Guatemala, out of the shadows
The Central American country of antiquity and wild nature has entered a new era, and visitors are coming.
Many of the passersby were U.S. tourists. They were easy to pick out, especially a group of more than a dozen who were trailing behind ex-pat Elizabeth Bell, a cultural historian from San Francisco who now runs Antigua Tours.
"You used to have to wait 20 years just to get a phone installed in your home," she said. "Not anymore. Now Antigua's open for business."
The flourishing tourism industry has meant new shops, restaurants and luxury hotels — many of which are less than half the price of comparable U.S. hotels. But the city's success has downsides, residents say.
Cecilia Pinera, 29, left Antigua, her hometown, to spend three years in Chicago and returned to a changed city. "There are good things and bad," she said. "The bad: There's nowhere to park anymore. The good: There are jobs."
On the road
I spent a couple of pleasant days shopping, sightseeing and exploring the city's boutique hotels, then joined three Guatemalan friends on a road trip northwest to Lake Atitlán and Chichicastenango, two other areas usually included in tours of the country.
We drove through farmland and low foothills for a couple of hours. I was surprised by the changes since my last visit. There were few cars then; now traffic was heavy. Many of the cars were American castoffs: road warriors that had gone 200,000 miles or more stateside before getting a new life in Guatemala.
There were many buses too, most recycled from U.S. school districts. Some were still painted bright yellow and wore the black lettering of the school system from which they hailed, such as Willard (Mo.) School District. Along with the cars and buses were countless pickup trucks; these served as mass transit too, with a dozen or more people jammed into some truck beds.
As the road began to climb into the mountains, small farms clung to the steep hillsides, and beans, cabbage and other crops were planted in tidy rows. My friends said the farms are owned by the region's indigenous population, descendants of the ancient Maya whose advanced civilization once dominated the area. They make up a little less than half of the country's 14.5 million people.
The other segment of the population is mestizos — or ladinos — people of mixed European and indigenous ancestry. They control most of the nation's economy.
"The Maya are grindingly poor," said Jonathan Kaplan, an anthropologist and Maya scholar with the University of New Mexico. "A poor campesino lives a lifetime traveling but 1 kilometer on a bus." But his culture is so deep and vivid that "life comes abundantly and richly."
We were making our way toward the rural highlands, where the Maya culture prevails. The people speak their own languages, worship their own gods and produce their own striking textiles and handicrafts.
Our first stop was Lake Atitlán; we strolled around Panajachel, a onetime hippie hangout nicknamed Gringotenango more than a quarter-century ago. It's as unattractive now as it was the last time I visited. I wished I'd had enough time to take a boat across the lake to some of the small indigenous villages on the northern and western shores, towns where life is simple and tourist billboards are nonexistent.
Instead, we drove to nearby Hotel Atitlán, a tranquil lakefront jewel with formal gardens, strolling peacocks and a swimming pool that overlooks the lake. Away from the tacky tourist shops of Panajachel, it was easier to appreciate the beauty of the lake, which Lonely Planet guidebook calls "one of the world's most spectacular locales, period." We lingered over lunch in an outdoor hotel cafe, drinking cold Guatemalan Gallo beer and watching boats skip across the lake's surface.
It would have been nice to spend the night, but shopping beckoned. We didn't want to miss the huge outdoor market Sunday morning in Chichicastenango. It was now Saturday afternoon. "If we hurry, we'll arrive before sunset," said Hector Herrera, one of the friends I was touring with.
In Guatemala, arriving before sunset is an important precaution for foreign visitors and residents alike.
"After 35 years of guerrilla activity, people should realize things are unsafe in some places," said Herrera, a Guatemala City businessman. "There are places you should not go. By dusk, you need to be inside and stay there." Herrera and wife, Silvia, live in one of the city's many gated neighborhoods.
The U.S. State Department periodically issues what it calls "announcements" about travel in the country. The latest, on May 3, said: "U.S. citizens are urged to be especially aware of safety and security concerns when traveling in Guatemala. Although the majority of travelers visit Guatemala without mishap, violent criminal activity on the highways in Guatemala continues."
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