By Oscar Rene Oliva
GUATEMALA CITY -- The only restaurant-aquarium in Latin America, where diners share a table with species like the moray eel and the zebra shark, has fast become a craze in the Guatemalan capital.
During its opening last Wednesday, around 4,600 customers showed up at the restaurant established in a modern shopping mall on the southeast side of the capital, the general manager of Grupo Nais, Jose Garces, said, adding that he had expected around 3,000.
The son of a Cuban father who emigrated to Guatemala in 1961, and the owner since 1974 of the Nais restaurant chain, Garces said that the Nais-Aquarium has turned into "a real craze."
Visitors to the mall find long lines of customers waiting to get into the restaurant, not only to please their palates, but also to see the nearly 600 fish of at least 38 exotic species on view.
Moray eels, zebra sharks, moon jellyfish and common guitarfish are among the many underwater attractions.
"Customers wait up to three hours to get in, because the place is already too small for the demand," Garces said, explaining that the restaurant measures 832 sq. meters (8,943 sq. feet), which includes 15 aquariums and only 98 tables.
Most of the species are in the 39-meter (128-foot)-long mobile aquarium, including two grey sharks that are now each a meter (more than 3 feet) long and are the main attractions.
Garces said that he wants to have five sharks of this species and five more hammerhead sharks, which are brownish-grey in color and can measure up to 1.5 meters (almost 5 feet), as well as some manta rays.
The different species adorning the aquariums were imported from Caribbean countries, Australia, Brazil and the United States, with some fish worth as much as $400. But there are also many from Guatemala, Garces said.
Some 700 Guatemalan workers and 400 foreigners took part in the construction of the building that took 10 months, and 72 of them built the Nais-Aquarium and its reefs made of epoxy resin, he said.
The restaurant's 160 employees are insufficient to take care of all the customers, many of whom come with their children who leave the display wide-eyed with amazement.
One child told Efe, after entering a bubble to observe the exotic species up close, that never in his life had he seen anything "so pretty" and that what he liked most were the sharks.
From their tables customers have a view of the restaurant's biggest aquarium, which is fitted with 40 television screens inside of it and a video system to further entertain the visitors.
"You can hear a song by Luis Miguel or see a video by Ricky Martin," Garces said by way of an example, adding that the restaurant is equipped with a unique system of lights brought from the United States and Belgium.
The investment cost in the millions but was "worth it," the entrepreneur said during a tour of the establishment, which will have a cost of $45,000 per month just for maintenance of the aquariums.
The Nais-Aquarium has become an ecological center of entertainment and education and has a hospital for marine species, quarantine tanks, a biology lab, a center for nutritional support and an impressive lighting system designed to maintain a natural habitat for the fish.
Visitors take part in the underwater world through various shows put on by divers when it comes time to feed the fish.
The installation of the Nais-Aquarium was authorized by the National Council of Protected Areas and has the backing of environmental institutions of worldwide prestige such as the Ocean Science Foundation and the University of Florida's Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory.
Garces said that the opening of the Nais Aquarium in Guatemala will be followed by the construction of similar ones in Costa Rica and Honduras in 2009, in Panama in 2010, and in Mexico in 2011.
The innovative entrepreneur, who says he is an "aquarium lover," expects to receive some 500,000 diners during 2009. EFE