10 Surprising Geographical Facts About Guatemala
There is an abundance of geographical facts to explore about Guatemala as it has a convenient location—its surrounding mountains even protect it from incoming hurricanes.
Known as “the country of eternal spring” (El país de la eterna primavera), it has plentiful natural wonders, such as volcanoes, lakes, caves, cenotes, jungles, forests, and beaches.
Join me as I unravel these 10 surprising geographical facts you may not yet know about Guatemala!
1. Guatemala Used To Be a Larger Country
Guatemala has an area of 42,042 sq mi (108,889 sq km), but it used to be 192,005 sq mi (497,292 sq km).
Between 1542 and 1821, Guatemala’s territory extended from Yucatan to Costa Rica. In 1882, Guatemala began to lose the territory of Soconusco to Mexico, and in 1824, that of Chiapas. Guatemalan president at the time, Justo Rufino Barrios, and his minister, Lorenzo Montúfar—pressured by US president, Chester Alan Arthur—signed a two-article treaty to cede the territories to Mexico.
2. Semuc Champey
If you’re visiting the Alta Verapaz department in northern Guatemala, you will find an incomparable complex of natural pools deep within the forest in a municipality called Lanquín. Guatemalans discovered this place in 1950.
The water in this place is indescribable—its turquoise tone and surrounding scenery give you the feeling of getting lost in time.
Guatemalans have conserved this place clean so people can swim in the pools and enjoy its refreshing waters as if you were in a water park. This is one of the most beautiful places in the country, so make sure to bring a bathing suit!
All of it combined with the local fauna that includes birds, amphibians, and fish complement the experience. The weather is around 77 °F (25 °C) all year long. It is so beautiful that in 1999 former president and mayor Álvaro Arzú declared it a Natural Monument.
Semuc Champey is definitely a geographical gem in Guatemala.
FUN FACT: Semuc Champey comes from the q’eqchi’ language—one of the 25 recognized languages in Guatemala besides Spanish. Xmuq means “to hide,” cham means “deep,” and pek means “stone.”
3. The Maya Ruins
Do you remember the scene from Star Wars on the planet Yavin IV? The Star Wars crew visited Tikal in the Guatemalan jungle to shoot it.
You can find the ruins in the department of Petén, in the northern part of Guatemala. These are the biggest ones, and some places are so big that archeologists haven’t fully discovered them yet.
Get ready to find the great pyramids the Maya built centuries ago and that UNESCO declared a world heritage site in 1979. The Great Jaguar Temple (El templo del Gran Jaguar) is one of the biggest and most impressive pyramids you’ll find in Guatemala.
If you’re visiting, make sure to be ready to hike extensively, and bring mosquito repellant with you because mosquitos in Petén are merciless, and temperatures can reach 95 °F (35 °C) in April—they hit their lowest in January which is still 81 °F (27 °C), so go prepared.
4. It Takes up to 16 Hours To Drive From North to South
In the case you want to drive all across the country, you can do so in only 16 hours! However, driving in Guatemala can be a complete odyssey—yet the charming scenery makes it all worthwhile—because the country doesn’t have modern highways. So make sure to always take the scenic route.
The “shorter” route starts in Uaxactún and takes you all the way through Peten’s jungle. You get to check out the Atlantic Ocean by Izabal’s beaches, and the San Felipe castle. You can make a stop for a delicious quesadilla in Zacapa, and drive through El Progreso. A few hours later, you will be in Guatemala City where you can see beautiful buildings and designs. From the capital, you can continue through Amatitlán and get a glance of the lake, drive through Escuintla, and finally arrive in Santa Rosa’s sunny, black sand beaches to enjoy a refreshing coconut in Monterrico, where the weather is around 80 – 90 °F (25 – 33 °C).
5. The Cuchumatanes
Guatemala has 6 climate zones. In Western Guatemala, in Huehuetenango, and in Quiché you can find semi-cool weather, which can become cool in the evenings. Here you can find the Cuchumatanes mountain range (La Sierra de los Cuchumatanes). This is one of the most surprising geographical facts about Guatemala since it is an extraordinary mountain range.
This 6,310 sq mile (16,350 sq km) mountain range, with altitudes between 1,600 ft (500 m) and 12,500 ft (3,800 m) is the vastest highland in Central America. You can find a variety of biomes: wet forests, humid forests, neotropic-grass shrublands, and pluvial forests all in the same mountain range.
The weather is different depending on the part of the mountain range you’re in, but you could give it a broad definition saying it is wet and cold.
FUN FACT: Cuchumatán comes from Mam—one of the 25 official languages in Guatemala. Cuchuj means “to unite,” and matán means “with superior force.”
FUN FACT! Every ten years or so it even snows in Quetzaltenango!
6. The Highest Point in Guatemala Is a Volcano
The highest point in Guatemala is the extinct Tajumulco volcano, located in the department of San Marcos, in western Guatemala. It has an altitude of 13,851 ft (4,222 m), which makes it a popular destination for hikers and adventurers.
Did you think that a Central American country couldn’t be cold because it’s too close to the equator? Well, that’s not the case at the peak of the Tajumulco volcano—where temperatures normally reach 32 °F (0 °C), and it actually feels colder since the air is also humid.
According to a popular Mam legend, San Marcos’ life came out of the Tajumulco volcano, because a catastrophe occurred and the volcano kept the inhabitants safe until it was okay to come out again.
7. Guatemala Has More Than 40 Beaches
Out of Guatemala’s 22 departments, San Marcos, Retalhuleu, Suchitepéquez, Escuintla, Santa Rosa, and Jalapa have an exit to the Pacific Ocean, and Izabal to the Atlantic Ocean—providing for plentiful beach options. Additionally, Sololá and Petén have lakes.
Escuintla is the most popular department in Guatemala for its beaches, some of them are:
- Puerto Quetzal
- Puerto San José
- El Paredón
Retalhuleu has Champerico beach, and San Marcos has Ocos Beach. Santa Rosa has Las Lisas, Monterrico, and Hawaii (not to be confused with US state!). Sololá has Panajachel beach, and Suchitepéquez has Chicago beach. Izabal has many beaches from which the most popular ones are playa blanca (white beach) and playa dorada (golden beach). Finally, Petén has around nine beaches.
Most of the beaches in Guatemala have black, volcanic sand, which gives them an interesting look. The weather in most of the Guatemalan beaches is warm all year long, while it hits its peak between March and August (some of them can reach over 104°F or 40 °C) you can even visit them in December and have a very nice time with its 90°F (32°C).
8. There Are 38 Rivers in Guatemala
Guatemala is a country full of interesting geographical facts. It has 38 important rivers, some of which limit all of its borders with Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras.
The rivers Suchiate, Azul, Grijalva, Usumacinta, San Pedro, Lacantún, Xacibal, Ixcan, Chixoy, Seleguá, and Culico divide Guatemala from Mexico.
The rivers, Azul, Hondo, Mopán, Belice, Moho, and Sarstún divide Guatemala and Belize.
The rivers Paz, Lempa, and Ostúa divide Guatemala and El Salvador. The Lempa and Motagua Rivers divide Guatemala and Honduras.
The longest and most important river in Guatemala is the Usumacinta which we share with Mexico. This is a 348-mile-long (560-kilometer-long) river that is born from the Paz and Salinas rivers. The Usumacinta passes through places where temperatures are warm and are between 64 °F (18°C) and 71 °F (22°C).
9. Guatemala Has 3 Active Volcanoes
Guatemala has 33 volcanoes of which three are active. The Fire Volcano (El volcán de fuego) actually caused a recent disaster that forced 4,000 people to leave their homes.
The Pacaya volcano, another active volcano, erupted in April for the last time. However, it did not cause human or material losses but was rather a spectacle to see.
The Santiaguito Volcano has been active every hour for the last 90 years.
In general, the climate at the top of any of these volcanoes is semi-cold and humid, although it varies a bit because of each volcano’s different height.
10. Guatemala Has the Deepest Lake in Central America
Lake Atitlán in the department of Sololá—located 93 mi (150 km) from Guatemala City—is 1,115 ft (340 m) deep, which makes it the deepest lake in Central America.
The three (inactive) volcanoes that surround it create one of the most beautiful sceneries you’d ever see.
The region of the country that includes Huehuetenango, Quiché, San Marcos, Quetzaltenango, Totonicapán, Sololá, Chimaltenango, and Guatemala City has semi-cool weather. Naturally, here you’ll find a minimum temperature of 51°F (11°C) and a maximum temperature of 79°F (26°C).
Visit Guatemala Speaking Spanish!
Guatemala has so much to offer that it surpasses this article! You definitely need to visit at least once—whether it is to see Mayan ruins, unique textiles, or jade, or only to delight in its wonderful weather all year round.
Get ready to enjoy Guatemala’s uniqueness to the fullest by speaking Spanish! Sign up for a free class today with one of our friendly Guatemalan teachers who can’t wait to tell you more about this spectacular country. Speaking Spanish will additionally give you greater benefits than communicating freely all over Latin America, Spain, and Equatorial Guinea as it will also improve your cognition and decision-making abilities.
Ready to learn more about Guatemala and Latin America? Check these out!
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