Mention Guatemala and a complex image appears: a picturesque Indian peasant, colorfully dressed, stands perhaps outside an exquisite colonial church next to a breathtakingly beautiful lake, misty ruins towering in the background -- and Army helicopters strafe the scene while the peasant fires back with a semiautomatic rifle.
Not a poster to draw tourists, obviously, except those of a certain type. Fortunately it is mostly out of date. As the State Department says in its most recent travel advisory, "Since 1982, the general security situation in Guatemala has steadily improved, and major tourist centers ... have been without significant incident."
The major tourist centers thus blessed -- five of them -- are, luckily, the ones most worth seeing in this complex country. The guerrilla war exists, but a tourist would have to make a major effort to get anywhere near it. To quote the State Department again: "encounters between Guatemalan security forces and insurgents persist in several areas near the Guatemala-Mexican border."
Yet knowing that a war is out there in the hills makes a Guatemala visit more adventurous than, say, a Club Med stopover, and the combination of modern strife layered over ancient, colonial and Indian cultures makes the country by far the most interesting nation in Central America -- even for a political junkie addicted to the debates on Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Guatemala is the only place between Panama and Mexico where the indigenous Central American culture of the Mayans, dating to A.D. 317, managed to survive the successive assaults of the Spanish invasion, local dictators, assorted earthquakes and U.S. agribusiness. Each left its mark, however, shaping and reshaping the Mayan bedrock, adding and changing and adapting like new ingredients transform a salad.
Where current struggles in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica involve clashes between more or less modern ideologies, the troubles in Guatemala have the additional dimension of these mysterious legacies.
As a result, Guatemala alone in Central America has a quotidian sense of ancient roots that still feed every aspect of its national self, from the Sunday markets to the guerrillas. The rich underlay is at work in every arena -- political, religious, economic and emotional.
For the observant traveler, it can all be seen -- safely -- in a week's passage through the five top tourist enclaves, with time left over to assist the economy; that is, to shop. The five are: modern Guatemala in the capital, Guatemala City; colonial Guatemala in Antigua, an hour's drive west of the capital; Indian Guatemala in Chichicastenango, another hour north; scenic Guatemala at Lake Atitla'n, a couple more hours west; and Mayan Guatemala at the Tikal ruins, a one-day plane hop into the northern jungle.
A visit begins in noisy and park-studded Guatemala City, called "Guate" or just "Guatemala" by the 2 million locals. Established in 1776, more than two centuries after the Spanish arrived, it is two hours and a round-trip plane ticket from Miami. One of the first things to do on arrival is arrange the trip to Tikal and schedule the rest of the visit around that. Several tourist agencies offer one-day excursions for about $80 per person. There are a small air taxi service and regular airline flights but none can be reliably booked from out of the country. You might also want to make hotel reservations in Antigua and Chichicastenango while you're making plans, especially if you go on a weekend: They are packed then with day-tripping Guate urbanites.
In the capital, construction cranes are everywhere, just like Washington, responding there as here to government incentives and optimism. The country was an international pariah from the late 1970s onward because of its bloody human rights record, so Guatemala's military government turned over power in 1986 to Christian Democratic President Vinicio Cerezo, and the worst abuses have halted.
But this history is visible outside the enormous -- and unfenced -- light green Presidential Palace in the main Central Park downtown, a must-see colonial-style modern building that houses all government offices. On many weekdays a dozen or more Indian families camp on the building's broad steps, demanding to know the whereabouts of friends and relatives who have disappeared in the past 25 years of fighting. Nearby are the soldiers, impassive, silent, watching, carrying the semiautomatic rifles that are normal police equipment in this part of the world.
The demonstrating women, like many others in the capital streets, wear villagers' traditional long striped skirts and flowered huipiles, heavy hand-woven and embroidered sleeveless cotton blouses. These are themselves a tourist attraction, making wonderful wall hangings, bed and table linens, blouses, skirts and pillows for back home.
The men sport straw cowboy hats, the children bright swaddling blankets. They are eager to talk, but mostly not in Spanish -- Guatemala's 6 million people speak at least 15 separate languages and 100 indigenous dialects rooted in ancient Mayan. They are also shy of cameras, but respond to a smile.
Beside the square is the cathedral, the largest and finest in Central America despite near-destruction in the 1917 earthquakes. And behind the cathedral, in the underground rabbit warren of Central Market stalls, you can buy the very best the country has to offer in textiles, antiques, pottery, jewelry and knickknacks. But save your last day in the country for the buying spree: You should educate your taste in textiles and knowledge of prices elsewhere first, or you will be overwhelmed by the choices here and outfoxed in the obligatory haggling.
One place to start that education is at the Ixchil Textile Museum, where artful displays show how indigenous clothing has evolved from the days when every woman in a village dressed exactly like every other, and when each village had its own distinctive patterns. Students of the patterns can still identify the area where each piece of cloth originates. Prices at the museum shop are good indicators of real value, much lower than the market vendors' starting levels.
The Archaeological Museum is another must stop, to prepare for Tikal and get a sense of the awesome history here that dates from the domestication of corn around 2000 B.C. Afterward, everywhere you look you will see cultural reminders of Quetzalcoatl, the winged serpent god of freedom, and Tecun Uman, the Mayan martyr killed in hand-to-hand combat with Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado in 1524.
After checking out other lovely churches and parks in the capital, take a local bus into the hills to Antigua, the colonial capital of Guatemala, where the main requirement is sensible shoes. The cobblestone streets date, like many of the buildings, from the 17th and 18th centuries, all partly in exquisite, flower-bedecked ruins from repeated earthquakes that finally drove the settlers to the present capital.
The most mysterious ruin is the Convent of Las Capuchinas, which had running water in 1736 for each nun's cell but also features ventilated niches just big enough to stand up in along the exterior circular wall. Torture chambers? Prayer rooms? Who knows?
In the country's typical mix, Antigua is almost chic now, with a large U.S. expatriate colony. There is a natural-food restaurant run by Americans, Donåa Luisa's, several Italian restaurants and one of the most comfortable modern hotel-motels anywhere, the Hotel Antigua, spread out around a lush heated pool. Cable television brings in U.S. news and programs from San Diego, Calif., of all places, right down to MTV and late-night movies. Or you can stay in a renovated colonial inn built around lush tropical courtyards, or in small pensions that include breakfast. The ruins themselves take one long day to see on foot, their size cementing forever in the mind the horror and mind-numbing power a major earthquake can have.
Two more hours' drive west -- by tour bus or rented car -- takes you to what Aldous Huxley called "the most beautiful lake in the world," Lake Atitla'n. The drive, on a first-rate road built by the Agency for International Development, goes through lush farms and rolling cattle land. Much of Guatemala used to be virgin jungle that was flattened in the last 20 years -- and its resident Indians evicted -- to provide cheap hamburger for U.S. fast-food outlets.
Just before Solola', you pass the gate of a military base adorned by two huge army boots and a helmet that are the guardhouse, proving, one hopes, that even the army has a sense of humor.
The lakeside capital of Panajachel is at the bottom of a dizzying hillside road that I drove halfway around the lake to avoid having to reclimb. (That was a mistake: Army troops halted my car near Xepatan and, in the words of the State Department advisory, "strongly encouraged" me to get off the mangled roads and away from what they called "bandit" territory east and south of the lake. They were most polite.)
Once-lovely Panajachel has gone sleazy with grasping and pushy roadside merchants and wandering European longhairs selling tacky jewelry. Watch your wallet. But the lake itself is stunning, especially from the vast corner room (No. 24) of the genteel and elderly Hotel Tzanjuyu, where I was the only offseason guest. I had the swimming pool and elegant dining room all to myself. Three volcanoes and rolling mountains rim the glassy distance, and a thunderstorm ricocheting among their tops provided spectacular counterpoint to a blazing sunset.
From Panajachel, one can take the local waterborne buses, regularly scheduled motor launches, to more than a dozen Indian villages around the lake. The two-hour trip to Santiago Atitla'n, the prettiest and largest village, is best on Saturday, when the women-only market is in full swing and the colorful costumes -- right out of the museum -- are almost blindingly bright. It is best to return soon after lunch, for late afternoon windstorms, called the xocomil, sometimes swirl down from the mountains and can make the boat trip rather too much of an adventure.
An hour northwest of Antigua on a corkscrew road lies Chichicastenango, justly famous for its huge native market on Thursdays and Sundays. Villagers stream into town from 3 a.m. onward to jam scores of aisles full of every conceivable food, mask, pot and textile, but the scene is oddly quiet: The vendors prize their dignity too much to hawk their wares. Be warned, however: The simple-looking Indians are used to rich gringos and prices start high, usually more than double the real value. Bargaining becomes much easier Sunday evening.
Chichi, as it is called, is at the southern end of Quiche province, where rebels had their stronghold as recently as six years ago and hold out still in the northern corner. If you come Saturday, don't miss the evening mass at the huge old church in the main square. Costumed children sing hymns and laments for the nation's sufferings in both Spanish and the Quiche language, accompanied by drums, guitar, flute and marimba. I was astonished to hear a Spanish version of the Lord's Prayer set to the music of Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence," clearly the work of some U.S. missionary.
The Hotel Maya is lush, almost unnecessarily so; the Pension Chuguila is a picturesque old inn around a courtyard and has a fireplace in every room, very nice in the chilly mountain evenings. At breakfast, coffee automatically comes weak and very sweet: The good Guatemalan java is all exported.
The highlights of Tikal, the real key to the Guatemalan soul, can be glimpsed in one long day trip from Guatemala City, but the ruined Mayan city, the biggest yet discovered, covers 25 square miles and may once have had 10,000 buildings. About six square miles have been cleared from the dense wet jungle, and a longer visit allows some contemplation of the sheer force of nature here, especially the eerie noises of nocturnal wildlife. The hotels Jaguar, Tikal and Jungle Lodge offer very basic accommodations. Take mosquito repellent, a sun-shield hat and a sweater for the cool evening.
A guided tour by car is the best way to see Tikal, for the wet jungle heat can lengthen unreasonably the walks between monuments. There are five main temples, each in its own plaza, and the North and Central Acropolises off the Great Plaza. From the 170-foot top of Temple I, whose Giant Jaguar graces most of the post cards, you can see Temples II, III and IV. Inside, the University of Pennsylvania excavators found a tomb and a skeleton (Burial 116) whose rich jade and pottery adornments enrich the Tikal museum. Many burial sites were under the acropolises, including one for a priest, nine servants, several turtles and a crocodile.
Temple II, the Temple of the Masks, features ancient and modern graffiti side by side. A climb up Temple IV, at 212 feet the highest pre-Columbian structure in the Americas, provides an awesome view of the green jungle rug stretching to the horizon in all directions. It is a sobering reminder that once this massive empire fell, its legends and its history proved as ephemeral as the grass.
This lesson is drummed into every Guatemalan from childhood: Tikal illustrates Guatemalan pride and grandeur that must be restored and defended. The martyred Mayan leader Tecun Uman has been a heroic symbol of freedom evoked by all sides in the 20-year-old civil conflict: Guerrillas cite him as a model of resistance to economic and political repression, while the army reveres him as a heroic defender of Guatemala against the invasion of foreign doctrines, which today means communism. Tikal's silent Mayan ruins, full of winged serpent ghosts, are thus a fitting place to ponder the many lessons and paradoxes of this thought-provoking nation.