Destinations line Destinations

Getting to the heart of Guatemala

Four towns reveal beauty in this battle-scarred country

April 8, 1997
Web posted at: 9:30 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT)

(CNN) -- For 36 years, civil war overshadowed Guatemala's rugged, volcanic beauty, its mystical Mayan relics, and the vestiges of its long, Spanish colonial history. A peace agreement finally came to the nation on December 29, 1996. Now the government is trying to get tourists to follow.

To divert attention from the violence of recent history, Guatemala is reaching to the ancient past. In cooperation with Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, and five states of Mexico, it has established Mundo Maya -- a tourism project focused on a 1,440-mile circuit where the Maya Indian culture began flourishing more than 1,700 years ago.

It's possible to experience many of the attractions of Mundo Maya -- from the villages of Mayan descendants to Spanish colonial cities -- within Guatemala. Guatemala City and three small towns offer a broad sampling of urban flavor, old-fashioned markets, rugged natural beauty, and centuries-old ways of life.

Despite the peace agreement and increasing tourism, Guatemala remains a very risky destination, and visitors should be well-aware of the potential dangers. (See "Traveling Safely in Guatemala")

Guatemala City

One gateway to Mundo Maya is Guatemala City, the capital of Guatemala in the south-central part of the country. It sits on a high plateau against a backdrop of mountains and volcanoes, not far from the Pacific Ocean.

The city's Central Plaza is a weekend gathering place for locals and for tourists looking for crafts at the outdoor market.

An estimataed 1.2 million people live in the rapidly growing metropolis; the population has almost doubled since 1981. It is the largest city in Central America.

Antigua de Guatemala

Many tourists make a point of stopping in Antigua, about an hour's drive southwest of Guatemala City.

Spain set up its colonial government in Antigua in 1570, where it remained until a massive earthquake in 1776. The city still retains much of its colonial flavor, with cobbled streets and old stone churches.

The city is also known for its many Spanish language schools and for its Indian markets, where visitors can watch traditional masters weave textiles.

Lake Atitlan/Solola

Traveling northwest from Antigua, stops along the road reveal vistas of lush forest and rugged mountains, glimpses into villages of the indigenous people, and views of huge Lake Atitlan.

An inactive volcano rises at the lake's edge. It's believed that volcanic ash dammed an ancient valley and created the lake.

The winding road down from the Highlands leads to Solola, near the lake. The town is noted for its Indian market, which pulsates with the colors and textures of Mayan life.

Panajachel

Past Solola, the road ends in Panajachel. The town has a history of attracting those who want to escape from modern civilization. Some say it's the town time left behind.

Many American hippies have flocked to Panajachel, where the pace of life is slow and comfortable, to live their version of paradise.

Ferry-operators offer shoreline tours and transportation to other hamlets around the lake. Fishing and scuba diving are popular activities.

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