Jurg Widmer Probst explores Guatemala's longest rivers
Guatemala’s longest rivers play a special role in the country’s landscape, carving spectacular valleys through the mountains, harbouring some of the country’s most sensitive habitats and acting as historically important transport arteries.
Since Mayan times, people have used and valued Guatemala’s riverways and the 21stCentury has brought millions of tourists to admire and explore them.
Mountains create Guatemala’s longest rivers
Most of Guatemala’s rivers rise up in the Central Highlands, which is the meeting point of two mountain chains. The southern chain, known as the Sierra Madre, and the northern chain combine to send vast amounts of run-off into river valleys.
These valleys transport their water towards the Pacific Ocean to the south, the Gulf of Honduras to the east or the Gulf of Mexico to the north via Mexico.
Generally speaking, the rivers which flow towards the Pacific are shallower and slower than those which flow towards the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf of Honduras.
Guatemala’s longest river
Two rivers, the Motagua and the Usumacinta, vie for the title of Guatemala’s longest river. The Usumacinta is longer overall, but only 390km of its 1,000km length is in Guatemala, with the rest flowing through Mexico.
The Motagua is 460km long, but lies entirely within Guatemala, so it is the longest river flowing entirely in the country.
The third of Guatemala’s longest rivers is the Pasion, which is around 350km long and forms in the hills of Alta Verapaz before feeding into the Usumacinta.
The Motagua River separates Guatemala’s mountains
The source of Motagua River is in the central highlands, near the town of Chichicastenango, and from there it flows eastwards, splitting the country’s northern and southern mountain chains.
It then turns north-east, running parallel to the Guatemala-Honduras border before emptying into the Gulf of Honduras. It is a vital waterway for the country, with an estimated 5 million people living within its river basin.
This region was part of the huge plantations created by the United Fruit Company in the early 20thCentury, and it remains vital to Guatemala’s agriculture industry as it supports crops of coffee, bananas and other fruits.
The Matagua’s river basin also has potential as a valuable source of gold and silver in the El Pato mining district. El Pato is centred around the town Chiquimula on one of the Matagua’s tributary rivers.
The Usumacinta was a Mayan highway
The Usumacinta River is formed Sierra de Santa Cruz mountains where the Pasion Rivers meets the Chixoy River (also known as the Salinas or Negro), and from there it flows north and forms part of the border with Mexico.
As the border turns sharply east, the river continues into Mexico, through a series of complex meanders then merges with the Grijalva River just before it empties into the Gulf of Honduras.
Two of the most powerful Mayan cities, Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras, were built on the banks of the Usumacinta, although the fast-flowing waters and intimidating rapids would have made transport challenging between the them.
The construction of major highways in the 1990s usurped the river as the region’s major transport link.
Guatemala’s longest Pacific rivers
The two longest rivers which flow entirely through Guatemala into the Pacific Ocean are the Suchiate and Coyolate, and both are around 160km long.
The Suchiate forms the southern section of Guatemala’s border with Mexico, and it has been the scene of several confrontations between migrants wanting to cross the border bridges.
The Olopa River also flows from Guatemala to the Pacific, but most of its 422km flows through Honduras; it also changes its name to the Lempa where it crosses the border.
Guatemala’s unusual coastal canal
One unexpected river-like delight of Guatemala is the Chiquimulilla Canal, which runs parallel with the Pacific Coast for around 65km from near the border with El Salvador to the town of Iztapa.
Originally built at the end of the 19thCentury to connect the isolated communities which dot the coastline, the canal is now a popular destination for tourists.
The mangrove swamps which line its banks are excellent habitats for many birds and animals.
Enjoy some extra river adventures
Guatemala’s longest rivers offer excellent opportunities for white-water rafting, with the difficulty generally ideal for visitors who want some fun and thrills without the hard-core technical demands of the most difficult categories.
The Usumacinta and Motagua both feature sets of moderately challenging rapids, and you can book guided trips. Most of these journeys will include visits to Mayan ruins, including Mixco Viejo on the Motagua.
Make sure you book these trips ahead of time, as some will only operate at particular seasons and might rely on sufficient rainfall.
Nature on the rivers
Guatemala’s rivers and their valleys are home to some of Central America’s most sensitive habitats, which are home to species which are increasingly rare. Mexico has taken steps to protect its stretch of the Usumacinta, and work is underway by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to replicate this in Guatemala.
The Motagua and its valley form an unusually dry habitat which has been designated as a special ecoregion by the WWF. This is mainly because it is home to unique species such as the russet-crowned motmot and the endangered Motagua spiny-tailed iguana.
Guatemala’s longest rivers are an important part of its natural environment, and have played key roles in its history and culture, from Mayan times to modern the era. Whatever your interest, these magnificent rivers offer a unique way to enjoy the beauty of Guatemala.
About Jürg Widmer Probst
Jürg Widmer is a busy blogger and resident of Guatemala who often shares all things about Guatemala, from the country’s hidden gems, article and culture to the best place for food and drink.
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