Guatemala is a country of volcanoes, mountains, and beaches on the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. From the Cuchamatán Mountains in the western highlands, to the coastlines on the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, this small country is marked by contrasts. Three of Guatemala's 30 volcanoes are still active.
Pacaya volcano located near Guatemala City is the most active volcano. Lake Atitlan formed when a volcano exploded over 84,000 years ago and collapsed to form a caldera. The lake is the deepest lake in Central America and is believed to be 900 feet (300 meters) deep and covers 48 square miles (125 square kilometers).
Only slightly larger than the U.S. state of Tennessee, Guatemala is a mountainous country with one-third of the population living in cool highland villages. The coastal lowlands are warm and humid. The country is bordered by Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Belize.
Map created by National Geographic Maps
PEOPLE & CULTURE
The Maya civilization was very advanced in math and astronomy. The Maya probably developed the concept of zero and left written records using hieroglyphics and whole words.
While historians are not sure why the Maya Empire collapsed, the Maya society began to shrink in the 10th century and split into separate groups. They may have suffered from overpopulation and the effects of drought.
Maya women continue to weave brightly colored cloth and fashion the same traje, or suit, that their ancestors wore. More than half of the population is indigenous. The largest of the 20 Maya groups, the Quiché, live near the city of Quetzaltenango, called Xela (SHEH-la) by the locals.
Many believe that the name Guatemala comes from the Maya word Guhatezmalh, that described the volcano near the old capital in Antigua, the "Mountain That Vomits Water." Today the volcano is simply called the Volcan de Agua, "Volcano of Water."
High in the mountains in the misty cloud forests lives the colorful quetzal bird. In the bright sunshine, both the male and female quetzal bird have vibrant green, white, and red feathers, but only the male has the fabulous long tail that can measure 3 feet (1 meter) long.
The ancient Maya people believed that the quetzal bird was the living form of the god Quetzalcoatl. Today the rare bird is listed as endangered due to destruction of tropical rain forests.
The cloud forest mist provides a water source to air plants known as bromeliads which cling to tree trunks. The forest floor is also home to orchids, ferns, and mosses.
Guatemala's economy boomed in the 1870s thanks to coffee exports. Wealthy landowners pushed Maya communities off their land to make way for more coffee plantations.
Decades of civil war and repression of the indigenous people killed hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans in the 20th century. In 1996, a new president, Alvaro Arzu, signed a peace agreement with rebels and ended the 36-year civil war.
A new constitution in 1986 established three branches of government. The president serves for only one term and is assisted by a vice president and the Council of Ministers. New laws are passed by Congress. President Alvaro Colom Caballeros was sworn in January 2008.
Archaeologists believe that the earliest settlers to Guatemala crossed the Bering Strait from Asia 14,000 years ago and evidence of human settlements date to around 9000 B.C. People began to farm and form villages around 1000 B.C. and some of them became the Maya who dominated Guatemala history from A.D. 250 to 900.
The Maya temple at Tikal was built over 1,300 years ago as a tomb to honor the Maya ruler, Ah Cacaw. Tikal, once an expansive city and home to 100,000 people, began to decline in A.D. 850, and was abandoned about 50 years later. The ruins were not discovered until 1695.
In the 16th century, the Spanish invaded and fought the largest remaining group called the Quiché. The Quiché were overpowered and forced to work on vast estates in the newly established colony of New Spain. In 1821, Guatemala claimed independence from Spain.