TIKAL, GUATEMALA — 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.
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.