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11 Surprising Cultural Facts You Didn't Know About Guatemala

11 Surprising Cultural Facts You Didn't Know About Guatemala

Picture of Jack Guy
Updated: 3 January 2018

The largest country in Central America is a fascinating place with a long and turbulent history. Here are some of the most interesting facts you might not have known about Guatemala.

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Guatemala’s national bird, the quetzal, is famous for its long tail © ryanacandee / flickr

The national bird lends its name to the Guatemalan currency

Guatemala’s national bird is the quetzal, a long-tailed bird that lives largely in humid forests. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to see them in the wild, but you can see them every day on Guatemalan bank notes, as the currency is also named after the bird.

Guatemala means “land of many trees”

Experts believe the word Guatemala derives from the indigenous Nahuatl word “Quahtlemallan,” meaning “land of many trees.” While it’s true the country does boast a huge amount of forest, large swathes of it are being cut down for myriad reasons.

It has been inhabited for 20,000 years

Long before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Guatemala, the land was ruled by various Mayan kingdoms. You can still see evidence of these pre-Columbian civilizations at more than 5,000 archaeological sites.

Antigua Guatemala people | © Apancak / Flickr

22 languages are spoken in the country

While Spanish is the official language and the one that’s most useful throughout the country, there are many other languages spoken in Guatemala. The 21 indigenous Mayan communities each boast their own language, and many are still widely used today.

The CIA overthrew a socialist government in 1954

President Jacobo Árbenz was democratically elected in 1944, but his socialist policies attracted the attention of the United States. Historians have shown that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had a hand in the 1954 coup d’etat which brought down the Árbenz government and ushered in a period of military rule. Civil war broke out just six years after the coup.

The Guatemalan Civil War was the longest in Latin American history

Civil war raged in Guatemala from 1960 to 1996, and its effects are still felt throughout the country today. It is estimated that 200,000 people were killed during the 36-year conflict, making it the longest in Latin American history.

Lake Atitlan | © Murray Foubister / Flickr

It is home to the deepest lake in Central America

The volcano-ringed Lake Atitlan is a jewel in the crown of Guatemala’s tourism industry, but it is also interesting below the surface. At 340 metres deep, Atitlan is the deepest lake in Central America.

Guatemala is famous for its volcanoes

With more than 30 volcanoes in the country, Guatemala is known for its spectacular landscapes. Three of these volcanoes are active, including Fuego Volcano just outside the colonial city of Antigua. Look out for lava flows at night!

Santa Catalina Arch, Antigua Guatemala | © Luciagarciagon / Flickr

The country is home to three UNESCO World Heritage sites

The ruins of Quirigua and the city of Tikal are both UNESCO sites, and make for fantastic visits for anyone interested in the history of the Mayan civilization. Antigua Guatemala, the colonial city home to picturesque architecture and cobbled streets, has also been given the same distinction.

It boasts the tallest volcano in Central America

In a region where volcanoes are a common sight, Guatemala takes the title for the tallest one in Central America. Tajumulco, in the north of the country near the Mexican border, reaches 4,203 metres above sea level.

Guatemalan coffee is consumed around the world

Coffee is the biggest industry in Guatemala and you are never far from a coffee farm in the highland regions. Today coffee from Guatemala can be found around the world, and it has become famous for its great taste.