Standing among rows of coffee beans drying in the sun, Jorge Santizo gestures towards the azure depths of Lake Atitlan and the three towering volcanoes dotting its shore.
With such stunning natural beauty, he says, Guatemala should be one of the world’s leading tourist destinations, not a country shunned by visitors fearful of its reputation for violent crime.
“Guatemala has jungles, rainforests, deserts and beaches, but no matter how good we do, we look bad,” said Santizo, who works for a Pentecostal mission at San Lucas Toliman in the western highlands, 64 kilometres west of Guatemala City.
“Travel warnings are exaggerated, there is a big gap between what we hear and what we see,” he said in an interview.
But Santizo also warned visitors not to drive on the road outside San Lucas Toliman after dark because of the danger of being held up at gunpoint.
“‘Survivor Guatemala’ was huge exposure, but people here complained and they shut down some of the (Mayan) ruins,” Santizo said of the 2005 US reality TV show filmed in Guatemala’s northern Yaxho-Nakum-Naranjo National Park.
With Europe out of the reach of some Americans because of the weak dollar, many tourists are looking south for exotic vacation destinations.
Guatemala, which has one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, a rich pre-Columbian history and a currency linked to the dollar, would seem the ideal location.
But more than a decade after a 30-year civil war ended, tourists may be deterred by crime. There were about 6,000 murders in the country of 13 million people last year.
The US State Department warns on its Web site that violent crime is a serious concern along with an abundance of weapons, a legacy of societal violence and dysfunctional law enforcement and judicial systems.”
Guatemala’s dilemma is how to promote tourism, while reassuring tourists they will be safe.
“The authorities are working very hard on that, there have been a lot of positive changes,” said Jose Lambour, of the Guatemalan embassy in Washington, without giving details.
He added that Guatemala’s central bank estimated tourism brought in over $1 billion in 2006 — almost as much as the country’s two biggest exports, coffee and sugar, combined.
By 2020 the government wants to triple the number of tourists from around 1.5 million annually to rival neighbors like Costa Rica and Belize.
Guatemala’s strategy is to focus on the 2,000-year heritage of the Mayans, who built temples and palaces before mysteriously abandoning their cities around 900 A.D.
President Alvaro Colom has announced a new tourist park with access to the Mirador archeological site and its hundreds of buildings reclaimed from the Peten jungle.
Despite the tales of muggings and car-jackings, there were plenty of tourists recently in the former capital of Antigua, in the Mayan cultural center of Quetzaltenango and in Panajachel, a hippie way-station on the shores of Lake Atitlan.
But the sight of armed personnel outside electronics stores in Antigua and at shopping malls in Guatemala City or a submachinegun-toting bank guard were signs that violent crime may not be far below the surface.
“A major topic of conversation here is why does Guatemala get such a bad rap when it’s no worse than many places in the US?” said expatriate American Joe Piazza, who runs a luxury bed & breakfast on the eastern shore of Atitlan.
“We used to see only two types of Americans — backpackers and retirees who want to live on $1,000 per month,” he said. “Now, Guatemala has become popular for people who want to be more adventurous.”