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A survival course for ancient waterways.

TERRIFIED MEMBERS of the Kekchi Maya tribe ran for cover a few years ago when they first saw members of a kayak club paddling down the remote Rio Cahabon. The Indians were cocooned in the lush, roadless wilderness of the Sierra de Chama, far from the big cities and popular tourist attractions of Guatemala's western highlands. Today, having overcome their initial fear of light-skinned outsiders, the indigenous Maya greet whitewater enthusiasts with warm smiles and friendly waves, often selling them fresh tortillas and bananas or volunteering to help guide their rafts through the Cahabon's roaring rapids--so treacherous that even the Maya had never successfully navigated them.

"The Kekchi had never seen anybody riding a boat down their river," explains Terry Ridenour, the American owner and operator of Maya Expeditions, an adventure-oriented travel company based in Guatemala City. "They thought we must be government soldiers or leftist guerrillas. Many had never seen an Anglo before, and only a few had been in contact with Ladinos."

The introduction of whitewater rafting and kayaking to the Rio Cahabon is only one example of how the use of Guatemala's many rivers is quickly evolving, as the country's spectacular natural resources come under increasing pressure to contribute to a diversified national economy. "We welcome and encourage nature-oriented tourism," says Antonio Ferrate Felice, coordinator of the Guatemalan government's National Commission on the Environment. "But we must also responsibly develop our resources in a way that improves the lives and well-being of our own people."

During the past decade, subsistence farmers along the Rio Cahabon have seen their isolated homeland become the object of intense interest from various quarters. Plantation owners have moved in and replaced many acres of subtropical forest with coffee, cacao, maguey and other cash crops. Protestant missionaries are preaching the gospel in whitewashed churches, hoping to convert local people from Catholicism and Mayan folk religions. Surveyors from Guatemala's national power utility are evaluating the ability of a proposed new dam to withstand earthquakes and heavy rainfall.

The Rio Cahabon winds for about 80 miles from the department of Alta Verapaz in Guatemala's northeast highlands to Lake Izabal, the nation's largest body of water. Izabal, in turn, is drained by the Rio Dulce, which flows about 30 miles to the Caribbean Sea. Like the Cahabon, the Dulce has been "discovered" in recent years by tour operators catering to the new breed of travelers known as ecotourists. In other parts of Central America, particularly Costa Rica and Belize, ecotourism has become a multi-million-dollar business designed to simultaneously protect the fragile subtropical environment while generating jobs and income for the local population.

"We see more and more of these nature-loving visitors every day," says Sandra Monterroso, promotion manager for the Guatemala Tourist Commission, a government-funded agency that promotes the country's attractions around the world. "They now represent a very significant percentage of our country's touristic income, involving millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs." During the interview in her Guatemala City office, Monterroso described the typical ecotourist as affluent, well-educated and genuinely concerned about preservation of the great variety of plants, animals and habitats in Central America, as well as the region's archaeological sites and indigenous cultures. Most range in age from 25 to 50 and come from the United States, Canada, Australia or Western Europe. Such travelers are willing to endure some physical discomfort and spend extra money in order to see the wonders of nature first-hand and up-close.

The ecotourism trend is especially evident along the Rio Dulce, where several boats head out each morning from Livingston, at the river's mouth, for the Chocon Machacas Biotope, a 7200-hectare nature reserve about ten miles inland that protects such gravely endangered creatures as the freshwater manatee. This large vegetarian mammal, sometimes called a sea cow, is thought to be the origin of the mermaid myth due to its vaguely human shape. The calm lagoons of El Golfete, a wide stretch of the Dulce, and several thousand adjacent acres of steamy jungle are being administered and studied by the Universidad de San Carlos, Guatemala's national university. The chances of actually seeing one of the notoriously shy manatees are slim, but a campground and trail network in the nearby jungle are ideal places to glimpse parrots, cats, deer, agouti and other wildlife. Local guides can be hired for boat trips along the remote fringes of El Golfete, where cayman and alligator are occasionally found, along with herons, egrets, and other showy waterfowl.

While it is a relatively short river, the Dulce has a long and colorful history. The ancientt Maya made it an integral part of their water-based trading system, transporting cacao beans, feathers, pottery, jade and other goods from Guatemala's interior to settlements along the coast, where they were bartered for flint, coral, sea shells and other goods brought by boat from what is now Mexico, Belize and Honduras. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries British pirates used the Rio Dulce as a refuge from hurricanes and also raided Spanish outposts along its banks for supplies and treasure. Spain responded by constructing a massive fortress at the narrow passageway where the Dulce meets Lake Izabal, at one point stretching a chain across the river to snag any unauthorized boats that might try to pass. El Castillo de San Felipe had only limited effectiveness in thwarting piracy and was eventually turned into a prison. The decaying brick edifice was restored in the 1980s as a national monument.

In more recent times, the Rio Dulce served as the principal route for the exportation of coffee from the many fincas of Guatemala's mountains and bananas from its eastern lowlands. Livingston, at the mouth of the Rio Dulce, was an important shipping center until early this century, when construction of a railroad and highway redirected most cargo traffic to the nearby deep water ports of San Jose and Barrios. Today Livingston derives much of its income from visitors eager to experience the town's unique Garifuna culture and explore its verdant surroundings.

The Garifuna people of Central America's Caribbean coast, are descended from African slaves and Carib Indians who intermarried during the 1700s in the Windward Islands, creating their own language and lifestyle. British colonial authorities eventually deported most of the Garifuna to the Bay Islands of Honduras, from where they later migrated to Guatemala and other neighboring countries. Although most of the 5,000 Garifuna of Livingston have since adopted the Spanish language, Catholicism, and other elements of Latin American culture, they maintain strong traditions of dance, music, and art that are regularly celebrated on the sandy streets of their community, which can only be reached by boat or chartered airplane.

Besides the manatee reserve, boats hired in Livingston will take visitors to remote Caribbean beaches and waterfalls, or through the narrow canyon of the lower Rio Dulce to where limestone cliffs loom 300 feet above the water. This is a rich aquatic ecosystem and hundreds of birds skim and soar above the river in search of the many species of fish that inhabit the brackish river below. The modern Maya, who live in small thatch huts perched along the steep banks, can be seen casting lines from their cayucos, canoes carved from the trunk of a guanacaste or a similarly buoyant tree. As one follows the Rio Dulce away from the sea, the channel gradually widens, bubbling in places from the sulfurous vapors of underwater hot springs. These warm, curative mineral waters are a favorite spot for health-conscious bathers.

Beyond the Ghocon Machacas Biotope, the Dulce narrows again and enters a scenic area that had become popular as a holiday destination for boaters, windsurfers and sport fishermen. There are a number of vacation homes and marinas along this part of the river, plus several small hotels and restaurants. The channel is a favored anchorage for Guatemalan and foreign mariners who, like the pirates of three centuries ago, find the Rio Dulce an excellent refuge from the tropical storms that sometimes batter the Caribbean coastline during summer and fall. The waters here and in nearby Lake Izabal are famous for their more than ample populations of snook, tarpon, bass, sawfish, mullet and catfish. Most travelers making the trip up the Rio Dulce from Livingston leave their boats at the village of El Relleno, where the highway from the capital to the Peten wilderness crosses the river. The modern bridge replaced a ferry here several years ago and the span is now the gateway to Guatemala's largest and fastest-growing department. Trucks full of lumber and construction materials trundle across the structure 24 hours a day.

The noisy bustle of the Rio Dulce's El Relleno crossing is a sharp contrast to the serenity of the headwaters of the Rio Cahabon, linked to the Dulce via the 30-mile expanse of Lake Izabal. The Cahabon's origins are high in the rugged cloud forests of Alta Verapaz, one of the last areas of Guatemala to be conquered by the Spanish. The ancestors of the present-day Pokoman and Rabinal Maya were known for their ferocious commitment to independence and great cunning in battle. In 1537, after several unsuccessful attempts to subdue the Indians by force, Spanish authorities allowed pacifist Catholic missionary Bartolome de las Casas to try peaceful persuasion. Within five years the Maya had abandoned their attacks on the Europeans and the region was informally renamed la tierra de vera paz--the land of true peace.

Alta Verapaz is still a tranquil place. Its steepest slopes are heavily forested, but much of the remaining countryside has been planted with coffee, cardamon, and other export crops tended by Mayan workers, who cultivate subsistence gardens and fruit trees on their own small plots. Here, as in the western highlands, each village has unique, colorfully decorated clothing that is still woven from natural fibers on back-strap looms. Every August the provincial capital of Coban hosts the National Folklife Festival, where hundreds of artisans and musicians gather from all over Guatemala to share their talents.

After the Rio Cahabon passes through the outskirts of Coban it descends into a series of narrow valleys that are riddled with caverns, sinkholes, hot springs, and waterfalls. The most famous of these attractions is the Lanquin Cave, located just outside the village of the same name on a tributary of the Cahabon that gushes full-force from the side of a mountain. The cave, about a mile or two long, has been used for centuries for animal sacrifices and religious rituals by the Maya, who considered the underworld a sacred place inhabited by the gods. Visitors can sometimes see blood, chicken feathers, copal incense and candle wax strewn across the blackened altar stones of the interior chambers. Several other caves along lower stretches of the Cahabon can only be reached by boat and are often flooded. Their waters are inhabited by pigmentless fish, crabs, spiders, and insects, along with several kinds of bat.

Not far from Lanquin, on the main branch of the Rio Cahabon, are the idyllic turquoise pools at Semuc Champey, carved out of smoothly eroded limestone on a natural bridge that crosses part of the river. The clear, soothing waters are ideal for swimming, especially after the long uphill hike to reach this unusual destination. The Lanquin Cave and Semuc Champey are now protected by the government as national parks and local entrepreneurs have built several modest lodges and restaurants nearby catering to visitors. A small campground serves the rafters and kayakers who launch their boats in the Cahabon outside Lanquin village.

About 25 miles downstream, whitewater enthusiasts must portage around a section of the Rio Cahabon where construction began during the 1980s on a major hydro-electric project intended to help solve Guatemala's growing energy crisis. (Much of the nation's electricity is now produced by burning expensive imported oil or purchased from neighboring Mexico, which has little to spare.) Officials are studying the possibility of reviving the Cahabon project, which was abandoned after several small earthquake faults were found in the area and a flash flood destroyed concrete foundations. "The Cahabon could eventually go the way of the Chixoy," predicts Guatemala City environmentalist and river tour operator Alfredo Toriello, referring to the northern Guatemala river that was dammed several years ago to produce power for the nation's fast-growing capital of two million people. "However, I think there's a more imminent threat to the Rio Usumacinta, which Mexico has been eager to dam for many years."

But the untamed Usumacinta appears to have received at least a temporary reprieve. After a tour of the site last March, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari said his country was dropping plans to build a massive hydro-electric plant on the broad jungle waterway, which forms part of Mexico's border with Guatemala through the Peten and Lacandon wilderness areas. Both countries have recognized the ecological significance of these relatively untouched areas by protecting millions of acres as national parks, forest reserves, and biospheres. In addition to many rare and endangered plant and animal species, the Usumacinta watershed is home to the last of the Lacandon Maya, a small tribe that was living in stone-age conditions until only a few years ago. Some members still worship under the guidance of their elderly shaman at ancient shrines along the river.

If the Usumacinta is indeed flooded, archaeologists warn of the loss of priceless artifacts at the magnificent Mayan ruins of Piedras Negras, on Guatemala's side of the river, and Yaxchilan, on the Mexican bank. Although the number of visitors to these isolated ruins is small when compared with such well-known Classic period cities as Tikal and Palenque, they represent an important source of foreign exchange for the two governments, as well as income for the many local people involved in the care and feeding of visitors who travel by boat along the Usumacinta to archaeological destinations that can be reached in no other way.

The Yaxchilan ruins are considered the most spectacular of the many Mayan sites along the Usumacinta. Located on a forested bluff and surrounded on three sides by a giant loop in the river, Yaxchilan is renown for its magnificent carvings and impressive architecture, including several plazas, ball courts, and temples. The surrounding jungle remains relatively undisturbed and is filled with the sounds of spider monkeys, parrots, toucans and other exotic creatures. More remote are the Piedras Negras ruins, potentially as extensive as Tikal but still one of the least visited Mayan sites. Looming from the thick undergrowth are dramatic stelae depicting animalistic gods and human sacrifices. The city's name refers to the carved black stones that lined the riverbank and kept a detailed record of the area's history.

Not far from Piedras Negras the Usumacinta is narrowed by a corridor of cliffs reaching almost a thousand feet in height. Travel through the treacherous Canon de San Jose is only recommended for skilled local boatmen or experienced whitewater raft experts. Beyond the canyon, the river veers away from the Guatemalan border and enters an area of heavy timber-cutting, farming, and cattle ranching that is gradually encroaching on the strip of jungle that now parallels the Usumacinta for much of its 250-mile length.

As it was in the time of the ancient Maya, the upper Rio Usumacinta continues to be an important modern trade route serving an area where serviceable roads are few and far between. Ecotourists in modern inflatable boats often encounter the wooden lanchas carved by locals from several species of water resistent trees. Both groups now ply the Rio de la Pasion, a major Usumacinta tributary that originates near the Rio Cahabon and passes El Ceibal and other major archaeological sites as it winds through the southern Peten. This part of the Guatemalan interior has drawn thousands of new residents from more crowded parts of the country and the government is encouraging them to develop the previously empty land. In the town of Sayaxche, linked to the rest of Guatemala by roads and an airstrip, many people have found employment helping foreign visitors take river trips to the nearby Mayan ruins of Dos Pilas, Tamarindito and Aguateca, where state-of-the-art archaeological research is being conducted by experts from around the world.

"If the Usumacinta were dammed and flooded, I really don't know how the people of this area would transport their corn, chicle, allspice and other goods to market," muses Roxan Ortiz, a Guatemalan ecologist who grew up in the Peten and now reintroduces illegally captured mammals to the wild. She explains the expense and difficulty of shipping heavy cargo from the Peten by truck and airplane. "As a result of steady immigration," Ortiz says, "the Usumacinta is probably busier now than at any time since the height of the Mayan civilization."

Hydroelectric plants have been constructed or are being planned along the Salama and Motagua rivers in central Guatemala (neither of which are considered as environmentally sensitive as the Usumacinta and Cahabon), as well as along the Rio Chixoy, yet another branch of the Usumacinta. The Rio Motagua, in fact, has been declared biologically dead for much of its 200-mile length as a result of industrial pollution. The Sierra de las Minas Biosphere has been established immediately north of the Motagua in a bid to protect other watersheds in the agriculturally rich departments of Zacapa and Izabal. According to Andreas Lehnhoff, executive director of Defensoras de la Naturaleza (Defenders of Nature), the non-profit conservation group that administers the biosphere, residents of the Sierra de las Minas are being trained in farming and timber harvesting techniques that should minimize stream pollution, erosion and sedimentation. "Its 63 permanent rivers make (the mountain range) the country's biggest water source," says Lehnhoff, noting that the driest region in Central America lies on the south side of the Sierra de las Minas. "The biosphere also houses an impressive biodiversity, including 70 percent of all species of mammals, birds and reptiles registered in Guatemala and Belize."

Lehnhoff, a native Guatemalan of German descent, is most proud of his organization's commitment to preserving the wild rivers and life forms of Sierra de las Minas "while also dedicating areas to the sustainable use of its resources by local communities." Among the latter are selective timber harvesting, low-impact farming, nature-oriented tourism, and jade mining. Twenty local workers recently have been hired to patrol the reserve and advise community members on how to improve agricultural production with non-destructive techniques.

"We are very supportive of what Defensores de la Naturaleza and the government are trying to do," stresses Jay Ridinger, who with his American wife Mary Lou rediscovered ancient Mayan jade mines in the Sierra de las Minas and subsequently revived the Guatemalan jade industry after a lapse of a thousand years. Their Jades S.A. and related businesses now employ more than 200 people in Antigua, Guatemala's colonial capital in the western highlands. "What the developed world must understand," Ridinger concludes, "is that for Guatemala the issue of carefully managed and balanced environmental preservation is not simply a matter of ethics or quality life, but of survival."

Richard Mahler is a free-lance writer specializing in travel and the environment. His new book, Guatemala: A Natural Destination will be published by John Muir Publications in early 1993.
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Title Annotation:Guatemala's rivers
Author:Mahler, Richard
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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