Guatemala is a country gathering its wits after thirty-odd years of insane civil war. Budget-challenged travellers have been drawn to the country throughout this period of turmoil because it offers Central America in concentrate form: its volcanoes are the highest and most active, its Mayan ruins the most impressive, its earthquakes the most devastating and its history of repression decidedly world-class.
Guatemala is the Mayan heartland of Central America, though the government has both touted and tortured the Maya - sticking pictures of them on its tourist brochures while sticking guns in their faces. Despite this, indigenous Guatemalan culture is alive and well, 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, inspiring even the least-intrepid travellers to venture beyond the Guatemala City-Antigua corridor, indigenous Guatemala has been rolling out the red carpet to once-isolated and lovely villages accessible to some of Central America's wildest natural wonders.
Guatemala is truly a fascinating country to visit and explore.
Full country name: Republic of Guatemala
Area: 109,000 sq km (42,500 sq mi)
Population: 12.6 million (growth rate 2.6%)
Capital city: Guatemala City (pop 2 million)
People: 56% mestizo/ladino descent, 44% Mayan descent
Language: Spanish, Garífuna and 21 Mayan languages
Religion: Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Mayan-Catholic fusion
GDP: US$47.9 billion
GDP per head: US$3,900
Major industries: Coffee, sugar, bananas, textiles and clothing, furniture, chemicals, petroleum, metals, natural rubber, flowers, cardamom, tourism
Major trading partners: USA, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Honduras, Germany, Mexico, Venezuela, Japan
Visas: Visa regulations changed in 1996 and citizens of most countries no longer need either a visa or a tourist card. Depending on the country you come from, stays are limited to 30 or 90 days. Citizens of some countries still need either a visa or a tourist card, so check with the closest Guatemalan embassy for up-to-date information.
Health risks: Cholera, dengue fever, malaria, hepatitis, typhoid, dysentery
Time: GMT/UTC minus 6 hours
Electricity: 115V to 125V, 60Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
When to Go
The dry season, from November through May, is the most pleasant time, weather-wise, to be in Guatemala. Along with summer holidays, however, this is also the busiest time. Although the rain may restrict some activities during the wet season, it's still worthwhile planning your trip for this time of year, particularly as you'll be more likely to pick up accommodation bargains. If you're planning to be in the area around Easter, try to be in Guatemala for Semana Santa (Holy Week), the highlight of the country's festival calendar.
LAND & CLIMATE
Region: Central America
Neighbors: Mexico borders Guatemala on the west and north, Belize and the Gulf of Honduras are on the east, Honduras and El Salvador are to the southeast, and the Pacific Ocean is to the south.
Size Comparison: Slightly smaller than Cuba
Roughly two-thirds of Guatemala's land area is made up of mountains, many of which are volcanic. The Sierra Madre system traverses Guatemala from east to west. Most of the country's people live to the south in a region of fertile valleys. The landscape of the thinly populated north ranges from grazing land to tropical rain forest.
While most of Guatemala's volcanoes are extinct, Tacaná, on the Mexican border, erupted violently in the 19th century. The country's highest point is Volcán Tajumulco (4,220 metres/13,845 feet) in western Guatemala. Devastating earthquakes are frequent in the vicinity of the southern volcanic belt.
Major Rivers and Lakes
The longest rivers of Guatemala are the Río Motagua, the Río Usumacinta, which forms part of the boundary with Mexico, the Chixoy, and the Río Sarstún, which forms a section of the boundary with Belize. The country has several lakes of size, including Lago de Izabal in the east and Lago Petén Itzá in the north.
Weather and Climate
The climate of Guatemala is generally uniform, although temperatures vary considerably according to elevation. Between about 915 and 2,440 metres (about 3,000 and 8,005 feet) above sea level, where most of the population is concentrated, the days are warm and the nights cool; temperatures average about 20°C (about 68°F). The low-lying coastal regions are more tropical, with an average annual temperature of about 28°C (about 82°F).
A long rainy season occurs between May and October, with a corresponding dry season from November to April. Annual rainfall in the north averages 1,525 to 2,540 millimetres (60 to 100 inches). Guatemala City, in the southern highlands, receives about 1,320 millimetres (about 52 inches) annually.
Much of Guatemala's rich biodiversity is found in its tropical forests. The country is home to a large proportion of endemic species, but many are threatened due to habitat loss. Each year, 2.02 percent (1990-1996) of the country's forests are disappearing. More than half of the country's labor force works in agriculture, resulting in pressure to clear land for crops and pastures. Forests were also consumed for fuelwoodin 1996 Guatemala's fuelwood production was the highest in Central America.
Almost 16.8 percent (1997) of Guatemala's land is protected in parks and other reserves. The Maya Biosphere Reserve, a protected area of tropical rain forest and wetlands in the Petén region, is in danger of encroachment by local settlers, however. This area has suffered extensive deforestation, and many local farmers practice slash-and-burn agriculture. This traditional practice damages soil and allows the land to be farmed for a limited number of years. Numerous conservation groups, both local and international, are searching for ways to save this precious land before it is entirely deforested.
Guatemala is party to international treaties concerning biodiversity, climate change, endangered species, and wetlands.