Many facts about Guatemala are worth knowing before visiting the country; situated in Central America, it’s rich in natural beauty, cultural diversity, and historical heritage. It is also home to the largest and most influential Maya civilization, with a vibrant mix of European and African influences.
Whether you are planning to visit the country or want to learn more about this fascinating country, in this article, we will explore some of the most interesting facts about Guatemala, covering its geography, history, culture, and more.
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- Guatemala’s population is about 17 million people, making it the most populous country in the region.
- And at least 6 million are Maya people.
- The country is home to 37 volcanoes, of which only three are highly active.
- The highest point in Guatemala is Volcán Tajumulco, which reaches 4,220 meters (13,845 feet) above sea level.
- Guatemala has a tropical climate with two distinct seasons: the dry season, from November to April, and the rainy season, from May to October.
- The temperature in the country varies according to the altitude and the region, ranging from an average of 10°C (50°F) in the highlands to an average of 28°C (82°F) in the lowlands.
- Did you know that Guatemala Celebrates the Day of the Dead uniquely? With giant kites!
- The Country is known for its diverse geography, which includes volcanoes, mountains, rainforests, lakes, and beaches.
- It is also known for its ancient Maya civilization, leaving impressive pyramids, temples, and cities behind.
- Guatemala has a vibrant and colorful culture that reflects the influence of the indigenous people and the Spanish colonizers.
- The country has faced many challenges and struggles in its history, such as civil war, dictatorship, poverty, and human rights violations. However, it has also shown resilience and hope for a better future.
- Guatemala is a popular destination for travelers exploring natural beauty and fascinating cultural heritage.
- Guatemala is prone to natural disasters like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, floods, and hurricanes.
- Many of the Mayan civilizations preserved their language, religion, and traditions, which are still alive and practiced today
Facts About Guatemala
Guatemala is the most populous country in Central America
Guatemala has an area of 108,889 square kilometers (42,042 square miles), slightly smaller than the state of Tennessee in the USA. Yet, it has a population of about 17 million people, more than the combined population of the other Central American countries.
The country is divided into 22 departments
Guatemala is divided into 22 departments, which are further subdivided into municipalities. The capital and largest city is Guatemala City, which has about 3 million inhabitants.
Some of the highest and most active volcanoes in Central America are located in Guatemala
Guatemala is home to several volcanoes, 37 in total. Several are among the tallest and most active in Central America and the world.
Tajumulco is the highest peak in the country and the highest volcano in the whole region. In contrast, Santa Maria (and Santiaguito), Pacaya, and Fuego volcanoes are the most active volcanoes in Central America.
Peten is the least populated area in the country
While the Peten Department is home to several attractions like Tikal Mayan ruins, other Mayan ruins, natural parks, and lakes like Peten Itza, it’s a fact that it is the least populated and most remote region of the country, and it also has the highest biodiversity.
Guatemala is home to the ancient Maya civilization
Guatemala is considered to be one of the cradles of the Maya civilization, which was one of the most advanced and influential civilizations in the ancient world. The Maya civilization flourished from about 2000 BC to 900 AD, extending over several Central American places like Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador.
You can still find a lot of actual Mayan descendants in the country; for example, the villages around Lake Atitlan are known as the home of the Mayan people. Its religion, practices, and handcraft are still present o to this day.
It has many archaeological sites
The country has many archaeological sites that showcase the legacy of the Maya civilization. The most famous and visited site is Tikal. It was one of the largest and most potent Maya cities, inhabited for over 1,500 years.
It has over 3,000 structures, including six giant pyramids above the forest canopy. The tallest pyramid, Temple IV, is 70 meters (230 feet) high and offers a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape.
Tikal is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a national park that protects the wildlife and flora of the area.
Other important Maya sites in Guatemala include Uaxactún, Yaxhá, El Mirador, Quiriguá, Iximché, and Zaculeu.
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There are more than 21 different dialects in Guatemala
Wherever you go in the country, you’ll find a wonderful blend of indigenous and Spanish culture. The indigenous people of Guatemala are mainly Maya, who speak 21 different Maya languages, and Garífuna and Xinca, who speak their languages.
The Spanish colonizers introduced their language, religion, and customs, which mixed with the indigenous traditions. The result is a unique and colorful culture seen in Guatemala’s music, dance, food, clothing, and festivals.
Distinctive traditional clothing
One of the most distinctive aspects of Guatemalan culture is the traditional clothing or traje; many indigenous people, especially women, wear that. The traje consists of a blouse, or huipil, a skirt, or corte, and a belt, or faja.
The traje is usually handmade and embroidered with colorful patterns and symbols that represent the identity and history of each community. Each region and village has its style and traje design, making it easy to recognize where someone comes from.
It is also a source of pride and dignity for the indigenous people, who have preserved their culture despite the discrimination and oppression they have faced.
Unique food with Maya, Spanish, and African influences
Another critical aspect of Guatemalan culture is the food, a fusion of Maya, Spanish, and African influences. Some of the staple foods of Guatemala are corn, beans, rice, and tortillas, which are used to make dishes like tamales, pepián, kak’ik, and chuchitos.
There are several tours and workshops around the food scene of the country, it’s one of the best ways to taste its different dishes.
Guatemala is world-known for its coffee
Each year, the country exports more than 3.6 million bags of coffee, making it one of the main exports of the country. It’s well known that Guatemala produces some of the best coffee in the world, thanks to its high altitude, volcanic soil, and climate.
Guatemala also has a lively and diverse music and dance scene
The traditional music of the country reflects the different ethnic and regional groups. Some conventional instruments used in Guatemalan music are the marimba, a wooden xylophone; the chirimía, a type of oboe; and the tun, a drum.
While some of the traditional dances performed in the country are the baile de la conquista, which reenacts the Spanish conquest; the baile de los moros y cristianos, which depicts the conflict between the Moors and the Christians in Spain; and the baile de los animalitos, which imitates the movements of different animals.
You can also find modern and popular music genres like rock or pop.
The country is a popular place to learn Spanish
A considerable portion of the tourists and visitors in the country are there to learn Spanish and improve their language skills; Guatemala is well known as one of the best and cheapest places to study Spanish in Central and Latin America.
Guatemala has many Spanish schools and academies that offer courses and programs for all levels and ages. Travelers can study in the city, the countryside, or a homestay with a local family.
Guatemala is a popular destination for travelers who want to explore its natural beauty
The country doesn’t only attract visitors to its Mayan sites or to learn Spanish; it’s also a popular destination among travelers who want to explore its natural beauty, which is abundant.
You will find different landscapes within a few hour’s drive of distance, including volcanoes, mountains, rainforests, lakes, and beaches. Travelers can hike, bike, kayak, raft, zip-line, or horseback ride through the scenic landscapes and enjoy the flora and fauna of the country.
Some of the most popular natural destinations are Lake Atitlán, Semuc Champey, Pacaya Volcano, Río Dulce, and Monterrico Beach. You can also visit national parks and reserves that protect the environment and wildlife, such as the Parque Nacional Tikal, the Reserva de la Biosfera Maya, and the Biotopo del Quetzal.
Lake Atitlan is the Deepest lake in Central America
It’s not only one of the most beautiful lakes around the world, but Lake Atitlan is the deepest lake in Central America. The lake is at 1560m altitude and is 17 kilometers long, while its maximum depth is 325 meters.
Some people revere a deity called Maximon
One of the most puzzling Guatemala facts revolves around Maximón, a deity that loves good rum and cigars, is dressed in colorful clothes, and wears a cowboy hat.
Some people say it’s a throwback to a Mayan god, an indigenous representation of Saint Peter, and the deification of Guatemala’s Spanish conqueror, Pedro de Alvarado.
The Chicken Buses used to be American school buses
The popular local transport, chicken buses, are American school buses auctioned off after hitting ten years of use or 150,000 miles driven. The buses made their way to the country and then were revamped by locals with different colors and ornaments.
Please don’t call it chicken buses, most local people call it la camioneta, el bus, or la burra.
You can release turtles in Monterrico
In a place called Tortugario Monterrico, you can help these cute animals make their way to the sea; it’s one of the best ways to help with conservation efforts, Most of these species are endangered, and places like Tortugario help by setting up a nested protection for the eggs.
The baby turtles are usually set free during sunset or sunrise from September to Jan.
Guatemala used to be called Quauhtlemallan
Another interesting fact about Guatemala is its name! The country’s original name was slightly different from what we know today; it used to be Quauhtlemallan, meaning “place of many trees” in Nahuatl, a Mexican language.
But why Nahuatl? Well, most of the names of the departments were given by the warriors who helped the Spanish troops, and those warriors were Mexican.
Guatemala is the fifth-largest country in Central America, with a total area of 108,889 square kilometers (42,042 square miles). It borders Mexico to the north and west, Belize and the Caribbean Sea to the east, Honduras and El Salvador to the southeast, and the Pacific Ocean to the south.
The country has a varied and complex geography, with four central regions: the highlands, the lowlands, the Pacific coast, and the northern plateau.
- The highlands are the most populated and culturally diverse region, where most indigenous people live. The highlands are dominated by a chain of volcanoes, some still active, such as Pacaya, Fuego, and Santiaguito. It also has many lakes, rivers, and valleys, such as Lake Atitlán.
- The lowlands are the tropical and humid regions where most natural resources and biodiversity are found. This area includes the Caribbean coast, a narrow strip of land with mangroves, coral reefs, and sandy beaches.
- The northern plateau is the largest and most sparsely populated region, covering about one-third of the country. It’s mostly composed of the Petén Department, which is mainly surrounded by dense rainforest, where many species of plants and Guatemala Wildlife can be found. It’s also the location of the ancient Maya city of Tikal, one of the most important archaeological sites in the world.
- The Pacific coast is the coastal plain that stretches along the southern border of the country, where most of the agricultural and industrial activities take place. The Pacific coast has a hot and dry climate, with fertile soils and volcanic sands. The main crops grown in this region are sugar cane, coffee, and bananas. It also has popular beach destinations, like Monterrico.
History and Culture
Guatemala has a long and turbulent history, marked by the rise and fall of civilizations, the clash and fusion of cultures, and the struggle and resistance of its people.
The country’s history and culture can be divided into four main periods: the Maya civilization, the Spanish conquest, the independence and civil war, and modern Guatemala.
The Maya Civilization
The Maya civilization was one of the most advanced and influential civilizations in the ancient world, from the 2nd millennium BC to the 16th century AD. The Maya developed a sophisticated writing system, a complex calendar, remarkable mathematics and astronomy, and rich art and architecture.
They also built impressive cities with temples, pyramids, and palaces. Tikal and Copán are perfect examples of this.
The Maya civilization peaked during the Classic Period, from the 3rd to the 9th century AD, when it had a population of about 10 million and controlled a vast territory.
It declined after the 9th century AD due to a combination of factors, such as environmental degradation, social unrest, warfare, and drought.
However, the Maya did not disappear but rather continued to exist in smaller and more isolated groups, like the K’iche.
The Spanish Conquest
The Spanish conquest of Guatemala began in 1524 when the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado arrived with a small army of soldiers and allies. Alvarado encountered fierce resistance from the Maya people, especially from the Quiché and the Kaqchikel, who fought bravely to defend their lands and freedom.
By this time, they founded the first Spanish settlements in Guatemala, such as Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala, which became the country’s capital.
The Spanish colonization of Guatemala lasted for almost 300 years, from 1524 to 1821. During this period, the Spanish imposed their language, religion, culture, and laws on the indigenous population.
They also brought African slaves to work in the plantations and mines, creating a racial and social hierarchy that favored the white and mestizo (mixed) elites over the indigenous and black masses.
The colonizers also faced several rebellions and revolts from the indigenous and black people, who sought to regain their autonomy and dignity, like the uprising of Atanasio Tzul and Lucas Aguilar in 1820.
The Independence and Civil War
The independence of Guatemala from Spain was achieved in 1821 as part of the broader movement for independence in America. Guatemala initially joined the Mexican Empire of Agustín de Iturbide but soon withdrew and formed the United Provinces of Central America.
The United Provinces of Central America dissolved in 1838 after a series of conflicts and civil wars, and Guatemala became a sovereign and independent nation.
The history of Guatemala after independence was marked by political instability, social inequality, and external intervention. Guatemala experienced several coups, dictatorships, revolutions, and reforms as different factions and ideologies competed for power and influence.
The most tragic and violent period in Guatemala’s history was the civil war, which lasted from 1960 to 1996. It was a conflict between the government and the guerrilla groups representing different sectors of society.
It claimed the lives of about 200,000 people, mostly civilians, and left a legacy of human rights violations, such as massacres, disappearances, torture, and genocide. The war began with the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, establishing a framework for democracy, justice, and reconciliation.
The Modern Guatemala
Modern Guatemala is a country that is still recovering and rebuilding from the wounds and scars of the past. Guatemala is a country that faces many challenges, such as poverty, inequality, violence, corruption, and impunity. According to the World Bank, about 59% of the population lives below the poverty line
Economy and Society
The country’s economy is diverse and dynamic but also complex. Its economy is based on three main sectors: agriculture, industry, and services.
According to the World Bank, Guatemala’s gross domestic product (GDP) was about 85.99 billion in 2021, making it the largest economy in Central America and the 9th largest in Latin America.
However, the GDP per capita was only about $5,025.54, International experts, mainly the International Monetary Fund, have recognized Guatemala as a stable economy.
Agriculture is the backbone of Guatemala’s economy, accounting for about 13% of the GDP and employing about 31% of the labor force. Guatemala is one of the world’s leading producers and exporters of coffee, sugar, bananas, and palm oil, as well as other crops.
It is also the primary source of income and livelihood for most of the rural and indigenous population, who practice subsistence farming and face many challenges, such as land tenure, climate change, and market access.
Tourism is another important sector of Guatemala’s economy, accounting for about 8% of the GDP and employing about 7% of the labor force.
Guatemala is a popular destination for travelers who seek to experience its natural beauty, cultural diversity, and historical heritage. It also has many tourist attractions and activities, like visiting the Maya ruins, exploring the colonial cities, and enjoying the lakes and volcanoes.
It is also a source of foreign exchange and development for the country, as well as a source of environmental and social impacts, like pollution and cultural commodification.
Language and religion are two of the most distinctive and diverse aspects of Guatemala’s culture and identity. Guatemala is a multilingual and multicultural country where 24 languages are spoken, including Spanish and 23 indigenous languages.
Spanish is spoken by about 68% of the population, and the indigenous languages are spoken by about 32%, mainly in the rural and highland areas.
Most indigenous languages are part of the Maya linguistic family, with a long and rich history and tradition. However, the indigenous languages are also endangered and discriminated against, as they face the pressure and influence of Spanish and English.
Religion is another essential and varied element of Guatemala’s culture and identity. The country is predominantly Christian, where about 88% of the population identifies as Christian, including 47% as Roman Catholic and 41% as Protestant.
However, Guatemala also has a significant and growing presence of other religions and beliefs. The indigenous religions are based on the Maya cosmology and spirituality, which worship the forces of nature and the ancestors.
Some indigenous religions are also syncretic and dynamic, as they have incorporated and adapted elements of Christianity and other religions.
What is the capital and the currency of Guatemala?
The capital of Guatemala is Guatemala City, home to the main international airport and the largest and most populous city in the country, with about 3 million inhabitants.
The currency of Guatemala is the quetzal, named after the national bird of Guatemala, a colorful and sacred bird for the Maya people.
What is the population and the ethnic composition of Guatemala?
The population of Guatemala is about 17 million people, making it the most populous country in Central America and the 11th most populous country in Latin America.
The ethnic composition of the country is very diverse and complex, with about 56% of the population identifying as mestizo (mixed), 41% as indigenous, 2% as white, and 1% as black or other.
What is the main religion and the primary language of Guatemala?
The main religion of Guatemala is Christianity, with about 88% of the population identifying as Christian, including 47% as Roman Catholic and 41% as Protestant.
The primary language of Guatemala is Spanish, the official and dominant language spoken by about 68% of the population. However, Guatemala also has 23 indigenous languages, spoken by about 32% of the population, mainly in the rural areas.
What are some of the main festivals and celebrations of Guatemala?
Some of the main festivals and celebrations of Guatemala are:
- Semana Santa (Holy Week), where people commemorate the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, with processions and stunning carpets.
- Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) honors the ancestors and the departed with giant kites.
- Día de la Independencia (Independence Day) is set to celebrate the independence of Guatemala from Spain with parades, music, and fireworks.
- Día de Santo Tomás (Saint Thomas Day), which celebrates the patron saint of Chichicastenango, with dances, masks, and fireworks.
What are some of the typical dishes and drinks of Guatemala?
Some of the typical dishes of Guatemala are:
- Pepián is a spicy stew made with meat, vegetables, and seeds.
- Kak’ik is a turkey soup with tomatoes, chilies, and spices.
- Fiambre is a cold salad with meat, cheese, vegetables, and dressing.
- Tamales, corn dough filled with meat, sauce, and olives, wrapped in banana leaves.
Some of the typical drinks are:
- Atol, a hot drink made with corn, milk, and sugar;
- Café, coffee with milk and sugar;
- Horchata, a cold drink made with rice, milk, and cinnamon;
- Licuados, fruit smoothies with milk or water.
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