Located in Central America, just south of Mexico, Guatemala is a topographically diverse nation with volcanoes, rainforests, coffee fields, and sprawling lakes. It’s best known for its incredible landscapes and fascinating history from the Mayan culture to the colorful colonial cities. But if you’re planning a trip to the Land of Eternal Spring, you might be wondering, are there dangerous animals in Guatemala?
From the Cuchamatán Mountains in the western highlands to the sun-drenched Caribbean coast and where the Pacific Ocean pounds the southwest shores, Guatemala is marked by contrasts and the same can be said about its varied fauna. Among the exotic birds, howling monkeys, and colorful lizards, you’ll find more than one species of dangerous animal, some of which are more formidable than others.
Our guide is here to explore it all from the big cats that roam the national parks to the poisonous spiders you might find in your backyard. Guatemala’s wildlife is not to be underestimated. Let’s get into it.
Present in large populations and ferocious in strength, crocodiles are one of the most statistically dangerous animals found across Guatemala’s varied landscapes. Two species of crocodile inhabit the waterways in the country, one being the Morelet’s crocodile, also known as the Belize crocodile, which is a medium-sized species only found in the fresh waters of the Neotropics.
They can reach up to four meters in length, which isn’t that big as far as crocodiles go, but despite their size, they are known to be aggressive. Adult Morelets’ are easily capable of overpowering a human caught unaware at a water’s edge. There have been 31 recorded attacks since 2006 by Morelet’s crocodiles in the Americas, four of which were fatal. Most attacks are predatory and unprovoked rather than defensive.
Morelets’ are characterized by their broad and blunt snouts, flat dorsal scales, and irregular scale groups. They’re unique since they’re the only crocodile to exclusively mound nest, meaning they protect their ends within coned nesting material for insulation. Morelet’s crocodiles lay 20 to 40 eggs at a time.
American crocodiles are also found in Guatemala, but Morelet’s crocodiles have more range and higher population density even though the American crocodile is the most widespread in the Americas. Some regard American crocodiles to be mellow tempered but they still pose a threat to humans and can be as aggressive as any other species when provoked.
Red Rump Tarantulas
Commonly known as the Mexican or Guatemalan Red Rump, but scientifically known as Tliltocatl vagans, this species of tarantula is found across Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico and is known for its temperamental nature.
When young, spiderlings are brown but red rump tarantulas develop vibrant red hairs on their abdomens in adulthood, hence their name. Males and females look quite similar but males boast brighter red hairs, while females are larger.
Red rump tarantulas can be aggressive and fast-moving. As a burrowing species, they’ll dig deep nests whenever possible and come out at night to hunt. Tarantulas are one of the only spider species that don’t use nests to catch their prey, instead, they prowl the jungle floor and use their speed and agility to pounce on their unsuspecting victims. Still, the red rump has even more tools on its side since its vibrant hairs are urticating and used by the tarantula to stun and discomfort prey to make them easier to catch.
Tarantulas are famous for their painful bites and the red rump does carry venom. However, it’s not enough to cause major harm to a human, rather, the venom helps the tarantula break down its prey to make it easy to digest. Their bite could cause a nasty infection or even anaphylactic shock if a human were allergic to their venom.
Red rump tarantulas are carnivorous, feeding on small rodents, lizards, and insects, but they don’t actively seek human prey. They’ll only bite if they feel intimidated, under threat, or startled. Still, that’s enough reason to keep your distance.
Brown Bark Scorpions
Belonging to the same family as the Arizona bark scorpion, whose sting packs enough punch to make it the most venomous Scorpion in the United States, the lesser feared brown bark scorpion is still a force to be reckoned with.
They’re darker in color than their dessert-dwelling cousins, but they’re still poisonous with neurotoxic and cardiotoxic venom that causes the release of catecholamines when they strike. This means that victims of the brown bark scorpion will suffer pain, itching, swelling, and sometimes nausea, vomiting, shock, convulsions, cardiac arrest, and even death—but only in extreme cases.
Brown bark scorpions are often found in the eastern forests of Guatemala. They tend to live under rocks and tree bark but they can live in the walls of houses and under rubbish piles in yards when given the opportunity. This gives them access to humans and increases the chance of potentially dangerous attacks.
Brown bark scorpions aren’t afraid of human dwellings and feed on insects like roaches and termites which can be readily found in homes. However, they’re nowhere near the top of the food chain and one of their main predators is the red rump tarantula which can easily overpower the scorpion even if the scorpion attacks first.
Still, scorpions are unwanted house guests in Guatemalan homes. Since they might hide in shoes or go undetected behind household objects, it can be easy to startle one and receive a nasty sting. Females reach up to 10 cm in length while males can exceed 15 cm. They vary in color but tend to be reddish black with reddish chelae or dark brown with yellow-tinged legs.
Native to the Americas, the cougar is a large species of cat with a range that spans from the Canadian Yukon to the southern Andes, including Guatemala. In fact, cougars are the most widespread large wild terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere. They can adapt to most American habitats, from deserts to tropical beaches, which has allowed their populations to thrive.
Cougars have slender bodies, round heads, and pointed ears that aren’t dissimilar from house cats’, but on a larger scale. The vary between 1.2-.2.7 m, including their tails, with males weighing up to 68 kg and females slightly less at around 45 kg.
Cougars have a grayish-tan to reddish coat with a lighter underside and a black spot typically at the end of their tails. They make their home anywhere they can find shelter and prey, which can mean they sometimes dwell near human settlements.
Cougars are carnivores and feed on deer, rodents, and birds, as well as domestic animals and livestock if given the chance. This has made them a nuisance to farmers but also a threat since their chosen prey can give them access to humans. Skilled and cunning hunters, cougars camouflage in shrubs before pouncing on prey with their sharp claws outstretched.
Cougars can also climb with ease and jump further than 6 meters (three times their body length). Cougars are even more formidable since they have no natural enemies and sit at the top of the food chain, but they can compete with other predators like other wild cats for food. Unlike other big cats, cougars are solitary and only interact to mate which they do at any time of year.
Females breed at around two to three years and raise their kittens while male cougars return to their solitary lives. Females are especially aggressive when protecting their young which can lead to unprovoked attacks on humans if they feel threatened.
Fatal cougar attacks are rare but more than 120 incidents have been recorded in the last 100 years across America, with as many as 30 fatalities. They’re still very dangerous to humans, especially those recreating in rural areas, due to their strength.
The Bothrops asper, often known as the fer-de-lance snake but locally as the “Barba Amarillas” in Guatemala, is a species of highly venomous pit viper with a wide distribution across the Americas. Occurring at various elevations from the beaches of the Caribean to the Colombian and Ecuadorian Andes, the Barbas Amarillas is no stranger to Guatemala.
This snake is feared all over Central and South America and is the most poisonous serpent this side of the Atlantic, killing more people every year than any other American reptile. Barba Amarillas means “yellow beard” in Spanish—a name its earned from its yellow chin shields, but it gets its more common western name from its distinctive triangular head and dorsal pattern which comprises 14-28 pale X-shaped markings on its brown back. This pattern has also afforded it the nickname “Equis” in Spanish-speaking America, meaning “X”.
The Barba Amarillas is not afraid of human dwellings and can be found on cultivated lands as often as tropical rainforests. They can reach lengths of two meters and are known for their aggressive nature. They have huge fangs, around one inch in females, that they use to inject their high venom yield. The fatal dose of venom for a human is around 50 mg, but this snake can inject around 105 mg of venom in one bite, so it’s no surprise that the Barba Amarillas is one of the most dangerous animals in Guatemala.
Antivenom is widely accessible, and without it, the death rate is 7 to 9 percent. However, even with antivenom, a bite from a Barba Amarillas can cause permanent complications and disabilities in its victims, such as limb necrosis.
Jaguars are the biggest wild cats found in Guatemala, and also the strongest, making them formidable predators. In fact, jaguars are the third largest big cats in the world after lions and tigers and they can reach body lengths of 1.6-2.5 m, weighing as much as 160 kg.
Jaguars are often confused with leopards thanks to their attractive patterned coat which has also made them prized game in the fur trade. Their brownish-yellow fur is brandished with dark rosettes and helps them camouflage when hunting prey.
Jaguars are thought to populate around 60 percent of Guatemala, most of which are protected areas. The Maya Biosphere located in the north is home to most of Guatemala’s jaguars. It’s the largest continuous block of tropical forest in the country and around 500 jaguars live beneath the leafy canopies.
Jaguars rarely attack humans, and due to their distribution in Guatemala, they tend not to frequent human dwellings. However, attacks often prove fatal when they do occur with jaguars harboring the strongest bite of any cat in the world at 1,350 bsi—that’s stronger than tigers and lions by a long way.
Black Widow Spiders
Black widows are a notorious species of button spider and the most poisonous arachnid that can be found in Guatemala. They carry neurotic venom, meaning that, when they bite, their poison attacks the central nervous system and severe reactions can lead to death in humans.
Black widows are deceptively small but they boast large fangs that are capable of piercing human skin and producing immediate symptoms such as severe pain, muscle cramps, vomiting, and a loss of sensation in the body which can persist for several hours. Allergic reactions can also result in anaphylactic shock and cardiac arrest.
That said, black widows aren’t inherently aggressive and will only strike if they feel threatened or surprised. Despite the murderous insinuation in their name, they don’t seek out human prey but if you stumble into their web by accident, you could be their next victim.
Black widows tend to only reach the size of a small fingernail and this has helped achieve their wide distribution since they’re able to hide in shipping containers and go unnoticed until they’re halfway around the world. They’re defined by their rotund abdomens which are usually black or dark brown, but they also have a red hourglass pattern on their undersides which is nature’s way of warming of their potent venom.
Male black widows are virtually harmless but the larger female species, who grow to around two centimeters in length, carry more than enough venom to cause some serious harm to the human nervous system. Bites are rare but dangerous in Guatemala and if you suspect you have been bitten by any spider or insect, you should seek medical attention.
Are there wild cats in Guatemala?
Guatemala is home to a number of wild cats, including jaguars, cougars, margays, ocelots, oncillas, and jaguarundis which are distributed throughout Central America. Jaguars are the largest of Guatemala’s cats and they’re found in lowland areas of Petén, Izabal, and the Verapaces. Panthers are referred to locally as “tigres” and are known to wander into chiclero camps as well as kill livestock, but attacks on humans are rare.
Which animal is worshipped in Guatemala?
The quetzal is a sacred bird in Guatemalan culture and it has been worshiped since the Maya people ruled over the lands. The word quetzal is derived from the word “precious” or “sacred” in several Mesoamerican languages, and today, the national currency of Guatemala lends its name to the resplendent trogon. Quetzals are strikingly colorful with green feathered wings and blood-red chests. They’re endemic to the Neotropics but occasionally travel to nest in southeastern Arizona and New Mexico.