Guatemala’s Punta de Manabique Wildlife Refuge

The beautiful and endangered West Indian manatee at a sanctuary in Florida.

The beautiful and endangered West Indian manatee at a sanctuary in Florida. This species of manatee inhabits the mangroves of Punta de Manabique. Photo © U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Some day the white-sand Caribbean beaches along this remote peninsula on the northeast extreme of Bahía de Amatique may be home to resort hotels, but for now they remain largely uninhabited and lovely. The seas on the outer extreme of the peninsula can be particularly rough, as the land mass takes a bashing from the Atlantic Ocean while sheltering the waters of Bahía de Amatique, keeping them comparatively calm. In addition to the white sandy beaches where four species of sea turtles lay their eggs, there are mangrove swamps inhabited by manatees and more than 300 bird species, including the endangered yellow-headed parrot (Amazona oratrix). Savannahs and flooded swamp forests harbor jaguars, tapir, and howler monkeys. Also protected are coral reef outcrops, the only ones of their kind in Guatemala, at the tip of the peninsula. All in all, it’s one of Guatemala’s most wonderful and least-visited wild places.

Together with USAID, Fundary has recently been able to bring solar power to the area, allowing locals access to heretofore uneasily obtained luxuries, such as ice, in a sweltering coastland. The reserve is managed by the conservation organization Fundary, which is working with some of the approximately 2,000 people inhabiting this area in an effort to involve them in the conservation of the wonderful marine ecosystem. Locals live mostly from fishing, particularly manjua, a type of small sardine. The waters off the coast of Honduras, Belize, and Guatemala have been somewhat overfished and so economic alternatives, including ecotourism, are being sought to provide a livelihood for the local population.

As fishing continues to be an important part of the local economy, new ways to make existing fishing operations more efficient have come into play. Together with USAID, Fundary has recently been able to bring solar power to the area, allowing locals access to heretofore uneasily obtained luxuries, such as ice, in a sweltering coastland. The availability of ice and refrigeration, in turn, makes it easier to cater to visitors and keep food for their consumption. The community of San Francisco del Mar, about halfway down the peninsula, now has its own solar-powered freezer and fish-processing plant. The women are making some extra cash producing and selling ice cream. It’s all a bit reminiscent of Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast.

Recreation

Now is a great time to explore this area, as it’s clear tourism is still in its infancy. That all might change soon, however, with the new cruise-ship terminal just a few miles away in Puerto Santo Tomás de Castilla. For now, your best bet is to contact Fundary (tel. 7948-0435, Puerto Barrios or 2232-3230, Guatemala City), which is working with local communities to promote ecotourism. Among the activities are visits to the mangrove-lined canals of Bahía La Graciosa, Laguna Santa Isabel, and adjacent Canal Inglés for bird-watching and manatee-spotting.

The canal is named after British loggers who dug the 10-kilometer trench connecting Laguna Santa Isabel to the Río Piteros. Along this canal is the small community of Santa Isabel, with a solar-powered visitors center, where you can fish with the locals or sit in on a demonstration of the local charcoal-making process. You can also kayak in the mangrove swamps and canals near the small community of Estero Lagarto, farther north and closer to the Punta de Manabique outcrop. Farther east, the Río Motagua marks the border with Honduras. Near the mouth of this river is the small settlement of El Quetzalito, where you can also do some bird-watching or crocodile-spotting. It’s reached by road one hour from Puerto Barrios and then by traveling for half an hour downstream on the Motagua.

Accommodations and Food

Fundary runs a small basic lodge, El Saraguate, in the community of Punta de Manabique, just before you round the tip of the peninsula. Accommodations are in dorm-style bedrooms and cost $8 per person. It also offers package deals costing $75/95/120 (double, per person) for 1/2/3 nights’ accommodations, food, and transport from Puerto Barrios. Food is heavily centered on seafood and is prepared by local families. Nearby is a fantastic trail with wooden bridges giving you a glimpse of the peninsula’s largely flooded forest environment. A large dock goes out over the emerald-green waters fronting the lodge; from there you can snorkel in the clear, shallow waters. There’s not much sand here and the locale feels very lagoonlike.

It’s also possible to stay at the Julio Obiols Biological Research Station, run by Fundary, on the north end of the cape at Cabo Tres Puntas, where there’s also a lighthouse. It has recently installed solar-powered electricity at the station and now hosts research teams with greater frequency. Accommodations ($100 for two nights per person, double occupancy, including transport from Puerto Barrios and meals) are in basic but clean rooms with 2-4 beds and mosquito netting. The ambience here is somewhat more typical of a Caribbean seaside setting, with a nice stretch of white, sandy beach against which the waves come crashing from the Atlantic Ocean. The months of March-May offer somewhat calmer seas.

The community of Estero Lagarto has a very basic, three-bedroom lodge for accommodating guests. Santa Isabel is putting together a community-run lodging of its own and may be in operation by the time you visit.

Getting There

There is no regularly scheduled service to Punta de Manabique, though you might get lucky and hitch a ride with a group going out on any given day. A better option is to book a package trip with Fundary with food, lodging, and transport included. Your money helps support conservation efforts. If you want to explore the area on your own, you can hire a boat to take you there from the municipal dock in Puerto Barrios. It’s about an hour’s ride. Transportes El Chato (1a Avenida between 10a and 11a Calles, tel. 7948-5525 or 7948-8787) charges $180 for the trip. It’s also possible to make the trip from Lívingston and it might be slightly cheaper.


Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Guatemala.

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