Lake Izabal, Guatemala

Lake Locations:

Guatemala -

Also known as:  Lago de Izabal

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.

Things to do at Lake Izabal

  • Vacation Rentals
  • Fishing
  • Boating
  • Sailing
  • Swimming
  • Canoeing
  • Kayaking
  • Picnicking
  • Hiking
  • Horseback Riding
  • Hunting
  • Waterfall
  • Wildlife Viewing
  • Birding
  • National Park
  • Ruins

Fish species found at Lake Izabal

  • Catfish
  • Perch
  • Tilapia

Lake Izabal Photo Gallery

Lake Izabal Statistics & Helpful Links

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Lake Type: Natural Freshwater Lake, Not Dammed

Surface Area: 145,693 acres

Shoreline Length: 95 miles

Normal Elevation (Full Pond): 7 feet

Average Depth: 38 feet

Maximum Depth: 59 feet

Trophic State: Eutrophic

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Trophic State | LakeLubbers

Trophic State measures the level of algae and nutrients in a lake.

An oligotrophic lake is very clear (blue in color) and does not support much plant or fish life. A hyper-oligotrophic lake is the clearest of all lakes, and is nearly devoid of plants and fish.

A mesotrophic lake is slightly green and supports a moderate degree of plant and fish life. A lake's most desired trophic state is generally this mid-point - the mesotrophic state.

A eutrophic lake is somewhat murky and supports a large amount of plant and fish life. A hypereutrophic lake is clouded with algae, plant life, and fish life. A eutrophic or hyper-eutrophic lake can be difficult to navigate by boat - and is often an unpleasant place to swim.

The use of phosphorus-rich and nitrogen-rich fertilizer on lawns and golf courses surrounding a lake can cause it to become eutrophic or hypereutrophic.


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Catchment or Drainage Area | LakeLubbers

This is the surrounding area that drains into a lake, including land, rivers and their tributaries. This is also known as the lake's "catchment basin".

Small lakes at the highest peaks of mountains have small drainage areas. The world's oceans have the largest drainage areas.


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Lake-Area Population | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated number of people who live in a house with a view of a lake, plus those who self-describe the lake as their home, for example: "I live at Smith Mountain Lake."


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Water Residence Time | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated time that it takes for an amount of water equal to the entire volume of a lake to flow out of - or evaporate from - the lake.

Residence Time can be as short as a few days for fast-flowing small lakes, and can exceed 100 years for slow-flowing large lakes.


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Completion Year | LakeLubbers

This is the year that a reservoir was first filled to the reservoir's normal elevation - or the year that a natural lake was first dammed. A large reservoir can take more than a year to fill after its dam is first closed.

The Grand Anicut in southern India is generally considered the world's oldest dam that still operates. Grand Anicut was constructed in the second century BC. It now impounds an irrigation network that includes roughly one million acres.

You can find many of the the world's newest reservoirs on LakeLubbers. Many of the world's oldest reservoirs appear on the last page of that list.


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Water Volume | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated volume of water that a lake contains -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. By this measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal.

You can find many of the the world's largest lakes (by water volume) on LakeLubbers.

Water Volume can be measured in acre-feet, in cubic miles, or in cubic kilometers. One acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre (43,560 square feet) to a depth of one foot. One cubic mile equals 3,379,200 acre-feet. One cubic kilometer equals 810,713 acre-feet.

1 acre-foot is equal to 325,851 US gallons. Siberia's Lake Baikal contains about 6,276,367,740,000,000 gallons of freshwater - nearly 1 million gallons for every living person on earth.

The other - and more widely used - measure of a lake's size is the lake's surface acreage. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is North America's Lake Superior.


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Maximum Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated greatest depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. The world's deepest lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal; that lake's maximum depth is estimated at 5,314 feet.

You can find many of the the world's deepest lakes on LakeLubbers. If you select the last page of that list, you will find the (maximum depth of) the shallowest lakes in our database.


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Average Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated average depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. If the water volume and surface area of a lake are known, an estimate of the lake's average depth can be calculated:

Water volume ÷ Surface Area = Average Depth

Example: 1,000,000 acre-feet ÷ 20,000 acres = 50 feet average depth


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Maximum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's highest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can occur during flooding. A lake's highest possible maximum elevation is usually the top of the lake's dam or spillway.

At lakes that include residential development, government regulations usually forbid the construction of homes below a lake's maximum elevation.


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Minimum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's lowest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can be reasonably expected to occur. Low lake levels can occur due to deliberate seasonal draw downs for irrigation or impending snow melt, reduced water inflows, drought and evaporation, residential or commercial water demands, and hydropower generation.

Some lakes' minimum and maximum elevations are virtually the same. Lakes that generate hydropower may vary by several feet - according to power demand. Lakes whose primary purpose is to prevent flooding can seasonally vary by 100 feet or more.

When some lakes reach their minimum elevation, their boat ramps may not be long enough to permit boat access - and boats docked on shallow parts of the lake may end up on dry ground. In those cases, kayakers and shore-based anglers may be among the few happy recreational users of the lake.


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Normal Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's normal water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level. For a reservoir, this water level is also known as "full pond" or "full pool".

You can find many of the world's highest-elevated lakes on LakeLubbers. Lakes with the lowest elevations (known by LakeLubbers) are shown on the final page of that list.


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Shoreline Length | LakeLubbers

This is the length of the exterior shoreline around a lake - measured at the lake's normal elevation. The shoreline length can be considerably shorter or longer when lake water levels are lower or higher than normal.

A lake with many coves has a much longer shoreline than a lake of similar surface area that is nearly circular in shape.

When known, the shoreline miles that we report in our statistics include only the lake's exterior shoreline, and exclude the shorelines of islands located within a lake's boundaries. In lakes with many islands, those islands' combined shorelines may exceed a lake's exterior shoreline.

You can find many of the world's longest-shoreline lakes on Lakelubbers.


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Surface Area | LakeLubbers

This is the area (acreage, square kilometers, etc.) of the top surface area of a lake - measured at a lake's normal elevation. The surface area can be considerably smaller or larger when lake levels are lower or higher than normal. North America's Lake Superior is the world's largest freshwater lake by this measure.

The other measure of a lake's size is the lake's water volume. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Lake Baikal in Siberia.

You can find many of the world's largest lakes (acres) on Lakelubbers. There is no widely-accepted minimum surface area that defines a lake. What Lakelubbers describes as a lake, you might call a pond. The smallest lake that Lakelubbers currently includes is Hawaii's 2-acre Lake Waiau.


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Water Level Control | LakeLubbers

This is the organization that controls water releases or outflows from the lake or reservoir. In the USA, this is often the US Army Corps of Engineers, a power company, a municipal water system, an irrigation district, or a paper manufacturing company. In the case of private or gated lakes, a homeowners' association may be the lake's controlling authority.

Many lakes cross borders, including North America's Great Lakes. The control of such lakes and their coveted freshwater may be amicably shared - or hotly disputed.

"Water wars" continue at many lakes as growing populations and crop irrigation needs compete for the freshwater that lakes contain.


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Lake Type | LakeLubbers

There are 3 basic types of lakes that are currently included on LakeLubbers. 2 types may be dammed or not dammed, producing 5 classifications.

- A Reservoir is a man-made freshwater lake that is usually created by damming rivers.

- A Natural Freshwater Lake occurs naturally - often by glacial activity - and has a salinity of less than 30 parts per thousand. It may be dammed to produce electricity or for other reasons.

- A Natural Saltwater Lake occurs naturally and has a salinity of more than 30 parts per thousand (ppt). It may be dammed.

"Brackish" water may be categorized as freshwater or saltwater, depending on its salt content (salinity). Oligohaline water has less than 15 ppt of salt. Mesohaline water has 15-29 ppt. Polyhaline has 30-335 ppt.


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