Friday, October 28, 2005
Guatemala Calling
Peace reigns, and tourism tops agenda

By Will Weissert

Getting there: Major airlines fly to Guatemala City. Organized tours can arrange shuttle or minibus service to tourist destinations. Many visitors bypass the capital and make Antigua, 30 minutes away by car, their base. Converted U.S. school buses provide public transportation to every corner of the country, but are crowded and sometimes susceptible to robberies and wrecks.

Currency: One U.S. dollar is worth about 7.5 Guatemalan Quetzals. Money can be changed on the street in downtown Guatemala City or at banks and large hotels around the country. There are few established exchange houses. ATMs are plentiful and credit cards are accepted in major cities and tourist spots, but ATM or credit cards are not helpful in rural, or less-visited areas.

Language: English is widely spoken in Antigua, Panajachel and Tikal, but is less common in Guatemala City and Chichicastenango. At more obscure sites, knowing a little Spanish - or hiring a guide or translator - is useful.

When to go: Dubbed the "land of eternal spring," Guatemala's weather ranges from mild in the highlands to hot and humid on the coast and in the jungle. November to February is considered the best time to go; the rainy season brings daily downpours from March through October.

La Lancha: Francis Ford Coppola's resort near Lake Peten Itza, Tikal; or (800) 746-3743. The 2005 rates for a double range from $95 to $210, breakfast included, depending on the season and type of accommodation.

For more information: Also, for information on some of the tourist-oriented businesses in Antigua, visit or call (011) (502) 5653-5543 for a tourism brochure.

ANTIGUA, Guatemala

In a word, Antigua is old. It has been perched in the forested Panchoy Valley for more than 450 years, was one of the Americas' largest cities around the time of the Spanish Armada, and was nearly wiped off the map by an earthquake three years before the U.S. Declaration of Independence was signed. Even its name means "old."

But it's new to the thousands of tourists arriving from every corner of the world every day.

"We had friends who had come down and talked about it," said Emily Smith, 35, of Chattanooga, Tenn., who was shopping for handicrafts with her husband and 4-year-old daughter.

"But it's even more beautiful than we expected," she said. "We have fallen in love with it."

Nearly 10 years after the end of a 36-year civil war that left 200,000 people dead, Guatemala is starting to shed its bloodstained reputation and gain new fame as a top tourist destination.

Film director Francis Ford Coppola opened an exclusive jungle resort not far from the Mayan ruins at Tikal, in the northeastern region of Peten. And on Sept. 15, CBS began airing episodes of Survivor Guatemala, filmed in jungle-shrouded Yaxha, between two lakes and near the border with Belize.

Few places in the hemisphere offer so much variety - ancient ruins, jungle rain forests, whitewater rapids, 33 volcanos, beaches, colonial hideaways and the modern-day cultural influence of 22 Mayan cultures. A 21/2-hour flight from Miami, Guatemala is about the size of Ohio.

"The natural beauty and cultural beauty you see where Survivor was filmed is available all over the country," said Daniel Mooney, the director of INGUAT, the country's tourism agency. "Guatemala really is as good as it looks on TV."

Just under 1.2 million foreigners visited in 2004, nearly 300,000 of them Americans. Officials hope that the number of foreigners will surpass 1.4 million this year.

Those tallies have yet to catch Costa Rica, an ecotourism mecca that has long been considered the safest place in Central America. Its tourism institute reported 1.7 million foreign visitors in 2004.

Still, Guatemala has come a long way since 1996, the last year of the war, when only about 520,000 foreigners visited. During the dark days of government-led anti-insurgency campaigns in 1984, fewer than 200,000 dared make the trip.

Popular with backpackers, well-heeled travelers, families and students studying Spanish, Antigua offers colonial beauty and breathtaking natural views set to the tinkling of xylophone-heavy Marimba music, which drifts in from all directions day and night.

Then called Santiago de los Caballeros, the city was Guatemala's capital until the 1773 quake prompted the government to flee to present-day Guatemala City, 30 miles to the east. The name Antigua Guatemala, or "Old Guatemala City," stuck.

Dozens of churches and the crumbling stone remains of structures from the Spanish-conquest era abound. Many tourists prefer to simply wander the cobblestone streets, however, peeking inside stores offering Mayan weavings and clothing in a dizzying array of colors - all handmade and available on-the-cheap by U.S. standards.

More adventurous visitors can choose to climb the dormant Agua Volcano, which towers 13,500 feet above Antigua.

An easier hike scales the gravel-covered slopes of the ever-smoldering Pacaya Volcano.

"This has always been popular with tourists, but after Sept. 11 things got quiet," said Feliciano Salvador, 19, whose family runs a one-room textile shop. "Now things are full again. On television, everywhere you look, people are talking about Antigua."

That's not good news for everyone. Rebecca Corry and Dennis Hedges, retired schoolteachers from Taos, N.M., came to Antigua in 1995 - and liked it better back then.

"Now it's more industrialized, more cosmopolitan, more prepared for tourists," Corry said. "But I kind of enjoyed it more before. We like sleepy."

Dark facets of the past also linger. The U.S. State Department has in recent years issued near-constant warnings about the dangers of coming to Guatemala. A travel advisory in May singled out street-gang violence and banditry in Guatemalan cities and frequent armed robberies on highways.

Nicole Delisi, visiting Antigua from Corozal, Belize, where she is a Peace Corps volunteer, said that two of her colleagues were robbed in separate incidents during one weekend in Guatemala City. "Guate-mala still has its issues," she said.

But crime concerns seem far away at La Lancha, the jungle resort owned by Coppola, who calls Guatemala "peaceful and friendly." The 10-room resort opened last year near Lake Peten Itza - not far from the sprawling, 2,700-year-old Tikal ruins.

"I thought it made sense to look for property there, since Tikal was such a magnet," he said in an e-mail, adding, "I love the abundant wildlife. We have a troop of howler monkeys that you see almost daily and huge parrots that roost in trees."

Tikal's temples, palaces, ball courts, steam baths, stone carvings and more than 3,000 other structures are awe-inspiring by themselves. But the surrounding jungle canopy, teeming with chattering toucans and parrots, ornery monkeys and unseen serpents and jaguars makes a visit all the more spectacular.

For most visitors, getting there means a 50-minute flight from Guatemala City to the lakefront city of Flores - whose airport officials renamed "Mayan World" to entice tourists. From there, it is a brief bus ride.

Tours headed to little-restored ruins deep in the jungle - such as El Mirador and Survivor's Yaxha - also often use Flores as a jumping-off point.

There's plenty to see without boarding a plane, however. Three hours along harrowing, two-lane highways northwest of Antigua is Panajachel.

The scruffy beachfront town accommodates visitors to Lake Atitlan, whose picturesque shores are ringed by volcanoes and Mayan artisan villages. Hundreds of U.S. and European expatriates have stayed for good.

Visiting from neighboring El Salvador, the top supplier of tourists to Guatemala, Pablo Gomez counted the bustling Mayan market town of Chichicastenango, north of Panajachel, as another must-see.

"I love my country, but we don't have this culture," said Gomez, who was traveling with his wife and three children. "Mayan influence is everywhere in Guatemala."

Tourism officials are just as quick to mention such lesser-known destinations as Lake Izabal, a sprawling freshwater reserve that feeds into the Caribbean, or the Black Christ icon, which drew Pope John Paul II to the sweaty religious center of Esquipulas, near the Honduran and El Salvadoran borders, in 1996.

"There's something for everyone," said Mooney, the tourism director. "And they may have to come back a few times to see it all."