Official Currency: Quetzal. Major tourist sites accept U.S. dollars and credit cards.
Language: Spanish (official). Languages of Mayan, Xinca and Garífuna origin also spoken.
Population: 15.8 million
Geography and climate
Guatemala is a predominantly mountainous country, with the exception of the south coast and the flatlands of the north. Two mountain ranges straddle the country, dividing it into three distinct regions: the Pacific coast (the south), the highlands (home to the tallest mountains), and the north. Guatemala is home to 33 volcanoes, creating a unique landscape and spectacular vistas.
The highest point in Guatemala is the Tajumulco Volcano, which rises to 4,220 m (13,845 ft) above sea level—the highest in Central America. Its longest river is the Motagua, with a length of 486.5 km.
Guatemala has been dubbed the “country of eternal spring.” Climate varies with topography, so temperatures can change dramatically in a very short distance; there are more than 350 microclimates. The country experiences two distinct seasons: dry (November to April) and rainy (May to October), although some regions are mainly rainy and others mainly dry and sunny year-round.
Central Guatemala is characterized by blue skies, sun in the morning and cool evenings. Temperatures are pleasant most of the year, ranging from 22° to 29°C (72 to 84 F).
The name ‘Guatemala’ comes from the Nahuatl word Quauhtlemallan meaning “place of many trees.” Nearly a third of the country’s landmass is protected by law. Guatemala is home to 244 types of mammal, 720 bird species (486 of which breed in the country), 245 varieties of reptile, and 147 types of amphibian of which 19 are endemic (i.e., not found in any other country). This represents some of the greatest ecological diversity anywhere in the world.
In October 2010, Guatemala was one of only 19 countries to earn a place on the”megadiversity” list. Together, these nations represent only 10% of the world’s landmass, but more than 70% of its biological diversity.
The Guatemalan Quetzal (scientific name: Pharomachrus Mociño) is a bird of spectacular beauty that symbolizes freedom, giving it a special place in the hearts of Guatemalans. It was declared the country’s national bird in 1871.
Guatemala and its cultures
Although Spanish is the predominant language, Guatemala is a multilingual country. Some 21 languages of Mayan origin are spoken (Akateka, Achi, Awakateko, Ch’orti ‘, Chuj, Itza’, Ixil, Kaqchikel, K’iche’, Mam, Jakalteco-Popti ‘, Mopan, Poqoman, Poqomchi’, Q’anjob’al , Q’eqchi ‘, Sakapulteko, Sipakapense, Tektiteko, Tz’utujil, Uspanteko), along with Garífuna (Afro-Caribbean) and Xinca.
Culturally, the country is a melting pot—a consequence of the country’s geographic and ecological diversity, its strategic location on the corridor between North and South America, and interaction between indigenous peoples and migrants from Europe and elsewhere. Guatemala is well known as the ancestral home of Mayan culture, renowned for its linguistic, scientific, philosophical, artistic and commercial achievements.
Mayan culture is based on respecting, protecting and living in harmony with all forces and living beings. There are four elements considered essential in the Mayan worldview: fire, air, water and land.
The Mayan culture is still alive and its traditions continue to be observed. There are a large number of Spiritual Guides in the country. The Nahual is the spirit of all that exists, from birth, every person has a Nahual, whose function is to maintain humanity-nature unity. To learn more about your Nahual, visit: http://mcd.gob.gt/calcular-nawal/ (Spanish).
Food & drink
The cuisine of Guatemala draws heavily from the country’s Mayan roots, with contributions from other native cultures and a dose of European influence.
The daily diet of most Guatemalans places a heavy emphasis on beans (black, white or red) prepared in various forms: cooked, fried or flaked, with meat, etc. Corn also plays a special role, and is the basis for tortillas and tamales. Tamales are traditionally consumed on Saturdays and special occasions, with the style of preparation varying by region. Chili peppers, which often accompany meals, are very popular, as is chocolate (prepared from cacao). Other flavours include the apazote, peppermint, quilete, chiplín, cress and bledo, produced from the leaves, stems and flowers of some of the many species of plants in Guatemala.
Guatemalans also eat beef, poultry, seafood, and pork. Well-known meat dishes include Pepián (spicy meat stew), Jocón (chicken in tomatillo-cilantro sauce) and Kak’ik (spicy turkey stew). These dishes are all considered national meals, and are a point of pride for most Guatemalans. Another local favourite is Suban’ik, a ceremonial stew-like dish. Also popular is Tapado, an exotic blend of seafood, bananas and coconut milk, made popular by Guatemala’s Garífuna population.
On special occasions such as Christmas, New Year’s Day, Easter, and the Day of the Dead, special meals are prepared. The Fiambre is a symbolic dish consumed on November 1, the Day of the Dead. Prepared cold, it consists of vegetables with special dressing, meats and sausages, cheeses, capers, and olives.
Bread is consumed throughout the country, with each region laying claim to a particular specialty. Desserts are based mostly on the remarkable variety of fresh fruits that grow in Guatemala. Typical offerings include the “canillitas de leche,” sweetened coconut, mango, and ayote. Popular drinks include fruit juices, hibiscus tea, and horchata. Visitors should also be sure to enjoy Guatemalan coffee, internationally recognized for its quality.
Guatemala is a secular state and its citizens are guaranteed freedom of worship. Catholicism was the only officially-recognized religion during the colonial era but, due to the significant indigenous population, religious syncretism has since taken hold. Protestantism has also increased markedly in recent decades due to the arrival of denominations from the United States in the 1970s. There are small communities of Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists and atheists.
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