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Guatemala: A Beautiful Central American Adventure with a Jewish Flair

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Guatemala is the gem of Central America and is the quintessential nation to visit if you are an intrepid traveler. From incredible ancient architecture to the wonders of nature, this fascinating country has plenty to offer.

The Republic of Guatemala is geographically bordered by Mexico to the north and west, the Pacific Ocean to the southwest, Belize to the northeast, the Caribbean to the east, Honduras to the east and El Salvador to the southeast. Its population is over 16 million, making it the most populated in Central America.

Archeologists trace the first evidence of human habitation in Guatemala dates to as far back as 12,000 BCE.

The period of 250 CE- 900 CE was the classic period of Mayan civilization and countless sites in Guatemala contain relics of this period, where early urbanization and the development of independent city states took place.

Let’s look at some of the most interesting and unique places in Guatemala including Flores, Antigua, Lake Atitlán and of course Guatemala City, which is not only the capital, but also home to 900 Jews.

Mayan ruins at Tikal

Tikal is one of the largest and best-known Mayan Ruin sites in Central America & there is plenty to see here. Deep in the jungle, you will need at least 3 hours to take in this site because of its size. Tikal national park is a UNESCO (United Nation Education Scientific & Cultural Organization) site. Tikal was built and inhabited in a period where the Mayans had their greatest literary and artistic contribution. The Maya of Tikal built many temples, a ball park, altars and stelae (large stone columns, built for commemorative purposes or as a gravestone). If you enjoy ancient history and archeology, this national park is a must visit in Guatemala.

Flores is a town in Petén, Guatemala. The town proper is an island on Lake Petén Itzá, connected to land by a causeway, on the other side of which lie the twin towns Santa Elena and San Benito. This town is the closest to the Tikal ruin sites. Besides Tikal, the town itself is beautiful and relaxing. Canoeing is a popular activity in Flores.

Flores also offers the Petencito Zoo, a conservation organization and animal rehabilitation center.

You can also explore Yaxhá, one of the largest Mayan memorial cities, which was once home to over 20,000 people. Today many relics of temples remain and an incredible view of the lake.

Another point of interest in the Flores area is Ixpanpajul which is a natural park about 15 minutes from Flores and there’s plenty to do if you are adventurous. You can hike through dense jungle, swing through the forest on a zip-line, walk along the Sky Way and go horse-back riding.

The beautiful city of Antigua

Antigua has repeatedly been named the most beautiful city in Central America and is the former capital. Lonely planet describes it as “an impressive catalog of colonial relics in a magnificent setting. Streetscapes of pastel facades unfold beneath three volcanoes. Many old ecclesiastical and civic structures are beautifully renovated, while others retain tumbledown charm, with fragments strewn about parklike grounds”.

Outside of the city you can explore several volcano sites, and coffee plantations. Over the ages of time this city has survived earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

The most active and well-known volcano is the Volcán de Fuego (Volcano of fire) which is located 9 miles from Antigua and is famous for constantly being active at a low level. From 2012- 2016 the volcano was flowing lava & showering the area with ash.

Encircled by volcanoes and valleys Lake Atitlan is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. It was created by nature some 85,000 years ago after a volcanic eruption left a giant crater which became the lake. Lake Atitlán is a lake in the Guatemalan Highlands of the Sierra Madre mountain range.

If you are interested in nature, Lake Atitlan should be part of your trip to Guatemala. 798 different plant species occur in the region and the rich biodiversity includes 116 species of reptiles and amphibians, several of them are endemic to this Lake, 236 bird species are also found here, and 67 of those are endangered species.

With three dramatic volcanoes circling the lake, hiking up at least one of them is a must do. San Pedro Volcano has a well-kept path and you can hike to the top in a little over 2 hours.

Panajachel cruise, is a popular tourist attraction, which operates every weekend evening just before sunset, allowing those who board to see one of the most spectacular sunsets in the world. You can see the sun set below the volcanoes as the lake lights up.

The area around Lake Atitlan has some of the best roads in the world for motorcycling, and they offer bike rentals for you to enjoy riding on the winding and smooth roads around Lake Atitlan.

No trip to Guatemala would be complete without a visit to the capital Guatemala City. The city serves as the economic, governmental, and cultural epicenter of the nation of Guatemala. The city also functions as Guatemala’s main transportation hub, hosting an international airport, La Aurora International Airport, and serving as the origination or end points for most of Guatemala’s major highways

The city offers everything from a Disney like amusement park (Mundo Petapa Irtra) to great museums and countless activities.

The Palacio Nacional in Guatamala City

The Palacio Nacional, is a former presidential palace houses paintings and sculptures by famous Guatemalan artists. This a very popular tourist destination.

Museo Ixchel del Traje Indigena, is a museum dedicated to the world-famous textiles and clothing of the Mayan people, Guatemala’s indigenous community.

Museo Popol Vuh is one of Central America’s more modern museums, this natural history museum is best known for its funerary ceramics, but also includes well-known Maya pottery pieces and other artifacts spanning the period from 2000 B.C. through colonial time.

The National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology is a public institution that protects and disseminates the most important collection of archaeological artifacts of Mayan Culture, as well as a collection of ethnological material showing the cultural diversity of Guatemalan society.

Plaza Mayor de la Constitucion, is a landmark park and a good place to get a taste of what Guatemalan people are all about; a popular gathering place on Sundays, this central park is filled with textile vendors and musical performances.

Mundo Petapa Irtra in Guatamala City

Guatamala City also offers a great zoo (La Aurora Zoo) and the beautiful Jardin Botanico. If you get tired of sightseeing, you can always shop at one of Guatamala City’s 4 shopping malls.

The major airline company of Guatemala is located in the capital as well. Avianca Guatemala has a fleet size of 4 planes and travels to several different destinations and was formally a state run airline

Air Venture Tours is a private charter airline a based at La Aurora International Airport, which offers tourist charter flights to Tikal and other popular Guatemalan tourist destinations,.

Guatamala has a very diverse population, in fact 62% of the population are “non-indigenous”, the majority being Latin American from nations like Mexico, Honduras, Belize and European, mainly from Spain and Germany.

Approximately 39.8% of the population is indigenous and consist of 23 Maya groups and one non-Maya group. They live all over the country, especially in the highlands.

Guatemala is home to hundreds of Jews, an interesting fact many are unaware of. They are immigrants from Germany and Eastern Europe that arrived in the 19th century. Many immigrated during World War II. There are approximately 900 Jews living in Guatemala today. Most live in Guatemala City, Quezaltenango and San Marcos.

Today, the Jewish community in Guatemala is made up of Orthodox Jews, Sephardi, Eastern European and German Jews. The majority live in Guatemala City.

Jewish tourists usually stay in Guatemala City, since it is home to all 4 synagogues in the country and the easiest way to keep frum.

Casa Hillel is a reform congregation, Comunidad Judia Guatemalteca is a modern orthodox congregation, Chabad Lubavitch has their synagogue of Guatamala City, and Magen David is the Orthodox shul.

Tourists who keep Kosher might want to contact Chabad House because this beinf the main way to obtain k osher food. They will deliver kosher dining to most hotels in Guatemala City and to Antigua. The Chabad also run an authentic Israeli-Guatemalan restaurant, located in the Chabad house, in the center of San Pedro village with breathtaking Atitlan lake & mountains views.

Fair Trade Judaica, a group that describes themselves as a movement of “Jewish values of human dignity, self-sufficiency, and environmental sustainability with fair trade standards”, has a yearly trip to Guatemala which they describe as a “a unique opportunity to meet the local Jewish community in Guatemala City, visit with the Fair-Trade artisans who make beautifully unique Judaica products, and visit major cultural and historical sites”.

Recently, after the president of Guatemala Jimmy Morales showed his support of the Jewish people with an embassy move to Jerusalem, along with the US defying the UN, Jews all over the world have been thankful and many are on “missions of gratitude” for Guatemalan leadership and President Morales.

Two American congregations recently visited Guatemala City to show appreciation. Members of the Conservative Temple Beth El in West Palm Beach and the Orthodox Palm Beach Synagogue met with senior government officials and members of the local Jewish community.

Expect to see more events like this as these recent world events are bringing Jews together with the people and beauty of Guatemala.

By: Zev Sondheim

 

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