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.
The Izabal region features a unique kind of Caribbean experience not at all like Cancún or the West Indies but nonetheless beautiful.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. As you head east from Guatemala City on the Carretera al Atlántico (CA-9), the road descends into this region of dusty plains and cactus-studded hills. Farther along, in the department of Izabal, the terrain becomes lush and green before ending at Puerto Barrios, on the Caribbean Sea, just about 300 kilometers from the capital.
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. Cruise-ship day-trippers can explore a rainforest and pristine jungle river with waterfalls and pools in the lush green mountains looming over the port. From Puerto Barrios, it’s just a quick hop to the intriguing Caribbean town of Lívingston or the exotic jungle canyon of the Río Dulce.
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 Río Dulce canyon connects 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. In the town of Río Dulce, at the mouth of Lake Izabal, you’ll find a variety of tourist services and boat marinas, as it’s become a popular shelter for boats sailing the Western Caribbean.
Back on Highway CA-9 closer to Guatemala City, a branch road heads southeast to El Oriente, partially occupied by Guatemala’s Eastern Highlands. The road continues east 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, along with its restored temple pyramids, palaces, hieroglyphic stairway, and ball court. The surrounding mountainous countryside is also becoming increasingly popular with travelers exploring coffee farms, a jungle bird park, and hot springs. Radically different from the department of Izabal, Guatemala’s other eastern departments comprising the region of El Oriente are semiarid and populated largely by ladino cowboys. It attracts few international travelers, but if you’re traveling by land to Izabal, you’ll pass through this part of Guatemala. It’s not entirely without its charms.
The overall climate in these parts is warm, even in the Eastern Highlands, which lack the dramatic altitude of their western counterparts. The Motagua Valley is arid, whereas the Izabal region is warm and humid year-round. During the warmest months of April and May, the temperature and humidity can seem unbearable, though coastal regions get a lightly refreshing sea breeze that helps alleviate some of the tropical swelter. Temperatures can hover round 100°F during this time of year. At other times, it hovers somewhere between 85°F and 95°F. Izabal is particularly rainy and sometimes battered by storms or the occasional hurricane.
Planning Your Time
Copán can be done in a day or two, while Quiriguá requires only a couple of hours at most. It makes a good stop on the way to Puerto Barrios. There is plenty to see and do on the Caribbean Coast. Puerto Barrios is not the most pleasant town, but there’s no need to stay here as there are now better alternatives for exploring the Cerro San Gil Reserve and Río Las Escobas across Bahía de Amatique in Santo Tomás de Castilla. Puerto Barrios merits an hour or two at best as a transit point to Lívingston or Río Dulce.
A few days in Lívingston will allow you time to explore nearby waterfalls, beaches, and rainforests. From Lívingston, you can also explore the Río Dulce canyon in a few hours while traveling to Río Dulce town, but it’s also possible to stop over midway and spend a night or two at some comfortable lodgings on the Río Tatín tributary. Río Dulce will probably captivate you with its tropical charm and location at the mouth of Lake Izabal. It makes a great place to chill out for a few days before heading north to Petén or before or after some exploring on the coast.
The eastern department of El Progreso is dominated by the presence of the Motagua River Valley, a region of cactus-studded plains lying between the rain-soaked Sierra de las Minas to the north and the Sierra del Espíritu Santo, along the Honduran border to the east. The Carretera al Atlántico passes through much of this terrain. South of here, the low-lying departments of Jalapa and Jutiapa have some green hills and a volcano or two, though they are not of the dramatic, conical kind found in the Western Highlands. East of here, the areas along the Honduran border near Copán have some pretty mountain scenery where coffee is grown.
The department of Izabal is one of Guatemala’s most attractive for those who enjoy coastal environments. There are still large expanses of tropical rainforests, which receive ample rainfall when warm, moist air from the Caribbean Sea rises on mountain slopes. The Montañas del Mico stand as silent sentinels dominating a biological corridor between the Bahía de Amatique and the lazy Río Dulce to the north, which empties into the Caribbean. Guatemala’s Caribbean coastline lacks the aquamarine beaches of Cancún and Belize, but there is at least one white-sand beach worthy of mention near Lívingston. Farther out to sea are the tail end of the Belize Barrier Reef and some easily accessible cayes. Inland, Lake Izabal is a huge body of water harboring some impressive wetlands.
Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Guatemala.