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Guatemala, out of the shadows

The Central American country of antiquity and wild nature has entered a new era, and visitors are coming.

June 12, 2005|Rosemary McClure | Times Staff Writer

Antigua, Guatemala — Bill CLINTON slept here. He shopped a few blocks away. He had dinner around the corner and down the street.

Everywhere I turned, it seemed, I saw fading photos of the former president smiling into the camera as he shook hands with a beaming proprietor. I could have been in Little Rock, Ark., instead of Antigua.

It has been six years since Bill Clinton's visit, but his star still shines brightly in this Central American colonial city. He was the first U.S. president to visit Guatemala since Lyndon Johnson nearly 30 years earlier.

"It was very exciting," said Mercedes Beteta after I spotted the Clinton photos in her Antigua restaurant during my March visit. The commander-in-chief ate soup, beans and grilled meat and drank Moza, a black Guatemalan beer, when he stopped at La Fonda Calle Real. "It was a blessing," she said of that long-ago night.

The blessings seem to come more frequently now for her and for the country. Beteta's empire has grown to include four Antigua restaurants and a boutique hotel. Guatemala itself -- after 36 years of civil strife -- is emerging from the shadows of its brutal past, and tourism is booming.

More than 1 million people visited last year, about a quarter of them from the United States. Growth has been so strong that tourism officials cheerfully predict Guatemala will soon pass popular rival Costa Rica in visitor numbers. CBS' recent announcement that it will film the next "Survivor" series there may spur even more interest.

Oscar-winning film director Francis Ford Coppola is among those banking on the country's potential. La Lancha, his upscale jungle resort, opened a little more than a year ago on the shores of Lake Peten Itza, near the ancient Maya ruins of Tikal in northeastern Guatemala. The archeological site is "one of the wonders of the world," Coppola said.

"I thought it made sense to look for property there," he said. "I loved the unspoiled area with howler monkeys living just outside the deck of my room." Coppola has two other eco-resorts in the jungles of nearby Belize.

Many of the same qualities that draw adventure tourists to Belize and Costa Rica can be found in Guatemala: boisterous rivers to raft, rugged mountains to climb, verdant jungles to explore. Another plus is the nation's small size; it's comparable to the state of Tennessee, making it easy to see a lot in a short time.

"There is no other place like this," boasted Estuardo Riley of Inguat, the national tourist board. He ticks off the reasons: "Thirty-three volcanoes, archeological treasures, 700 species of birds. And we are the center of mundo Maya [the Maya world]."

He didn't need to convince me. I've been intrigued by the depth and richness of the Maya culture since my first visit more than a decade ago. When I explored the country recently, I found few things -- and everything -- had changed.

In Guatemala City, about 30 miles from Antigua, I saw a convention center, high-rise hotels and two sparkling new shopping centers. But a few blocks away, I watched a man herd goats through city streets, stopping to milk them when passersby or residents wanted a drink.

In Antigua, I dodged Mercedeses and Volvos and saw million-dollar homes in the historic district. But most people in this country -- where the minimum wage is $155 a month -- still ride on rickety buses, and some live in casas de carton, cardboard houses.

In the Maya city of Chichicastenango, 84 miles north of the capital, the Sunday mercado -- the largest and most colorful outdoor market in the nation -- has modernized. Many vendors speak English and keep calculators handy to deal in dollars instead of Guatemalan quetzales. But visitors who climb into the steep hills behind the city still find ritual sacrifices of live roosters at the shrine of the folk saint Pascual Abaj.

Treasures of Antigua

My journey began in Antigua, after a five-hour nonstop flight from Los Angeles to Guatemala City and an hour's drive southwest. Founded in the mid-16th century by the Spanish, Antigua is one of the oldest and most picturesque cities in the Americas, a treasure-trove of colonial architecture and monuments. A massive volcano, Volcan Fuego, rises dramatically over the city, sending a steady plume of smoke into the air.

Pastel-colored shops and homes line cobblestone streets in the 12-square-block Ciudad Vieja (Old Town), designated a national monument and a UNESCO heritage site.

The city is a favorite of veteran visitors, many of whom skip crowded Guatemala City and use Antigua as a base. It also appeals to first-timers, who feel safe on its well-patrolled streets.

Although I had flown overnight to get here, I was eager to stroll Antigua's charming streets, so I quickly checked into my hotel, Meson de Maria, and walked to the main plaza in the early morning light. An empty bench beckoned in the graceful Parque Central, and I de-stressed for a few moments, watching sculpted mermaids guard the Baroque fountain that anchors the park.

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