Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Guatemala | Introduction

North AmericaGuatemalaGuatemala | Introduction

Guatemala, officially the Republic of Guatemala (Spanish: República de Guatemala), is a Central American country bordered by Mexico to the north and west, the Pacific Ocean to the southwest, Belize to the northeast, the Caribbean to the east, Honduras to the east and El Salvador to the southeast. With an estimated population of about 15.8 million, it is the most populous state in Central America. Guatemala is a representative democracy. The capital and largest city of Guatemala is Nueva Guatemala de la Asunción, also known as Guatemala City.

The area of present-day Guatemala was once the heart of the Mayan civilisation that stretched across all of Mesoamerica. Most of the country was conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century and became part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Guatemala gained independence in 1821 as part of the Federative Republic of Central America, which was dissolved in 1841.

In the mid to late 19th century, Guatemala experienced chronic instability and civil unrest. In the early 20th century, it was ruled by a series of dictators supported by the United Fruit Company and the United States government. In 1944, authoritarian leader Jorge Ubico was overthrown in a pro-democracy military coup, sparking a decade-long revolution that led to radical social and economic reforms. A US-backed military coup in 1954 ended the revolution and established a dictatorship.

From 1960 to 1996, Guatemala experienced a bloody civil war between the US-backed government and leftist rebels, which included genocidal massacres of the Mayan population by the military. Since a UN-brokered peace agreement, Guatemala has experienced economic growth and successful democratic elections, although it continues to struggle with high rates of poverty, crime, drug trafficking and instability.

Guatemala’s abundance of unique and biologically significant ecosystems includes a large number of endemic species and contributes to Mesoamerica’s designation as a biodiversity hotspot. The country is also known for its rich and distinct culture, characterised by a fusion of Spanish and indigenous influences.

Tourism in Guatemala

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Tourism has become one of the most important drivers of the economy. In 2008, tourism contributed 1.8 billion dollars to the economy. Guatemala receives about two million tourists per year. In recent years, more and more cruise ships have called at Guatemalan seaports, which has led to an increase in the number of tourists in the country.

Fascinating Mayan archaeological sites are located on its territory (Tikal in Peten, Quiriguá in Izabal, Iximche in Tecpan Chimaltenango and Guatemala City). Lake Atitlan and Semuc Champey are destinations of natural beauty. As a historical tourism, the colonial city of Antigua Guatemala is recognised by UNESCO as a cultural heritage site.

There is a strong international interest in archaeological sites because the city of Tikal was built and inhabited at a time when culture was at its most literal and artistic expression, ruled by a dynasty of 16 kings, the Maya of Tikal built many temples, a ball court, altars and stelae in high and low relief.

Guatemala is very popular for its archaeological sites, pre-Hispanic cities as well as its religious-tourist centres such as the Basilica of Esquipulas in the city of Esquipulas and the beautiful beaches on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of Guatemala. Other tourist destinations are the national parks and other protected areas such as the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

Geography of Guatemala

Guatemala is a mountainous country with small patches of desert and sand dunes, all of which are hilly except for the southern coast and the vast lowlands of the northern department of Petén. Two mountain ranges cross the country from west to east, dividing Guatemala into three main regions: the highlands, where the mountains are located; the Pacific coast, south of the mountains; and the Petén region, north of the mountains.

All major cities are located in the highlands and the Pacific coastal regions; Petén is comparatively sparsely populated. These three regions differ in climate, altitude and landscape, offering dramatic contrasts between the hot, humid tropical lowlands and the cooler, drier highland peaks. The volcano Tajumulco is the highest point in Central America at 4,220 metres.

The rivers are short and shallow in the Pacific watershed, wider and deeper in the Caribbean watershed and the Gulf of Mexico watershed. These rivers include the Polochic and Dulce Rivers, which flow into Lake Izabal, the Motagua River, the Sarstún River, which forms the border with Belize, and the Usumacinta River, which forms the border between Petén and Chiapas, Mexico.

Biodiversity in Guatemala

Guatemala has 14 ecoregions ranging from mangrove forests to oceanic coasts with 5 different ecosystems. There are 252 listed wetlands in Guatemala, including five lakes, 61 lagoons, 100 rivers and four swamps. Tikal National Park was the first mixed site to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Guatemala is a country with a distinct wildlife. There are about 1,246 known species. Of these, 6.7% are endemic and 8.1% are threatened. Guatemala is home to at least 8,681 species of vascular plants, of which 13.5 % are endemic. 5.4 % of Guatemala’s area is protected by IUCN categories I-V.

The Maya Biosphere Reserve in the department of Petén covers 2,112,940 ha, making it the second largest forest in Central America after Bosawas.

Demographics of Guatemala

Guatemala has a population of 15,824,463 (2014 estimate). With only 885,000 inhabitants in 1900, it is the fastest growing population in the Western Hemisphere during the 20th century.

Guatemala is highly centralised: Transport, communication, economy, politics and the most important urban activities take place in the capital Guatemala City, which has about 2 million inhabitants within the city limits and more than 5 million in the metropolis, i.e. more than a third of the country’s population.

The estimated median age in Guatemala is 20 years, with 19.4 years for men and 20.7 years for women. Guatemala is demographically one of the youngest countries in the Western Hemisphere, comparable to most Central African countries and Iraq. In 2010, the proportion of the population under 15 years of age was 41.5%, 54.1% were between 15 and 65 years of age, and 4.4% were 65 years or older.

A significant number of Guatemalans live outside their country. The majority of the Guatemalan diaspora is in the United States of America, with estimates ranging from 480,665 to 1,489,426. It is difficult to obtain accurate figures for Guatemalans abroad, as many are asylum seekers waiting for their status to be determined. Emigration to the United States of America has led to the growth of Guatemalan communities in California, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Texas, Rhode Island and elsewhere since the 1970s.

Ethnic groups

Guatemala is a very diverse country, populated by a variety of ethnic, cultural, racial and linguistic groups. According to the 2010 census conducted by the National Institute of Statistics (INE), about 41.5 % of the population are mestizos (also known as ladinos), reflecting a mix of indigenous and European heritage. A similar proportion of Guatemalans (41 %) are entirely of Amerindian descent, one of the highest percentages in Latin America after Peru and Bolivia. Most Guatemalans belong to the Maya people, namely the K’iche’ (11.0% of the total population), the Q’eqchi (8.3%), the Kaqchikel (7.8%), the Mam (5.2%) and the “other Maya” (7.6%). Less than 1% are indigenous non-Maya.

White Guatemalans of European descent (also known as Criollo) make up 18.5 percent of the population. The majority are descendants of German and Spanish settlers, followed by other Europeans such as Italians, British, French, Swiss, Belgians, Dutch, Russians and Danes.

Smaller communities are present, including about 110,000 Salvadorans. The Garífuna, who are mainly descended from black Africans who lived on St. Vincent and mixed with indigenous people, live mainly in Livingston and Puerto Barrios. The Afro-Guatemalans and mulattos are mainly descended from banana plantation workers. There are also Asians, mainly of Chinese origin, but also Arabs of Lebanese and Syrian origin. The growing Korean community in Guatemala City and nearby Mixco currently numbers about 50,000. Guatemala’s German population is credited with introducing the Christmas tree tradition to the country.


Christianity remains strong and important to the life of Guatemalan society, but its composition has changed over generations of social and political turmoil. Roman Catholicism, introduced by the Spanish during the colonial period, remains the dominant church, representing 48.4% of the population in 2007. Predominantly evangelical Protestants (most Protestants are called evangelicos in Latin America) made up 33.7% of the population at that time, followed by 1.6% of other religions (such as Judaism, Islam and Buddhism) and 16.1% who reported no religious affiliation. A more recent survey in 2012 found that Catholics made up 47.6% of the population, Protestants 38.2%, other religions 2.6% and non-religious 11.6%.

From 1970 to 2016, and especially since the 1990s, Guatemala has experienced rapid growth in evangelical Protestantism, which currently accounts for over 38% of the population and continues to grow.

In the last two decades, especially since the end of the civil war, Guatemala has experienced increased missionary activity. Protestant denominations have grown significantly in recent decades, especially the Evangelical and Pentecostal varieties; growth has been particularly strong among the ethnic Maya, with the National Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Guatemala maintaining 11 presbyteries in indigenous languages. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has grown from 40,000 members in 1984 to 164,000 in 1998, and continues to grow.

The growth of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Guatemala has been particularly strong, with hundreds of thousands of conversions in the last five years, giving the country the highest proportion of Orthodox adherents in the Western Hemisphere.

Traditional Mayan religion persists through the process of inculturation, where certain practices are integrated into Catholic ceremonies and services when they are compatible with the meaning of the Catholic faith. Indigenous religious practices are increasing due to the cultural protection introduced by the peace accords. The government has introduced a policy of providing altars in each Mayan ruin to facilitate traditional ceremonies.

Between 1990 and 2012, PROLADES conducted a study of public opinion polls in Guatemala. The data shows a relative decline in Catholicism and significant growth in evangelical Protestantism, people who do not subscribe to any religion and minority religions (including indigenous traditions).

Economy of Guatemala

Guatemala is the largest economy in Central America with a GDP per capita (PPP) of USD 5 200. Guatemala has many social problems and is one of the poorest countries in Latin America. Income distribution is very unequal, more than half the population is below the national poverty line and just over 400,000 people (3.2%) are unemployed. The CIA World Fact Book estimates that 54.0% of Guatemala’s population lives in poverty.

In 2010, the Guatemalan economy grew by 3 %, gradually recovering from the crisis of 2009, which was due to lower demand from the US and other Central American markets, as well as a slowdown in foreign investment amid a global recession.

Remittances from Guatemalans living in the USA are now the most important source of foreign income (two-thirds of exports and one-tenth of GDP).

Guatemala’s main exports include fruits, vegetables, flowers, handicrafts, fabrics and others. In response to the growing demand for biofuels, the country is growing and exporting more and more raw materials for biofuel production, including sugar cane and palm oil. Critics say this is driving up the prices of staple crops such as maize, a major component of the Guatemalan diet. Because of subsidies on US corn, Guatemala imports almost half of its corn from the United States, which uses 40 per cent of its crop to produce biofuels. The government is looking at ways to legalise the production of poppies and marijuana, hoping to tax the production and use the tax revenues to fund drug prevention programmes and other social projects.

Gross domestic product (GDP) at purchasing power parity (PPP) was estimated at USD 70.15 billion in 2010. The service sector is the largest component of GDP at 63%, followed by the industrial sector at 23.8% and the agricultural sector at 13.2% (2010 est.). The mining sector produces gold, silver, zinc, cobalt and nickel. The agricultural sector accounts for about two-fifths of exports and half of the labour force. Organic coffee, sugar, textiles, fresh vegetables and bananas are the country’s main exports. Inflation was 3.9 % in 2010.

The 1996 peace agreement, which ended a decades-long civil war, removed a major obstacle to foreign investment. Tourism has become a growing source of income for Guatemala thanks to new foreign investment.

In March 2006, the Guatemalan Congress ratified the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) between several Central American countries and the United States. Guatemala has also concluded free trade agreements with Taiwan and Colombia.