Guatemala Basic Facts - History

Guatemala Basic Facts - History

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Population (2006) ........................................................................12,293,545
GDP per capita 2006 (Purchasing Power Parity, US$)........... 3,700
GDP 2006 (Purchasing Power Parity, US$ billions)................ 60.57

Average annual growth 1991-97
Population (%) ....... 2.6
Labor force (%) ....... 1.3

Total Area...................................................................42,408 sq. mi.
Poverty (% of population below national poverty line)...... 26
Urban population (% of total population) ...............................40
Life expectancy at birth (years)..................................................... 64
Infant mortality (per 1,000 live births)........................................ 43
Child malnutrition (% of children under 5) ..............................27
Access to safe water (% of population) ..................................... 63
Illiteracy (% of population age 15+) ...........................................33

  • OFFICIAL NAME: Republic of Guatemala
  • FORM OF GOVERNMENT: Democratic Republic
  • CAPITAL: Guatemala City
  • POPULATION: 16,581,273
  • MONEY: Quetzal
  • AREA: 42,043 square miles (108,890 square kilometers)


Guatemala is a country of volcanoes, mountains, and beaches on the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. From the Cuchamatán Mountains in the western highlands, to the coastlines on the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, this small country is marked by contrasts. Three of Guatemala's 30 volcanoes are still active.

Pacaya volcano located near Guatemala City is the most active volcano. Lake Atitlan formed when a volcano exploded over 84,000 years ago and collapsed to form a caldera. The lake is the deepest lake in Central America and is believed to be 900 feet (300 meters) deep and covers 48 square miles (125 square kilometers).

Only slightly larger than the U.S. state of Tennessee, Guatemala is a mountainous country with one-third of the population living in cool highland villages. The coastal lowlands are warm and humid. The country is bordered by Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Belize.

Map created by National Geographic Maps


The Maya civilization was very advanced in math and astronomy. The Maya probably developed the concept of zero and left written records using hieroglyphics and whole words.

While historians are not sure why the Maya Empire collapsed, the Maya society began to shrink in the 10th century and split into separate groups. They may have suffered from overpopulation and the effects of drought.

Maya women continue to weave brightly colored cloth and fashion the same traje, or suit, that their ancestors wore. More than half of the population is indigenous. The largest of the 20 Maya groups, the Quiché, live near the city of Quetzaltenango, called Xela (SHEH-la) by the locals.

Many believe that the name Guatemala comes from the Maya word Guhatezmalh, that described the volcano near the old capital in Antigua, the "Mountain That Vomits Water." Today the volcano is simply called the Volcan de Agua, "Volcano of Water."

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. Guatemala, along with other Central American Spanish colonies, declared its independence on 15 September 1821. Until 1839, it belonged first to Mexico and then to a federation known as the United Provinces of Central America. It was not until 1945 that a constitution guaranteeing civil and political rights for all people, including women and Indians, was adopted. However, Indians continued to be exploited and disparaged until recently, when international opinion forced Ladino elites to modify their attitudes and behavior. This shift was furthered by the selection of Rigoberta Menchú, a young Maya woman, for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.

Severe repression and violence during the late 1970s and 1980s was followed by a Mayan revitalization movement that has gained strength since the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996. While Mayan languages, dress, and religious practices have been reintroduced or strengthened, acculturation to the national culture has continued. Today more Indians are becoming educated at all levels, including postgraduate university training. A few have become professionals in medicine, engineering, journalism, law, and social work. Population pressure has forced many others out of agriculture and into cottage industries, factory work, merchandising, teaching, clerical work, and various white-collar positions in the towns and cities. Ironically, after the long period of violence and forced enlistment, many now volunteer for the armed forces.

Ethnic Relations. Some Ladinos see the Indian revitalization movement as a threat to their hegemony and fear that they will eventually suffer violence at Indian hands. There is little concrete evidence to support those fears. Because the national culture is composed of a blend of European and indigenous traits and is largely shared by Maya, Ladinos, and many newer immigrants, it is likely that the future will bring greater consolidation, and that social class, rather than ethnic background, will determine social interactions.

Tourists are cautioned against drinking the tap water in Guatemala, but there are plenty of local beverage options. Fresh fruit shakes called licuados, are made with tropical fruits like banana, papaya, mango, watermelon, pineapple and guanabana, a tart custard apple that is prickly on the outside but creamy on the inside. The region is famed for rum, coffee. In 2009, the Culture Ministry of Guatemala decreed that hot chocolate was a national treasure.

Author and journalist Elle McLaughlin has been writing about travel and lifestyle topics for magazines since 1994. Always in pursuit of a good story, she has harvested agave in Mexico, made cheese in Vermont and picked grapes in New Zealand. McLaughlin attended the City University of New York, majoring in history and minoring in international relations.

12 facts you probably don’t know about Guatemala

But, compared to its neighbors in Central America (we’re looking at you, Costa Rica), this beautiful country remains pretty under the radar.

So, to give you some insider tips, we’ve curated a bunch of surprising and curiosity-inducing Guatemala facts. They prove that Guatemala is worthy of the spotlight and maybe, just maybe, they’ll entice you to visit for yourself.

Guatemala local with travelers

There are 21 dialects spoken in Guatemala

Spanish is the official language and is spoken by 90% of the population. However, there are long-standing Mayan, Xinca, and Garífuna roots too. Since the Mayan civilization was first developed by the Maya (a group of Indigenous people of Mesoamerica), the language has evolved into 21 dialects that can be heard today on a true Mayan encounter .

Blue denim flourishes in Guatemala

Many Maya women are crafty textile producers. And Guatemala is actually a leader in blue denim production.

Today, textile weaving is still ever-present in towns like San Antonio Aguas Calientes, just outside of Antigua. Guatemalans wear Huipiles (an incredible garment typically woven by local women) that hold a sacred meaning based on region.

Guatemalans invented the first ever chocolate bar

All of us (well, the chocolate lovers among us) would agree with the Maya people who worship the cacao tree. They call chocolate “the food of the Gods”. And they believe that chocolate holds incredible nutritional benefits, like reducing blood pressure. Today, Guatemala is a mass producer and exporter of chocolate products.

But don’t worry – there’s still plenty of quality chocolate to enjoy while in the country. Many of the best places are in shops around Antigua. And when there, be sure to visit ChocoMuseo, a museum that’ll teach you about its history and nutritional values. (You can visit the museum and get some coffee to go along with it on this 13-day trip through Guatemala and Mexico!)

There are more than 30 volcanoes in Guatemala

The insane number of volcanoes in Guatemala is surely enough to put it on the map. Of these, the most noteworthy volcano is Tajumulco. It’s the highest peak in Central America at a whopping 4, 202 metres. And out of over 30 volcanoes, only three are active: Fuego, Pacaya and Santiaguito.

Agua volcano viewpoint in the streets of Antigua

An experience you won’t want to miss is a hike up Pacaya volcano. Whether you trek by foot or take a horse ride up, the view from the top of Pacaya is simply spectacular.

Dennis Asturias, one of Intrepid’s local leaders in Guatemala, shares a snippet of his experience on the hike:

Once at the base of the volcano, you have the opportunity to roast some marshmallows in a pit to celebrate all that effort you put in for climbing this active volcano. If you are lucky, you can even roast them over molten rock.

Oh, the beauty of Guatemala’s volcanoes. Extra fact: the bath by Quetzaltenango’s volcano is naturally heated by a volcanic vent.

Tikal National Park is the first mixed UNESCO World Heritage Site

Tikal National Park has earned its title as the first mixed UNESCO World Heritage Site for its cultural and natural wonders. Tikal’s Mayan ruins are embedded in the jungle. From a distance you can spot them pop out of the rich green canopy – it’s breathtaking.

Climb to the top of the ruins to spot local residents (we’re talking toucans and macaws). Find out about the history behind the 5 granite temples by a fantastic local guide (we’ve got you covered on Intrepid’s 13-day small group adventure from Guatemala to Mexico).

Some Guatemalans worship a Saint named Maximón

Arguably one of the most mysterious Guatemala facts is one that exists around the worshipping of Maximón. A shocking legend about him says when the village men would head off to work, Maximón slept with all of their wives! Consequently, the men cut off Maximóns arms and legs in a fit of anger, which explains why most effigies of him are made without arms.

Coffee is Guatemalas biggest export business

Coffee is big in Guatemala. Like, really big. By 1880, coffee accounted for 90% of Guatemala’s exports and even today, it’s one of their main exports and sources of income for the country. The coffee has a distinct flavor to it, typically full-bodied and has rich chocolate and cocoa flavors.

Coffee beans being harvested in Guatemala

Coffee experience recommendation from Dennis, one of Intrepid’s local leaders in Guatemala:

If you are an avid coffee drinker like myself, I would recommend going to places that show you the whole process of acquiring coffee. About 2 km away from the main plaza in Antigua is a place called La Azotea. Take a tuk-tuk to this place for an authentic, yet practical experience. At La Azotea, you can visit the coffee museum as well the music museum. The coffee museum is set in an old mill and visitors are provided explanations of the history, processing, marketing and brewing of coffee.

A hurricane unveiled a ‘Rhode Island-sized’ jade mine

Guatemala is among the biggest jade producers in the world. The Maya people used these rare stones for ideological rituals. On a visit you can buy your own precious stones from the jewelry stores around Antigua.

Old American school buses live their second lives as ‘chicken buses’

When big yellow American school buses near 10 years or clock in 150,000 miles, some are auctioned off and driven down to Guatemala. The buses are revived by locals with strokes of paint in every color of the rainbow. Guatemalans then use it for local transport. Riding Guatemala’s public transit is a thrilling ride. Opting for this budget-friendly travel alternative will give you an eclectic local experience.

Traveler with a colorful chicken bus

At Tortugario Montericco, you can help release turtles into the sea

Who doesn’t want to see and help these cute creatures take their steps in life? At Tortugario Montericco, you have the opportunity to help with conservation efforts. They’ve set up nested protection for the eggs along the beach (an area that’s an important nesting site for olive ridley turtles).

Dennis, one of Intrepid’s local leaders in Guatemala, gives tips on when to go:

The nesting season runs from June to December and peaks in August and September. So if you are in Guatemala around this time, this is a fabulous opportunity for wildlife lovers to engage in releasing of the turtles.

Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan is the deepest lake in Central America

Just as deep as it is beautiful! Only 4 hours away from Antigua, it’s a fantastic spot for enthusiastic photographers to capture some of the best volcano views.

San Jorge La Laguna is a small village that overlooks Lake Atitlan and is home to locals eager to let you in on their traditional crafts. Better yet, stay with a local host family to really immerse yourself in the culture.

A view of the sunset on Lake Atitlan.

Guatemalans fly kites to honour their dead

All Saints Day Kite Festival is Guatemalans’ way of honoring their dead. Every year on November 1st, Guatemalans partake in this ritual that has been around for more than 3000 years. People flock down to the cemeteries to clean and decorate the graves of their loves ones. Then, Guatemalans fly massive and intricately-decorated kites high in the sky — it’s quite the sight to behold.

A major thank you to Intrepid’s local Guatemala tour leader, Dennis Asturias, for his on-the-ground insights!

The resplendent quetzal is Guatemala’s national bird, and a key part of the nation’s culture.

As well as featuring on the country’s flag, Guatemala’s currency is called the Quetzal — a tradition that dates back to before colonisation, when the Mayans used quetzal feathers as currency. And Guatemala’s second-biggest city, Quetzaltenango, is named after the bird.

On the flag, the quetzal is holding a scroll that shows the date of Central America’s independence: September 15, 1821.


In Guatemala, students had 4.1 years of schooling in 2011 on average, [4] [ failed verification ] 25.5% of the population are illiterate, with illiteracy rates up to more than 60% in the indigenous population. [5] [2] Indigenous people make up about 42% of the population in Guatemala and mostly reside in poor rural areas with little access to post-primary education. [6] [7] Compared to non-indigenous students who average 5.7 years of schooling, Indigenous students are at a disadvantage with an average of 2.5 years of schooling. [8] [6] Indigenous students achieve lower than non-indigenous (ladino) students in schooling possibly due to greater poverty and lack of indigenous language involvement in public schooling. [9]

Education resources and Indigenous disadvantage Edit

Indigenous student achievement is lower than non-indigenous student achievement. Indigenous parents have less schooling and lower socioeconomic status contributing to a poor education environment: schools with fewer educational materials, poor school infrastructure, and low quality educators. [10] [9] Indigenous students across Guatemala start schooling about 0.5 years later than ladino students. [9] Already with disadvantaged backgrounds, indigenous students attend schools with fewer resources and perform worse on exams than non-indigenous students across Guatemala. [9]

The recruitment and retaining of quality teachers poses a large problem in rural areas of Guatemala. Apart from the meagre pay, most teachers come from larger towns, where they have been able to receive higher education and, faced with a daily commute of a few hours to reach rural areas, many seek employment in the larger towns first. Indigenous students in rural schools therefore have lower teacher expectations which affects their achievement in school. [11] The lack of curriculum guides or teaching materials in rural schools also hamper efforts to improve education standards in those areas. [12]

The current state of education in Guatemala is significantly under-funded. Many classrooms nationwide, especially in rural Guatemala, do not meet minimum standards for classroom space, teaching materials, classroom equipment and furniture, and water/sanitation. [13]

School attendance Edit

With more than half the population of Guatemalans living below the poverty line, [14] it is hard for children going to school, especially indigenous children, to afford the rising cost of uniforms, books, supplies and transportation — none of which are supplied by the government. [12] This is exacerbated by the fact that, for poorer students, time spent in school could be time better spent working to sustain the family. It is especially hard for children living in rural areas to attend primary school. Most drop out due to the lack of access and largely inadequate facilities.

Indigenous students drop out starting at age 12 which is the transition age between primary and secondary level schools mostly due to economic constraints and demand for labor work. [6] For indigenous males, the need to work for financial stability is the most frequent case for dropping out or not enrolling in school. [6] Indigenous students are more likely to work instead of or while attending school. [6] [9] Poverty is thus the main deterrent to schooling for indigenous students—poverty and rural residence increases the likelihood of school incompletion and non enrollment. [6]

Gender inequality in education is common — male literacy and school enrollment exceeds female rates in all aspects. Out of the 2 million children who do not attend school in Guatemala, the majority are indigenous girls living in rural areas. Most families subscribe to patriarchal traditions that tie women to a domestic role and the majority would rather send a son than a daughter to school if they could afford it. [15] Mayan females are the least likely to enroll, start school late, and drop out the earliest compared to Mayan males and ladino males and females. [6] Only 39% of indigenous females are literate compared to 68% of Mayan males, 87% Ladino males, and 77% Ladino women. [6] Expectation of marriage and domestic duties for females, contributes to low investment in education—indigenous females marry younger than non-indigenous females and only 3% of married females enroll in school. [6]

Guatemala's spending on education is one of the lowest in the world. [16] In 2007, the country spent less than 2 percent of its GDP on education, of which public primary schools received less than half. [16] By the late 2000s, the majority of Guatemalan schools had grid-supplied electricity, [17] [18] allowing for the use of electrical lighting, heating, and computers and the provision of running water for drinking and sanitation. However compared to other countries in Latin America, Guatemalan schools score mid-pack on measures such as the supply of potable water, and near the bottom on others such as the number of bathrooms. [17] Research has found that lack of infrastructure such as adequate potable water, sewage services, or electricity and lack of educational materials such as textbooks in Guatemalan schools can have significant negative impacts on student performance. [9] [17]

Primary education has been compulsory in Guatemala since 1985, yet the populace has one of the lowest rates of cumulative education in Latin America. [19] Educators in Guatemalan public schools often use teaching methods that do not account for the nearly 40% of students hailing from indigenous backgrounds who are non-native Spanish speakers. [19] Monolingual Spanish instruction is used in linguistically diverse classrooms as there are about 20 Mayan languages in Guatemala. [20] This is reflected in high rates of repetition of grades, for instance up to 30% in first grade. [19] Compared to native Spanish speaking ladino students, Indigenous students often enter school without Spanish fluency and due to the language gap, achieve lower than other students. [21] [9] Research shows that bilingual education for indigenous students reduced grade repetition and dropout rates. [6]

Guatemala’s Democratic Spring (1944-1954), was a period of social integration for Indigenous groups. In 1945 the democratic government of Guatemala established the instituto Indigenista Nacional (IIN) allowing children in schools to learn to read in their native language first before learning Spanish. [22] After a short democratic period, Guatemala suffered 36 years (1960-1996) of civil unrest, referred to as the Conflicto Armado or “armed conflict.” [7] [6] Learning in native indigenous languages was no longer allowed after 1965 when the Education Law declared Spanish as the official language of Guatemala educational instruction. [22] The shift from a democratic to an authoritarian state caused guerrilla movements to emerge and a civil war to break leading to the indiscriminate massacre of many indigenous groups across Guatemala creating systemic inequalities for the indigenous, particularly in politics and education. [7]

Peace Accords Edit

The Peace Accords of 1996, an agreement between the Guatemalan government and civilian groups under the United Nations, ended the 36 year armed conflict and “acknowledged the role of the educational sector in perpetuating racism via unequal access to schools, poor treatment of indigenous students, and discriminatory representations of indigenous culture in curricula” (Bellino, 65). [23] [7] The Peace Accords laid out steps to achieving education equality by increasing access to schooling, promoting bilingual instruction, encouraging community involvement, reforming school curriculum, and establishing decentralizing institutions. [23] [7]

A main objective of the Peace Accords was to increase schooling for rural and indigenous people and decentralize the education system, but many demands of the Peace Accords remain unfulfilled. [24] There has not been an official introduction of indigenous languages to the education sector and inequalities between indigenous versus non indigenous groups remain. [8] [24] Demands in the Peace Accords are as follows: [23]

  • Intercultural and bilingual education will exist in every school
  • Policies will recognize and strengthen Mayan identity and increase their access to education by incorporating indigenous pedagogical values in teaching.
  • Government will fund implementation
  • Females will have equal access to education

To counteract low levels of school funding, [25] remittances to Guatemala from family members working abroad are often used for educational purposes such as school uniforms, home computers, and internet access. [25] Remittances are also used to provide regular meals, electricity, and sanitation in the home, which enhance children’s ability to access education. [25] Families can also use remittances to hire labor, allowing children to stay in school rather than be pulled out to assist with farm work or domestic activities like caring for siblings. [25] In some cases, successful migration has paradoxically given rise to “brain waste,” [25] in which male children especially view school as a waste of time because they plan on also migrating for work as soon as they are able in their teenage years. [25] This outlook is reflected in findings showing that education is not highly valued in rural areas of Guatemala. [19]


In attempts to reform the country's education system, particularly its rural schools, the Guatemalan government created the PRONADE (National Community-Managed Program for Educational Development), and PROESCOLAR (Education Development Program) initiatives in the 1990s to give communities more say in local school affairs. [16] Together with the parents of students, these programs administered thousands of rural public and quasi-charter schools in the late 1990s and early 2000s, governing teacher hiring, monitoring teacher and student attendance, facilitating school food programs, and maintaining facilities. [16]

PRONADE schools are located primarily in rural indigenous areas to increase access to schooling and improve the quality of education in rural Guatemala. [26] [24] Each community is represented by a Comite Educativo de Autogestion Educativa (COEDUCA) made up of parents and community members. [8] [26] PRONADE is successful in improving parent and community participation in schools and has expanded access to educational opportunities in rural areas. [24] [21]

Critiques and Challenges Edit

PRONADE is not institutionalized by the Ministry of Education so it is not considered equivalent to traditional schooling. [26] Teachers have provisional status and experience inconsistent salaries as it is determined by the community so several are unsatisfied. [26] They are also not trained in intercultural and bilingual education which is a demand of the Peace Accords and which affects student achievement. [24] [8] PRONADE has increased access to education but repetition, non-enrollment, and dropout rates remain high. [8]

PRONADE schools are self-managed schools that require voluntary parent and community management which is not always feasible for communities where PRONADE exists that are of the poorest and need to work. Insufficient finances force parents to invest in textbooks, teacher salaries, bills, etc from their own money which puts an additional financial burden on them. [8] PRONADE is a low cost to the government but a high cost to communities which influences the quality of education that students receive. Some critics believe that PRONADE, a top-down approach, fails to address the educational inequalities of poor indigenous people and rather perpetuates extreme poverty in rural Guatemala. [8]

50 Fascinating Facts About Guatemalan Culture

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My wife Emma and I have spent the better part of the last decade in and out of Guatemala. It’s a place that we refer to as home even today, much more so than England (where she’s from) or the United States (where I’m from).

Guatemala is a country that’s steeped in rich traditional cultures, from the ancient Maya to the Garifuna that live in settlements along its coast.

The art and traditions of Guatemalan culture move through millennia and cover terrain that, in a country smaller than Louisiana , includes belching volcanoes, sweltering tropical coasts, dense jungles, and chilly highlands.

There is such a wide array of cool culture in Guatemala to appreciate, we wanted to share these 50 fascinating facts about it.

Indigenous Guatemalan People

• Guatemala is widely considered the hearth of the Maya civilization, and many of its greatest cities, such as Tikal and El Mirador, were built and abandoned in the country. Mayans ruled the area that is now Guatemala until around 1000 AD.

• No one is quite sure what caused the downfall of the great Mayan cities throughout Guatemala. The Spanish did not arrive for about another 500 years after their disappearance.

• Today, nearly 40% of the population of Guatemala is indigenous, with the vast majority of those being of Mayan descent. K’iche, Kaqchikel, Mam, and Q’eqchi’ are the most prominent four of the 23 recognized Mayan groups in the country. Additionally, a non-Mayan group, the Xinca, makes up about 0.5 % of the population.

• Though Guatemala’s official language is Spanish, there are over 20 other languages still commonly spoken throughout the country. Twenty-one different Mayan languages are spoken throughout the highlands, and there are also two non-Mayan languages spoken along the Caribbean coast.

•Even in metropolitan areas, indigenous people usually use their native language to converse. However, these languages weren’t officially recognized by the government until 2003.

• In the 1500s, an unidentified man wrote Popol Vuh, which is considered Guatemala’s greatest literary work. It’s also recognized as the Sacred Book of the Ancient Maya Quiché, recounting the history of Maya-Quiché from the beginning of time until the Spanish conquest. The story is said to have been passed down orally and via hieroglyphics for generations.

• Rigaberta Menchú, a Quiché woman, was born in 1959, a year before the Guatemalan Civil War began. She grew up in an impoverished indigenous family and later became an activist, resisting the oppression of the Guatemalan government and fighting for indigenous rights. She eventually told her story in a book,I, Rigaberta Menchú (1983), describing her life of struggle. She also narrated a documentary, When the Mountains Tremble (1987), about the civil war. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in the early 1990s.

Guatemalan Food

• Corn features prominently in Guatemalan cuisine. It is ground into meal and fashioned into fresh tortillas daily. Corn tortillas accompany just about every meal, from fried chicken to soup. But it is mostly served with beans and rice. Corn masa, a dough, is also used to make traditional dishes such as tamales. But corn on the cob (a.k.a. sweet corn) is not really part of the Guatemalan culture.

• Tamales are a beloved, traditional Guatemalan food. They come in many varieties, but all recipes start with masa. The dough is stuffed with a featured ingredient, such as meat or vegetables. Guatemalan tamales are usually wrapped in a special green leaf called maxan. A similar dish, called chuchitos, are wrapped in corn husks, as Mexican tamales generally are.

Pepian is a stew with chunky meat, typically chicken, and potatoes in it. The sauce is largely made of ground pepitos (pumpkin seeds) and sesame seeds. It also has a dizzying assortment of dried chilies in it, most of which are not regularly found outside of Guatemala. The stew is usually served over rice. It’s a common meal around Christmas and other special occasions.

• The Mayan people were the inventors of chocolate . It started off with hot chocolate, usually spiked with an assortment of spices such ascardamom, chilies, and cinnamon. The beverage was part of many rituals and something the Maya elite got to enjoy. The chocolate tradition also extended into modern times: Guatemala is where chocolate bars were invented.

• Fruit features largely in Guatemalan cuisine as well. There’s an abundance of tropical fruits, like pineapple, bananas, papayas, and mangoes. They are mostly served as licuados, which is more or less a smoothie. Licuados are a mixture of fruits and a choice of liquids, which is usually either water, milk or juice. They are offered in just about every restaurant, big or small, in the country.

Guatemala’s Economy

• Guatemala is well known for its jade, which has been treasured since pre-Colombian times. During those times the only site from which you could get jade was in the Montagua River valley. Consequently, it was jade almost exclusively enjoyed by the elites and was very symbolic in ancient rituals. Nowadays, Guatemala is a huge exporter of jade.

• Guatemala is the world’s greatest producer of cardamom, by nearly double the amount of the next largest producer ( India ). While cardamom is an oft-used ingredient in Indian cooking, the spice isn’t so widely used in Guatemala today. For the rest of the world, it’s not uncommon to find it in specialty drinks, such as mulled wine, eggnog, and Arabic coffee.

• One need only visit a Starbucks (or any other gourmet coffee shop) to discover that Guatemalan coffee is widely considered some of the best coffee in the world . Coffee exporting is actually the country’s largest economic engine. It’s mostly grown in the central highlands of the country, and beans from around Antigua are the most prized. It’s possible to tour coffee fincas in that area, from luxury outfits to small co-ops.

• Guatemala’s second largest moneymaker is tourism. Over 1.2 million people visit the country each year, and many NGOs come from all over the world to work on projects in Guatemala . The county’s most visited destinations are Tikal (the country’s premier Mayan site) Lake Atitlan (arguably the most beautiful lake in the world ) and Antigua, the country’s tourism capital. Of course, these only scratch the surface of what there is to see.

• Despite the fact that the US remains its chief export destination, Guatemala has a very difficult past with the United States. The CIA helped to overthrow the Guatemalan government in the 1950s, spurring the country’s monstrous civil war. The interference is linked to the United Fruit Company, whose exploitative practices suffered under the liberal government. Guatemala was (and, some would say, remains) a banana republic.

Guatemalan Music

• During the six weeks of lent and especially Semana Santa, when festival processions are at their peak, Guatemala culture comes alive with sound. Somber wind and percussion music accompanies groups of people who suffer under the weight of large floats carried through town. Typically, there is an abundance of incense, costumes, and crosses as well.

• What is known about the music of the Maya is that they played a variety of (surprise, surprise!) wind and percussion instruments. The wind instruments were mostly made of cane or bone and consisted largely of whistles and ocarinas, a sort of pocket-sized flute. Percussion instruments included wooden drums with deer hides, rattles, and guiros, which are open-ended gourds that are rubbed to create a ratcheting effect.

• The instrument Guatemala is most famous for is the marimba. The first documentation of the existence of marimbas comes from the late 17th century in what is now Antigua. These look very much like large xylophones, but they are constructed mostly of wood. Diatonic rows of wooden bars are struck with mallets, often by multiple players, usually either three or four.

• It’s hugely important not to overlook the Garifuna culture when considering the music of Guatemala. Though they have much more of a Caribbean -influenced tradition, the Garifuna have villages up and down coasts of Guatemala, Belize , and Honduras. The music is a mixture of African-style drumming ensembles, rhythmic singing, and circular dances.

• Though it didn’t originate in Guatemala (but rather Puerto Rico), reggaeton is the pop music you’ll mostly hear coming from cell phones, out of car windows, and in dance clubs throughout the country. Not to be mistaken with reggae , reggaeton does have a reggae-like rhythm to it. But it’s mostly produced via percussion instruments, with Spanish lyrics rapped over them. The music is definitely associated with dancing.

Guatemalan Art

Ancient Mayan art mostly consisted of large murals and stelae, which are large, free-standing stone carvings. Today’s best example of Mayan murals are found at the Mexican site of Bonampak, but there are some in Guatemala as well. Quirigua, which is located in southern Guatemala, is arguably the most impressive collection of Maya stelae left in the region.

• In the centuries immediately following colonialism, most artists from the Guatemalan culture remained anonymous. However, there are two of note: Thomas de Merlo’s paintings can be seen in Antigua’s Museo de Arte Colonial and Quirio Cataño’s sculpture, the Black Jesus of Esquipulas, receives visitors from all over Central America.

• Guatemala’s best-known artist, Carlos Mérida, lived to be nearly 100 years old (1891 to 1984). Though he studied painting in Paris, his style blended European influences with American themes to make Indigenista art. His art went through various phases—figurative, surrealist, geometric— over the course of his lifetime. Much of it is in Guatemala City’s Museum of Modern Art. He also painted murals in Guatemala City.

• Miguel Ángel Asturias is Guatemala’s most recognized writer, and he was the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1967. His works tended to be very political in nature. El Señor Presidente is about a maniacal dictator, Hombres de Maiz is about Mayan peasants and guerillas, and El Papa Verde is about the United Fruit Company.

• Worry dolls are more folk art than high-brow, but they are a very common tradition that originates and continues in Guatemala. These are tiny, handmade dolls constructed of wire, wool, and leftover textiles. The figures are dressed in traditional Mayan clothing. They are given to children, who tell the doll about their troubles before putting it under their pillow and then sleeping over it. The dolls are sometimes used in child psychiatry today.

Guatemalan Textiles

• Textiles are among the most prominent examples of traditional Guatemalan culture. The ancient Mayan people worked with two types of cotton, one white and one brown. In both cases the cotton was typically dyed, and it was largely enjoyed exclusively by the elites. The preparation process for the cotton was intense, including cleaning buds and removing seeds. Elite women were primarily the ones who took on these tasks.

• Most artisan weaving in Guatemala today comes from a rather rudimentary back-strap system. One end of the fabric is tied to a stationary object, such as a tree or a post, and the other end is looped around the back of the weaver, allowing her to adjust tension as needed. Typically, the weaver sits on the ground. But, with age, many begin using a small stool.

• Colors for yarn in Guatemala has customarily come from natural plant materials. Nowadays, yarn is still done this way, but artificially dyed yarns are not uncommon. Some of the plants used to make natural colors are carrots for orange, coconut shell for brown, hibiscus flower for pink, and achiote (a native spice) for orange.

• Tapestry crochet in Guatemala began with men in small villages making bags for personal use. Each bag’s colors and design reflected the town from which it came. These bags were constructed of the same cotton thread and natural dyes used for back-strap weaving. Now tapestry-crocheted bags, produced by both men and women, are a major item in tourist areas.

• Aside from cotton, maguey (which is also known as agave), is another plant that was commonly used for making fiber (as well as liquor) throughout Mesoamerica. The cords produced from this fiber were prized, used for things such as equestrian equipment, fishing nets, and hammocks.

Guatemalan Clothing

• A huipil is a woman’s blouse, generally woven by hand with a backstrap loom. Some are so elaborate that they can take months to create. Each one is uniquely decorated with expressive designs and symbols, such as diamond shapes, interesting animals , landscape features, and/or corn. The thickness of a region’s huipil will be based on the climate of the area.

• Cortes, or skirts, are more likely to be woven on foot-powered looms, and often made by men. These are wrap-around skirts formed by several pieces of fabric sewed into a tube, with the excess materials wrapped around the body and folded into pleats. The fabric is typically very thick, and each corte is meant to last for years.

• Fajas are the very decorative belts used to hold up women’s cortes. They tend to be between six and nine feet long and are either handwoven or embroidered. The belts can be thin– just a couple of inches– or up toa foot wide.

• Men, too, have traditional clothing, though it isn’t as prominently retained as the women’s. In some parts of Guatemala, men still wear custom pantalones woven by women on a back-strap loom. Like huipiles, these can be very ornate. Around Solola, men can still be seen wearing rodilleras, a woolen wrap designed to provide warmth if the temperature drops or cool (taking pants off) if it gets too hot.

Guatemalan Festivals and Holidays

• Semana Santa (a.k.a. Holy Week) is a huge event in Guatemala. Processions come from villages surrounding Antigua and move through the city throughout the week. Patrons spend hours making colorful alfombras– “carpets” made of sawdust– on the city’s cobbled streets. Part of the tradition is that processions walk right over the alfombras, leaving them a mess.

• Every village in Guatemala celebrates their own Patron Saint. The celebration consists of cultural activities such as processions and folk dances. Villagers will also often offer hand made arts and crafts during the festivities.

• Dia de Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is an annual celebration held on the first of November. Though the name may seem frightening, it’s really a time of remembrance. Families go to cemeteries to visit departed loved ones and paint their headstones in bright colors. November is one of Guatemala’s windiest months, so flying kites is a popular activity.

• The Burning of the Devil happens on December 7 th , and it’s a little frightening. Guatemalan families take flammable waste items, such as newspapers and magazines, and set them on fire in the streets. The ritual is an effort to cleanse homes in preparation for Christmas.

• Another Christmas tradition has Guatemalans outdoors, setting off fireworks and firing guns into the air. The fireworks are stunning, filling up the valley when watched from above or juxtaposed against looming volcanoes . Unfortunately, five to ten people die every year due to bullets falling from the sky. Some cultural traditions are probably worth rethinking…

Guatemala’s Natural Wonders

• There are over 30 volcanoes in Guatemala, three of which are still active. Pacaya, located near Guatemala City, can be visited by tourists who want to see flowing lava up close. Fuego, another active volcano, can be seen erupting daily from Antigua, Guatemala. Volcan Tajumulco is the highest point, both in Guatemala and all of Central America.

• Lake Atitlan is the deepest lake in Central America, and many claim it’s also the most beautiful. It’s ringed by volcanoes and indigenous villages, and reaches depths of over 1100 feet. Located at a higher elevation, it’s also a great destination for getting certified to scuba dive at high altitudes.

• The Rio Dulce (or Sweet River) runs between Lago Izabal, Guatemala’s largest lake, and the Caribbean coastline. The river and the land surrounding it is wildly diverse, both with plant and animal life. It’s possible to see monkeys, manatees, and much more there. It’s a beautiful 90-minute boat ride to get from the lake to the sea, much of which is through high cliffs that are often covered in birds .

• Tortugario Monterrico is a nesting site for three types of sea turtles along the Pacific Coast of Guatemala. Olive Ridley, Leatherback, and Green Sea Turtles all frequent the beaches to lay eggs . San Carlos University (located in Guatemala City) has helped to set up hatecheries and conservation programs to preserve the sea turtle population there.

• Semuc Champey (Sacred Water) is a series of natural pools formed by the Rio Cahabón and lots of limestone steppes. The water is impossibly blue, which stands out even more remarkably next the vibrantly green jungle that lines it. This spot is becoming more popular, but it’s still got an off-the-beaten-track vibe because it’s a bit of a journey to get there.

• At 4.3 million acres, the Maya Biosphere Reserve is the largest tropical forest in all of North America. If size doesn’t matter to you, it’s also full of ancient Mayan ruins. The jungle has a plethora of wildlife, and remains largely wild itself. Though protected on paper, animal rights activists and local farmers and poachers are at odds over its preservation.

Guatemalan History

• Guatemala currently has three UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The entire city of Antigua, the country’s former capital, is a UNESCO Site, and is replete with colonial ruins destroyed in earthquakes. The other two sites are Tikal National Park, which is located in the northeastern region of the country, and the Ruins of Quirigua, near Lago Izabal.

• Guatemala became an independent country in September of 1821, when it was liberated from Spanish rule. It, however, is not the only country: El Salvador, Honduras , Nicaragua , and Costa Rica all gained their independence at the same time. So, aside from Panama and Belize , the whole of Central America celebrates Independence Day together.

• Belize has been claimed by Guatemala as a territory since 1821. When Guatemala declared independence from Spain, both Mexico and Guatemala adopted parts of Belize as their own. But in 1862 the country was formally recognized as British Honduras. In 1940, Guatemala claimed that the treaty that made Belize a British colony was void because the terms had not been met. Belize was declared independent in 1981, but some Guatemalan politicians still consider Belize part of Guatemala.

• In the entirety of Latin America , Guatemala had the longest civil war. The government military, right-wing vigilantes, and left-wing guerillas fought for over 36 years, from 1960 to 1996. Many say that the catalyst for war was when the CIA backed Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas in the overthrowing of a democratically-elected president.

• Since colonization by the Spanish, Guatemala has had four capital cities. The first capital was unofficially Tecpan, which was the first permanent military center (1825). The first government capital was Cuidad Vieja (1527), which was destroyed in 1541 by a volcanic mudslide from Volcan Agua. Modern-day Antigua became the capital two years later. In 1773, an earthquake destroyed Antigua, and the capital became “Nueva Guatemala de la Asución.” Also known as Guatemala City, it remains the capital today.—Jonathon Engels

Departments of Guatemala Map

Guatemala (officially, the Republic of Guatemala) is divided into 22 departments (departamentos, sing. departamento). In alphabetical order, the departments are: Alta Verapaz, Baja Verapaz, Chimaltenango, Chiquimula, El Progreso, Escuintla, Guatemala, Huehuetenango, Izabal, Jalapa, Jutiapa, Peten, Quetzaltenango, Quiche, Retalhuleu, Sacatepequez, San Marcos, Santa Rosa, Solola, Suchitepequez, Totonicapan and Zacapa. These departments are further subdivided into 340 municipalities.

Located in the south-central region of the country, in Valle de la Ermita of the Central Highlands is Guatemala City (Nueva Guatemala de la Asuncion) – the capital, the largest and the most populous city of Guatemala. It is also the administrative, cultural and economic center of the country. Guatemala City is the largest city in Central America and also Central America’s most highly populated urban area.

Diplomatic Relations

Establishment of Diplomatic Relations, 1824 .

Diplomatic relations were established on August 4, 1824, when President James Monroe received Antonio José Cañaz as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary on August 4, 1824.

Establishment of the American Legation in Guatemala, 1826 .

Chargé d’Affaires John Williams presented his credentials to the Federation of Central American States on May 3, 1826.

Establishment of Diplomatic Relations with Independent Guatemala, 1849 .

Chargé d’Affaires Elijah Hise presented his credentials to the Republic of Guatemala on or shortly before January 21, 1849.

American Legation Raised to Embassy, 1882 .

The American Legation in Guatemala was raised to Embassy status when Henry C. Hall, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary, presented his credentials on August 10, 1882.

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