The region east of Guatemala City is the most disparate part of the country – a mix of near-desert, rainforest, mountains and lakes peopled by ladinos, creoles and isolated pockets of Maya. Close to the capital is a seldom-visited region of dry, sun-scorched hills known as the Oriente, centred on the towns of Chiquimula and Esquipulas. The eastern section of Guatemala, the department of Izabal, could not be more different. Here the climate is always thick with humidity and the land has a decidedly sultry, tropical feel, with rainforest reserves, a Caribbean coastline, a vast lake and a dramatic gorge system to explore.
Densely populated in Maya times, this region served as an important trade route and also was one of the main sources of jade. Connecting the capital with the Caribbean, the Motagua valley is a broad corridor of low-lying land between two high mountain ranges. Following the decline of Maya civilization, the area lay virtually abandoned until the end of the nineteenth century when the United Fruit Company established huge banana plantations and reaped massive profits. Today bananas are still the main crop, though cattle ranching is becoming increasingly important.
For the traveller, the main draw is exploring idyllic Río Dulce and the Lago de Izabal area – a vast expanse of freshwater ringed by isolated villages, rich wetlands and hot springs. The most spectacular section is undoubtedly the Río Dulce gorge, best experienced on a slow boat from nearby Lívingston, a laidback town that’s home to Afro-Carib Garífuna people. You could also drop by the fascinating Maya ruins and giant stelae of Quiriguá, just off the main highway, the Carretera al Atlántico. South of here, the Oriente offers magnificent scenery in places, with the Ipala volcano and its crater lake a highlight. Esquipulas, home of the famous black Christ and the scene of Central America’s largest annual pilgrimage, is another curiosity.