Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala
Indigenous Mayans wash their clothes in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala.

Guatemala Rising

Mayan ruins
Tourists explore Tikal's Mayan ruins, north of Guatemala City. (Rodrigo Abd - AP)
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 30, 2005

It was easy to get a table at Frida's last weekend, and one with some elbow room to boot. Gone, temporarily, was the chair-to-chair Friday night crush in one of the most popular restaurants in Guatemala's tourist hub of Antigua. For a change at this cantina, which is dedicated and decorated in honor of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, there's no line at the door, mojitos arrive instantly, and the chatter and clatter levels are well below their usual roar.

And not just at Frida's. All along Cinco Avenida Norte -- under Antigua's signature cupola-topped yellow arch -- restaurants are half-empty, curio shops are at idle and many a plum, courtyard-facing hotel room is available.

"There are normally many more people in Antigua, but now they've all been scared off," said Antonio, a waiter killing time on the sidewalk in front of La Fonda de La Calle Real, a fashionable base for traditional Guatemalan cooking. La Fonda has been turning diners away since President Bill Clinton raved about his grilled beef dinner here in 1999, but only half the tables are filled now. "It's too bad, because nothing happened to Antigua."

He's right. The streets of Antigua are clear, which is a good thing. While other parts of Guatemala are digging out from Hurricane Stan's assault earlier this month, Antigua escaped with no harm to the colonial core that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. But the streets are quiet, which isn't so good for the hotel, bar and restaurant employees who live off of tourism in this UNESCO World Heritage showpiece.

In the wake of Stan, which demolished riverside neighborhoods in towns around the country, Guatemala saw a sharp drop in international visitors. Even though most of the tourist infrastructure was untouched, travelers understandably canceled plans to visit in the face of dire video and uncertain conditions. But tourism is now Guatemala's biggest industry. And at the start of high season, locals are worried they will be more buffeted by the economic fall-off than by the hurricane.

"Tourism has become not only the major source of income for the country, but the major tool for development in many regions," said Guillermo Castillo, Guatemala's ambassador to the United States. "We hope this will just have a small impact in the short term once people see that the country is standing and back in business. The nicest period of the year is about to start, beautiful sunny days from here to January." In fact, there are signs the slump may be short-lived. Of the big three attractions that make up the typical Guatemalan itinerary -- Antigua, the Mayan ruins at Tikal and the spectacular vistas of Lake Atitlan -- two dodged hurricane damage completely. The 16th-century streets of Antigua are open for business. And at Tikal, which is reached by a short flight from Guatemala City to the country's remote northeast corner, the millennial hush of temples towering over the rain forest canopy is undisturbed.

At Lake Atitlan, scene of the some of the worst damage, Stan's scars are visible as white streaks on the hills and on back roads still lined with piles of earth. But even there, in the gateway town of Panajachel, the main tourist zones were spared, the government has cleared one of the tricky mountain roads to the town and the other is expected to open soon.

During a visit two weeks ago, a few days after the storm, I saw the number of sightseeing gringos increase every day in Guatemala City, Antigua and Lake Atitlan. Overland travel was appreciably faster at the end of my week-long trip than at the beginning. And tourists who visited despite the hurricane said they had no regrets about coming.

"We had to wait for half an hour at a blocked road coming out here, but other than that we've had no problems," said Gil Paza, waiting for a tourist van to depart from Panajachel. He and his wife were visiting from Israel for two weeks. In eight days, they'd been to the capital, Antigua and the lake. They were on their way now to the Rio Dulce on the Caribbean coast and would fly up to Tikal as a finale. "Now the shuttles and boats are running on schedule. People have been very happy to see us. They need the dollars. I think everything is okay here."

Out of the Headlines, Into the Big Time

However fleeting they may be, the setbacks of Stan occurred just as Guatemala is emerging as the Americas' latest tourism phenom. Quietly, the country that for years was synonymous with civil war and strife has gone from the exclusive province of wandering hippies and savvy textile traders to one of the most popular general destinations in the region. Bus tours and Elderhostel groups now break tortillas alongside backpackers and hard-core antiquity buffs. CBS filmed its latest "Survivor" installment on the Pacific coast, and Francis Ford Coppola has opened an eco-lodge near Tikal. Guatemala lured 1.2 million visitors last year, hard on the heels of Costa Rica, long the reigning king of Central American tourism with 1.4 million tourists in 2004.

I got the Guatemala bug five years ago when I came to write about a Spanish school near Tikal. It wasn't love at first sight. Guatemala City is homely and sprawling. And the escape from the airport takes place on choked streets amid an ongoing monster bus rally, the highways heavy with prettily painted but aggressive and diesel-belching road hogs. Ugh.

So much for first impressions. Within days, they were blown away forever in a lush mountain terrain filled with the echoes of past civilizations -- from booming Mayan grandeur to the trills of colonial conceit. Like many a hardened traveler, I'm usually more eager to bag a new stamp for my passport than go back over old ground. But Guatemala turned me into a repeat customer. I couldn't get enough of Antigua's fountain-filled courtyards, the volcano-scapes of the highlands, coffee brewed by the gods and tortillas clapped into being by such hospitable local people.

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