13 Mind-Blowing Facts About Guatemala You Didn’t Know
Do you want to learn some fascinating facts about Guatemala?
Unbelievable history, great artists, delicious food, exceptional inventions, lush landscapes, imposing volcanoes, horror stories—this little country has a bit of everything!
Did you know that British author Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) fell in love with Guatemala’s most famous lake, Lake Atitlán? Did you know that a Guatemalan businesswoman invented the beloved McDonald’s Happy Meal?
Guatemala is one of the 21 countries where Spanish is an official language. Keep reading to discover more about its intriguing people, culture, history, and geography!
Table of Contents:
- Land of the Maya
- The Name “Guatemala” Comes From…
- 200 Years and Counting
- Two Nobel Prize Winners
- World-Renowned Coffee
- Volcanoes, The Perfect Tourist Spot
- Lake Atitlán, The Most Beautiful Lake in the World
- How Many People Live in Guatemala?
- Myths and Legends
- A Rich Multilingual Country
- One Country, Many Climates
- The Home of the Happy Meal
- Duolingo and The Wiz Tech
1. Land of the Maya
Guatemala is the home of the Maya civilization. Considered one of the most advanced and sophisticated pre-Columbian civilizations, the Mayans built astonishing pyramid-temples. They were versed in astronomy and used cacao as currency.
They had an accurate numerical system, developed precise calendars, invented rubber, and created a ballgame that’s essentially the forefather of soccer!
They were also prolific artists. The Mayans originally occupied part of Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Belize, and Guatemala.
They are still very much alive and continue to innovate in art, science, sports, and every aspect of life and modern Guatemalan culture. To learn more about the Mayans, dive into some of the texts that survived the Spanish conquest: Popol Vuh, Chilam Balam, and Rabinal Achí, which are all available in Spanish and English.
See also: The Wonders of Mayan Civilization
2. The Name “Guatemala” Comes From…
The land we now call Guatemala was once called “Quauhtemallan.” Many experts and historians believe the “Quauhtemallan” means “tierra de abundantes florestas,” which roughly translates into English as “land of plentiful forests.”
Other historians think that the name “Guatemala” comes from the word “Guhatezmalha,” which means “mountain of vomiting water.”
The use of “Guatemala” dates back at least to 1524. In May of that year, Spanish explorer Pedro de Alvarado sent a letter to Hernán Cortés (another conquistador) detailing his expedition in 16th century Guatemala.
3. 200 Years and Counting
Two hundred years ago, on September 15, 1821, fifteen men signed the Act of Independence of Central America, which proclaimed the independence of Central America from the Spanish Empire.
That’s right, Guatemala became a republic 200 years ago! Since its independence, Guatemala has gone through two revolutions, several dictatorships, a US-backed intervention, a long civil war, many military coups, and 22 earthquakes. The country hosted the FIFA Futsal World Cup in 2000.
4. Two Nobel Prize Winners
Did you know that two Guatemalans have won the Nobel Prize?
First was the novelist, poet, playwright, journalist, and diplomat Miguel Ángel Asturias, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1967. He was the second Latin American author to win the Nobel; Chilean Gabriela Mistral won it in 1945.
In 1992, the Nobel committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the K’iche Guatemalan human rights activist and feminist Rigoberta Menchú Tum for her work “based on the respect for the rights of indigenous people.”
Recommended reading: 13 Famous Hispanic Women in History Who Made Enormous Impact
5. World-Renowned Coffee
Guatemalan coffee is considered one of the best coffees in the world. Jesuit missionaries first introduced coffee to Guatemala in the mid-1700s, and it quickly became one of Guatemala’s most important exports.
The quality of coffee grown in Guatemala is the result and combination of the country’s microclimates, altitude, quality of soil, amount of rain, access to sunlight, and cultivation methods.
Guatemala has eight coffee regions: Antigua, Acatenango, Atitlán, Cobán, Fraijanes, Huehuetenango, and Nuevo Oriente, and the coffee grown in each of these regions tastes remarkably different.
6. Volcanoes, The Perfect Tourist Spot
Guatemala is also famous for its volcanoes; there are 37 in the country. Don’t worry. Only three are active (Fuego, Pacaya, and Santiaguito), and many are considered tourist attractions.
Guatemala’s tallest volcano is Tajumulco (13,789 ft), it’s located in San Marcos, and it’s Central America’s tallest volcano, as well.
7. Lake Atitlán, The Most Beautiful Lake in the World
In 1934, British author Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) wrote in his journal that “(Lake) Atitlán is (Lake) Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.”
Also, writers and historians argue that Guatemala inspired elements of Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince. He, in fact, crashed in Guatemala in 1938 and spent time in Antigua recovering from his injuries. Many have also noted the similarity between the elephant-inside-a-boa drawing and Cerro de Oro, a hill visible from Lake Atitlán. You be the judge.
8. How Many People Live in Guatemala?
Curious about this important fact? According to the latest national census, in 2018, 14.901 million people were living in Guatemala, 3.5 million more than in 2002, when Guatemala’s National Institute of Statistics (INE) did the previous census.
Furthermore, according to the World Bank estimates, in 2020, 16.86 million people were living in Guatemala. Guatemala is the most populated country in Central America.
9. Myths and Legends
Some of the most important elements of Guatemalan folklore are its myths and legends. For example, you’ve probably heard of La Llorona, a woman who drowned her kids in a river and later killed herself in the same river. To this day, people say they can hear wailing for her children.
But there were countless others, like La Tatuana, a witch who escaped her execution when she boarded a tiny ship she had drawn in her cell. Or El Cadejo, a dog with red eyes which leads drunkards or drifters to their death. Or La Siguanaba, a creature with a woman’s body and the face of a horse.
Earlier on this list, we mentioned author Miguel Ángel Asturias. He wrote a book based on Guatemalan myths and legends called Leyendas de Guatemala (Legends of Guatemala). Check it out to discover more about Guatemala and its culture.
Recommended reading: 10 Creepy Myths from Spanish-Speaking Countries
10. A Rich Multilingual Country
Guatemala is one of the 21 countries where Spanish is an official language. The country additionally acknowledges that 25 languages are spoken in its territory: Spanish, Xinka, Garífuna, and 22 Mayan languages.
Nearly 93% of Guatemalans speak Spanish. However, many indigenous people in Guatemala still speak their ancestral language, such asK’iche’, Mam, and Kaqchikel.
11. One Country, Many Climates
Guatemala is known as the “land of the eternal spring” due to its temperate climate. However, because of its unique geography, Guatemala has colder areas, drier areas, misty mountains, damp lowland jungles, scorching beaches—you name it. So, if you’re planning on traveling to Guatemala, pack accordingly, meaning bring a sweater as well as flip-flops.
12. The Home of the Happy Meal
That’s right! McDonald’s Happy Meal comes from Guatemala. In the 1970s, Guatemalan businesswoman and philanthropist Yolanda Fernández de Cofiño came up with a meal with small portions for kids. She called it the “Ronald Menu.” Today, in Guatemala, it is known as the Cajita Feliz, which means the happy little box.
Other famous inventions Guatemalans have come up with include instant coffee, an eco-friendly log called Mr. Fuego (fire), a nutritious drink called Incaparina, and online security systems called CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA, which brings us to our last item on the list.
13. Duolingo and The Wiz Tech
Guatemalan entrepreneur Luis von Ahn founded reCAPTCHA in 2007. Two years later, Google bought the company. And two years after that, in 2011, Luis launched his world-renowned language-learning website and mobile app, Duolingo. Luis is still Duolingo’s CEO, and he continues to blaze trails in the fields of technology and education.
Recommended: 20 Best Apps To Learn Spanish On Your Own in 2022
Spanish Is Only a Click Away
Do you want to know more about Guatemala? Are you planning a trip to Guatemala or Central America? Our certified Guatemalan Spanish teachers can help you out with mastering the language and finding the best coffee shop around town! Sign up for a free class at Homeschool Spanish Academy before your trip and gain some invaluable cultural insight!
Join one of the 40,000 classes that we teach each month and you can experience results like these
“It’s great being able to interact with native speaking people and having a conversation with them not just doing all the work on paper. It’s also an amazing opportunity to speak with native Spanish-speaking people without having to travel to a native Spanish-speaking country.”
“Getting to know wonderful teachers who care about me and my growth in language and education. Evelyn Gomez and Erick Cacao are two of the most extraordinary people I have ever met, and talking with them in Spanish at the beginning of classes is always so fulfilling and greatly contributes to my happiness, joy, and wellbeing.”
“It’s a great way to learn Spanish, from native Spanish speakers in a 1-on-1 environment. It’s been fairly easy to schedule classes around my daughter’s other classes. The best value for us has been ordering multiple classes at a time. All the instructors have been great!”
– Cindy D, Parent of 3
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