ANTIGUA, GUATEMALA — Guatemala is becoming a popular tourist destination, with travelers from around the world coming to see its varied landscapes, Indian cultures, and ancient Mayan cities. Tourist infrastructure and services are well-developed in Antigua, which is easily accessible from the capital. Guatemala is a developing country, however, that recently emerged from a long civil war, so travelers should take a few precautions. English is not widely spoken, so bring a Spanish phrase book.
Guatemala City has few charms and much crime, so most travelers go directly to Antigua. Minibuses leave twice a day from Guatemala's Aurora airport. A taxi will make the trip for around $25. The more intrepid can catch regular bus service from downtown. If you arrive late or have an early morning return flight, the El Aeropuerto Guest House (011-(502) 332-3086) has comfortable rooms and free transfer service to the terminal for $32 double. They also operate a shuttle to Antigua for less than $10.
Guatemalans are generally friendly, courteous, and helpful, but there has been a recent increase in robberies and violent crimes against tourists. Antigua itself is very safe by day, and fairly so at night, but use good sense and carry valuables in a money belt under your clothing. It is not safe to walk around Guatemala City at night, and parts of the city (Zone 1 and 4 particularly) can be dicey in daylight.
The Pacaya volcano was a popular tourist destination but both the State Department and the Guatemalan tourist board, INGUAT, discourage travelers from visiting due to rapes and armed robberies of tourists - even those traveling in groups. Organized tours can be very safe, and many include an attachment of armed guards.
ANTIGUA has a wide range of accommodations - from luxury resorts like the Antigua Ramada to simple youth hostels. Hotels are an excellent value in Guatemala. Expect pleasant comfortable living for $20 a person per day.
As far as eating, Antigua has a full range to fit any taste or price range, from a thankfully discreet Burger King to the culinary haunts of Guatemala City's smart set. Two personal favorites occupying the middle ground: For grilled and local specialties (including pepian, a spicy chicken stew) try La Fonda de la Calle Real (5 Av. Norte 5-7); for the best breakfasts in leafy courtyard surroundings, visit the ever-popular Dona Luisa (4 Calle Oriente 12).
If you want to explore further, you'll encounter dozens of travel agencies along Antigua's streets that will arrange trips to the Mayan ruins at Tikal or Copn, Honduras, Chimaltenango, and other sites. Turansa Tours and other agencies around Antigua have regular minibus service to Panajachel on Lake Atitlan, from which you can catch boats to less touristed towns.
For more information, the Guatemalan tourist board, INGUAT, has a US office in Coral Gables, Fla. Tel: (305) 442-0651 or 800-742-4529.