Guatemala's natural wonders

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GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala -- From the northern rain forests of El Peten to the rugged mountains and volcanoes in the central region and its coasts on two seas, Guatemala offers nature- and adventure-loving clients a country full of outdoor vacation attractions.

The country protects its natural heritage in 30 biological reserves and wildlife refuges. Guatemala tour operators feature packages to the most accessible refuges, making it easy to take a walk on the wild side.

Visitors find an exciting mix of wildlife viewing and archaeological discovery in the Maya Biosphere reserve. Because of its size as well as diverse altitudes ranging from cloud forest to lowland jungle, it is an important refuge for many birds and large mammals.

Most accessible within the reserve is the Tikal National Park, home to more than 200 species of birds as well as spider monkeys and raccoons. Well-developed nature trails link easily with the temple pyramids that distinguish Tikal's ancient city.

Lake Atitlan is Guatemala's most majestic natural wonder, framed by three massive volcanoes: Atitlan, Toliman and San Pedro. Volcano climbing is a Guatemalan pastime here, although San Pedro (9,920 feet) is the only one of the three volcanoes that can be ascended in one day.

North of Lake Atitlan is the Mario Dary Rivera Biotopo, one of the best-preserved rain forests in the country, with three nature trails -- one designed for people with limited mobility. This reserve was created to protect the quetzal, Guatemala's national bird.

On the Caribbean coast, the Rio Dulce flows out of Lake Izabal at Livingston, departure port for riverboat trips taking passengers inland through an impressive canyon whose vertical walls are draped with dense vegetation.

River-trippers continue to Lake Izabal and its surrounding ecosystem of mangroves and tropical forest, all part of the 80-square-mile Biotopo Chochon Machacas Reserve.

Staying at small lodges here, visitors can see manatees and otters while exploring the reserve's waterways by kayak and canoe.

Other natural wonders provide different kinds of active travel experiences.

For example, at Las Grutas de Lanquin, a cave complex watered by the Rio Lanquin, visitors can venture about 100 yards into subterranean passageways decorated with the stone altars used by the Mayan people in sacred ceremonial rites. (Advise clients to bring their own flashlights.)

Five miles away is Semuc-Champey, where bathers can soak in natural "bathtub" pools and enjoy jungle views.

With Class II and III rapids, the Rio Cahabon is also Guatemala's most popular white-water river, offering about 30 miles of navigable stream and a drop of about 1,600 feet.

To contact reporter Carla Hunt, send e-mail to [email protected].

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