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Under the Volcanoes of Guatemala

It was a Friday night in early November in Antigua, Guatemala, and the leafy Parque Central of this former Spanish colonial city was packed with indigenous Mayans, locals of Spanish or mixed descent, and the kind of good-natured young gringos you can find anywhere from New York's Washington Square to the beaches of Phuket. Near me, some kids were kicking around a soccer ball. Two fresh-faced Franciscan friars from the United States, wearing Birkenstocks and brown robes, strolled by after their Spanish class at a nearby language school. Around the central fountain, women were lighting candles to illuminate the handmade weavings they were selling, while across the park a mariachi band played a tune for a group of sporty-looking tourists from El Salvador. "El mariachi loco quiere bailar!" sang the band in multi-part harmony over accordions, guitars, and trumpets. The crazy mariachi wants to dance. So did the Salvadorans. They formed a conga line and whooped and yelled as a crowd gathered and applauded.

To look at the scene, you would think this place a very suitable tourist capital for the Land of Eternal Spring, a phrase coined by the travel industry to promote this high-altitude nation's mild climate. It's a phrase that, as such phrases do, poetically bypasses everything that has kept these mountainsides virtually off-limits to outsiders for the past 40 years. In Guatemala, it doesn't take long to see darkness lurking beneath the beauty.

I'd arrived on the eve of the country's second presidential elections since the 1996 peace accords, which marked the end of a 36-year civil war. The United Nations voting monitors were worried that things were a little too quiet. One of the candidates, Efraín Ríos Montt, a retired general, had seized power in a 1982 military coup and then engaged in an 18-month-long "scorched earth campaign" that, according to human rights organizations, resulted in the deaths of thousands of Mayan villagers. His candidacy (a violation, it so happens, of Guatemala's own constitution, which holds that no one involved in a military coup can run for president) had already been the cause of skirmishes in July that left more than two dozen people dead. So the upcoming election had the potential to turn violent.

But here I was in this colonial paradise, where a mariachi tenor with a bell-like voice was singing about the pretty moon. Elections?They seemed remote. And I didn't really want to know that the reason people feel comfortable walking around Antigua at night (as they do not in Guatemala City, less than an hour away) is that the town has its own special tourist police force to keep crime at bay. Cradled by three lovely volcanoes, Antigua is blessed with foreign capital, many Spanish-language schools, and dozens of Internet cafés—all in a city many consider to be the most beautiful in Central America. I walked with well-heeled visitors past well-appointed restaurants offering everything from sushi to tortellini, and then past carefully lit shopwindows displaying wood carvings, chic leather bags, and jewelry of native jade. In recent years, Antigua has become so design-conscious that it has been attracting not only foreign craftsmen and the best native weavers but also jet-setters, along with weekenders from Guatemala City.

I passed colonial-era mansions with brass knockers and elaborate cedarwood window grilles, carved hundreds of years ago, when Antigua was still the capital. Between 1543 and 1776 (the year an earthquake largely destroyed the city), more than a dozen churches and convents were built here. In many of them, altars and doors were carved with images of nativemasks and cornin an effort to lure Mayans, who typically prayed outdoors to a pantheon of harvest-controlling gods, into the new churches. The story these decorative elements tell—of cultural syncretism and hegemony—is not unusual in the Americas. But the tensions between Mayan and Spanish culture they embody are not merely a historical curiosity: they have been at the very heart of Guatemalan life for much of the last century. It is an alchemy that makes for this country's instability as well as its magical, magnetic pull. Less than a four-hour flight from New York is a country still astoundingly rich with indigenous life.

At the edge of town, I stepped into the discreet entrance of my hotel—Casa Santa Domingo, a handsome former 16th-century convent that is now a sprawling five-star luxury property, one of many such places in Antigua. The gardens were lit with candles; the ruins of a former cathedral stood washed in moonlight beyond the magnificent swimming pool. In my room, I started a fire in the fireplace, and then fell into the untroubled sleep of the cosseted tourist far from home.

Even when it was not advisable for visitors to venture into mountain villages, Guatemala continued to attract them. In its decades-long civil war, some 200,000 people were killed and another 50,000 "disappeared," during a conflict that pitted leftist guerrillas and Mayan peasants against government-backed paramilitary death squads. Throughout all this, the tourists still came.

On my second night in Antigua, I asked Tim Weiner, a New York Times reporter covering the elections, what he thought was the source of Guatemala's ongoing allure. "The Mayans are some of the strongest and most beautiful people on the planet," he said without hesitation. "This is the living cradle of their civilization." We were having dinner at Mesón Panza Verde, a converted mansion in Antigua, and one of the best restaurants in the country. There was a ban on alcoholbecause of the elections the following day. But when we asked for coffee, glasses of red wine appeared. And how do the Mayans feel about us?I asked. "They've been treated like human chattel since the Spanish got here," Weiner said. "So you never know what's behind the smile. It could be rage."

Paranoia?Maybe not. "There could be some plan that we don't know about," my local guide had said earlier that day, when I asked him why the United Nations was expressing such concern about the elections and why military forces and countless observers were moving in to oversee voting in every town. The ruling party, the FRG (Guatemalan Republican Front), which had put up the controversial General Montt, might write in the names of citizens whose deaths were never registered in order to tip the election—a practice known as voting the graveyard. Or they might have plans to foment unrest in a display of power as they had in July, when FRG mobs chased journalists through the streets of Guatemala City. "And if Ríos Montt loses, there may be violence again," said my guide, who asked me not to use his name. "In the small towns, people could cause trouble."

But the following day, election Sunday, as the potential for a real power shift hung in the air, things were quiet in a pleasant sort of way. At the thermal baths in the mountains above Antigua, locals were eating tortillas and frozen bananas and splashing in a pool set against impenetrable jungle. My friend Kate Doyle (Tim Weiner's wife, who was accompanying me on my travels) was sitting with me in the water. The baths were dark and dreary, the water was tepid and devoid of any salubrious mineral content. We sloshed around for a while, thoroughly disappointed. But then, after we'd dressed and were enjoying a lunch of tortillas and guacamole while music played on a radio and children shrieked with glee in the background, an attendant told us that in the eighties, guerrillas used to come down from the mountains at night to bathe and make love in this very place. He smiled with something that seemed like pride. And we felt oddly invigorated. Never mind cultural tourism. This tourism was tantalizingly political.

Kate had never experienced Guatemala as a tourist. The last time she'd been in the country, a year or two earlier, bodyguards had whisked her off the airport tarmac. As a senior analyst for the National Security Archive, a private agency based in Washington, D.C., she'd flown in to testify against the military in the murder of Myrna Mack, an anthropologist and advocate for indigenous rights who'd been stabbed outside her office in Guatemala City in 1990. "When my friends heard I was coming back here during the elections for a pleasure trip," Kate said, "they couldn't believe it."

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