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Tourists Venturing Back to Volcanic Guatemala

February 07, 1988|RICHARD E. KIPLING | Kipling is city editor of The Times' San Diego edition

PANAJACHEL, Guatemala — The fading afternoon signals that it is time to head for the lakefront in this tiny village, wedged between mountains on the shore of volcano-guarded Lake Atitlan. It is time to watch the show.

Far across the water, white and orange streaks wash the western sky, where looming gunmetal-gray thunderclouds hang just off the lush green mountains.

To the south, the upper reaches of the three volcanoes have disappeared, shrouded in a curtain of mist.

The water spins in colors, gliding from brilliant gold and turquoise to cobalt blue to the blackest pitch, with the orange of the sky reflected in broad beams on the surface of the lake. Streaks of color bathe the few remaining small boats as fishermen make for shore.

So ends another day at the lake.

Third Visit to Pana

It is my third visit to Pana, and, for the third time, this enchanting place--with its mountainous setting, haunting volcanoes, slow tropical pace, and time-warp bohemian atmosphere--has nudged me into extending my stay. Some find the country so seductive, they stay for good.

Ask Mike Shawcross. An intrepid wanderer, Shawcross, English by birth and accent, had settled in the mountains of southern Mexico, thinking he'd found heaven. Then he saw Guatemala.

Shawcross retrieved his possessions and moved to Antigua, a stately, nearly 500-year-old colonial city nestled in a valley of coffee plantations and dominated by an almost perfectly conical volcano. Shawcross set up shop there in 1979. He runs a tourist map and book store and spends much of his time aiding Guatemala's war-ravaged highlands Indians.

Panajachel, which lies about 85 mountainous miles from Guatemala City, and Antigua, an hour's drive from the capital, are among the country's most popular tourist destinations, and make a perfect duo for the vacationer looking for variety within easy reach. One offers the drama of the lake and tranquillity, the other a genteel charm in a beautiful and historic valley.

Guatemala seems to be on the tourist comeback trail after more than half a decade of disaster brought on by the country's repressive military governments and a nagging guerrilla war.

For years, American tourists had extended their interest in Mexico south to Guatemala, which has spectacular and varied scenery, Mayan ruins that at their best outstrip those in Mexico, and a large Indian population that has jealously guarded its centuries-old languages, manner of dress and way of life.

Quake, Guerrilla War

Then came the disastrous 1976 earthquake, followed four years later by the outbreak of a guerrilla war.

Guatemala quickly became an anathema to tourists, especially to U.S. travelers, who were issued a formal warning by the State Department about dangerous conditions in the country.

I first visited the country in 1984, curious about the political climate and the state of tourism. At the time, the government did not excel in hospitality toward tourists or locals.

There were heavily armed, camouflage-clad troops at the airport and on patrol in city streets.

In the countryside, troop trucks rumbled along the highways and through villages. Towns and cities were virtual tombs after 8 p.m., even Guatemala City, Central America's largest urban center with more than 1.5 million people.

Buses stopped running at 8 p.m. and it was nearly impossible to find a cab after that hour.

Despite the tensions, I was smitten by the beauty of the country, the friendliness of its people, the spectacularly intact Indian culture. I vowed to return.

A New Buoyancy

In 1986 I did, and found marked improvement in the political situation and the army playing a less visible role.

I recently visited for a third time and found a new buoyancy in the country. The relentlessly bad news of the early 1980s has given way to good news.

In 1986, the country held its first democratic elections in decades. The army has virtually disappeared from public view. The guerrilla war has been pushed to the far hinterlands and a dialogue has opened between the insurgents and the new government.

Guatemalans appear pleased at the change. Night life has re-emerged in the cities. The main streets in Guatemala City are teeming at 11 p.m.

In tourist-oriented towns such as Panajachel and Antigua, stores are brimming with tourist goods, hotels are spruced up and busy, and new shops, restaurants and hostelries are springing up. And the tourists are returning.

Amazingly Low Prices

As a result of the dearth of visitors in recent years, most hotel and restaurant prices remain low, with many at pre-1980 prices.

In Panajachel, the 100-room luxury Hotel del Lago, on the lakeshore with a view from every room, is the town's highest-priced hostelry at $50 a night for a double.

A more pleasant place is the charming 42-room Hotel Atitlan. On a beach all its own, half a mile from town, the private premises offer views of the lake and volcanoes from every room, lush gardens and a fine restaurant and bar.

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