Guatemala, Land of Eco-Thrills — and Jews

There’s a place in the Caribbean where manatees move silently in the shallows of Guatemala’s Rio Dulce River and children paddle dug-out canoes across the water to get to school. Verdant jungle abounds, and though there has been significant deforestation nearby, from this vantage point, it looks like the land has never been touched by human hands.

To get to the Rio Dulce, you must board a speedboat in the port of Puerto Quetzal, and travel an hour through choppy water with the wind in your hair. At a point in the journey, palm trees and white sand beaches give way to a canyon, its vertical walls heavy with untamed, old-growth, tropical rainforest.

Pelicans soar and swim by the hundreds above and beside you, and mangrove trees stick multiple toes in the water. From the shallows, young men cast lines into the Rio Dulce River, hoping to nab a meal.

‘m traveling this route with Esvin Chacon, a young Guatemalan whose ecotourism company, Social Travel, hopes to make small communities like Lagunita Salvador an attraction for visitors. His goal is to funnel the money from such tours back into the community.

“They urgently need more funds to send their kids to high school,” he says.

Our destination, Lagunita Salvador, is a small community located inside the Biotope of the Manatee, a conservation area of the Rio Dulce. Home to 20 families, Lagunita Salvador might appear primitive for its lack of Internet access, televisions and modern-day gadgetry.

But look beyond those material touches and you begin to appreciate the beauty of a simpler existence.

I peek into one of the small wooden houses with palm-leafed roofs to find an infant in a blissful, deep sleep in his hammock. His mother shows me the solar panels, installed in early 2010, that generate electricity for this eco-village, and the corn and vegetables they grow to supplement their fish-based diets.

There are tanks for collecting rainwater outside each of the houses, and the recent installation of outhouses means it’s no longer necessary to venture into the jungle when nature calls.

With my own elbows deep in diapering my youngest daughter, I ask her what she uses for her infant son. “Cloth and rags,” she says through a translator.

In the Jungle…

Turns out that until the outhouses arrived, village children were not fully toilet-trained until they reached 4 or 5. It needed to be this way, she explained, because they could not venture into the jungle alone when it was time to go to the bathroom.

“There are jaguar and snakes around here,” explains Chacon. “Small kids would be easy prey.”

There are also manatees, which are very shy, says Chacon. “The only time you can get close to them is during mating season, when they breed in the small lagoons around here.”

I’m many a mile from a Jewish ceremony five hours by bus, to be precise. There are 1,200 Jews in Guatemala today, and the majority of them reside in the country’s capital city, Guatemala City, home to several synagogues and a Jewish school.

Guatemala can boast two “firsts” in Israeli history. Under Jorge Garcia Granados — the country’s ambassador to the United States and its representative at the formation of the United Nations — Guatemala was the first Latin-American country to officially recognize the State of Israel.

It was also the first country to open an embassy in Jerusalem, though that embassy subsequently moved to Tel Aviv.

Urged by the departure time of my cruise ship, we make our way back to Puerto Quetzal, where I do my shopping.

“Our government is trying to tax foreign travelers, which means fewer people are coming here, and they’re spending less,” explains Ricardo Villatoro, who heads the area’s association of boat transportation services.

“The ship industry in Guatemala is sinking,” he says sadly. “We’re trying to rescue it because it provides jobs for some 60,000 people. We’re counting on the fact that the Guatemalan Caribbean is a different product — a greener spot in the Caribbean.”


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