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Guatemala's largest lake, Lake Izabel beckons the nature-seeking world traveler. Covering more than 145,000 acres, the massive lake provides sustenance for thousands of native Guatemalans and offers a sailor's paradise just off the Caribbean. Arising from the delta of the Polochic River, Lago de Izabal stretches 45 miles eastward before narrowing into the Rio Dulce-the 'Sweet River'. Surrounded by rainforest, the lake shelters numerous types of fish, alligators, hundreds of bird species, and a large population of local Mayans who depend upon fishing for much of their diet. Increasingly, well-heeled foreign vacationers and ex-pats strengthen the local economy as they come to sail, engage in eco-tourism and live here.
The growing town surrounding the entrance to Rio Dulce at the east end of the lake is named Fronteras, but more commonly called simply Rio Dulce by visitors. Here, marinas, hotels, tourism-based businesses and shops serve the vital tourism trade. A vegetable market stocked with produce from nearby hillside farms provides an amazing supply of fresh fruits and vegetables to restaurants and kitchens of the area. Some form of fish is usually the main course and is prepared in myriad tasty ways. Out on the lake, sailboats glide silently by, and yachts are a common sight at the marinas. Amatique Bay and the town of Livingston are 20 miles downstream, with the entire length sail-able and highly scenic.
The only other town of any size on Lake Izabal is El Estor, a 'spanglish' translation of 'the store' that is located near the western end of the lake. Between the two, an unusual hot waterfall cascades into a cool stream, a favorite for swimming and photographs. The many streams flowing into Lake Izabal make for interesting kayaking, usually along narrow waterways amid vines extending from the masses of greenery to the water below. Many of the area's 600 species of birds and 150 types of larger mammals can be seen near the stream banks.
Out on Lake Izabal, manatees and 200+ species of fish share the water, including a type of freshwater shark, sawfish, tilapia, catfish and many other species. Numerous indigenous fishermen cast their nets from small boats or dugout canoes. Alligators are often seen near shore, while herons, egrets and pelicans hunt for morsels along the shore and perch along overhanging branches. Motor launches travel the length of the lake on a regular basis, both as special tourist tours and local transportation. On a point overlooking a narrow spot on the lake, the restored castle of Castillo de San Felipe stands sentry over the water. Although called a castle, the building is actually a fort, constructed centuries ago by the Spanish to prevent the English from raiding villages near the shore. Castillo de San Felipe is surrounded by a lovely park that is a favorite for picnics; its rusty canon aims at vague points in the surrounding hills. Lake Izabal is perfect for wake-boarding, kite-boarding, kayaking and enjoying hours out on the water. Near the shore, facilities offer horseback riding and hiking along a variety of trails.
Eco-tourism is a growing enterprise in the Lake Izabal area. Several national parks and nature parks are found in the immediate area, including large Rio Dulce National Park and Bocas del Polochic, a wildlife preserve. Guided tours are available into most areas. In its early history, the Mayan empire had a heavy presence in the area, and ruins of their buildings can still be seen not far south of Lake Izabal at Quirigua. A few years ago, a German radio station sponsored an 'archeological expedition' to find ruins of a city under the lake itself, one supposedly filled with gold tablets. Nothing was found, but the stunt served to force the government to take active measures against looters and souvenir hunters, thus providing more protections for local cultural sites (the originator of the treasure hunt now says that was his intention all along).
Travel by boat between Lake Izabal and the town of Livingston is an unforgettable scenic delight. Heading east from Rio Dulce along the river of the same name leads into a long narrow lake called El Golfete. The narrow, 10-mile long lake holds an island whose main inhabitants are thousands of birds. The large island, the water and shoreline surrounding it are part of the Chocon Machacas Biotope, providing protection to birds, mammals and fish, among them the quickly disappearing manatees. A few homes and small businesses hug the shore. After leaving El Golfete, the scenic river meanders through a steep gorge with vegetation-lined walls before reaching the port city of Livingston.
Founded primarily by escaped slaves over 200 years ago, the locals are called the Garifuna. The Garifuna and native Mayans make up the local population, heavily infiltrated by foreign residents and business professionals. The waterfront on Amatique Bay is crowded with yacht slips, marinas, fishing concerns and tourist accommodations. Many ex-patriots live here on their boats or have homes on shore. As the berths at Rio Dulce are known to be the safest place to dock in a hurricane, many of these same boats spend part of their time on Lake Izabal. Solitary but exclusive homes are scattered all the way down the river to Lake Izabal. Increasingly, less expensive tourist accommodations are sprouting up to cater to young eco-tourists. Many arrive to visit the Cerro San Gil Ecological Reserve near Livingston.
Despite the beauty of Lake Izabal and the surrounding rain forest, the area has its share of challenges brought about by increasing population and nearby mining. Fish stocks are dwindling, with some no longer caught. Oddly, an invasion on non-native hydrilla seems not to have had a negative influence on the fish. The manatees are seen less and less. Concerns about pollution caused by water withdrawn then pumped back into the lake by a nickel smelting operation occupy area researchers. Although owned by the Guatemalan government, the nickel mine is run by a large Canadian firm, and many believe that the indigenous people were removed from their lands unfairly. The contract for water withdrawal doesn't appear to contain any cleanliness standards at time of replacement, and researchers are concerned that heavy metal contamination of the lake could easily result. Lake monitoring is ongoing as are efforts to see that the local Mayans removed from their lands receive fair treatment. It is hoped that the growing interest in eco-tourism can place economic pressure on the government to monitor the situation more scientifically.
Real estate is available near Lake Izabal, often at surprisingly low prices. Hotels, hostels, resorts and private guest lodgings are plentiful. Visit this picturesque vacation spot in Central America, and you may find yourself hooked.
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