Nestled in Central America between the Pacific and the Caribbean is the beautiful country of Guatemala! Though it endured a tumultuous 20th century, the nation has come into its own over the last couple decades.
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- Capital (and Largest City): Guatemala City
- Population (2015): 16,176,133 (68th)
- Total Area: 108,889 km² (105th)
- Official Language: Spanish
- Currency: Guatemalan quetzal (Q) (GTQ)
History of Guatemala
Civilization in what is now Guatemala dates back to around 12,000 BCE. The most famous and chronicled period of Mesoamerican history in the land pertains to the vast and powerful Maya civilization. Though the Maya collapsed around 900 CE, they left a legacy of urbanization, city-states, and advancement. Theories diverge on why the civilization came to an end and although subsequent powers were able to recapture some of the former glory of the Mayans, none fully matched it.
Colonialism and Independence
Guatemala began to change in the year 1519, when Spanish began their first expeditions into the region. Conquistadors brought the area under control of the Spanish crown, with the land officially a part of New Spain (Mexico). Though natural disasters affected the country (even causing the capital to be moved), Guatemala persisted as a part of Spain until 1821.
Finding its Footing
So what happened in 1821? Well Guatemala and many surrounding countries (including Costa Rica and Honduras) declared independence. The immediate post-independence era was not easy however, as Honduran forces began a scorched-earth attack on the fledgling country. A protracted struggle between the Honduran leader Morazán and Rafael Carrera’s Guatemalan militia eventually ended with the latter taking Guatemala City by surprise in 1839.
In 1847, Carrera was named President of a new republic – though he was chased off to Mexico a year later before returning once again. By this time there were many competing factions in Guatemala – including liberals, conservatives, rebels, Carrera, and more. In the end, after much politicking and maneuvering, Carrera regained the presidency and was named to the post for life – or until 1865 when he died. Later governments fluctuated between liberalism and conservatism, though the divisions and political intrigue only ramped up. Brutality was often a key part of the ruling regimes, while assassination attempts, rebellions, and revolts continued to occur.
United Fruit Company and Dictatorships
During the reign of Manuel Estrada Cabrera (early 20th century), the United Fruit Company (a US corporation that dealt mainly in bananas) was allowed access to Guatemala as a ploy to boost exports and trade. Under his successor (Jorge Ubico, 1933-1944) the country suffered a depression while the dictator invested more in the ruthless police force and military. All the while, United Fruit was granted ever-greater powers and expanded their land holdings in Guatemala. They controlled the railroad, electricity, ports, were granted tax exemptions, and more. Ubico also grew closer to the US, despite his open admiration of fascists.
Ubico resigned in 1944 following a wave of widespread protests. A later coup displaced his replacement, following which the junta held free and fair elections. However the winner, Jacobo Árbenz, was overthrown by the CIA (who armed a rebel force) in order to protect the United Fruit Company. While the military force was weak, the psychological warfare, propaganda, and threat of a US invasion forced Árbenz to resign in 1954.
What followed was a succession of rigged elections, coups, returns from exile, and right-wing paramilitaries (predecessors of the feared ‘death squads’). The latter groups were supported by US Special Forces, who viewed the left-wing government with trepidation. Guerrilla organizations and military forces clashed, resulting in many civilian and combatant casualties. A brutal military junta took control in 1982, though it too was soon overthrown. After nearly a decade of scorched earth tactics throughout the countryside, the Civil War concluded in 1996 – ending over three decades of strife and violence.
After the UN brokered a peace accord, the guerrilla fighters were disarmed and granted land. Though the scars of the conflict and loss of life remain ingrained in the consciousness of Guatemala, the country has sought to move forward. Since the end of the war, the country has held regular free and fair elections. That being said, corruption and issues with poverty and the drug trade remain – meaning Guatemala still has a long way to go.
Guatemalan culture is based upon both the legacy of the Maya people as well as centuries of colonialism under the Spanish. This mix of pre-Columbian and European traditions informs everything from art to literature to music.
Flag of Guatemala
The national flag of Guatemala consists of two sky blue stripes and one white stripe (all vertical) with the coat of arms in the middle. The flag represents Guatemala as a land between two oceans. The blue also denotes the sky while the white stands for peace and purity.
Guatemalan food is based predominantly off Maya traditions and uses corn, black beans, and chilies as the cornerstone of any diet. Tamales and fiambre (a chilled salad) are both popular dishes in the country.
Sports in Guatemala
Soccer is the most popular sport in Guatemala. Despite this, the national team has not yet qualified for a World Cup. Another popular sport is futsal (a version of soccer on a hard court), where the country is much more successful internationally.
Geography of Guatemala
Despite its small size, Guatemala features a diverse, varied, and extraordinary geography. Along with coastal regions, it includes mountains, desert, river basins, tropical areas, and more. That being said, mountains and highlands are the dominating characteristics of the landscape.
Cities in Guatemala
Guatemala City is by far the largest municipality in the country, with a population of slightly over 1 million. It is also the largest city in all of Central America. To find the next largest city not located adjacent to the capital, you have to travel to Quetzaltenango – which is home to slightly more than 200,000.
Facts about Guatemala
- The national anthem was written by a Cuban
- The country is home to around 30 volcanoes
- The Maya people made the first chocolate bar in Guatemala
- Blue jean denim originated here
- In the Maya tongue, Guatemala means ‘Land of Trees’
- Actor Oscar Isaac (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ex Machina) was born in Guatemala
- It’s the world’s leading producer of jade
Despite a chaotic and tumultuous 20th century, Guatemala has since held regular democratic elections and now looks to work past the challenges that still face the nation.
Find out what else awaits in Central America and beyond with Continental’s Countries! You can also stay in Guatemala with our Travel Guide and Currency Spotlight.
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