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.

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.

Across the lake in San Lucas Toliman, where coffee fields cover the volcanic hillside and some of the poorest Mayan families live in one-room adobe houses with open fires, the Rev. Jorge Santizo and his family run the Pentecostal Spring of Hope Mission.

Santizo recruits volunteers from North America to help at the medical clinic and build school facilities. He knows his country has an image problem, but everything isn't always as it seems.

"Guatemala has everything: jungles, rain forests, deserts and beaches, but no matter how good we do, we look bad," said Santizo.

Keeping tourists safe is critical to the success of his religious mission: 85 percent of all financial support comes from the United States.

Each summer Santizo drives busloads of Americans -- including youth groups -- to help at his mission. The pastor likes to have fun with the jittery teens and plays up the mystical nature of the country.

Even Santizo can't explain the phenomenon, but on one desolate road called El Paso Misterioso he stops the van going down an incline and puts the shift in neutral. The van mysteriously rolls backward up the hill.

Like Guatemala, the demonstration may be an optical illusion, as the late-day sun descends on a lush field of fruit trees, says Santizo, "but they love it."