25 interesting facts about Guatemala

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The most interesting facts about Guatemala include a rich indigenous culture and one of the most important sites of the Mayan civilisation.

Several interesting facts about Guatemala originate from the Maya
Several interesting facts about Guatemala originate from the Maya (Shutterstock)

Fast facts

Official name: Republic of Guatemala
Capital city: Guatemala City
Population: 17,153,288 
Area: 108,889 sq km
Major languages: Spanish, Maya languages
Time zone: UTC-6 (Central Time Zone)
(Source: CIA World Fact Book)

Interesting facts about Guatemala

1. Guatemala is the most populous country in Central America68th overall.
(Source: CIA World Fact Book)

2. The ancient city and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tikal in Guatemala is one of the major sites of Mayan civilization and was inhabited for 16 centuries from the 6th century BC to the 10th century AD.
(Source: UNESCO)

3. Guatemala is probably an indigenous name originating either from the words Quauhtemallan meaning ‘land of trees’ or Guhatezmalha meaning ‘mountain of vomiting water’, referring to its volcanic eruptions.
(Source: Britannica)

4. Between 1523 and 1524, Spanish explorer Pedro de Alvarado defeated the indigenous Maya and turned Guatemala into a Spanish colony.
(Source: BBC News)

5. The Spanish, who ruled over Guatemala until 1821, essentially enslaved the indigenous people of the area and forced them to work on their own land for the benefit of the colonialists.
(Source: Lonely Planet)

6. Guatemala was initially absorbed into the Mexican empire following independence from Spain. Then in 1823, Guatemala joined the United Provinces of Central America, which also included Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador.
(Source: Encyclopedia.com)

The Guatemalan flag and coat of arm
The Guatemalan flag and coat of arm (Shutterstock)

7. The Guatemalan flag takes inspiration from the flag used by the United Provinces of Central America which consisted of blue-white-blue stripes and a coat of arms in the centre. The countries of El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica all use permutations of the design in their flags.
(Source: Complete Flags of the World. (2014). DK: London)

8. Guatemala’s national bird is the quetzal. The long-tailed bird lives largely in cloud forest. However, the quetzal and its habitat are under threat.
(Source: WWF)

9. The Guatemala coat of arms features the national bird, a scroll containing the date of Central American independence, a wreath and crossed rifles and sabres.
(Source: Britannica)

10. The quetzal is also the name of Guatemala’s currency.
(Source: Oxford Dictionary)

Guatemala's national bird and currency
Guatemala’s national bird and currency: the quetzal (Shutterstock)

11. Guatemalan Indian-rights activist, Rigoberta Menchú, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1992.
(Source: The Nobel Prize)

12. Guatemala is thought to be one of the first places to invent chocolate. Considered the ‘food of the gods’ by the Mayans, the chocolate-making tradition originated in the Maya world, which encompassed modern-day Guatemala.
(Source: National Geographic)

13. Even though Spanish is the official language, there are 23 officially recognized indigenous languages in Guatemala. These include 21 Maya languages.
(Source: CIA World Fact Book)

14. Guatemala has unique geology resulting from its location on the confluence of three tectonic plates. As such the country has suffered from major earthquakes in 1917, 1918 and 1976.
(Source: Lonely Planet, Britannica)

15. Guatemala has at least 30 volcanoes, of which four are currently active: Pacaya, Fuego, Santiaguito and Tacaná. 
(Source: Lonely Planet)

16. 2018 saw multiple eruptions of Volcán de Fuego (Volcano of Fire). Hundreds of people died and over 4,000 displaced when the volcano erupted twice within six months.
(Source: The Guardian)

Volcán de Fuego erupts in Guatemala
Volcanoes account for several interesting facts about Guatemala (Shutterstock)

17. With an elevation of 4,220m (13,845ft), Tajumulco Volcano in Guatemala is the highest peak in Central America.
(Source: Britannica)

18. From 1960 to 1996 Guatemala suffered from a 36-year civil war between the US-backed government and leftist rebels supported mainly by indigenous people.
(Source: BBC News)

19. The conflict saw an estimated 200,000 people killed with many of the casualties a result of human rights atrocities committed by the government. The Guatemalan security forces that murdered thousands of civilians were trained and equipped by the USA.
(Source: Washington Post)

20. Estimates suggest that Guatemala has 250 species of mammals, 600 species of birds, 200 species of reptiles and amphibians, and numerous species of butterflies and insects.
(Source: Lonely Planet)

21. Guatemala City is the most populous city in Central America.
(Source: World Bank)

22. Antigua was once the capital of Guatemala. However, following a devasting earthquake in 1773, the capital was moved to Guatemala City in 1776. Antigua is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, inscribed for its architecture and preserved ruins.
(Source: Britannica, UNESCO)

The city of Antigua
The city of Antigua (Shutterstock)

23. Guatemalans fly kites to honour their dead. Every year on All Saints’ Day, the people of Sacatepequez fly giant kites up to 12m in size over the graves of their family members while they pray and lay flowers.
(Source: CNN)

24. Bananas and coffee are Guatemala’s biggest exports. They account for over $2 billion and 20% of Guatemala’s total exports.
(Source: OEC)

25. Old American school buses are often refurbished with chrome and an elaborate custom paint job and repurposed as intercity buses in Guatemala. Some are up to 30 years old.
(Source: The Guardian)