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Exploring Biotopo Mario Dary Rivera, Guatemala

Also known as the Quetzal Biotope, Biotopo Mario Dary Rivera (tel. 5333-6947, 7am-4pm daily, $5) is a 1,044-hectare protected area and one of several biotopes administered by University of San Carlos’s Center for Conservation Studies (CECON). It is conveniently situated along CA-14 at Km. 160.5, about an hour from Cobán.

Though quetzals are easier to spot in Sierra de las Minas, the elusive birds are said to frequent the yard of some local eating establishments (Biotopín Restaurant and Ranchitos del Quetzal), where they like to feast on the fruits of the aguacatillo tree. The Quetzal Biotope’s convenient roadside location means that if you’re on your way to or from Cobán, you should at least stop in for a look. You might just get lucky and see one of Guatemala’s most beloved national symbols, with its exotic green plumage, long tail feathers, and bright red breast. Your best chances are between February and September. Plan on being up early if you want to see them.

Exploring the Park

Only a small part of the reserve is open to visitors, though there is plenty to keep you busy. There are two trails beginning at the visitors center, winding their way through the exuberant vegetation. The shorter Los Helechos (The Ferns) trail is two kilometers long, while Los Musgos (The Mosses) trail is twice as long. While you may or may not see a quetzal, you’ll certainly see a dense growth of epiphytes, mosses, ferns, and orchids along the well-maintained trails. Both trails pass by some nice waterfalls where you can swim.

Trail maps are available for $1 at the visitors center, where there is also an exhibit. A small shop sells snacks and drinks, and there are camping and barbecue areas. Camping is allowed with prior arrangement only.

Moss-covered logs form a bridge over a small creek in Guatemala's Biotopo Mario Dary Rivera.
You’ll see a dense growth of epiphytes, mosses, ferns, and orchids along the well-maintained trails in Biotopo Mario Dary Rivera. Photo © Axel, licensed Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike.

Where to Stay and Eat

A number of comfortable lodgings are alongside the road in the vicinity of the biotope. The first place you’ll find, coming from Cobán, is Ranchitos del Quetzal (Km. 160.5, tel. 4130-9456 or 5368-6397, $33 d), where there are eight comfortable rooms in concrete structures with electric hot-water heater. The restaurant here serves basic, inexpensive meals ($3-6), and there is a trail to a waterfall and swimming hole 40 minutes away. Quetzals are sometimes seen here. Admission to the trail costs $5 for nonguests. It’s also known as Parque Ecológico Gucumatz.

Across the street from the biotope is Restaurante Biotopín (tel. 4587-9155, 7am-5pm Fri.-Sun.), serving snacks, barbecued meats, burgers, hot dogs, and other picnic fare in an open-air dining room facing the woods. There are basic accommodations ($7 pp) and a trail leading to a swimming hole ($2.50 admission). Farther along the highway at Km. 158.5 is Hotel y Restaurante Ram Tzul (tel. 5908-4066, $48 d), with comfortable accommodations in wooden cabins, all with private bath. A large restaurant tastefully constructed using 3,500 bamboo shoots serves good food three meals a day. The lodge is on a private 150-hectare forest preserve. A 45-minute hike leads to a pretty waterfall.

Another lodge on a private forest reserve is Posada Montaña del Quetzal (Km. 156.5 on the road to Cobán, tel. 5800-0454, $36-46 d), where you have a choice of staying in standard rooms or family-size bungalows. There are firm beds and an on-demand hot-water heater. The rooms can be moldy, which is common in these cold, humid parts. There are two swimming pools, table tennis, and a trail leading to a waterfall 30 minutes away.

Getting There

Any bus heading along the Cobán-Guatemala Highway can let you off at the biotope, though be sure to let the driver know you’re getting off here. The entrance is at Km. 160.5.

Mario Dary Rivera

Considered by many to be the patriarch of Guatemala’s environmental movement, Mario Dary Rivera was a biologist who served as rector of the University of San Carlos in 1981, the same year in which he was assassinated. Dary succeeded in getting the municipality of Salamá to donate part of the land for the creation of the Quetzal Biotope, which was subsequently named after him; he served as the new park’s director from 1977 to 1981. Dary also founded the university’s Center for Conservation Studies (CECON) in 1981, along with its system of protected areas known as biotopes, set aside for the protection and scientific study of endangered plants and animals.

Today there are at least half a dozen of these biotopes throughout Guatemala. Among the animals being protected and studied are quetzals, sea turtles, jaguars, bats, deer, and Petén turkey.

A wild turkey strutting through one of Guatemala's archeological sites.
Mario Dary Rivera founded Guatemala’s system of protected areas known as biotopes. The Petén Turkey is just one of the animals protected in these reserves. Photo © Adam Jones, licensed Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike.

Although the urban militant wing of the leftist Guatemalan Workers Party (PGT) has been attributed with Dary’s assassination, some believe his conservation activities stirred the waters with local logging interests, who may have also played a part. Unlike most political killings at the height of the violent civil war, Dary’s stands out because he was generally perceived to be right of center in his political inclinations.

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