I HAVE JUST returned from a package tour of Guatemala, a press trip arranged by Eastern Air Lines and billed as being " . . . for the sole purpose of promoting a better understanding of Guatatemala's unique history and culture." I quickly became aware of the full import of that statement.
Guatemala is hurting and admits it. Political rumblings and revolution in neighboring countries, concerned Guatemalans declare, are in turn giving their own nation an undeservedly "bad press" -- especially in the United States. As a result, they say, many prospective visitors have become fearful and are looking elsewhere to spend their vacations.
North American newspaper articles dealing with Guatemala in recent months indicate what is contributing to this fear. Headlines such as "Killing Alleged in Guatemala" . . ."Guatemalan Army Chief Slain". . .and "Jurists Accuse Guatemala of Suppressing Dissent" can hardly charm your average tourist, who is seeking, among other things, a safe destination for a holiday.
The impact has been less evident in Europe, where distances from the scenes of disturbance are greater and political concern consequently is less immediate. Europeans, in fact, are flocking to the "Land of Eternal Spring" in every-greater numbers. But Guatemala is looking hard these days at winning a larger share of the as-yet-scarcely-tapped market of stay-away Americans, and Guatemalan Officials cite two basic reasons they believe Americans are not boarding those daily, low-costs, 2 1/2 hour jet flights from Miami to Guatemala City:
A genuine, but unfounded, excessive concern for personal safety in Guatemala.
The inadequate effort to tell the prospective traveler of Guatemala's peoples and cultures, historical sites, archelogical wonders and visitor facitlies.
If the development of tourism, Guatemala's third largest industry after coffee and cattle, relied simply on construction of the material things tourists need there would be no question of Guatamala's self-confidence. Ultra-modern hotels and roadbuilding projects are making Guatemala's attractions more accessible and comfortable to visit. Historical restoration programs are proceeding. A new color film extolling the virtues of a trip to Guatemala is ready for distribution.
Eastern Airlines' recent introduction of daily, low-cost excursion flights and package tours from Miami to Guatemala City -- to be increased to two flights starting Dec. 20 -- provides another indication of confidence in Guatemala's tourism potential. TACA and Aviateca also fly the Miami-Guatemala City route, and the Civil Aeronautics Board has recived nine applications from airlines interested in offering service to Guatemala.
Is this optimism well placed? Guatemalans want to make certain it is. One way, they believe, is by improving the country's image in the United States.
Asociacion de Amigos del Pais (Friends of the Country), a Guatemalan organization founded in 1794, includes in its membership leading representatives of the country's professional and business worlds. During my Guatemalan tour, they offered to explain Guatemala's viewpoint on economic conditins and on the political climate.
"We need investments so we may create new jobs and create better opportunities for our people," said one member. He was quite candid about the problems his country faces: an annual birthrate (growth rate) of 3 percent; a population of which half is under 15 years of age; and the need to create 60,000 new jobs each year, despite a very low rate of unemployment. Remarking on his country's success in building the economy and creating a middle class, he added: "But we need understanding, free trade and security to realize continued progress and development.
Said another member of Amigos del Pais : "We have had a fully democratic government, constituional elections and right now we have eight political parties. Poverty has always been high lighted, but, with a free press, often more of the unfavorable news get in. The image that's being projected outside Guatemala by such organizations as Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists makes Guatemala appear very ugly.
Ugly, indeed, in lights of reports of rising political unrest and charges that some 2,000 persons were killed in related violence over the past 16 months, that the government is suppressing dissent and that there is a pre-revolutnionary situation.
Acknowledging the existence of very real problems, Amigos responds that statistics obtained from a wide variety of sources, whether on political prisoners or victims of shootins, often are inaccurate. As a result, the Guatemalans say, concern may evolve into unjust criticism. Members of Amigos del Pais maintain that, despite Guatemala's history of isolation and strife in the last century and though hampered by explosive population growth, progress has been incredible.
"We want you to see all of Guatemala and experience its safety," urged Alvaro Arzu, director of IGUAT, Gatemala's Tourism Commission.
For six days, then, I did travel about the country. By bus, car and plane, I visited the major attractions -- Guatemala City, Antigua, Lake Atitlan, the Highlands, Chichicastenango and Tikal, which is basically the route of Eastern's one-week tour package. as a tourist, wherever I went, I neither expereienced nor observed cause for undue personal concern.I witnessed no signs of political unrest, no violence, no gunfire by police or dissidents.
And though I was only one person in one place at a time, and though I disclaim competence in judging reports issued by such organizations as Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists, I don't think that should detract from my own experience of feeling quite safe and secure as I traveled on my Guatemalan itinerary.
The "Kingdom of Guatemala," conquered by Pedro de Alvarado in 1524 for the Spanish Crown, once stretched from southern Mexico to the border of Panama. Independent since 1821, the country has a population of 6.8 million, 63 percent Indian, speaking 12 languages and over 100 dialects.
The capital, Guatemala City, is a bustling metropolis of 1 million. Here are the National Palace with its beautiful mural and exquisite Spanish-Renaissance carvings, and the unique, huge concrete relief map of Guatemala located in Minerva Park.
Antigua, Guatemala's colonial capital from 1543 to 1773, was the center of learning and art during the country's Golden Age. The city once boasted 60,000 inhabitants, who lived in low, pastel-hued houses with typical window grilles and wrought-iron decorations, and embellished their surroundings with some 34 churches, 18 monasteries, a university and seven colleges. A violent earthquake in 1773 largely destroyed Antigua, and the capital was moved 37 miles to present-day Guatemala City. remained the most complete Spanish-Colonial city in the Americas. In 1972, work was begun to restore the city. But nature intervened. Another quake, in 1976, damaged one of every four remaining structures. Since then, the National Council for the Presevation of Antigua has been carrying out a modified restoration program to return the city to much of its earlier colonial appearance.
Today Antigua is a surprisely pleasing mixture of stark ruins in a setting of colonial-style houses and cobbled streets, quaint shops and Spanish-Colonial inns, such as the charming Posada de Don Rodrigo and the Hotel El Cortijo de las Flores. Room rates: $15- $16 for a single and $20- $22 double. The Ramada chain opened the newest facility in May. In terms of weather, Guatemala's "in-season" runs from October to May, but there are no "off-season" rates.
During Holy Week the devout walk hours through the mountains to reach the festive city. A procession of floats through the streets is a highlight of the occasion. Similar, unscheduled processions take place whenever neighboring Volcano Agua starts acting up. This custom stands in comforting contrast to the practice of the ancient Mayas, who resorted to human sacrifice to dissuade the volcano from its violent, fiery outbursts.
The Highlands rise west of Guatemala City. The road snakes up to emerald-hued 5,000-foot-high Lake Atitlan, with 13 Indian villages strung along its 85-mile shoreline. Three mighty volcanoes, Toliman, Atitlan and San Pedro, guard the lake and the villagers who dwell on its shores. Each village proudly wears its own traditional costume and displays its products in an outdoor market.
The primitive bamboo-walled village huts covered by thatched roofs create a striking lakeside setting in contrast to neighboring modern resort hotels.
A daily mail boat leaves at 9 a.m. from Hotel Atitlan on the lake. The 3 1/2 hour roundtrip costs $5, including an hour's stopover at the hilltop village of San Antonio Palopo. The Selta Line also offers boat trips to the lakeside villages at the rate of $40 for four people.
Private boats can be hired at Santiage at any time. Arrangements have to be made through Hotel Atitlan. Price varies with the distance traveled.
Most famed of all Guatemalan outdoor Indian market is Chichicastenango -- Chichi for short -- 87 miles or about a 3 1/2 hour ride west of the capital. On Thursdays and Sundays -- market days -- color reigns, both in the costumes worn by the women and in the abundant display of fruits, vegetables and textiles. Natives in markets and in tourist areas usually seem to understand enough English to enable you to communicate.
Shopping is, happily, easy on the purse. I purchased hand-embroidered blouses for $9 to $10 and patterned men's shirts for between $5 and $7. A lunchtime interlude in Chichi provides another pleasant surprise in reasonable prices. At the Mayan Inn, for example, waiters in authentic Mayan dress served me a delicious full-course meal for only $5.
I had long wanted to see the ancient temple city of Tikal, enclosed by the dense jungle of the Peten in northern Guatemala. Since our tour package did not include that excursion, I arranged for an extra day.
I had intended to fly direct from Guatemala City to Tikal, but deep mud made the unpaved runway at Tikal unusable, and the airport was due to remain closed until at least mid-November. So I flew to Flores, about 28 miles from Tikal, staying in a native jungle setting at the Hotel Maya Internacional. This is a small group of thatch-roofed, two-story stucco buildings with one-room units. The dining room is a thatched-roof open pavilion where tasty and inexpensive meals are served. At night, the sounds of parrots and their fellow members of the jungle community serenade you to sleep.
Reaching the ruins of Tikal from Flores, only 28 miles, meant a bone-shaking, two-hour journey. For this ride, Clark Tours supplied a Land Rover and Clarence, the best guide in Flores. Clarence's lifelong interest in archaeology gained him a place at the excavations undertaken at Tikal by the University of Pennsylvania from 1956-1966. He has been a guide for Tikal ever since.
For nearly a quarter century, the Tikal area has been a National Park and Plant and Wildlife Preserve, encompassing the largest known ceremonial center of the ancient Maya. Huge mounds betraying the locations of many other as yet uncovered Mayan buildings have been identified at Tikal as well as at sites elsewhere in the Peten jungle. Some of these temples, pyramids and palaces date at least as far back as 600 B.C.; all were mysteriously abandoned about 950 A.D.
No new excavations are now scheduled other other development is very much in evidence. The government and private investors are funding $45 million to construct an internatinal airport at Flores, a paved road from Flores to Tikal (my two-hour Land Rover grind will become a 45-minute pleasure trip!), a new museum with a restaurant at Tikal and additional hotel/motel accommodations at both Flores and Tikal -- all by spring 1981.
I wonder what changes will follow once thes projects are completed. At present only about 35,000 visitors come to Tikal each year. I visualize great throngs inundating the area once accessibility is improved and expanded accomodations are assured, assuming of course that there is political and economic stability.
"If its done okay, Tikal won't be spoiled," Clarence reassured me. "They're not worried about pollution, because they have controlled access to the archeological areas.
Most likely my ecological concerns are unwarranted. But certainly the rustic character of the area will be lost. No longer will the chickens greet visitors arriving at the Flores airport. I should personally miss the friendly white goose that insisted on accompanying me to meals at the Hotel Maya Internacional.
The Tikal skyline will be as much modern as Mayan. Perhaps that is reason enough to plan that trip to Guatemala now.