Situated at the northern end of the Central American isthmus, the nation of Guatemala is bursting with incredible natural, historical and cultural appeal. From magnificent Maya ruins to extravagant colonial gems, and sandy beaches to wonderful wildlife, this intoxicating nation has it all and is certainly worth getting to know. Here are some interesting facts about Guatemala.
Facts about Guatemala
1. Guatemala is the third-largest country in Central America and the 105th largest country in the world.
Occupying a total area of 108,889 km² (42,042 sq mi), Guatemala ranks as the world’s 105th-largest nation. It is also the third-largest country in Central America behind Nicaragua and Honduras. Comparatively, it is marginally smaller in size than Cuba or the US state of Tennessee.
2. Guatemala shares a land border with four countries.
3. Guatemala has a total coastline of 400 km (249 mi).
Despite being a small country, Guatemala has a coastline on both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. However, Guatemala isn’t renowned for its beaches as some of the other countries in the region.
4. Guatemala is home to the highest point in Central America.
Guatemala is a largely mountainous country, except for the south coastal area and the vast northern lowlands of the Petén department. About 60% of the country’s terrain is mountainous.
Volcán Tajumulco is a large stratovolcano in southwestern Guatemala. It is the highest mountain in the country and in Central America at 4,220 meters (13,845 ft) above sea level.
5. Guatemala is the most populous nation in Central America.
With an estimated population of around 17.5 million, Guatemala is by far the most populous country in Central America.
6. Guatemala has the highest number of volcanoes in Central America.
Another one of the interesting geographical facts about Guatemala is that it is home to more volcanoes than any other Central American nation. Guatemala has 37 volcanoes, of which four are currently active – Fuego, Pacaya, Santiaguito, and Tacaná.
7. Guatemala was the heart of the Maya world and is still home to more than 7 million Maya.
For some 3,000 years before the arrival of the Spanish, the Maya civilization dominated Guatemala, leaving behind some of the most impressive architecture in the entire country. The Maya civilization expanded throughout the region that is now Guatemala between 1500 BC and 300 AD, flourishing until about 900 AD.
The artistry and splendor of the Maya civilization at the height of the classic era arguably eclipsed that in the “Old World.” Spectacular remnants of their cities and monuments are found scattered throughout Guatemala in places like Tikal, Iximche, Yaxhá, Quiriguá, and El Mirador.
No one knows for sure what led to the decline of the Classic Maya civilization, but somewhere around 900 AD, their society entered a severe and rapid decline. A prolonged drought, invasion, epidemic disease, deforestation, and religious prophecy have all been cited as possible causes.
One common misconception is the Maya as a people disappeared. More than 7 million Maya actually still live in Guatemala alone. They are still spread over a similar territory as during the zenith of their culture, and many still maintain the same traditions as their ancestors.
8. Guatemala was colonized by Spain.
Although the Spanish arrived in Central America as early as 1501, they didn’t visit Guatemala until 1523 when Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés sent his lieutenant, Pedro de Alvarado, to conquer Guatemala. Between 1523 and 1524, Alvarado defeated the indigenous Maya and turned Guatemala into a Spanish colony.
In a little over a century after conquering Guatemala, European disease or guns had killed 85% of the Maya. Those who survived were enslaved and forced to work on their own land for the benefit of the colonialists.
During Spanish rule, the Roman Catholic Church wielded enormous power, controlling vast plantations of sugar, wheat, and indigo run by forced indigenous labor.
9. Guatemala gained independence from Spain in 1821.
By the early 19th century, inequality between the elites and the commoners in Guatemala had sowed the seeds for independence. In 1821, El Salvador, along with four other Central American countries, declared its independence from Spain.
10. Guatemala was part of the short-lived Federal Republic of Central America.
In 1823, Guatemala, along with El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, formed the Federal Republic of Central America.
However, the federation was perpetually fragmented by liberal and conservative infighting. In the late 1830s, the federation descended into civil war and after a series of bloody conflicts, Guatemala became a fully independent country in 1839.
11. The name “Guatemala” comes from the indigenous Nahuatl language.
The name “Guatemala” originates either from the Nahuatl language words “Quauhtemallan” meaning ‘land of trees.’’
12. Guatemala was the training area for the Cuban exiles in the abortive Bay of Pigs Invasion covertly financed and directed by the US government in April 1961.
One of the lesser-known facts about Guatemala is that the country was used as a training ground by the US government for the infamous Bay of Pigs Invasion. At the height of the Cold War, the Guatemalan military government of Gen. Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes (a staunch anti-communist and foe of Castro) permitted the CIA to train an exile force in the rural province of Retalhuleu.
About 1,500 mercenaries, mostly Cuban exiles from Miami, received tutelage from the CIA in Guatemala before invading Cuba beginning 17 April 1961, in an unsuccessful bid to overthrow Fidel Castro’s communist government.
13. From 1960 to 1996 Guatemala suffered from a 36-year civil war.
Over a 36 year period from 1960 to 1996, a guerrilla war was fought in Guatemala between the government forces and Marxist rebels, who drew their strength largely from indigenous communities. A succession of authoritarian rulers, nominally center-left or center-right, were brought to power by rigged elections or coups d’état, backed by the US government.
Death squads trained and equipped by the USA roamed the cities and highlands killing those suspected of rebel activity. By the time peace accords were signed in December 1996, an estimated 200,000 Guatemalans died or disappeared during the conflict, most of them indigenous.
14. Guatemala City—the capital of Guatemala is the most populous metropolitan area in Central America.
With an estimated population of around five million in its metropolitan area, Guatemala City is the largest city in Guatemala and Central America.
15. The national bird and symbol of Guatemala is the quetzal.
The quetzal has become the national symbol of Guatemala. Images of this magnificent tropical bird are everywhere and it even features on the Guatemala coat of arms. The adult male quetzal is bright, iridescent green with red underparts, and has an extraordinary tail, which can reach more than 0.5 m (2 ft) in length.
The quetzal resides within the misty depths of high altitude cloud forest and
is known to be extremely shy. Nevertheless, as a result of habitat degradation quetzals themselves are becoming increasingly scarce.
16. The ceiba is the national tree of Guatemala.
The magnificent ceiba is Guatemala’s national tree. It is the sacred tree of the Maya, who use it to explain the universe (the limbs and leaves represent heaven, the trunk is earth and the roots are the underworld). The ceiba can reach a height of 40 m (130 ft).
17. The currency of Guatemala is the Guatemalan Quetzal (GTQ).
Guatemala’s currency is named after the quetzal bird in order to commemorate the ancient Mayans’ use of the bird’s feathers as currency. It has been the nation’s currency since 1925 when it replaced the Guatemalan peso.
17. Spanish is the official language of Guatemala.
As a result of Spanish influence over Guatemala, the official language of the nation is Spanish. Almost every Guatemalan speaks Spanish, although sometimes it’s as a second language.
Guatemalan Spanish is considered one of the purest, in terms of clarity and pronunciation, to be found in the Americas. Compared to the Spanish spoken in Mexico, Guatemalan Spanish is usually more clearly enunciated and slightly slower.
18. Over 20 Mayan languages are still spoken in Guatemala.
Q’eqchi’, K’iche’, Mam, Kaqchikel, Q’anjob’al, Poqomchi’ are some of the most spoken Mayan languages in Guatemala. After the end of the civil war in 1996, Guatemala’s constitution was amended to “recognize, respect, and promote” indigenous languages. The use of Mayan languages in public sectors such as social services, education, and justice is enshrined in the nation’s law.
19. The biggest ethnic group in Guatemala is the mestizos.
Mestizos or Ladinos (people of mixed indigenous and European descent) constitute the single largest ethnic group in Guatemala, with over 55% of Guatemalans identifying as Mestizos.
20. Guatemala has a larger proportion of Amerindians in its total population than any other country in Central America.
The Maya make up about two-fifths of Guatemala’s population. There are at least 20 separate Mayan groups, the largest of which are the Q’eqchi’, K’iche’, Mam, and Kaqchikel.
21. Christianity is the major religion in Guatemala.
El Salvador is a predominantly Christian country. The majority of the population identifies as Roman Catholic (~45-50%). Since the 1970s, Guatemala has experienced the rapid growth of Evangelical Protestantism and today approximately 35-40% of Guatemalans identify as Protestant.
The remainder of the Guatemalan population is either irreligious or belongs to other religions.
22. Football is the most popular sport in Guatemala.
Football is undoubtedly the most popular sport in Guatemala. However, major success has eluded the Guatemala men’s national football team and Guatemala has never qualified for the finals tournament of the FIFA World Cup.
23. Guatemala is the largest economy in Central America.
Bananas and coffee are two of Guatemala’s biggest exports. They account for over 2 billion USD and 20% of Guatemala’s total exports. Besides these, tourism is also one of the main drivers of the country’s economy.
24. Guatemala is home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
For a country with such a fascinating history and a wealth of cultural attractions, it’s not surprising that Guatemala boasts three UNESCO World Heritage sites. They are the colonial city of Antigua, Tikal National Park, and the Archaeological Park and Ruins of Quirigua.
25. Guatemala has produced two Nobel Prize Winners.
Miguel Ángel Asturias, who was born in Guatemala City, was a Guatemalan poet, novelist, and diplomat, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1967. Best known for his novels El Señor Presidente and Hombres de maíz, Asturias spent his life fighting for the rights of the indigenous and for the freedom of Latin American countries from dictatorships and foreign influences.
The second Guatemalan to win the Nobel Prize was human rights activist Rigoberta Menchú, who won the Peace Prize in 1992. Menchú has dedicated her life to publicizing the rights of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples during and after the Guatemalan Civil War.
26. Guatemala is the biggest producer and exporter of cardamom in the world.
Producing over 50% of the world’s cardamom, Guatemala is also the leading exporter of the spice.
27. Guatemala has won only one Olympic medal.
Although Guatemala first participated at the Summer Olympic Games in 1952, the nation has won only one Olympic medal so far. The country’s sole Olympic medal came during the 2012 Summer Olympics when racewalker Erick Barrondo won silver in the men’s 20 km walk.
With only one Olympic medal in its haul, Guatemala is one of the handful of nations in the world with more Nobel prizes (2) than Olympic medals (1).
28. The former capitals of Guatemala are Tecpán and Antigua.
Interestingly, Guatemala City, the current capital of Guatemala is the nation’s third capital.
29. Guatemala is home to the deepest lake in Central America.
Lake Atitlán is the deepest measured lake in Guatemala and Central America. Hemmed in on all sides by volcanoes and steep hills, it is at least 340 meters (1,120 ft) deep.
30. The national instrument of Guatemala is the marimba.
The marimba is a percussion instrument consisting of a set of wooden bars struck with yarn or rubber mallets to produce musical tones. Resembling a big xylophone, it has a special significance for the Mayan community in Guatemala.
31. Guatemala has a long-standing border dispute with Belize and the Guatemalan maps show Belize as the country’s twenty-third department.
Throughout Guatemala’s history, it has claimed sovereignty over all or part of Belizean territory. The territorial dispute between the two Central American nations dates back more than 150 years.
This claim is reflected in maps drawn by Guatemala’s government, showing Belize as Guatemala’s twenty-third department (Guatemala has 22). Guatemala’s claim to Belizean territory rests on a clause in the Anglo-Guatemalan Treaty of 1859, in which Britain was obligated to help Guatemala construct an access way from Guatemala City to Belize’s southern border to the Caribbean Sea.
Unfortunately, the access way was never built. Guatemala says that the treaty is void, and because Britain violated it, they have a claim over Belize. Both countries are now planning to take the dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in Hague.
32. Every year on the first and second day of November, Guatemalans celebrate the Day of the Dead or “Dia de los Muertos.”
Similar to Mexicans, Guatemalans celebrate the Day of the Dead every November 1st and 2nd. It is a day when Guatemalans visit local cemeteries and fly kites in commemoration of the memory of deceased loved ones.
33. Guatemala is thought to be one of the first places to invent chocolate.
Chocolate’s 4,000-year history started in ancient Mesoamerica, parts of which included present-day Guatemala. The history of chocolate can be traced to the Olmecs, who were the first to turn the cacao plant into chocolate. They drank their chocolate during rituals and used it as medicine.
34. The National dish of Guatemala is Pepián.
Regarded as Guatemala’s national dish, Pepián is a savory stew of meats and vegetables in a thick and rich sauce. It consists of a fusion of slow-cooked meat such as chicken, beef, or pork, and vegetables and fruits – such as pear, squash, carrot, potato, tomato, onion, and corn on the cob. Pepián is usually served hot with rice and corn tortillas.
35. Hollywood star Oscar Isaac is from Guatemala.
Popular Hollywood actor Oscar Isaac was born in Guatemala City in 1979. He has starred in notable films such as A Most Violent Year, Inside Llewyn Davis, Ex Machina, and X-Men: Apocalypse.
36. Guatemala doesn’t observe daylight saving.
Daylight saving hasn’t been observed in Guatemala since 2007.