine forests and cloud forests of the mountains to the desert thorn forests found in between.
For the most part, it is an incredibly lush country, with over 8,000 species of plants, including 600 species of orchids. Orchids are plentiful and beautiful in Guatemala. They belong to the family of epiphytes, a class of plants that do not root in soil but live off sunlight and the moisture in the air. These "air plants" attach themselves to other plants, not as a parasite, but simply to position themselves closer to the rain and sun. Many mosses, lichens, algae, and liverworts are also epiphytes, including the Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) seen in the cloud forests. Of course, the most famous epiphyte is the national flower, the monja blanca (white nun) orchid. Another striking species found in the cloud and humid mountain forests are the delicate maidenhair ferns of the family Polypodiaceae, easily identified by their dainty fronds on thin stalks.
Warm humid forests also have the ideal growing conditions for dozens of palm species. These plants are easily recognized by their distinct single trunk that fans out into leaves. Many types of palms are important economic crops used for their food, fiber and oil. The largest export is the xate (sha-tay) palm, used as a fill in for commercial flower arrangements. The commercial farming of xate is now causing serious degradation of the ecosystems in the Alta Verapaz and El Peten regions.
Guava plants are found everywhere in Guatemala, except in the cloud forests, which are too high up for this plant to flourish. It belongs to the myrtle family, characterized by lovely green leaves and beautiful fragrant flowers and fruit. Over 450 varieties grow in Guatemala. Another genus found throughout is the jacaranda. There are over 50 different types of jacaranda, but the most common is a plant with periwinkle blue clustered flowers. Cassava, also known as yucca, is a large bush with greenish-yellow flowers. It's the primary source of tapioca, but its roots are also used to make bread or eaten as a vegetable.
Despite numerous plants and flowers, it is the trees that really define Guatemala. The actual word "Guatemala" comes from the Nahuatl language and means "Land of Trees." Fifty-one percent of the country is forest, either coniferous, broad-leaved, tropical or mixed. The mountain forests are filled with pine and cypress and the cloud forests have some of the largest specimens found in Central America. Many of these trees are prized for their wood and Guatemala has had a long struggle with logging companies over their depletion of the forests. Logwood (Haematoxylum campechianum) is a native tree that was prized for its dark red sap. It was used to produce a purple dye highly sought-after in the 19th century. Another popular tree is the caoba mahogany, a favorite tree for furniture and other wooden objects because ofits strength and attractive grain, resistant to both rot and termites. Teak is another tree prized for its hard wood. The magnificent ceiba is the sacred tree of the
Maya, who use it to explain the universe (the limbs and leaves represent heaven, the trunk is earth and the roots are the underworld). The ceiba can reach a height of 130 feet (40 m).
In the tropical zones of Izabal, the Peten and Pacific, the trees are more likely to be fruit-bearing, such as the breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis). This incredibly useful plant has a fruit that resembles an oversize mango, valued for its pulp and juice. The calabash (Crescentia cujete) tree grows to 30 feet (nine meters) and is used for its tough and flexible wood, as well as for the fruit that resembles a gourd. Everyone enjoys the fruit of the cashew, a tropical evergreen found throughout Guatemala. The coconut is another tropical tree found in the coastal regions. Tamarind is a tropical evergreen tree that reaches heights of 80 feet (24 m). Its acidic fruit is used as a spice as well as a candy and tamarind juice sweetened with sugar is a popular drink in Guatemala.
Also in the tropical areas are the swamps filled with red, white and black mangroves. These trees have a special root system that allows them to filter salt water and thrive in the shallow, brackish waters of the tropical swamps. They are easily recognized by their tangle of roots that arch above the water. The red mangrove belongs to the family Rhizophoraceae and is classified as Rhizophora mangle. The white mangrove belongs to the family Combretaceae, while the black mangrove belongs to the family Verbenaceae and is classified as Avicennia germinans.
Guatemala's commercial crops include banana, coffee, melon, tobacco, sugar, potato, tomato, watermelon, papaya, Chile pepper, pineapple, corn, yucca, cucumber, beans, pineapple and guava.
Guatemala's wildlife is equally diverse, with over 600 species of birds living alongside 250 species of mammals, 200 species of reptiles and amphibians and hundreds of species of butterflies and insects.
The forests are filled with deer, foxes, monkeys, peccaries, jaguars, tapirs, coatis, tepezcuintles and pumas.
Baird's tapir is a native of Guatemala. This nocturnal, herbivorous mammal resembles a large pig, but with a flexible snout and short legs. It can reach up to 600 pounds, but is an extremely agile runner and swims quite fast. They are shy animals and are hunted by locals for their meat.
The jaguar is one of the most revered animals in the Maya world and consequently there is much religious iconography associated with the animal. The most common type is yellow with black spots. The black jaguar is extremely rare. The jaguar is currently on the endangered species list and its numbers are dwindling due to hunting and loss of habitat. The ocelot is another jungle cat, much smaller than the jaguar. It resembles an overgrown house cat, with black stripes on a gray background. Its most notable features are large black eyes.
The loud, ferocious howling heard in the jungle at sunrise and sunset is the cry of the howler monkey (Mono Congo). Despite their seemingly murderous yells, howler monkeys are actually gentle vegetarians living in family groups. The male can grow to 15 pounds and he protects his family by the ferocious howls used to both warn his family and intimidate his enemies. They are very curious creatures and will sometime follow groups of humans. The spider monkey is another breed of smaller primate, with slender limbs and a prehensile tail that it uses to swing from branch to branch. Locals also call this monkey "capuchino" because its brown face with white eyes resembles the outfits worn by the Capuchin religious order.
The coatimundi is a member of the raccoon family and, like most raccoons, will eat anything. It lives in the trees and on the ground and is easily recognized by its long white nose and bushy tail. The kinkajou (Potus Flavus) is a funny looking creature with the face of a koala bear and the body of a raccoon. It's a nocturnal creature that comes out after sunset to feed on fruit and insects, using its prehensile trail to leap from treetop to treetop. It's the easiest animal to spot in the jungle. The tepezcuintles, also known as the paca, is a nocturnal rodent that lives in the forest. It is found throughout the country wherever there is water. It's easily hunted and the meat is considered a delicacy. Guatemala is also becoming famous for the various types of bats that live here, particularly in the El Zotz region of the Peten.
Crocodiles, manatees, fish and crustaceans fill the fresh water lakes and rivers of Guatemala. The shy manatee is a sea cow that inhabits the waters of the Izabal and is difficult to spot. So are the caimans or crocodiles, often mistaken for logs since they can lie for hours with just their nostrils and eyes above water. They are found in many of the mangroves and fresh water rivers and can grow up to 17 feet in length (5 m). Check with locals before swimming. The most common fish found in the fresh waters throughout Guatemala is bass and perch. On the coast it is mojarra (perch), robalo (snook), tarpon machaca (shad), white mullet, catfish and lizardfish. Also on the Pacific coast you will find big game fish such as swordfish, tuna, wahoo, dorado and blue marlin.
One of the defining animals of the jungle is the iguana. The friendliest and most abundant is the common green iguana. Although they can grow up to six feet (1.6 m), they are harmless creatures and can be found resting in branches of trees or sunning on large rocks. Locals hunt them for their meat and eggs. One of the more amusing lizards is the Jesus Christo (Jesus Christ) lizard, named for its ability to stand on two legs and skim across the water to escape predators.
As with any tropical area, there are plenty of snakes here. Fortunately the vast majority are not venomous and nocturnal. However, the coral snake should be avoided. It is easily recognized by its bright rings of red, yellow and black. Probably the most feared snake is the "barba amarilla" (yellow beard or fer-de-lance). This aggressive snake is known for attacking without provocation.
^ There is no shortage of insects in Guatemala. There are hundreds of butterflies in a variety of sizes and colors. One of the most flamboyant is the blue morpho, which grows to five inches and is a bright electric blue. Like most butterflies, it has an underside that is quite drab. You have to wait for it to open its wings before you can see the color. Other common butterflies are the monarch, with orange and black wings, and the red butterfly, with wings of silver and red. While walking in the forest, keep an eye out for the industrious leaf cutter ants, who snip pieces of leaves and carry them back to their nest. Their trails can be a quarter-mile long. Red ants, with their vicious bites, are the only ones you will need to avoid.
Likewise, stay away from the tarantula, black widow (latrodectus) and brown recluse (loxosceles). All three of these spiders are poisonous. The large, hairy black and orange tarantula is known locally as the "araña de caballo" (horse spider). Although painful, its bite is not fatal. However, both the black widow and brown recluse can cause serious tissue damage from their bite. Both are found in dark, hidden places. The brown recluse spider (Loxoceles reclusa), sometimes referred to as the violin spider, is identified by the black violin-shaped mark on its head.
H Probably the most spectacular fauna in Guatemala are the birds. With so many different ecosystems, there is a wide range of songbirds, predators and waterfowl. Around the flanks of volcanoes, you will spot such colorful species as the azure-rumped, black-capped siskin, tanager, rufous saberwing, maroon-chested ground-dove and Pacific parakeet. As you climb higher, you will spot the magnificent predatory birds, such as the great black hawk and grey-headed kite. In the cloud forests there are a number of brilliant birds, such as the pink-headed warbler, blue-throated motmot and horned guan, as well as the resplendent quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala. The mangroves are the nesting grounds for such birds as the blue and white heron, white ibis, blue kingfisher, chachalaca, roseate spoonbill, pygmy kingfisher and collared plover.
AUTHOR NOTE: The scarlet macaw is one of the most brilliantly colored birds in these woods.
For a list of conservation organizations operating in Guatemala, see the Appendix, page 439.
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