Guatemala: Natural Landscape
Guatemala is the third-largest country in Central America. Situated in a geologically active region, its geography is characterized by three major geographic regions or zones: the Petén lowlands, the Guatemalan highlands, and the Pacific coast flatlands.
The Natural Landscape of Guatemala
Located in northern Central America, Guatemala is bounded to the north and west by Mexico, to the northeast by Belize and the Gulf of Honduras (a gulf of the Caribbean Sea), to the east by Honduras, to the southeast by El Salvador, and the south by the Pacific Ocean.
Guatemala is the third-largest country in Central America, occupying approximately 108,890 sq km (42,043 sq mi). However, Guatemala has long claimed territory held by Belize, and the territorial dispute remains unresolved after many years.
Guatemala hosts diverse habitats, including lowlands, coastlines, valleys, mountains, and deserts. In addition, there are many lakes, rivers, swamps, and lagoons.
Guatemala ranks 32nd in the world in terms of biodiversity. The country provides a habitat for approximately 699 bird species, 165 amphibian species, 905 fish species, 219 mammal species, 284 reptile species, and 8,681 vascular plant species.
Located within the tropics and with elevations ranging between sea level and more than 4,000 m (13,000 ft), the country experiences diverse climates that vary depending on the region, ranging from hot and moist to cool and dry.
Along the Pacific Ring of Fire, Guatemala is in a geologically-active region with frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity. Of the 288 volcanic structures in the country, approximately 37 are considered volcanoes, with three classified as highly-active:
Santiaguito/Santa María: 2,500 m (8,202 ft)
Fuego: 3,835 m (12,582 ft)
Pacaya: 2,552 m (8,371 ft)
Guatemala is located in a complex tectonic setting influenced by the interaction of three tectonic plates: the North American Plate to the north, the Caribbean Plate to the south, and the Cocos Plate to the southwest.
The country is divided into four important faults: the Motagua fault, the Jalpatagua fault, the Chixoy-Polochic fault, and the Jocotán-Chamelecón fault.
The highest peak in Central America is Volcán Tajumulco in western Guatemala at 4,220 m (13,845 ft). It is part of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas, which begins in southern Mexico. Most of the volcanoes of Guatemala, part of the Central America Volcanic Arc, are within the range.
The historic city of Antigua Guatemala is situated perilously close to three volcanoes: Volcán Agua at 3,760 m (12,350 ft), Volcán Fuego at 3,763 m (12,336 ft), and Volcán Acatenango at 3,976 m (13,045 ft) asl.
Location map of the countries of Central America
Natural Geography of Guatemala
The surface of Guatemala is characterized by three major topographical features that can also be defined as geographic regions or zones:
Pacific Coast Flatlands
A fourth minor zone can also be defined:
The northern third of Guatemala is a vast limestone flatland known as Petén. Once covered entirely in tropical forests, it has increasingly become deforested in its southern parts, with only the northern third retaining large unbroken swaths of forest.
Southern Guatemala is dominated by a string of volcanoes that extend for approximately 300 km (180 mi) between Mexico and El Salvador. Between the volcanoes and the Pacific Ocean lies a fertile plain ranging from 40 - 50 km (25 - 30 mi) in width.
Topographic map of Guatemala
The Petén region is a large, low-lying basin in northern Guatemala that occupies a portion of the Yucatán Peninsula, a limestone platform shared with Mexico and Belize. The region constitutes more than one-third of the country's territory.
In the Petén, a dense rainforest is interspersed with patches of savanna grasslands. The area contains few rivers as most of the rainfall drains underground.
Lying between the highly volcanic Sierra Madre de Chiapas to the south and the Petén lowlands to the north is an upland region known as the Guatemalan Highlands, which comprises a series of high valleys enclosed by mountains.
The highest slopes of the sierras are forested with oak and pine. Throughout these volcanic highlands, however, stands of pine, fir, and oak have been largely destroyed.
The northern chain of mountains is known as the Sierra de Los Cuchumatanes, Guatemala's and Central America's highest mountain chain. It stretches eastward, becoming known as the Sierra de Chama and eventually the Sierra del Santa Cruz.
The northern and southern mountains are separated by the Motagua Valley, where the Motagua River and its tributaries drain into the Gulf of Honduras. Eighteen significant rivers originate in the highlands region.
From Guatemala City, east toward Honduras, the terrain is primarily dominated by semiarid flatlands covered in cacti.
The area to the north of Guatemala City is mainly mountainous and primarily composed of limestone. A unique feature of this area, found in its northern limits, is the presence of small, forested limestone hills. The Sierra de las Minas mountain range runs east-west through the highlands.
Geographical regions/relief map of Guatemala
Pacific Coast Flatlands
The Pacific coast flatlands or southern lowlands are in the country's south, running roughly parallel to the highlands.
From the base of the volcanic row of the highlands, the Pacific coastal plain gradually slopes south to sea level at the ocean shoreline. The plain extends east-west for about 240 km (150 mi) and is one of the country's richest agricultural areas.
The landscape has largely been cleared of its tropical forest and savanna. Instead, this rich agricultural area now hosts vast sugarcane and coffee plantations. Coffee growing is especially prevalent on the slopes of the highland zones as they descend into the coastal plain.
The Pacific Coast is also home to wetlands, mangrove swamps, and dark-sand beaches due to their proximity to the country's volcanic chain.
Close to the Caribbean coast, in the department of Izabal, the terrain becomes lush and primarily composed of banana plantations.
Small mountains are interspersed throughout parts of the Caribbean coastal region.
A small sliver of Caribbean coastline runs between the Honduran border and Belize. The area features white-sand beaches, swampland, and tropical rainforests.
Bodies of Water
Guatemala has about 20 lakes of varying sizes and environmental settings. Of the 20 lakes, five are significant:
Lago de Izabal: also known as the Golfo Dulce, the largest lake in Guatemala
Lago El Golfete: long and narrow, drains to the Caribbean Sea
Lago de Atitlán: in a spectacular setting in the Guatemalan Highlands
Lago Petén Itza: in the northern Petén Department
Lago de Amatitlán: in the south-central highlands
Much of the Petén region is drained by the subsurface flow of water.
The east-flowing Motagua River and west-flowing Cuilco River pass in opposite directions between the volcanic terrain of southern Guatemala and the sierras of its midsection.
The Sierra region is drained by large rivers that flow primarily north into the Gulf of Mexico by the Usumacinta River. The 400-km- (250-mile-) long Motagua River is the longest of a series of rivers draining eastward toward the Caribbean Sea. In addition, several rivers drain into the Pacific Ocean.
Following is an exhaustive list of Guatemala's rivers:
- Rio Acome
- Rio Cabuz
- Rio Cahabon
- Rio Chixoy
- Rio Coatan
- Rio Coyolate
- Rio Cuilco
- Rio Cutzan
- Rio de la Pasion
- Rio Dulce
- Rio Grande de Zacapa
- Rio Guacalate
- Rio Ican
- Rio Ixcan
- Rio Las Vacas
- Rio Los Esclavos
- Rio Los Platanos
- Rio Madre Vieja
- Rio Maria Linda
- Rio Melendrez
- Rio Michatoya
- Rio Mongoy
- Rio Motagua
- Rio Nahualate
- Rio Nahuatan
- Rio Naranjo
- Rio Nenton
- Rio Oc
- Rio Ocosito
- Rio Olopa
- Rio Ostua-Guina
- Rio Paso Hondo
- Rio Paz
- Rio Polochic
- Rio Pueblo Viejo
- Rio Salinas
- Rio Samala
- Rio San Pedro
- Rio Sarstun
- Rio Selegua
- Rio Sis
- Rio Suchiate
- Rio Usumacinta
- Rio Villalobos
- Rio Xaclbal
Guatemala relief map
Tropical Humid Forest
This biome is characterized by its poor soil but exuberant jungles and diverse fauna.
Generally, it is defined by a hot and humid climate and no clear difference between the rainy and dry seasons.
Vegetation includes high- and low-altitude forests, savanna, and wetlands systems. The dominant vegetation type is broad-leaved trees and some pines (Pinus caribea).
Representative avifauna includes Ocellated Turkey, Yucatan Flycatcher, White-browed Wren, Black-throated Shrike-tanager, and Rose-throated Tanager.
Although similar to the Humid Tropical Forest, rainfall and humidity are much higher, and the vegetation is more complex. The prevailing climate is hot and humid. Although the dry season of summer is not very defined, more rain can be expected between June and October.
This biome has several ecosystems, including high evergreen forests, savannahs, associated grasslands, mangroves, and estuaries. The dominant vegetation is broadleaf trees, although there are some associations of pines (Pinus caribea and P. oocarpa).
The avifauna includes the Orange-breasted Falcon, White-crowned Pigeon, White-collared Manakin, Snowy Cotinga, Gray-headed Tanager, Olive-backed Euphonia, Golden-winged Warbler, and Green-backed Sparrow.
Located on mountain slopes, there is significant complexity in this biome's floristic composition.
This habitat presents high biodiversity and associated vegetation (avocados, pine, oaks, and tree ferns). The understory is composed of a wide variety of plants and mosses located in different strata, conferring a high complexity.
The climate is temperate and humid during the day, while nights can be cold. The high level of rain is characteristic of this biome, generally occurring between April and September.
The avifauna includes Horned Guan, Highland Guan, Resplendent Quetzal, Belted Flycatcher, and Pink Headed Warbler.
Chaparral or Thorn Dry Scrub
The Chaparral is one of the most fragile biomes, with less representation in the protected areas system. It has a discontinuous distribution through the central-eastern region of the country.
It occurs in valleys surrounded by mountains that generate the phenomenon known as a rain shadow, creating dry zones. As a result, vegetation includes abundant cactus and thorn plants.
This biome experiences a short but well-marked rainy season between June to October.
The avifauna includes Lesser Ground-cuckoo, Orange-fronted Parakeet, Russet-crowned Motmot, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Cinnamon Hummingbird, White-lored Gnatcatcher and Altamira Oriole.
Here, the influence of the North American region is evident in its biodiversity. In addition, the climate is usually cold, and the seasons are related to northern latitudes.
The biome has few species, with only one stratum differentiated and a very poor forest understory. However, several endemic plants and fauna can be found in this biome, which occupies the central highlands.
The avifauna includes the White-breasted Hawk, Golden-cheeked Warbler, Goldsman's Warbler, Pine Siskin, and Guatemalan Junco.
Tropical Humid Savannah
This biome is located along the Pacific Coast and experiences predominantly warm weather.
The original vegetation (deciduous forest, evergreen forest, savannas, and mangroves) has been transformed and replaced by agricultural landscapes, although, in some areas, remnants remain of the original vegetation.
The avifauna includes the Common Black-Hawk, White-bellied Chachalaca, Pacific Parakeet, Violet Sabrewing, and Long-tailed Manakin.
Subtropical Humid Forest
This biome is located in the Pacific region and runs through the slopes of the volcanic chain. Vegetation is diverse.
Temperatures are moderately warm, and the volcanic chain serves as a wind barrier for the humid winds that come from the south. However, this biome experiences a high amount of precipitation.
The avifauna includes the Red-throated Parakeet, Blue-tailed Hummingbird, Azure-rumped Tanager, and Prevost's Ground Sparrow.
The following is a list of terrestrial ecoregions in Guatemala, as defined by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
Guatemala is in the Neotropical realm. Ecoregions are classified by biome type - the major global plant communities determined by rainfall and climate.
Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests
Central American montane forests
Chiapas montane forests
Petén-Veracruz moist forests
Tropical and subtropical dry broadleaf forests
Central American dry forests
Chiapas Depression dry forests
Tropical and subtropical coniferous forests
Deserts and xeric shrublands
Motagua Valley thorn scrub
Belizean Coast mangroves
Northern Honduras mangroves
Northern Dry Pacific Coast mangroves
Regions map of Guatemala