But regular visitors say Guatemala is no more violent than the United States. It's just important to be cautious.
We forged on to Chichicastenango. Maya traders from throughout the highlands gather here on Thursdays and Sundays, filling the cobblestone streets with stalls jammed with carved santos, embroidered bedspreads and linens, children's toys and handmade clothing. Walking the narrow pathways is a kaleidoscopic adventure.
"Just one question," Herrera said, laughing. "How are you going to get all of it home?"
"Hmm," I mused. "Perhaps I need to buy a duffel. There are some nice embroidered ones here
And so I bought one. And a shoulder-strap handbag for good measure.
Clinton ate here
I returned to Antigua a couple of days later. I wished I could explore Tikal again and see some other areas of the country, but I'd run out of time. So I would spend one last night in Antigua. Another opportunity to walk its cobblestone streets, to explore its monumental ruins, to dine on caldo real, La Fonda's famous chicken stew.
I walked into the restaurant, noticed the Clinton photos on the wall and saw a dish on the menu called de toda un poco (a little bit of everything). It was listed as "Bill Clinton's favorite."
The former president's popularity here isn't surprising. Clinton's visit was a seminal moment for the beleaguered nation. On the same day he visited Mercedes Beteta's restaurant — March 10, 1999 — Clinton expressed "regret" to the Guatemalan people for the pivotal role the U.S. played in the 36-year civil war that racked the country — a war that is blamed for the death of thousands of rural Mayas.
He said Washington, which supplied military aid and CIA advisors for decades, "was wrong" to have supported the Guatemalan security forces that tortured, kidnapped and killed civilians during the war.
Beteta doesn't recall the apology. She only remembers the president's unexpected visit to her restaurant and that he "really ate a lot," including a big bowl of her caldo real.
"He left us a note saying his dinner was wonderful. And my daughters thanked him for the honor of having him here. Then they gave him a clay pigeon. They said to him, 'It is a symbol of the peace you have brought in the world.' "
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Antigua and more
From LAX to Guatemala City, nonstop flights are available on United and Taca; direct (stop, no change of plane) flights are on Mexicana; connecting (stop, change of plane) are offered on Continental, Mexicana, American, Delta, Copa, US Airways and LACSA. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $565.
From Guatemala City to Flores (near Tikal National Park), connecting service is available on Tikal or Aviateca. Round-trip starts at $109.
Guatemala, out of the shadows
The Central American country of antiquity and wild nature has entered a new era, and visitors are coming.
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