Fast Facts

Population:
12,701,000
Capital:
Guatemala City; 951,000
Area:
108,889 square kilometers (42,042 square miles)
Language:
Spanish, Amerindian languages
Religion:
Roman Catholic, Protestant, indigenous Mayan beliefs
Currency:
Quetzal, U.S. dollar, others allowed
Life Expectancy:
66
GDP per Capita:
U.S. $3,900
Literacy Percent:
71
Flag: Guatemala
Map: Guatemala

Guatemala, meaning land of trees, is a heavily forested and mountainous nation—and the most populous in Central America. The Pacific coast lowlands in the south rise to the volcanic Sierra Madre and other highlands, then the land descends to the forested northern lowlands, including the narrow Caribbean coast. The highlands, where most Guatemalans live, are temperate in climate compared to the tropical lowlands.

A thousand years ago the remarkable Maya civilization flourished, and its ruins dot the landscape. Today more than half of Guatemalans are descendants of the indigenous Maya peoples; most live in the western highlands and are poor subsistence farmers. By contrast the rest of the population are known as Ladinos (mostly mixed Maya-Spanish ancestry). Ladinos use Spanish and wear Western clothing, while Maya speak some 24 indigenous languages and retain traditional dress and customs. The more urbanized Ladino population dominates commerce, government, and the military. Guatemalan society grew increasingly polarized between a Ladino upper class and Maya lower class when guerrilla groups first formed in 1960 to fight for the poor majority. Warfare between guerrillas and government forces cost 200,000 lives and displaced half a million people. In September 1996 the government and the guerrillas agreed on terms to end the 36-year-long civil war.

The democratic government faces problems of crime, illiteracy, and poverty, but it is making progress in moving the economy away from coffee and agriculture toward manufacturing and tourism. Tikal, in northern Guatemala, may be the premier tourism site, with some 3,000 Maya buildings dating from 600 B.C. to A.D. 900. Tikal's Temple IV is the tallest pre-Columbian structure in the Americas at 65 meters (212 feet).

ECONOMY

  • Industry: Sugar, textiles and clothing, furniture, chemicals
  • Agriculture: Sugarcane, corn, bananas, coffee; cattle
  • Exports: Coffee, sugar, bananas, fruits and vegetables, cardamom, meat

—Text From National Geographic Atlas of the World, Eighth Edition

Related Features

  • Photo: Mayan temple at dawn

    Best of the World 2012

    It's time to start planning your adventures for 2012. Here are Traveler magazine's 20 best places in the world to visit, including Guatemala.

  • Photo: Dramatic lights fill the House of Doves ruin at Uxmal, Yucatan, Mexico

    The Maya Rise and Fall

    The saga of a civilization in three parts: the rise, the monumental splendor, and the collapse.

Take a Nat Geo Trip

Select a destination or trip type to find a trip:

See All Trips »

Travel Photos From Your Shot

  • Picture of canoes on a dock in Alberta, Canada

    Your Canada Photos

    View scenes of Canada's city life and countryside—all taken by our Nat Geo photo community.

See More Your Shot Galleries »