Guatemala Basics


Resources I like:

United Nations Development Programme 
Guatemala country profile of human development indicators

Rural Poverty Portal
Guatemala country profile

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Guatemala Maps

Guatemala possesses a striking topography and a wide range of climates—from hot, low-lying rainforests to cold mountains reaching 4,220 meters (over 13,800 feet) in elevation. The country is home to a wealth of biodiversity and natural beauty. There are cloud forests echoing with the calls of howler monkeys; crisp, scenic crater lakes; mangroves and beaches; and dusty deserts, all within a country about the size of Tennessee. 

  • Agriculture is one of the largest economic sectors and one that accounts for approximately 60 percent of the work force, 25 percent of the gross domestic product, and 30 percent of exports. 
  • Traditional exports include: coffee, bananas, cardamom, cotton, beef, and sugar. A quickly expanding nontraditional sector produces and exports nonindigenous fruits, vegetables, ornamental plants, and flowers. Subsistence farmers mainly produce beans and corn for local consumption.
  • Manufacturing and construction account for one-fifth of gross domestic product.

Government and People
  • Guatemala is a constitutional, democratic republic. 
  • The executive branch consists of the president and vice president, elected through a popular vote every four years, and cabinet members appointed by the president. 
  • There is a unicameral congress; members are elected by popular vote every four years. 
  • Supreme Court members, who serve five-year terms, are appointed by the president of Guatemala and the outgoing president of the court. 
  • Suffrage is universal for Guatemalans over the age of 18, excluding soldiers on active duty in the armed services. 
  • The country is divided into 22 departments (think states in the union, or counties in a state).
  • Urban populations and communities in the east ("Oriente") tend to be dominated by Spanish-speaking ladinos (the term used for people whose primary cultural identification is as non-Indian). 
  • Rural populations in the Western Highlands consist mainly of indigenous peoples, including Quiché, Q’eqchi’, Kaqchikel, Mam, Tz’utujil, and more than 15 other ethnic groups.


  • 250 BC - AD 250 ~~~ Mayan civilization began to grow and flourish, the city of Tikal became the dominant city of the southern Mayan world.
  • AD 250-900 ~~~ Classic period.  The Classic Mayan civilization was centered mainly in El Peten region of Guatemala, and organized into city states under noble house with a priestly king.  The final 100+ years of this period saw trade decline and conflict grow among the Mayan states.  The Classic civilization collapsed, perhaps pushed past the tipping point by three several year droughts.
  • 900-1524 ~~~ The Maya who abandoned El Peten and Toltec-Maya migrants from southeast Mexico established kingdoms in the Guatemalan highlands.
  • 1524-1821 ~~~ The Spanish conquest of Guatemala quickly followed the defeat of the Aztec Empire to the north (near modern Mexico City).  The Spanish enslaved the indigenous people to work what had been their own land for the benefit of the invaders.  The Dominican friar Bartolome de Las Casas convinced the Spanish to treat the indigenous people not as chattels but as vassals in 1542, which marginally improved their lot.  The Catholic Church became extremely powerful quickly, with the Dominican, Franciscan, and Augustininan friars leading the wave of conversion.  
  • 1821 ~~~ Guatemala gains independence!  Not much changes for the lower classes.
  • 2nd half of 20th century ~~~ Guatemala experienced a variety of military and civilian governments, as well as a 36-year guerrilla war, which led to the massacre of more than 200,000 people and created approximately 1 million refugees. Ninety-two percent of the deaths were attributed to the Guatemalan military. 
  • 1996 ~~~ The government signed a peace agreement formally ending the conflict.  A continued high level of violence and crime is an unfortunate part of the ongoing struggle of all Guatemalans to recover from the trauma of war.

**To create the content for this section I have borrowed heavily from the Peace Corps Guatemala Welcome Handbook and Lonely Planet Guatemala guidebook.** 

1 comment:

  1. I shall be eagerly following your adventures, Bethany. I am excited for you. What city will you be training in for the first 3 months? And after that -- or do you find that out later? What kinds of stuff do they tell you to take with you, or not take with you? Any other interesting details about the preparation?