Guatemala is best known for its volcanic landscape, fascinating Mayan culture and the colorful colonial city of Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But this small Central American country has a wealth of homegrown produce and talent. Here are 11 surprising things you probably never knew Guatemala gave the world.
Let’s start with arguably the most important thing Guatemala has given us – chocolate. Guatemala is the birthplace of chocolate: the word cacao derives from the Mayan “Ka’kau,” and chocolate comes from the Mayan “Chocol’haa.” The Mayans cherished cacao, which they believed (correctly) had a plethora of health benefits, and they ground it down into a pulp, mixed it with cornmeal and chilli, and enjoyed it as a drink. Today Guatemala has nearly 9,200 cacao farms and produces around 10,500 tons of chocolate each year.
Ricardo Arjona might just be the most famous and successful musician you’ve never heard over. Hailing from Guatemala City, Arjona is one of the most successful Latin American artists of all time: he’s won countless awards and accolades, including a Grammy, a Latin Grammy, a Latin Heritage Award and two Billboard Latin Music Awards and has sold over 40 million albums. Today Arjona has 16 studio albums, one live album, nine compilation albums and 43 singles under his belt.
Hidden deep in the Guatemalan jungle, Tikal was the capital city of the Mayan Classic Period, and its enormous causeways and imposing pyramids attract visitors from all across the globe. These jungle-cloaked limestone temples look like something out of an Indiana Jones film, and even today this ancient kingdom is shrouded in intrigue.
If being the birthplace of chocolate wasn’t enough, Guatemala is also the producer of the world’s best coffee. The volcanic highlands provide the perfect climate for coffee growing, and the beans grown here have a distinctly rich, earthy taste.
Miguel Ángel Asturias is Guatemala’s most famous writer, and El Señor Presidente (Mister President) is his most iconic work. Considered a landmark text in Latin American literature, this sharp political satire tells the tale of the assassination of the corrupt president’s friend – but who will pay for the crime, the guilty or the innocent?
Tostadas – crispy, hard-shell tacos topped with guacamole, tomato salsa, radishes, onions and often a large scoop of noodles – are a popular street food snack in Central America, but these unique creations come from Guatemala. If you think the idea of noodle tacos is strange, stop at the next food market and try for yourself; with so many different textures and tastes, they’re an absolute joy to eat.
Guatemala’s traditional music comes from the marimba, a large percussion instrument consisting of a set of wooden bars that are hit with mallets. The first documented evidence of the marimba comes from Antigua Guatemala in 1680, though experts believe the instrument is considerably older. Marimba bands usually feature one marimba played by four musicians, and today the music is considered an unofficial national anthem.
Guatemala is famous for its beautiful jade jewelry, which played an integral part in the Maya culture for thousands of years. Today it’s the leading source for Grade A jade in the world, and unlike jade from other countries, Guatemalan jade comes in a variety of colors. Among the rarest (and prized) is lavender and blue jade; rarer still is rainbow jade that comes in an array of colors and is only found in Guatemala.
Guatemala doesn’t have a national dish, but chicken pepian is the closest thing to it. This rich, spicy stew is one of the oldest dishes in the country, and was eaten as far back as the early Mayan times. It’s made with meat, fruit and vegetables (often pear, squash, carrot and corn), slowly cooked with a fragrant mix of spices, and served with rice and tortillas, just as it was in the Mayan era.
A huipil is a traditional item of clothing worn by indigenous women and girls from Central America, and is said to have originated in Guatemala. Usually decorated with colorful and intricate designs, every huipil takes between 3-12 months to make. Typically, different regions of the country use different colors and patterns, but all are unmistakably Guatemalan.
Guatemala has also given us trailblazing feminist rapper Rebeca Lane. Fresh off a European tour, Lane has made waves in the Guatemalan music scene, and her music describes what it’s like to be female in this beautiful but often harsh country. Guatemala has a terrible record for violence against women, and Lane sees her music as a chance to empower young women. She raps about political inequality, poverty, anarchy and activism, and is giving a voice to minorities throughout the country.