About Guatemala

Practical Information

Language: Spanish is Guatemala's official language although there are 23 widely spoken indigenous languages throughout the country. English is spoken in the main tourist destinations

Visas: Not required for British travelers. Other nationalities should obtain advice from their local embassy.

Health: There are no compulsory vaccinations, except yellow fever if visiting the rainforest. Malaria prophylactics are also recommended in this area. Once we have discussed an itinerary you should visit your GP to discuss which malaria tablets and vaccinations you will need.

When to go: Guatemala has a pleasant climate that lends itself to year-round visits. The dry season runs from November to April, but even in the wet season the rainfall is generally only for a couple of hours a day in the main visitor regions. The highlands are known for having beautiful warm days but cool nights, while the lowlands around Tikal are usually hot all year round, with humidity increasing from May on wards.

Getting there: There are no direct flights to Guatemala but you have good connections through the USA with American Airlines, British Airways and Delta.The flight time is about 13 hours.

Time zone: GMT -6 hours

Wildlife

Guatemala is often referred to as the land of the eternal spring which is a very apt way to  describie this incredible country.  The nature and wildlife found in Guatemala is incredibly diverse hosting nineteen different ecosystems.  These ecosystems include jungles, forests, beaches, mountains and more.  Home to more than 8,000 higher plant species, Guatemala also provides habitats for around 250 mammal species, 200 reptile and amphibian species and 800 types of birds.

Birds are by far the easiest species to see and the majority of them inhabit the country’s lowlands.  The national bird is the colourful Quetzal with a red breast and bright green feathers while other common birds include parrots, toucans, mot mots, hummingbirds, warblers and more.

Regarding nature conservation, Guatemala has more than thirty national parks and protected areas, many of which encompass both cultural and natural treasures.  These parks and protected areas are massive tourist attractions and some of the most popular include Lake Atitlan National Park, Sierra del Lacandón National Park andTikal National Park.  The area surrounding Lake Atitlan became a national park in 1955 in an attempt to attract tourists.  The landscapes in the park are breathtaking, with the lake itself often being described as one of the most beautiful in the world.  The lake’s southern shore is dominated by three volcanoes and the waters are filled with wildlife that helps to support the local indigenous populations.

History

While it is believed that human habitation in Guatemala dates back to as early as 12,000 BC, the civilisation flourished during the Classic Period (250-900 AD).  It was during this time that the Mayan civilisation developed from Copán in modern Honduras, through Guatemala and Belize to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.  In Guatemala, Tikal became a large urban centre and grew into one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya.  Unfortunately, late in the 8th century, trade began to shrink while conflict emerged and by the 10th century, many cities like Tikal became minor towns.  As a result, many other ethnic groups started to arrive in the area.

The Spanish ventured to Guatemala beginning in 1519, however, it was the arrival of Pedro de Alvarado in 1524 that had the biggest impact on the country.  While initially able to secure an ally in the local Kaqchiquels people, the relationship eventually grew complicated and Alvarado turned on his allies.  He travelled through the country murdering much of the population, bringing the entire region under Spanish control. Early in the 19th century, pressure on the Spanish empire forced it to grant independence to its new world colonies.  Upon Mexico’s independence, they annexed Guatemala in 1822, however, this was short lived and Guatemala was independent again by 1823.  Guatemala entered into the United Provinces of Central America with El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica, but this union only lasted until 1840. The local populations were no longer protected by Spanish laws and were often forced to give up their lands, falling further into debt to their colonist landlords.  This way of life continued with the expansion of the coffee industry in the country which was run by small, elite families.

Guatemalan rule fell into the hands of a series of dictators until the 1945 elections brought in Juan José Arévalo.  He ruled for six years and initiated many social reforms including a department to look after indigenous affairs and more liberal labour laws.  Arévalo was succeed by Colonel Arbenz Guzman who attempted to establish land reforms into the 1950s. Unfortunately, he was overthrown by a US-backed invasion led by his military opponents. Military governments succeeded Guzman and the country fell into a civil war fought between the right-wing military government and left-wing guerilla movements.

In 1982, Efraín Ríos Montt, a former general and army chief of staff staged a coup d’etat to become president.  He oversaw a vicious attack against the insurgent campaigns, and although he was deposed in 1983, it did not stop the violence that had taken over the country.  The United States cut off military assistance but the terror continued into the 1990s.  In December 1996, Peace Accords were established examining the human rights violations that had occurred in the military.  It is estimated that during the thirty-six year civil war, some 200,000 Guatemalans had been killed while a million were made homeless.  This number does not reflect those of the population who disappeared.

In 1999, an extensive UN-sponsored investigation came to a close.  Their findings were that the military were responsible for 90% of the deaths during the civil war.  US president Bill Clinton offered an apology on behalf of past American governments for their complacency, as well as their assistance during the conflict.  In May 2013, Efraín Ríos Montt was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity and was sentenced to eighty years in prison.

Since the peace accords, the Guatemalan economy has strengthened and the country has witnessed successive democratic elections.  Today, Guatemala has emerged as a popular tourist destination that celebrates its rich Mayan heritage.  A friendly population and indigenous charm awaits those who venture to this incredible country.

Society and Politics

Guatemala is a political entity unfortunately composed of two disparate cultural entities. One is the ancient heritage of the Mayan culture still tribal in many aspects. The other is the politically and technologically dominant Hispanic culture. The competition between the two cultures has often been manifested in terms of political ideololgies. The Mayan culture being tribal in many ways finds the explicit collectivism of communism more attractive than the disguised collectivism of Hispanic corporatism.

The territory of the Mayan culture extended from Guatemala to the Yucatan Peninsula. In time it expanded from its beginnings in farming communities about 2500 BCE to a peak and decline about 900 A.D. and suppression from about 1500 A.D. The core area was in the highlands of what is now northern Guatemala.In its prime the Mayan civilization was able to construct and maintain an elaborate system of drainage canals that enabled the Mayans to produce enough produce not only to sustain themselves but to allow some members of their society to specialize in arts and science. But that same productivity also allowed some to specialize in politics and warfare and ultimately the Mayan civilization was destroyed by continuing warfare among its city-states. When the Spanish conquest came in 1523 the Mayans had only a remnant of the civilization that flourished before the tenth century. That remnant did include manuscripts written in pictographs. Tragically most of these manuscripts were destroyed by Spanish clerics as being the works of the Devil, however some did survive and eventually were deciphered.

The Spanish created a bipartite society in Guatemala of European and Mestizos in the cities and Mayans in the rural backcountry. These two parts largely went their separate ways. They interacted when the Spanish developed some plantations for growing cacao and indigo and needed labor. Some Mayans did assimulate into Hispanic culture and were known as ladinos.The capital built by the Spanish, Antigua Guatemala, was destroyed by an earthquake in 1773 and a new capital was built at Guatemala City.

European Guatemala participated in the struggle for independence from Spain in 1821. There was an attempt by the leaders of the rebellion in Mexico City to retain Guatemala and the rest of Central America in a Mexican Empire. The Spanish colonies of Central America separated from Mexico in 1823 as the United Provinces of Central America. Mariano Gálvez became the local leader in Guatemala as a province of the United Provinces. He curbed the power of the Catholic Church and promoted trade and commerce. Under his direction Guatemala shifted its trade from Spain to Britain. The United Provinces proved to be an unsustainable political entity and it dissolved in 1839. Rafael Carrera, a ladino (Hispanized Mayan) gained control of Guatemala at that time and held it until his death in 1865. Under Carrera much of the reforms of Gálvez were reversed.

At this time the market for indigo, a major export crop of Guatemala, was disappearing as synthetic dyes were developed in Europe. The alternative crop was coffee but the change to coffee production required institutional changes that the Old Guard of Guatemala were unwilling to accept. Justino Rufino Barrios led a revolution in 1871 against this Old Guard. Barrios instituted significant political change, notably the secular limitation on the power of the Catholic Church and the government siezing control of communal lands. Barrios also instituted a vagrancy law that required that anyone without a job would have work on a plantation. These vagrancy laws in their various forms continued to be an element of Guatemalan life until after World War II.

The governments of Guatemala in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century settled into an authoritarian pattern. The Mayan underclass had little influence on the politics of Guatemala. From the days of Barrios German business interests in coffee growing in Guatemala became important. The United Fruit Company became an important economic factor in Guatemala in the 1920s.

General Jorge Ubico was elected president in 1930 and he ruled through the 1930's and early 1940's. In 1944 there was a general strike that brought a revolutionary junta to power that relied upon organized labor unions. In the presidential election that followed the overthrow of Ubico, a university professor, Juan José Arévalo, won. Arévalo abolished the vagrancy laws and instituted a social welfare program that included minimum wages, restrictions on work hours, restrictions on child labor and the organization of peasant unions.

In 1950 Colonel Jacabo Arbenz Guzmán was elected president. He continued and increased the social policies of Arévalo. In addition he started confiscating unused land and redistributing it to the Mayans. This redistribution policy for unused land came into conflict with the United Fruit Company's program of allowing land to lie fallow for a number of years to recover its fertility after cultivation. The United Fruit Company used its political influence to get the U.S. government to support a coup d'etat against the Arbenz government. A relative small force of two hundred troops and six planes in 1954 carried out the coup and made Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas president. He reversed the social welfare programs and returned the confiscated land to its owners. He was assassinated in 1957.

In the 1960's guerilla organizations became an element of life in Guatemala. In 1982 General Effraín Ríos Montt became president and instituted a policy of conscription of young men of the Mayan villages to fight the guerilla organizations. In 1986 Marcos Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo was elected president. He tried, unsuccessfully, to negotiate a settlement with the guerilla organizations. He was replaced as president in the 1991 election by Jorge Serrano of the Movement for Solidarity Action Party.