Guatemala, often trumpeted by travel agencies and guidebooks as "the country of eternal spring," is one of the most-often listed travel destinations in Central America: the stunning Maya ruins at Tikal, the well-preserved colonial city of Antigua, a vibrant indigenous culture, active volcanoes, highland lakes and exotic wildlife are its chief draws. But the savvy traveler knows that traveling to these gems and safely enjoying them can be a challenge in Guatemala, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere.
From the 1950s until the mid-1990s, political unrest, followed by the country's bloodiest civil war, were deterrents to travelers—though many of the major attractions were far from the areas of fighting. However, since the war ended in 1996, there has been a spate of improvements in tourist accommodations and infrastructure. Luxury hotels have been built, roads have been upgraded and cruise-ship passengers have begun arriving again at the country's two modern ports of Santo Tomas and Puerto Quetzal.
At the same time, despite these improvements, a continuing high crime rate—including some violent attacks targeting travelers (and those wishing to adopt children in particular)—and endemic poverty have made Guatemala at best unpredictable and potentially dangerous.
We still think Guatemala is an exceptional destination, but we don't take the risks lightly. We urge all visitors to be extremely cautious, and we strongly recommend that you stick to the major tourist destinations and see them on a tour organized by a reputable operator. For added protection, a security escort may be booked for tourist groups through the INGUAT, the Guatemalan tourist institute. Though the vast majority of travelers who venture off the beaten trail enjoy their trips without incident, keep in mind that the problems that do occur generally happen away from large groups or well-traveled areas.
Plenty of tours are available that take in the best of Guatemala. One destination that shouldn't be missed is Tikal—the greatest of the ruins left from the age of the ancient Maya, whose accomplishments in the fields of architecture, mathematics and astronomy are a source of national pride and universal awe. In fact, we think Tikal (and a trip to the nearby island of Flores) is one of the most impressive ruins in the world, in a class with such places as Machu Picchu in Peru or the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. Tikal, with its complex of more than 30 different sites, is alone worth a trip to Guatemala.
But you needn't stop there. Guatemala's ecotourism opportunities (especially bird-watching and forest trekking), continue to increase, particularly in the areas surrounding the natural beauty of the Rio Dulce and Lake Atitlan—considered by many as the world's most beautiful lake—as well as the international-traveler base in the colorful colonial town of Antigua.
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