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Guatemala, out of the shadows

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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 Petén Itzá, 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 cartón, 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, Volcán 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, Mesón de María, 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.

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.

Bell, who has lived in the city 36 years, was regaling her charges with stories about the city and its current prosperity.

"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."

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.

I was wheeling and dealing, buying a blanket here, a few tablecloths there. Five hours later, I had enlisted all three of my friends to help carry my booty. "Please, make me leave," I implored them.

"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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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Antigua and more

GETTING THERE:

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.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 502 (country code for Guatemala) and the local number.

WHERE TO STAY:

Guatemalan hotel bills include a 22% tax. Most rates below do not include this charge.

Quinta Real, Prolongación Boulevard, Guatemala City; 2-420-7720, http://www.summithotels.com . Luxury hotel in the foothills overlooking the capital. Ten minutes from the international airport; 10 minutes from downtown. Doubles from $175.

Hotel Casa Santo Domingo, 3a Calle Oriente No. 28 A, Antigua; 7820-1222, http://www.casasantodomingo.com.gt/ . Attractively landscaped grounds and facilities at this hotel and museum in Antigua's Old Town. Excellent restaurant. Doubles from $120.

Mesón de María, 3a Calle Poniente, No. 8, Antigua; 783-26069, http://www.hotelmesondemaria.com . New boutique hotel in Old Town is handsomely decorated with typical Guatemalan furnishings. Doubles from $75.

Posada del Angela, 4a Avenida Sur No. 24 A, Antigua; (800) 934-0065, or in Guatemala, 7832-0260, http://www.posadadelangel.com . Five rooms at this nicely furnished B&B inn four blocks from the Main Plaza of Old Town. President Clinton stayed here. Doubles from $150.

Hotel Atitlán, Finca San Buenaventura, Panajachel; 2360-8405, http://www.hotelatitlan.com . Landscaped grounds and formal gardens at this lovely colonial-style hotel overlooking Lake Atitlán. Nice restaurant, gift shop, pool. Doubles from about $146, including tax.

Hotel Santo Tomás, 5-32 7th Avenida, Zona Única, Chichicastenango; 7756-1316. http://www.paginasamarillas.com/hotelsantotomas.htm . Filled with a museum-quality collection of Spanish colonial art. Individually decorated rooms have fireplaces. Close to Thursday and Sunday markets. Restaurant, pool. Doubles from $79.

WHERE TO EAT:

Kacao, 2a Avenida 13-44, Zone 10, Guatemala City; 2337-4188. Stylish haute cuisine restaurant near major hotels in Guatemala City. Entrees $9-$16.

La Fonda Calle Real, 3a Calle Poniente, No. 7, Antigua. 7832-0507, http://www.lafondacallereal.com . This restaurant has three locations in Old Town Antigua, including this one, where Clinton ate. Serves typical Guatemalan food; popular with tourists. Entrees $7-$15.

TO LEARN MORE:

Guatemala National Tourist Institute, (502) 2421-2800, http://www.visitguatemala.com .

— Rosemary McClure

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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