WHEN VISITING GUATEMALA, HEED TRAVEL ADVISORIES
If you're someone with an irresistible urge to "kootchy-koo" a smiling baby's double chin or make Jim Carrey eyes at any child willing to pay you a quarter-minute's attention, you might want to practice stifling yourself before you visit Guatemala.Skip to next paragraph
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Last year, an American woman visiting Guatemala was attacked and severely beaten by villagers when she was suspected of seeking to kidnap a small child. Rumors of foreigners stealing children for adoption or sale of their organs caused a frenzy, leading to additional incidents of violence against foreigners - and causing the American government to issue a travel advisory.
The furor over the unfounded baby-stealing rumors has pretty much died down, but the US State Department maintains its travel advisory - in part for the baby-stealing hysteria, but also in response to the kidnapping of an American woman last year. "Violent crime is a very serious and growing problem in Guatemala," the US Embassy in Guatemala City says on a recorded message for travelers. The recording is updated to warn about any particularly dangerous areas.
On the other hand, embassy officials recognize that Guatemala's "traditional tourist travel areas" - including Tikal - have remained safe. They advise visitors to take the same kinds of precautions in Guatemala that most Americans would advise for travel in many US cities: Don't travel alone; carry as few valuables with you as possible; don't drive or travel at night.
If you do plan to visit Tikal, a number of tours are available out of Guatemala City lasting from one to three days or more. Accommodations range from rustic lodges on the national park premises to a Westin-affiliated hotel on Lake Peten Itza. The one-day trip I took included airfare, bus transfers, a four-hour guided tour of the ruins, and lunch under a thatched roof. It cost $138. Tips, drinks, a handy booklet on the ruins - not to mention the granola bar I wished I'd packed for the long morning hike through the jungle - were not included.