GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala -- UFO-mania is sweeping this Central American nation, sending thousands of people each night out into the cold, dark mountains hoping for a glimpse of extra-terrestrials.
Hundreds of night sightings by upstanding citizens, not thought to be psychotic or prone to heavy drinking, have captured the imagination of the country of 8.7 million people.
Each day, local papers report sightings by doctors, lawyers, students and even government officials. Conversation on the streets of Guatemala City invariably turns to the phenomenon, with a wide range of opinions about what the strange objects might actually be.
'I think the ETs (Extra-terrestrials) are coming back to look for the ancient Mayans, with whom they had contact centuries ago,' said Joaquin Lopez Bonilla, a 20-year-old student at the capital's San Carlos Univeristy.
'They are looking for Tikal, I am sure,' he said, referring to the resplendent ancient Mayan capital, now a major archeological site some 200 miles north of Guatemala City.
But there is a lot of skepticism.
'These so-called sightings are nothing more than drug-traffickers who operate small craft at night. They make all kinds of strange maneuvers in order to avoid radar and the police,' said Nario Pineda, a businessman from the town of Antigua, just outside the capital.
But for those who claim to have seen the UFOs, nothing can dissuade them from their belief.
'I saw them, and so did 12 of my friends, so I know I am not crazy,' said Juan Carlos del Monte, 28. 'We saw two red lights far off in the distance. They seemed to be playing around out in space. Then, suddenly, one began to move. Within 30 seconds it was flying practically over our heads.'
'It was bigger than a jumbo jet, and it did not make a sound. It was circular in shape, with one red light and three amber lights,' del Monte said.
Del Monte was interviewed 40 miles northeast of Guatemala City along the highway that leads to the Carribbean coast. The area, near the town of El Progresso, has produced by far the richest number of sightings, although UFOs have been reported in other parts of the country.
In El Progresso, the UFOs allegedly appear between 7:45 and 8:15 p.m. Exactly four minutes to 8 p.m. is said to be the most common time for their appearance.
On a recent night, the highway was lined with hundreds of cars, each jam-packed with kids, dogs, grandparents and whoever else wanted to see the aliens.
Many people wrapped up tightly against the cold winter chill of the desolate mountains milled about, comparing tales of past sightings. Dozens of telescopes and binoculars pointed toward the clear black night.
One man, using a portable electric organ, played the famous five-note tune made popular from the movie 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind.'
'They are out there, they can hear me,' he insisted.
On that night, however, the UFOs did not appear.
'There are too many people here now,' said one disgruntled observer who said he had come to El Progresso every night for a week. 'All the car lights and Cumbia music (a lilting form of 'salsa') are scaring the Martians away.'
'It has been like this every night for the past few days. Thousands of them come up from the capital to see the UFOs. It's a big party,' said one police officer who was sent to El Progresso to make sure the highway was not blocked by the crowd.
'I have seen the UFOs three times,' he said, adding that he did not want to give his name because 'otherwise, they will think I am crazy down at headquarters.'
But the government, apparently, is not taking the UFO craze lightly.
'We don't fully discount the sightings, in fact, we're a little concerned. But there is no proof of anything,' a Defense Ministry spokesman said.
He said a number of military and police agencies were investigating the reports and that the agencies were 'keeping an eye out for the UFOs ourselves. We have four observation posts set up around El Progresso,' he said.
Even Interior Minister Roberto Valle Valdizan was not immune to UFO mania. One night last week, he and an entourage of aides spent several hours near El Progresso, heads turned skywards.
'We did not see a thing. I am very disappointed, but I will be back again,' the minister told reporters the next day.
Meanwhile, the craze continues.
Local merchants are running radio ads claiming the ETs came to Guatemala to buy their products, while T-shirts, banners and grafitti cry out: 'Welcome to Central America UFOs.'
'It's getting to be a bit much. We are going to suffer if this continues,' said one bank manager in Guatemala City, adding that several of his employees 'have been coming in late in the morning. They stay out in El Progresso until very late, and cannot get up in time the next day.'
But as long as the sightings continue, Guatemalans will keep looking skyward at night.
'This is the most exciting thing that has happened here in years. It is better than the pope's visit in 1985,' del Monte said.