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Guatemala is enjoying a new image

Decade after bloody civil war, country is a top tourist spot

ANTIGUA, Guatemala — In a word, Antigua is old.

It has been perched in the forested Panchoy Valley for more than 450 years, was one of the Americas' largest cities around the time of the Spanish Armada, and was nearly wiped off the map by an earthquake three years before the U.S. Declaration of Independence was signed. Even its name means "old."

But it's new to the thousands of tourists arriving from every corner of the globe every day.

"We had friends who had come down and talked about it," said Emily Smith, 35, of Chattanooga, Tenn., who was shopping for handicrafts with her husband and 4-year-old daughter. "But it's even more beautiful than we expected. We have fallen in love with it."

Nearly a decade after the end of a 36-year civil war that left 200,000 people dead, Guatemala is starting to shed its bloodstained reputation and earn new fame as a top tourist destination.

Oscar-winning director Francis Ford Coppola opened an exclusive jungle resort not far from the Mayan ruins at Tikal, in the northeastern region of Peten. And on Sept. 15, CBS began airing episodes of "Survivor Guatemala," filmed in jungle-shrouded Yaxha, between two lakes and near the border with Belize.

Few places in the hemisphere offer so much variety — ancient ruins, jungle rain forests, whitewater rapids, 33 volcanoes, beaches, colonial hideaways and the modern-day cultural influence of 22 Mayan cultures. A 2 1/2-hour flight from Miami, Guatemala is roughly the size of Ohio.

"The natural beauty and cultural beauty you see where 'Survivor' was filmed is available all over the country," said Daniel Mooney, director of INGUAT, the country's tourism agency. "Guatemala really is as good as it looks on TV."

Just under 1.2 million foreigners visited in 2004, nearly 300,000 of those Americans, and officials hope to surpass 1.4 million this year.

Those tallies have yet to catch Costa Rica, an ecotourism mecca that has for decades been considered the safest place in Central America. That country's tourism institute reported 1.7 million foreign visitors in 2004.

Still, Guatemala has come a long way since 1996, the last year of the war, when only about 520,000 foreigners visited. During the dark days of government-led anti-insurgency campaigns in 1984, fewer than 200,000 dared make the trip.

Popular with backpackers, well-heeled travelers, families and students studying Spanish, Antigua offers colonial beauty and breathtaking natural views set to the tinkling of xylophone-heavy Marimba music, which drifts in from all directions day and night.

Then called Santiago de los Caballeros, the city was the nation's capital until the 1773 quake prompted the government to flee to present-day Guatemala City, 30 miles to the east. The moniker Antigua Guatemala, or "Old Guatemala City," stuck.

Dozens of churches and the crumbling stone remains of Spanish-conquest era structures abound. Many tourists prefer to simply wander the cobblestone streets, however, peeking inside stores offering Mayan weavings and clothing in a dizzying area of colors — all handmade and available on-the-cheap by U.S. standards.

More adventurous visitors can opt for a steep climb the dormant Agua Volcano, which towers 13,500 feet above Antigua.

An easier hike scales the gravel-covered slopes of the ever-smoldering Pacaya Volcano. Daylong excursions leave every morning from Antigua, though the volcano is about an hour bus ride away.

"This has always been popular with tourists, but after Sept. 11 things got quiet," said Feliciano Salvador, 19, whose family runs a one-room textile shop. "Now things are full again. On television, everywhere you look, people are talking about Antigua."

That's not good news for everyone. Rebecca Corry and Dennis Hedges, retired schoolteachers from Taos, N.M., first came to Antigua in 1995 — and liked it better back then.

"Now it's more industrialized, more cosmopolitan, more prepared for tourists," Corry said. "But I kind of enjoyed it more before. We like sleepy."

Dark facets of the past also linger. The U.S. State Department has issued near-constant warnings about the dangers of coming to Guatemala in recent years. A May travel advisory singles out street-gang violence and banditry in Guatemalan cities and frequent armed robberies on highways.

Nicole Delisi, visiting Antigua from Corozal, Belize, where she is a Peace Corps volunteer, said two of her colleagues were robbed in separate incidents during one weekend in Guatemala City.

"Guatemala still has its issues," said the 28-year-old from San Francisco, who was thumbing through a guidebook on a bench in Antigua's breezy central square.

But crime concerns seem far away at La Lancha, the jungle resort owned by Coppola, who calls Guatemala "peaceful and friendly."

The 10-room resort opened last year near Lake Peten Itza — not far from the sprawling, 2,700-year-old Tikal ruins.

"I thought it made sense to look for property there, since Tikal was such a magnet," he said via e-mail, adding, "I love the abundant wildlife — we have a troop of howler monkeys that you see almost daily and huge parrots that roost in trees."

Tikal's temples, palaces, ball courts, steam baths, stone carvings and more than 3,000 other structures are awe-inspiring by themselves. But the surrounding jungle canopy, teeming with chattering toucans and parrots, ornery monkeys and unseen serpents and jaguars makes a visit all the more spectacular.

For most visitors, getting there means a 50-minute flight from Guatemala City to the lakefront city of Flores — whose airport officials renamed "Mayan World" to entice tourists. From there, it is a brief bus ride.

Tours headed to little-restored ruins deep in the jungle — like El Mirador and Survivor's Yaxha — also often use Flores as a jumping-off point.

There's plenty to see without boarding a plane, however.

Three hours along harrowing, two-lane highways northwest of Antigua is Panajachel.

The scruffy beachfront town accommodates visitors to Lake Atitlan, whose picturesque shores are ringed by volcanos and Mayan artisan villages. Hundreds of U.S. and European expatriates have stayed for good.

Visiting from neighboring El Salvador, the top supplier of tourists to Guatemala, Pablo Gomez counted the bustling Mayan market town of Chichicastenango, north of Panajachel, as another must-see.

"I love my country, but we don't have this culture," said Gomez, who was traveling with his wife and three children. "Mayan influence is everywhere in Guatemala."

Tourism officials are just as quick to mention lesser-known destinations such as Lake Izabal, a sprawling freshwater reserve that feeds into the Caribbean, or the Black Christ icon, which drew Pope John Paul II to the sweaty religious center of Esquipulas, near the Honduran and El Salvadoran borders, in 1996.

"There's something for everyone," said Mooney, the tourism director. "And they may have to come back a few times to see it all."