21 Thought-Provoking Facts About Guatemalan Culture
Guatemalan culture is colorful, complex, and thought-provoking. Thanks to living in the heart of the Mayan highlands here in Guatemala for the past several years, I’ve been personally inspired by the wisdom of the Maya and I can’t wait to share with you some of the things I’ve learned about this country that make it so unique.
The Mayan Calendar, for instance, is an ancient lunar astrological system with incredible intricacies that offers insight into the energy of each day as well as our unique personalities. This is just one example of the dozens of thought-provoking facts about Guatemalan culture, history, and geography.
Guatemala is not only the largest country in Central America, but also an endlessly intriguing place with a tumultuous history. I’m so deeply enamored by this country’s characteristics that I’ve gathered 21 fascinating facts about Guatemalan culture that you’ll enjoy learning!!
1. Inhabited 13,000 Years
The first known culture in the Guatemalan region was the Clovis. They lived here around 11,000 B.C. and used stone tools like spears and blades to hunt mammals. Long before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Guatemala, various Mayan kingdoms ruled the land. Evidence of these pre-Columbian civilizations is available at over 5,000 archaeological sites throughout the country.
By 500 B.C., the Petén site of Nakbé had become one of the first real Mayan cities. At this time other settlements such as Tikal, Cival, and El Mirador were building their first ceremonial and astronomical structures. A shared language and belief system is also thought to have existed throughout the region at this time.
2. Twenty-two Official Languages
Mayan languages are a group of indigenous languages spoken in Mesoamerica and northern Central America by at least 6 million Maya peoples, and there are 21 of these actively spoken in Guatemala. Nevertheless, Spanish is the only official language of the country.
3. Llegada de los Españoles
In 1524, Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado conquered Guatemala. One unfortunate feature of the Spanish conquest of Guatemala was the introduction of European diseases to which the indigenous people had no resistance, including plague, typhus, smallpox, and measles. In the first 30 years after the arrival of the Spanish, these diseases were responsible for the death of more than 75% of Guatemala’s two million inhabitants.
4. CIA Involved in 1954 Coup
Guatemalans democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz in 1954, but his socialist policies attracted the attention of the United States. It’s a well-known fact that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had a hand in the 1954 coup d’etat which brought down the Árbenz government and subsequently ushered in a long period of military rule. A long, bloody civil war broke out six years after the coup (see #5).
5. Longest Civil War
The country suffered immensely during the longest civil war of Latin American history, which raged violently among military governments, right-wing vigilante groups, and leftist rebels. From 1960 to 1996, the war path displaced millions of innocent civilians and killed more than 200,000 people—a staggering 83% of whom were indigenous. It was gruesome and tireless as groups kidnapped and tortured victims whose bodies were later dumped in public places for the opposition to see. The traumatic effects of this 36-year-long conflict continue to affect the economy, politics, and well-being of the populace throughout the country even today.
6. Chicken Buses
Chicken buses, officially known as camionetas, are a staple of Guatemalan culture. Formerly bright yellow school buses from the United States, these dazzling chicken buses get a vivid makeover after they cross the border. Drivers paint them with detailed color palettes and intricate patterns, which often reflect a pride for family and country. Afterward these shiny, reformed buses become the country’s local transport that connects all villages, towns, and cities and proves to be the cheapest option for many. They generally do not follow the speed limit or traffic laws, so caution is advised for those who dare take a ride on the chicken bus.
And why are they “chicken buses” you ask? The term originates from a time when the buses assisted locals in hauling their livestock, which of course included chickens!
7. Tortillas y Frijoles
Tortillas are fundamental to Guatemalan culture and cuisine. Every single meal eaten by traditional Mayan people must be accompanied by corn tortillas and black beans. It really doesn’t count otherwise.
Get all the details you need about Tortilla Culture in Latin America, along with types of food you can make at home with maiz nixtamalizado.
8. May 2010 Sinkhole
Guatemala has a history of dealing with extreme weather conditions. In late May 2010, ash rained over Antigua and Guatemala City after a volcanic eruption. Following this dusting of black ash, the tropical storm Agatha blasted the country with torrential downpours a few days later. The inundation mixed with the widespread coating of ash created powerful landslides that wiped out entire neighborhoods.
During the landslides, people fled their homes in search of safety—but little did they know that the very ground beneath them would give way. On May 30, 2010, a massive sinkhole appeared in Guatemala City, swallowing enough layers of soil that it measured 60 feet wide and 300 feet (or 30 stories of a building) deep. While sinkholes have both natural and manmade causes, many speculate that this particular sinkhole was the result of a ruptured sewer line in combination with the heavy rainfall from Agatha.
9. The Murder of Facundo Cabral
In the early hours of July 9, 2011 gunmen murdered the celebrated Argentine folk singer Facundo Cabral as he rode in a private car to the Guatemala City airport. Cabral, 74, was one of Latin America’s most popular troubadours and first became famous as a protest singer in the 1970s. One of his biggest hits was “No Soy de Aquí, Ni Soy de Allá” (I’m Not From Here Nor There). Cabral’s tragic murder in Guatemala highlighted the rampant crime that plagues the country and especially its capital city.
10. Deepest Lake in Central America
The azure waters of volcano-ringed Lake Atitlan make it the jewel in the crown of Guatemala’s tourist attractions. It’s also the deepest lake in Central America, with a maximum depth of about 340 meters (1,115 feet). Many view it as the most beautiful lake in the world, including historically famous characters like the German explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, as well as English author Aldous Huxley.
11. Volcanoes Everywhere
Guatemala is home to more than 30 volcanoes. Only three are active–Fuego, Pacaya, and Santiaguito. Some of the others include Suchitan, Ixtepeque, Acatenango, Atitlan, Agua, Cerro Santiago, Tajumulco, Chingo, Quezaltepeque, Chiquimula, Flores, Pacaya, and Toliman.
12. Ancient Chocolate
Mayans were the original chocolate lovers. During the Mayan period, chocolate was mainly consumed in drink form. A metate or mealing stone was used to grind the cacao down into an edible form. Amazingly, chocolate residue dating back to 470 AD was discovered in a vessel in Guatemala!
Read more about Guatemala: The Birthplace of Chocolate.
13. Coffee Culture
The coffee industry has helped fuel Guatemala’s economy for more than a century. Currently, around 125,000 coffee producers drive the industry. Coffee accounts for 40% of Guatemala’s agricultural export revenue. Coffee is grown in 20 of Guatemala’s 22 departments, with approximately 270,000 hectares planted.
Today, coffee from Guatemala impresses the taste buds of coffee-lovers all over the world due to its robust and distinctive flavor. You are never far from a coffee farm in the highland regions.
14. Flying Kites to Communicate with the Dead
In Guatemalan culture, the annual observance of All Saints Day on November 1st features brightly colored, handmade kites fluttering over open fields and cemeteries. The rite traces back to indigenous cultures whose people considered it disrespectful to mourn the dead. Instead, they celebrated the memory and spirit of those who had passed. According to tradition, the souls of the deceased can visit the living once a year for 24 hours, while the barriletes gigantes (giant kites) act as a beacon to help the spirits locate their loved ones.
Every year, the people of both Santiago Sacatepéquez and Sumpango, Guatemala craft giant, elaborate kites that range up to 60 ft. in diameter to fly at their crowd-gathering festivals. In recent decades, some kite-making teams have taken advantage of the occasion to address social issues like indigenous rights, pollution, domestic violence, and women’s rights.
15. Rigoberta Menchú Won the Nobel Peace Prize
Rigoberta Menchú Tum was born on January 9, 1959 to a peasant family and raised in the K’iche’ Mayan culture. She is an indigenous feminist and human rights activist from Guatemala who won the Nobel Peace Price in 1992.
Menchú has dedicated her life to promoting the rights of Guatemala’s Maya peoples during and after the Guatemalan Civil War. Over the years, Rigoberta Menchú has gained international renown as a leading advocate of Indian rights and ethno-cultural reconciliation—not only in Guatemala but throughout the Western Hemisphere.
16. Rios Montt Found Guilty of Genocide
On January 26, 2012, former dictator Efrain Rios Montt appeared in court in Guatemala where a judge formally indicted him for genocide and crimes against humanity. On May 11, 2013, he was found guilty of genocide against indigenous groups during the civil war in the early 1980s. Although this was an historic legal precedent, unfortunately the court overturned the case due to a legal loophole.
When the trial resumed in 2015, the court decided that a closed door trial would begin in 2016 to accommodate his alleged senility. Ultimately, Ríos Montt died in Guatemala City in 2018 at the age of 91 without having served a day in prison.
17. Former President Otto Perez Molina is in Prison
On September 2, 2015, beset by corruption allegations and having been stripped of his immunity by Congress a day before, then-president of Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molina resigned. He was arrested the next day and has remained in custody since.
18. Fijese que no
In Guatemalan culture, the phrase fijese que… is a common way to express an excuse or pretext for not being able to do something. Naturally, some sort of explanation always follows. For example, if you are visiting an office or a business in search of service, the receptionist might say, “Fijese que… our computers are not working, so we can’t help you right now.”
Basically, if you hear “fijese que” in any official context, brace yourself for bad news.
19. Modern Day Mayans
The Maya have managed to maintain many of the ancestral ways when it comes to agriculture and art. Most Maya households engage in corn farming and many produce handicrafts such as woven textiles.
However, many people must also leave their villages to work seasonally on coffee and cotton plantations. Fourteen percent of Guatemalans today live on less than $1.25 per day. The majority of Mayan people live in poverty. Interestingly, they consider everyone who is not Mayan to be a “gringo”—not just people from the US.
20. Bodacious Biodiversity
According to the World Conservation Union, Guatemala is number five on the list of biodiversity hotspots in the world. It contains 14 ecoregions, including mangrove forests, subtropical and tropical rainforests, cloud forests, wetlands, and pine forests.
21. Top Site for Tourism
Behind coffee, tourism is the second biggest industry in the country. (Or it was, before the COVID-19 pandemic led to a lockdown and travel restrictions in March 2020.)
Guatemala boasts three UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the picturesque town of Antigua Guatemala, Tikal National Park and Archaeological Park, and the Ruins of Quirigua.
Speak the Language of Guatemala
Now that you’ve learned some fascinating facts about Guatemalan culture, are you inspired to learn Spanish? Having a conversation with a native speaker is a fun and efficient way to improve your Spanish skills. Sign up for a free trial class today with our friendly, native-speaking teachers from Antigua at Homeschool Spanish Academy. They’ll be delighted to talk to you about Guatemalan culture, as well as any other topics that interest you!
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