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Guatemala 108,889 sq km (42,042 sq miles). is located in Central America and shares borders to the north and west with Mexico, to the southeast with El Salvador and Honduras, to the northeast with Belize and the Caribbean Sea and to the south with the Pacific ocean. The landscape is predominantly mountainous and heavily forested. A string of volcanoes rises above the southern highlands along the Pacific, three of which are still active. Within this volcanic area are basins of varying sizes which hold the majority of the country's population. The region is drained by rivers flowing into both the Pacific and the Caribbean. One basin west of the capital has no river outlet and thus has formed Lake Atitlán, which is ringed by volcanoes. To the northwest, bordering on Belize and Mexico, lies the low undulating tableland of El Petén, 36,300 sq km (14,000 sq miles) of almost inaccessible wilderness covered with dense hardwood forest. This area covers approximately one-third of the national territory, yet contains only 40,000 people.


Guatemala lies southeast of Mexico and northwest of the other countries of Central America. Its location on the narrow strip which joins the continental masses of the Americas, as well as its topographic relief, give the country an enormous diversity of climatic regions.

A journey in Guatemala takes the visitor in a few minutes from the lush vegetation of the warm low lands zone to the cold of the pine forests. Most of the nine million Guatemalans live in the valleys of the mountainous regions, in the center of the country, where the climate is temperate. This is the region of lakes and volcanoes for which Guatemala is known throughout the world.

In this small country of only 70,000 square miles, the ancient Maya civilization had its heyday in the first millenium of our calendar. In 1523, the Spaniard Pedro de Alvarado, sent by Hernán Cortés, launched the conquest of Guatemala. With the cruel destruction and subjugation of the Quiche, Kakchikel and Tzutujil lords, the colonial era opened in 1524. The period saw an impressive cultural development experienced by few other places in the New World. In 1821, Guatemala and Central America declared their independence from Spain. Since the, many dictatorships have alternated with a few democratic periods. But, starting in 1985, Guatemala began a new process in its history, in search of peace and democracy.

Over half of the population is made up of 22 Maya groups, the most numerous of which are the Quiche, Kakchikel, Mam and Kekchi. The mestizos, or "ladinos", product of the biological and cultural mix between Indians and Europeans, make up less than half the population, including the Garifunas, of Afro-West Indian stock, and some Europeans. Altrhough the official language is Spanish, each Maya group and the Garifunas speak their own language.


The fishing and farming villages which emerged on Guatemala's Pacific coast as early as 2000 BC were the forerunners of the great Maya civilization which dominated Central America for centuries, leaving its enigmatic legacy of hilltop ruins. By 250 AD, the Early Classic Period, great temple cities were beginning to be built in the Guatemalan highlands, but by the Late Classic Period (600 to 900 AD) the center of power had moved to the El Petén lowlands. Following the mysterious collapse of the Maya civilization, the Itzaes also settled in El Petén, particularly around the present-day site of the town of Flores.

When Pedro de Alvarado came to conquer Guatemala for the king of Spain in 1523, he found the faded remnants of the Maya civilization and an assortment of warring tribes. The remaining highland kingdoms of the Quiché and Cakchiquel Maya were soon crushed by Alvarado's armies, their lands carved up into large estates and their people ruthlessly exploited by the new landowners. The subsequent arrivals of Dominican, Franciscan and Augustinian friars could not halt this exploitation, and their religious imperialism caused valuable traces of Mayan culture to be destroyed.

Independence from Spain came in 1821, bringing new prosperity to those of Spanish blood (creoles) and even worse conditions for those of Mayan descent. The Spanish Crown's few liberal safeguards were now abandoned, and huge tracts of Mayan land were stolen for the cultivation of tobacco and sugar cane, and the Maya were further enslaved to work that land. The country's politics since independence have been colored by continued rivalry between the forces of the left and right - neither of which have ever made it a priority to improve the position of the Maya.


Guatemala's many Mayan ruins and colonial buildings are its most impressive architectural attributes. One of the most intriguing cultural aspects is the infinite and exotic variety of the handmade, traditional clothing of Guatemala's Maya population. The design of the women's colorfully embroidered tunics, capes and skirts dates back to precolonial days. Certain details of garment and design identify the wearer's group and village, and can also have multiple religious or magical meanings. Music and traditional dance also feature in many Mayan religious festivals.

Spanish is the most commonly spoken language in Guatemala, and Roman Catholicism is the principal religion. Evangelical and Pentecostal Christian denominations have gained wide followings, while the Maya have preserved aspects of their traditional religions, often blended with Catholicism.
Guatemalan cuisine can't compete with that of Mexico, although standard Mexican fare such as tortillas and tacos can be found. Mostly you'll encounter tough grilled or fried meat, meat and more meat. Beans and rice are often the cheapest and best alternative, and the country has a surprising number of Chinese restaurants. Coffee is available everywhere - sometimes spectacularly good, but often ridiculously weak and sugary. Beer is prevalent, in light and dark versions, and rum and Quetzalteca are the nation's favored rocket fuels.



Guatemala City is the largest urban agglomeration in Central America. It sprawls across a range of flattened, ravine-scored mountains, covering an entire mountain plain and tumbling into the surrounding valleys. With its suicidal bus drivers and throngs of awesomely armed uniformed personages, the city's Central American Latin character is over the top to the point of cliché. Like all Guatemalan towns, a strict grid system has been imposed on the city's layout: avenidas run north-south; calles run east-west. The huge city has been divided into 15 zones, each with its own version of this grid system.

Few colonial buildings grace the city, and it is visited more for its role as the nation's administrative and transport hub than as a must-see tourist site. In Zona 1, Plaza Mayor is a classic example of the standard Spanish colonial town-planning scheme, and is the city's ceremonial center and retail district. It's best visited on a Sunday, when it's thronged with thousands of locals who come to stroll, eat ice cream, smooch on a bench, listen to boom-box salsa music and ignore the hundreds of trinket vendors. The square is lined by the imposing but earthquake-battered Palacio Nacional - which will soon house a museum of Guatemalan history - and the twin-towered Catedral Metropolitana. An earthquake destroyed the original market building adjacent to the square in 1976, and today the hugely chaotic Mercado Central specializes in tourist-oriented crafts.

North of Zona 1 is the shady and restful Parque Minerva, featuring a quirky relief map of the country. Several important museums can be found in Zona 10, including the Museo Popol Vuh, which is a superb private collection of Mayan and Spanish colonial art, and the Museo Ixchel, which displays the rich traditional arts and costumes of Guatemala's highland towns. Zona 13 houses the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnologí, with its prized collection of Mayan art, and the Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno, which has a superb collection of 20th-century Guatemalan art. Several kilometers west of the center lie the extensive ruins of Kaminalijuyú, an important Early Classic Maya site. Unfortunately, the ruins have been largely covered by urban expansion.

Most of the city's cheap and middle-range hotels are in Zona 1, while posh hotels are clustered in Zona 10. Zona Viva is the place to go to eat expensively and dance the night away.


Antigua was the nation's capital from 1543 until the devastating earthquake of 1773, when the capital was moved 45km (28mi) to the east to the present site of Guatemala City. Antigua is among the oldest and most beautiful cities in the Americas. Set amid three magnificent volcanoes - Agua, Fuego and Acatenango - its superb yet sturdy colonial buildings have weathered 16 earthquakes and numerous floods and fires. Antigua is especially beautiful during Semana Santa, when the streets are carpeted with elaborate decorations of colored sawdust and flower petals. The city's churches have lost much of their Baroque splendor, the post-earthquake repair and restoration leaving them denuded of embellishment and elegance. However, many remain impressive, in particular La Merced, the Iglesia de San Francisco and the Convento de las Capucinas (now a museum). Casa K'ojom is a fascinating museum of Mayan music and ceremonies and related artifacts, and a visit to the local cemetery also provides an insight into ancient Mayan beliefs. On Sundays, visitors and locals alike gather to assess the goods for sale at the bustling market held in Parque Central.


At 2030m (6658ft), the magical and misty highlands town of Chichi is surrounded by valleys and overshadowed by looming mountains. Though isolated, it's always been an important market town. The Sunday market is the one to catch, as the cofradías (religious brotherhoods) often hold processions on that day. The locals have combined traditional Mayan religious rites with Catholicism; the best places to witness these old rites are around the church of Santo Tomás and the shrine of Pascual Abaj, which honors the Mayan earth god. Incense, food and drink are offered to ancestors and to ensure the continued fertility of the earth. The town's Museo Regional contains ancient clay pots and figurines, flint and obsidian spearheads, maize grindstones and an impressive jade collection.


The commercial center of south-western Guatemala, Quetzaltenango is an excellent base for excursions to the many nearby villages, noted for their handicrafts and hot springs. The city prospered during the 19th century as a coffee-brokering and storage center, until an earthquake and volcanic eruption ended the boom. The town's major sights are the central square and the buildings which surround it, a couple of basic though useful markets and the ubiquitous Parque Minerva - many such monuments honoring the classical goddess of education (in the hope of inspiring Guatemalan youth to new heights of learning) were built during the presidency of Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898-1920). The beautiful volcanic countryside surrounding Quetzaltenango features natural steam baths at Los Vahos and Fuentes Georginas. Also in the vicinity is the picture-postcard village of Zunil, the market town of San Francisco El Alto and the handicrafts village of Momostenango.


The capital of the jungle-covered north-eastern department of El Petén, Flores is built on an island on Lago de Petén Itzá, and is connected by a 500m (1640ft) causeway to the service town of Santa Elena on the lakeshore. Flores is a dignified capital, with its church and government building arranged around the main plaza which crests the hill in the center of the island. The city was founded by the Itzaes, and at the time of conquest was perhaps the last still-functioning Mayan ceremonial center in the country. The pyramids, temples and idols were crushed under the foundations of the Spanish city, and the dispersal of the Mayan citizens into the jungle gave rise to the myth of a `lost' Mayan city. Modern sights include boat rides stopping at various lagoon settlements and a visit to the limestone caves of Actun-Can.


Don't be deterred by this town's nickname of Gringotenango ("place of the foreigners"), nor by the town's lack of colonial architecture or colorful market. The attraction here is the absolutely gorgeous caldera lake (a water-filled collapsed volcanic cone). Since the hippie days of the 1960s, laid-back travelers have flocked here to swim in Lago de Atitlán and generally chill out. Volcanoes surround the lake, and the town is the starting point for excursions to the smaller, more traditional indigenous villages on the western and southern shores of the lake. The most popular day-trip destination is Santiago Atitlán, with its colorfully dressed locals and a unique, cigar-smoking resident deity called Maximón. The market town of Sololá has been attracting traders for centuries, and the town's main plaza continues to throb with activity on market days. Village life can be sampled at Santa Catarina Palopá, while lakeside San Pedro La Laguna is perhaps more attractive because it is less visited.

Guatemala is a country gathering its wits after 30 years of insane civil war. Budget-challenged travelers have been drawn to the country throughout this period of turmoil because it offers Central America in concentrate form: its volcanoes are the highest and most active, its Mayan ruins the most impressive, its earthquakes the most devastating and its history of repression on a scale any Latin American government could be proud of.

Guatemala is the Mayan heartland of Central America, though the government has both touted and tortured the Maya - sticking pictures of them on its tourist brochures while sticking guns in their faces. Despite this, indigenous Guatemalan culture is alive and well, in the ancient ruins of Tikal, the Mayan/Catholic rituals of Chichicastenango and the blazing colors of everyday Mayan dress.


Guatemala's climate varies according to altitude. The coastal regions and the northeast are hot throughout the year with an average temperature of 20°C (68°F) sometimes rising to 37°C (99°F). Generally, nights are clear all year round. In higher climes near the centre of the country, the rainy season, running from May to September, is characterised by clear skies after abundant rainfall in the afternoons and evenings. Temperatures fall sharply at night.
Required clothing: Lightweight tropicals. Jacket or light woollens for night.


Guatemala Tourist Commission (INGUAT)
Street address: 7a Avenida 1-17, zona 4, Centro Cívico, Guatemala City, Guatemala
Tel: 331•1333 or (888) 464•8281 (24-hour toll free number; USA only) or (801) 464•8281 (24-hour toll free number; Guatemala only). Fax: 331•4416 or 331•8893.
E-mail: (institute) or (tourist information)
Web site:

Embassy of the Republic of Guatemala
2220 R Street, NW, Washington, DC 20008
Tel: (202) 745•49524. Fax: (202) 745•1908
E-mail: (general) or (consular section).
Web site:

Embassy of the United States of America:
Avenida La Reforma 7-01, Zona 10, Guatemala City, Guatemala
Tel: 331•1541. Fax: 334•8477
Press: Publications include El Gráfico, Prensa Libre, Siglo Veintiuno, Diario Centro America and La Hora. English-language publications include Guatemala Weekly, Central America Report and Siglo News and The Review.
Country dialing code: 502
Source: World Travel Guide and Guatemala Travel Guide on Yahoo.

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