El Oriente and Izabal
These two very different geographical regions comprise the part of Guatemala east of Guatemala City all the way to the Honduran border and the Caribbean Sea. Izabal is a sweltering jungle coastland with rainforests and beaches sharing some similarities with Belize to its north. The region known as El Oriente, meanwhile, is a mix of temperate mountains and semiarid plains.
The Izabal region features a unique kind of Caribbean experience not at all like Cancún or the West Indies but nonetheless beautiful. Tourism promoters have labeled this, “A different Caribbean.” Cruise ships regularly dock at Puerto Santo Tomás de Castilla, just across the bay from Puerto Barrios. Its new cruise-ship terminal is fast becoming a motor for the tourism development of this long-overlooked Caribbean coastal region.
From Puerto Barrios, it’s just a quick hop to the little-explored beaches and wetlands of Punta de Manabique Wildlife Refuge and some unique opportunities for ecotourism, wildlife-viewing, and beachcombing.
The intriguing Caribbean town of Lívingston is a standout for its unique Garífuna culture brought to coastal Guatemala from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent by way of Roatán, Honduras. This Black Carib influence provides a fascinating contrast to Guatemala’s largely Mayan heritage with rhythmic dancing and musical customs that complete the Caribbean experience.
The canyons of Río Dulce National Park connect Lívingston (and the Caribbean Sea) to Lake Izabal, Guatemala’s largest lake. Along the Río Dulce, you’ll find lush jungle canyons, hot springs, and side streams offering unique options for jungle accommodations.
Lake Izabal harbors some intriguing natural attractions of its own, including the vast, little-explored Bocas del Polochic Wildlife Refuge and Castillo de San Felipe de Lara; a funky Spanish castle built to repel the attacks of 17th-century pirates.
Closer to Guatemala City, a branch off Highway CA-9 heads southeast to El Oriente and on to Honduras, where you can visit the incredible ruins of Copán, just 12 kilometers across the border. Along with the nearby Mayan site of Quiriguá (Guatemala), Copán showcases some of the Mayan world’s finest stelae, carved monuments depicting historical events in the life of Mayan dynasties. Copán’s museum is among the finest attractions in the Mayan world.
The surrounding mountainous countryside is also becoming increasingly popular with travelers exploring coffee farms, a jungle bird park, and hot springs. Also near the border, on the Guatemalan side, is the town of Esquipulas, a popular pilgrimage site with Central American tourists for its Black Christ, believed to have miraculous healing powers.
Radically different from the department of Izabal, Guatemala’s other eastern departments comprising the region of El Oriente are semiarid and populated by ladino cowboys, attracting few international travelers. A standout in this area is the Ipala Volcano and Crater Lake, near the town of Chiquimula.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com