from The New Book of Knowledge®

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

Guatemala is the most populous country in Central America. It is also the one with the largest native Indian population. Nearly half of all Guatemalans are descended from the Maya, founders of one of the world's great ancient civilizations.

The country is bordered by Mexico and Belize to the west and north. El Salvador and Honduras lie to the south and east. Guatemala's varied landscape encompasses towering volcanoes, lush forests, and stunning lakes. The country is known internationally for the high quality coffee it grows and exports.

Guatemala's history has been marked by violence and upheaval. It was torn by civil war during much of the last 40 years. Many people, especially the native Maya, live in extreme poverty. Conflicts over economic and social justice have divided the country. Recent progress toward peace, however, may bring an end to the uncertainty that has characterized Guatemala's past. This would enable all Guatemalans to take equal advantage of their nation's cultural wealth and physical beauty.


Approximately half of all Guatemalans are indígenas, or native Indians who consider themselves descendants of the ancient Maya. The Maya lived in the region long before Spanish conquerors arrived in 1524.

The other major group in Guatemala is made up of ladinos. They are either of mixed Spanish and Maya descent or are ethnic indígenas who have given up the culture of their ancestors. Westernized practices and Spanish speech distinguish ladinos from the Indians.

The Garífuna people, a third group, live along the Caribbean coast. They are also known as Black Caribs. Their cultural and ethnic roots are part African and part Caribbean.


Spanish is the official language. It is used in business, politics, and legal proceedings. Some 5 million Guatemalans speak native Maya languages in addition to Spanish or as their only tongue.

Guatemala has 22 different Maya languages. The most common are Kekchí, Quiché, Cakchiquel, and Mam. Some of the other Maya languages are threatened by extinction. They are spoken only among older generations and are not being passed down to their children. The Garífuna speak their own language. It is of South American origin.


Roman Catholicism is the principal religion in Guatemala. It has been so since Spanish missionaries introduced it in the 1500's. But today Evangelical Protestantism is attracting an increasing number of followers. Other Guatemalans practice a religion that is a unique blend of Catholicism and Maya traditions and rituals.


Only about half of all Guatemalans receive formal education. Less than 15 percent finish high school. Boys are more likely than girls to be literate (able to read and write). Just over 50 percent of Guatemalans above the age of 15 are literate.

Classes in almost all the country's schools are conducted in Spanish. This is a disadvantage to schoolchildren in rural areas where Maya languages are dominant. Recently there have been efforts at bilingual education, with classes taught in both Spanish and a native language. These efforts are beginning to improve the situation. But the national education system still tends to discourage Maya children from using the language of their ancestors.


Flat corn tortillas are the basic staple of the Guatemalan diet. They are made by hand and baked on clay or metal griddles. Meals typically combine these cornmeal tortillas with black beans, chilies, vegetables, chicken, or pork. Seafood is popular along the coasts.

Rural Life

Most Guatemalans in rural communities live in simple, one-room houses. The houses are made of sun-dried adobe bricks with tile roofs or wood with thatched roofs. In general, everyone lives, sleeps, and eats in the same room.

Houses are clustered into villages. Several villages make up a municipio, or municipal district. The center of each municipio is the focus of local social and economic life. Most residents go to the center regularly to sell goods at the market, buy necessities, or catch public transportation to their workplaces in larger cities. Rural Guatemalans tend to retain strong ties to their village and municipio even if they move away.


Guatemala's geography is diverse. It ranges from the highest volcanoes in Central America to broad, level lowlands along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. In some places, cool, lush forests lie quite close to hot, dusty deserts.

Land Regions

The territory of Guatemala is slightly smaller than that of Tennessee. It contains four distinct regions. They are the highlands, the Pacific coastal plain, the lowlands, and the Petén.

The highlands are defined by a high range of volcanic mountains, some still active. The mountains run from the border with El Salvador in the south up into Mexico to the west. The highest point in Guatemala is Volcán Tajumulco. It rises to 13,845 feet (4,220 meters).

The Pacific coastal plain is a thin strip of land in the south. It is a hot, steamy region that supports Guatemala's sugar, banana, cotton, and cattle ranching industries. Lowlands stretch northeastward to Guatemala's short Caribbean coastline. They encompass deserts, rain forests, savannas, swamps, and wetlands.

The flat Petén region in the north extends to the Mexican border. It is covered by tracts of threatened tropical rain forests. This is the least developed area of Guatemala. The forests contain unusual animals such as jaguars, parrots, and monkeys.

Rivers, Lakes, and Coastal Waters

The eastern lowlands contain two large river valleys, the Motagua and the Polochic. Both drain into the Caribbean. La Pasión River runs north through the Petén and Mexico. It empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The three largest lakes are the Izabal, Atitlán, and Petén. Guatemala is one of four Central American countries with coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.


Guatemala has a tropical climate with two distinct seasons. The cycle of the year is marked primarily by a rainy season from May to mid-October and a dry season from mid-October to the end of April. Rainfall is heaviest on the coasts and in the highlands. It is lowest along the arid Montagua River valley.

The Petén and lowlands tend to be hot and humid year-round. Temperatures there average 77 to 86°F (25 to 30°C). Most of the population lives at elevations above 3,500 feet (1,070 meters), where the weather is more moderate. At the highest elevations, temperatures can reach the freezing point.

Natural Resources

One important forest product in Guatemala is chicle, a sap used in making chewing gum. Forests, especially those of the Petén and lowlands, produce valuable hardwoods such as mahogany. Unfortunately, this resource is being depleted rapidly because forests are being cut down faster than they can be regrown. Water pollution is another source of growing concern.



The service industries form the largest segment of Guatemala's economy. These include government, transportation, utilities, banking, insurance, business, and personal services. Tourism, which draws on all of these, is the most rapidly growing sector. Many visitors come to see the country's fascinating cultural sights. Among these are the Maya market at Chichicastenango, the majestic colonial capital of Antigua, and the ruins of Tikal, Uaxactún, Quiriguá, and other ancient Maya cities. The natural beauty of Guatemala's volcanoes and lakes, especially Atitlán, also attracts visitors.


Guatemala is the most industrialized of the Central American nations. The country produces processed foods, pharmaceuticals, clothing, electronic devices, car parts, furniture, rubber, and a wide range of other goods. Guatemala sells the bulk of its products to the United States and other Central American nations. Most industrial jobs are located in Guatemala City or close by in smaller communities.


Guatemala's economy is based primarily on agriculture. More than half the people are engaged in either raising their own food or growing crops for export. The most important crops are corn, beans, and squash. These are grown on family-owned plots. Coffee is Guatemala's most important export crop. It accounts for almost 25 percent of the nation's trade with other countries. Guatemala also produces sugar, bananas, cotton, beef, rice, rubber, and an aromatic spice called cardamom.

Major Cities

Guatemala City,

 the capital, is the largest city in Guatemala. In fact, it is the largest in all of Central America. It has an estimated population of 2 million. It is the national center of trade, industry, government, finance, and education. Originally a Maya settlement, Guatemala City was founded by the Spanish in 1776 to replace Antigua as the capital.

Quetzaltenango lies to the west of Guatemala City and is important economically. Puerto Barrios, on the east coast, and Puerto San José, on the west, are Guatemala's most important ports.

Cultural Heritage

Art and Architecture

Guatemala's most stunning artistic and architectural achievements are those left behind by the ancient Maya. The majestic ruins of the civilizations of Tikal and Quiriguá are among the most notable for archaeologists and tourists. These and other ancient cities lie along a circuit known as the Maya Route. The former capital city of Antigua features more recent architecture from the Spanish colonial period.


The ancient Maya myth called the Popol Vuh is among the national treasures of Guatemala. Modern fiction, such as that written by Miguel Angel Asturias, conveys the deep cultural and political conflicts between the Maya way of life and that of the European-influenced ladinos. Other recent literature includes the powerful testimonial I, Rigoberta Menchú, written by a poor Quiché Maya woman. It is about the violence and injustice that she and other indígenas faced during Guatemala's period of military rule. For this work, Menchú was awarded the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize.

History and Government

Before the arrival of Europeans, a number of strong Maya kingdoms occupied the region that is now Guatemala. The Maya built great cities between A.D. 300 and 900.

The Spanish Conquest

When a Spanish force invaded in 1524, the Maya kingdoms of Guatemala were at war with each other. The conquistadores took advantage of these internal conflicts. They defeated the kingdoms one at a time. The Maya were forced to pay taxes to the Spanish. They also had to do heavy labor on farms and build new cities. The Spanish killed those who resisted. The introduction of unfamiliar European diseases such as smallpox also killed many natives.


Guatemala spent three difficult centuries under Spanish rule. The country gained its independence on September 15, 1821. For the next two decades, all of Central America sought to create a unified federation. But this effort collapsed as powerful regional leaders fought amongst themselves. In 1839 a ruler named Rafael Carrera came to power. He created a strong Conservative Party that favored the wealthiest Guatemalans at the expense of the poor. The opposing political party, the Liberals, came to power in 1871. They attempted to modernize Guatemala by inviting foreign companies to do business in the country. This made Guatemala richer as a nation. But it did not improve conditions for the average worker.

Revolutions and Civil War

In 1944, Guatemalans rebelled against their government and placed more democratic rulers in power. The governments of presidents Juan José Arévalo (1945-51) and Jacobo Arbenz Guzman (1951-54) offered political rights to more people. They also began to address economic and social inequalities.

But powerful Guatemalans saw Arbenz as a threat to their wealth. With their support and that of the United States government, Conservative army officers overthrew Arbenz's government. Arbenz was forced into exile. Thereafter, a series of strict military dictators ruled. From 1962 onward, these dictatorships engaged in bloodshed and civil war against rebel guerrilla movements that rose against them. The worst period occurred from the early to mid-1980's. It is known as La Violencia, or the Violence. In the effort to defeat the guerrillas, Guatemala's military acted brutally. The army wiped out whole villages and killed more than 200,000 people.

The Quest for Peace

Under intense pressure from other countries, the army returned Guatemala to civilian rule in 1986. Since then, civilian presidents have sought to end the civil war and rebuild Guatemala. The legacy of the war is deep, however. And the military retains a great deal of power.

In 1996, the government and the rebels agreed to end the violent conflict that had devastated the country for 36 years. Former guerrillas created a legal political party to represent the interests of the peasants and Maya. But the granting of additional rights to the indígenas proved to be a very slow and difficult process.

In 2003, Conservative candidate Oscar Berger Perdomo, a former mayor of Guatemala City, was elected president. In 2007, in a second round of voting, Álvaro Colom won the presidency of Guatemala with over half the vote. Colom is a businessman with government experience. He promises to raise spending on social programs, create jobs, and reduce Guatemala's soaring crime rate.

Todd Little-Siebold
College of the Atlantic

  • Subjects:
    Countries, Continents, Regions

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