Adventurers, Retirees and Coppola Ignore Government Warnings, Explore Guatemala

Three years ago, when "Godfather" director Francis Ford Coppola opened his elegant jungle resort in Guatemala -- offering killer views of Petén Itzá Lake near the Mayan ruins at Tikal -- he was a visionary.

Guatemala, with its tropical beaches, soaring volcanoes and vibrant Mayan culture, is an ideal tourist destination. But until now, the country has failed to get the respect it deserves, especially when compared to its more fashionable Central American neighbor Costa Rica.

It's the bloody reputation -- worthy of any Coppola film. More than 100,000 people were murdered and more than 1 million disappeared in a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996.

After the stranglehold of a right-wing dictatorship loosened, gang violence and the drug trade escalated. In one well-publicized attack in 1998, four Maryland college students were robbed and raped on a public bus. Last year, the government reported 6,000 murders as well as numerous armed assaults against foreigners.

But recent efforts to strengthen public safety are paying off and most violence has a far greater impact on locals than on tourists.

Despite the stern U.S. State Department warnings, Guatemala is wooing tourists with its dramatic landscape and pre-Columbian history. With Europe out of reach because of the weak dollar, many Americans are looking south for exotic and economical vacations.

"The weather is near perfect, the views are incredible, real estate is affordable and people are wonderful," said Joe Piazza, a Louisiana-born lawyer who owns the luxury Nimajay estate, overlooking Lake Atitlan in the western highlands.

Piazza's business has been so brisk, especially with wealthy Americans and Europeans, that he is opening another lakeside villa that he hopes will attract more high-end tourists. Other hotels in that region are doing equally well.

"We used to see only two types of Americans -- backpackers and retirees who wanted to live on $1,000 per month," said Piazza. "Now Guatemala has become more popular for people who want to be more adventurous."

Those adventures can now include guided volcano tours, zip lines across rugged terrain and heli-treks -- as well as a growing number of resorts catering to more affluent tastes.

After the successful television reality show "Survivor Guatemala," which was set in Yaxhá-Nakum-Naranjo National Park right after Coppola opened his La Lancha in 2005, tourist officials took notice. Since then, President Alvaro Colom announced a new tourist park with access to the Mirador archeological site and its hundreds of buildings reclaimed from the Peten jungle.

"Despite its past turmoil and political instability, travelers are returning to Guatemala because it offers Central America in concentrated form," according to the Lonely Planet Guide. "Its volcanoes are the highest and most active, its Mayan ruins the most impressive, its earthquakes the most devastating and its history decidedly intense."

Last year, an estimated 1.4 million vacationers visited Guatemala -- nearly 300,000 of them Americans -- up from only 520,000 foreigners a decade ago. Tourism brought in more than $1 billion in 2006 -- almost as much as coffee and sugar, the country's two biggest exports combined, according to the Guatemalan Embassy in Washington, D.C.

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