Adventurers, Retirees and Coppola Ignore Government Warnings, Explore Guatemala

Guatemala, about the size of Ohio and just south of Mexico, is a five-hour plane ride from either San Francisco or New York City. The country's climate is similar to Southern California, with warm days and cool nights.

Guatemala's population of 13 million is as diverse as its topography. The Mayan culture, with 22 indigenous languages, is not limited to the ruins near Coppola's resort, where 20-story pyramids are the only remnants of an 8th-century city of 50,000 people. The government hopes to focus on that 2,000-year heritage, which was nearly decimated by the conquistadors.

Two tourist meccas -- Antigua and Lake Atitlan -- were included in the 2003 best-seller "One Thousand Places to See Before You Die."

Antigua -- the former center of colonial power in Central America -- boasts cobblestone streets and baroque architecture. It once served as the nation's capital until earthquakes forced it to relocate, but now it is a hub for Spanish language students and backpackers.

Lake Atitlan, where three dormant volcanoes tower over an azure freshwater crater, the deepest in the Americas, is the heartland of the living Mayan culture. Indigenous women and children with irresistible smiles sit along dirt paths in hand-woven traditional dress selling colorful textiles.

The region, at 5,000 feet above sea level, drew 30 million tourists last year, mostly to Panajachel, a former hippie way-station that locals have dubbed "Gringo-tenango" for the American tourists who flock to the shops to barter for handicrafts.

On the tranquil southern shore, well-heeled expatriates, writers and artists are drawn to its natural beauty and inexpensive cost of living.

American writer Joyce Maynard, former lover of J.D. Salinger of "Catcher in the Rye" fame, relocated to a house on San Marcos on Lake Atitlan. There, helicopter pads and tropical villas tucked on the hillsides dot the lake.

In Santa Catarina Polopo, Americans Joe and Carrie Piazza -- looking for a retirement home -- became inadvertent hoteliers for this growing affluent clientele. Though they will not divulge their guest list, they recently admitted to booking "a well-known actor couple and a professional tennis player."

Catering to the demanding tastes of their clientele, the Piazzas think creatively when working within the constraints of a nascent tourist industry.

"The entire estate had been booked by a European group," said Piazza. "They requested the rooms be stocked with French shampoos and soaps at $35 per ounce. However, the manufacturer did not have a distributor in Central America and refused to ship to us."

The couple found a distributor in New York and had the products shipped next-day delivery to an American address and then to Nimajay.

Despite the growing demand for luxury accommodations, Guatemala still fights misperceptions.

"Guatemala has an undeserved reputation as a Third World country and as dangerous," he said. "The country has a rapidly growing middle and upper middle class and has had a real economic growth that exceeds that of most developed countries."

Though the quiet streets around Nimajay are safe enough to walk during the day, tourists still need to be wary about venturing on nature trails without guides and even driving at night. Even renting a car can be dodgy: One accident can land a tourist in jail. And Guatemala has the fourth highest traffic fatality rate in all Latin American countries.

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