Travelers flock to Guatemala because it offers Central America in concentrated form: its volcanoes are the highest and most active; its Mayan ruins the most impressive and its history of repression decidedly unique.
Guatemala is the Mayan heartland of Central America and indigenous Guatemalan culture is alive and visible everywhere. It survives in the ancient ruins of Tikal, the Mayan/Catholic rituals of Chichicastenango and the blazing colors of everyday Mayan dress. Since the peace treaties were signed, indigenous Guatemala has been opening up its once-isolated and lovely villages with access to some of Central America's wildest natural wonders.
Guatemala, republic of Central America, is bounded on the west and north by Mexico, on the east by Belize and the Gulf of Honduras (an arm of the Caribbean Sea), on the south-east by Honduras and El Salvador, and on the south by the Pacific Ocean.
A highland region, where most of the population lives, cuts across the country from west to east. The rugged main range includes the inactive volcano Tajumulco, which is the highest point in Central America (4.211 m). The range is flanked on the Pacific side by a string of volcanoes (some active), such as Tacaná, Acatenango and Agua. Volcanic eruptions, floods, and hurricanes have plagued Guatemala throughout history. In the centre of the range is Lake Atitlán, and south of the highlands is the Pacific coastal lowland. North of them is the Caribbean lowland and the vast tropical forest known as Petén. Lake Petén Itzá is in north-central Guatemala. The largest river is the Motagua, which flows into the Caribbean at the port of Puerto Barrios. North of the Motagua is the Lake Izabal–Río Dulce system, which was a major waterway in colonial times.
Guatemala is known as the land of eternal spring for its wonderful climate and is suitable for travel year round. The climate primarily varies according to elevation. The northern part of the country, known as the Petén, is a lowland rain forest, an area of typical hot and humid, tropical climate with rain all the year round and maximum rainfall between May and September.
Conditions on the Pacific coast are similar in terms of the dry and wet seasons, but rainfall is heavier and there is little relief from the high temperatures at night.
The western and southern parts of the country are very mountainous with volcanic peaks rising to over 4.000 meters. Guatemala City and Antigua are located in this area with its typical and very pleasant highland climate. Rainfall here is moderate with a distinct dry season from November to April. There are warm days (20-25°C) and cool nights. At higher altitudes, the temperature can fall to 0°C in December and January; the average annual temperature is 20°C.
The best time to visit Guatemala is November-April, when there's less rain. It's always cooler in the mountains (usually between 15-22°C) and hot and humid in the lowlands (especially on the Pacific coast). Tikal can be very hot in the summer (33-37°C and humid), but take a sweater and long-sleeved shirt for the evenings and a jacket for Guatemala City . In September, when tropical storms move in from the Caribbean, it can rain for days on end.
The Mayan civilization flourished throughout much of Guatemala and the surrounding region long before the Spanish arrived, but it was already in decline when the Mayans were defeated by Pedro de Alvarado in 1523-24. During Spanish colonial rule, most of Central America came under the control of the Captaincy General of Guatemala.
The first colonial capital, Ciudad Vieja, was ruined by floods and an earthquake in 1542. Survivors founded Antigua , the second capital, in 1543. In the 17th century, Antigua became one of the richest capitals in the New World. Always vulnerable to volcanic eruptions, floods, and earthquakes, Antigua was destroyed by two earthquakes in 1773, but the remnants of its Spanish colonial architecture have been preserved as a national monument. The third capital, Guatemala City, was founded in 1776, after Antigua was abandoned.
Guatemala gained independence from Spain on September 15, 1821; it briefly became part of the Mexican Empire and then for a period belonged to a federation called the United Provinces of Central America. From the mid-19th century until the mid-1980s, the country passed through a series of dictatorships, insurgencies (particularly beginning in the 1960s), coups, and stretches of military rule with only occasional periods of representative government.
Few exceptional leaders have graced Guatemala's political podium. Alternating waves of dictators and economics-driven Liberals were briefly brightened by Juan José Arévalo, who established the nation's social security and health systems and a government bureau to look after Mayan concerns. In power from 1945 to 1951, Arévalo's liberal regime experienced 25 coup attempts by conservative military forces. Arévalo was followed by Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, who continued to implement liberal policies and instituted an agrarian reform law to break up the large estates and foster highly productive, individually owned small farms. The expropriation of lands controlled by foreign companies, a move supported by the country's Communist Party, was the signal for the CIA to step in (one of these foreign companies was the United Fruit Company, which interestingly was part-owned by the US Secretary of State). With their help a successful military coup was organized in 1954, Arbenz Guzmán fled to Mexico and the land reform never took place.
A succession of military presidents followed, and as both protest and repression became more violent, civil war broke out. Booming industrialization in the 1960s and '70s helped the rich get richer, while the cities became increasingly squalid as the rural dispossessed fled the countryside to find urban employment. The military's violent suppression of antigovernment elements (which meant the majority of landless peasants) finally led the USA to cut off military assistance, leading in turn to the 1985 election of the civilian Christian Democrat Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo.
Cerezo's five years of inconclusive government were followed by Jorge Serrano Elías, who won the presidency for the conservative Solidarity Action Movement. His attempts to end the decades-long civil war failed, and as his popularity declined he came to rely increasingly on military support. On May 25, 1993, following a series of public protests, Serrano carried out an auto-coup. Lacking popular support, Serrano fled the country, and an outspoken critic of the army, Ramiro de León Carpio, was elected by Congress. Carpio's law-and-order mantle was taken up by new president, Alvaro Enrique Arzú Irigoyen, who attempted to heal his feuding and crime-ridden country with a neo-liberal technocratic salve. In December 1996, the government signed a series of peace accords with leftist guerrillas and the army agreed to reduce its role in domestic security matters. The greatest challenge to a lasting peace stems from great inequities in the basic social and economic power structure of Guatemalan society.
In November 1999, Guatemala held its first peacetime elections in nearly 40 years. Guatemala swore in a new government January 14, 2000, under its recently elected right-wing president, Alfonso Portillo, a lawyer and rightist associated with former dictator Ríos Montt. Portillo won by claiming that if he could defend himself, he could defend his people. In 2004, Oscar Berger from the coalition GANA won the election defeating Alvaro Colom from a left-centre coalition and Rios Montt from the ruling party FRG.
Guatemala is a very diverse country with 24 languages and cultures; the official language is Spanish. There are 21 different Mayan languages, plus Garifona (Caribbean) and Xinka (Eastern). More than 11 million people live in Guatemala. The rate of illiteracy is more than 60 percent in the rural areas. This is an enormous problem in the entire country. Transportation, school uniforms, books, fees etc. often exceed the monthly income of a whole family. Illiteracy is highest in the central part of the country which has a mostly Indian population. Infant mortality rate is 48 per thousand, and the average lifetime is 66 years. In Guatemala City 54 percent live in poverty, while in Alta and Baja Verapaz it is 91 percent. Highest rates are those in the North-western part of the country with 94 percent of inhabitants living in poverty. In the areas around Antigua (that is to say Chimaltenango, Sacatepequez and Escuintla) the rate is 76 percent. 36 percent of people have no access to running water, 36 percent have no electricity or telephone, which is considered a luxury here. Women in particular (especially Indian women) are victims of poverty.
How much poverty you will see depends on your working area as a volunteer. Watching children without shoes or beggars in the street can make a strong impression, as you may meet the same children later that day, at the institution you are working for.
The nation's society is marked by pronounced extremes in the conduct of daily life. In the capital city families live much as they do in the cosmopolitan centers of Europe, whereas within an hour's drive of the capital are Indians whose patterns of daily life remain those of past centuries. The pattern of culture is characterized by sharp contrasts, whether it is in the language spoken or in matters pertaining to the household, cuisine, clothing, or family affairs.
The contrast between the modern ways of Guatemala City, the centre of Guatemalan cultural activity, and the traditional customs and crafts of the Mayan peoples gives Guatemala a colorful and dynamic culture. Spanish colonists gave Guatemala its official language and many architectural and art treasures. Magnificent buildings of the colonial period remain at Antigua, Guatemala, the colonial capital, located about 40 km from Guatemala City. Contemporary crafts such as weaving, jeweler making, and ceramics combine indigenous design and color patterns with Spanish technical skills. Throughout Guatemala, the marimba remains the typical Guatemalan musical medium, although it is often challenged now by Mexican ranchera music and North American rock.
The nation is increasingly exposed to the intrusion of foreign influences upon their way of life. All aspects of communication - periodical news, the comics, soap operas, film - are primarily of foreign origin. A multitude of products, from soaps and boxed cereals to automobiles and bottled drinks, bear foreign brand names.
PLACES OF INTEREST
After a violent eruption of the Agua volcano, that destroyed the former capital Ciudad Vieja, Antigua was founded in 1543. It's name was: La Muy Noble y Muy Leal Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemala. But after the eruption in 1773, the capital was moved to the valley where Guatemala City now lies, and Antigua got its name - as the old Guatemala. Antigua is the only town in the country that preserved its small colonial houses, its simple infrastructure and cobblestone streets. The town has old ruins, palaces and churches everywhere, and each of these buildings has its own history. The surroundings of Antigua add to its astonishing beauty as well. Three volcanoes look over the city. The heart of Antigua is Parque Central. This beautiful park is situated between cathedrals and two old palaces and is the colourful, lively site for street traders, shoe shine boys, catches penny shows and doomsday preachers. Besides being the ultimate meeting point, the park is also a quiet place where you can read a book, write postcards or just observe the colourful crowd of people passing by. The town has many small restaurants, bars, cinemas and discos and despite the extensive tourism, there are still a lot of places where only local people come. The large market place is on the west side of town. Here you can buy everything from toothbrushes to pig's tails for very little money. Especially on Sundays, this market place is very lively and colourful. Watch out for your money though.
Cobán is located in the cool, humid mountains of northern Guatemala. Its lush, subtropical cloud forests are perched on top of the watershed dividing the Yucatán Peninsula: the pristine rivers of Alta Verapaz feed into the Chixoy-Usumacinta system (Gulf of Mexico) to the west and into Lake Izabal-Rio Dulce (Caribbean Sea) to the east. Cobán is the center of Guatemala's gourmet coffee-growing region, and also produces cardamom and allspice for export. Cobán is often called the Imperial City because it was chartered by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (hence the churches in Alta Verapaz exhibit Mayan versions of the Hapsburg double-eagle on their facades).
What to see: The Verapaces harbor some of the greatest attractions in Guatemala: Semuc Champey, a place where one river flows over another in a series of natural pools and waterfalls; Lake Lachua, like a little Caribbean sea set down in the tropical rainforest of Alta Verapaz; Candelaria, a cave big enough to build a cathedral inside. There are huge coffee fincas (plantations) and cloud forest where you can see the famous feathered serpent, the Quetzal. You can go trekking, caving, and white water rafting, and see Mayan holy places and ceremonies.
The climate: The elevation of Cobán is 5000 feet and the average temperature is 70 degrees. Annual rainfall of 70 inches makes the countryside green and lush. The dry season (March through May) can be quite hot; the winter months (December - January) very cold and damp. There are no particular health hazards in highland Verapaz, so no special precautions are necessary.
Tactic is a small rural town surrounded by mountains. It has all the services such as banks, ATMs, internet, telephone, cable TV. Not many tourists visit the town; therefore, there is a good opportunity for a total immersion in the language and culture. There is good access to the town through a paved road from the capital which continues to Coban. There is a good bus service to the Capital and Coban. Population: 17,000. Altitude: 1,453 meters above sea level. Languages spoken: Spanish, Mayan Poq'omchí, Q'eqchí and Achí. Ethnic composition: 93 % Mayans, 7 % ladinos. Main economic activities: agriculture (lumber, vegetable production), dairy production.
Guatemala City, the capital, has 2, 7 million inhabitants. Houses are low because of the danger of earthquakes. Although some zones are not safe for tourists, the town is worth visiting, thanks to the chaotic market places where you can buy everything from key rings to turkeys or showy Americanised supermarkets where prices are like in Europe. The three major earthquakes in 1917, 1918 and 1976 destroyed much of the town, but if you can stand the heat, pollution and traffic noise, there are some exciting museums, parks and historical buildings worthwhile seeing, although most people prefer to stay out of the capital.
It takes 12 hours to get to Tikal by bus from Antigua, only one hour from Guatemala City by plane. Tikal is an historical Maya town in the middle of the jungle, with ancient pyramids which you can still climb. The park opens at 5 o'clock in the morning. It is a wonderful and unforgettable experience to sit on the top of the highest pyramid, admiring the jungle below and see the sun rising over the treetops. The jungle around you is filled with noises from howlers, toucans, budgerigars and parrots. Tikal was the centre of the Maya world some thousand years ago. Reconstruction and preservation of the pyramids is still going on.
Surrounded by several volcanoes the lake Atitlan is situated in the middle of mountains, about three hours from Antigua. The lake itself is a collapsed volcano, and legend says that there is no bottom.
About two and a half hours by bus from Antigua you will find the big market town of Chichicastenango. Every Thursday and Sunday this town is filled with hundreds of traders, coming from the small villages nearby. They leave their homes early in the morning in order to take to town and sell their vegetables, fruit, kitchen tools, and hand-woven textiles. Using your bargaining skills you can buy hammocks, blankets, skirts, ceramics and masks for very little money.
Guatemala has coastlines on both the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean. Only three hours drive from Antigua you can find the beaches of Monterrico and Puerto San Jose. Beaches in Guatemala are black, as the sand originates from the surrounding volcanoes. Take along your sandals as the sand can be burning hot. Montericco is far more peaceful and beautiful than Puerto San Jose. Livingston and the river Rio Dulce are situated in the North. The lifestyle here is Caribbean, people talk English and a large part of the population is black. We recommend you sail down the river and visit the small villages and the jungle.
Festivals and Holidays
Traditional fiestas are one of the great excitements of a stay in Guatemala, and every town and village, however small, devotes at least one day a year to celebration.
Guatemalan fiestas can be divided into two basic models: Ladino and Maya. Ladino towns and villages celebrate with daytime processions, beauty contests and perhaps the odd marching band with dance halls by night. In the highlands, however, where the bulk of the population is Maya, you'll see a blend of religious and pre-Columbian secular celebration. The very finest ceremonial costumes are usually dusted down and worn, and you can expect to see some hugely symbolic traditional dancing, including the Baile de la Conquista, which re-enacts the Spanish victory over the Maya. Whether Ladino or Maya, festivals tend to be chaotic, drunken affairs with plenty of dancing and fireworks. If you can join in the mood, there's no doubt that fiestas are wonderfully entertaining as well as offering a real insight into both sides of Guatemalan culture.
Many of the best fiestas include some specifically local element, such as the giant kites at Santiago Sacatepequez (All Saint's Day) and the horse race in Todos Santos Cuchumatán (All Saint's Day).
The most important festivals are:
Semana Santa (Holy Week - the week before Easter) is Guatemala's biggest festival , featuring processions and celebrations throughout the country, but: Antigua 's fiesta is said to be the best!
Antigua 's Semana Santa celebrations are perhaps the most extravagant and impressive in all Latin America. The celebrations start with a procession on Palm Sunday, representing Christ's entry into Jerusalem, and continue through to the really big processions and pageants on Good Friday. On Thursday night the streets are carpeted with meticulously drawn patterns of colored sawdust, and on Friday morning a series of processions re-enacts the progress of Christ to the Cross, accompanied by somber music from local brass bands. Setting out from La Merced, Escuela de Cristo and the village of San Felipe, teams of penitents wearing peaked hoods and accompanied by solemn dirges and clouds of incense carry images of Christ and the Cross on massive platforms. The pageants set off at around at 8:00 o'clock in the morning, with the penitents dressed in either white or purple. After 15:00, the hour of the Crucifixion, they change into black.
It is a great honor to be involved in the procession, but no easy task as the great cedar block carried from La Merced weighs some 3,5 tonnes, and needs eighty men to lift it. Some of the images displayed date from the seventeenth century and the procession itself are thought to have been introduced by Alvarado in the early years of the Conquest, imported directly from Spain.
Probably the most important festival of Indian traditions in Guatemala is Rabinal Ajau. This is held throughout the region Verapaces, most impressively in Cobán. It is a traditional Q'eqchi' (Kekchi) Maya festival in which people wear their traditional costumes and dance the traditional Paabanc. The dates vary slightly from one year to another, but it is always held at the end of July, so you must check with the language school to find out the precise date.
All Saints' Day is featured 1st November all over the country, but most dramatic in Todos Santos Cuchumatán and Santiago Sacatepéquez, where massive paper kites are flown.
General Information about Guatemala
Guatemala's tourism board
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