7 Facts About Guatemala You Never Knew

This Central American Republic Has Rich Mayan Heritage

Road sign for Guatemala under a blue sky.

Nick Youngson Alpha Stock Images/Picserver/CC BY SA 3.0


Guatemala is the most populous country in Central America and one of the world's most linguistically diverse nations. It has become the most popular country for immersion language study for students on a tight budget.

Vital Statistics

Guatemala city at night aerial view.
Guatemala city is a large urban area with many residents.

chensiyuan/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0, 3.0, 2.5, 2.0, 1.0

Guatemala has a population of 14.6 million (mid-2014 data) with a growth rate of 1.86 percent. About half the population lives in urban areas.

About 60 percent of people are of European or mixed heritage, known as ladino (what is often called mestizo in English), with nearly all the remainder of Mayan ancestry.

Although the unemployment rate is low (4 percent as of 2011), about half the population lives in poverty. Among indigenous people, the poverty rate is 73 percent. Child malnourishment is widespread. The gross domestic product of $54 billion is about half that per capita of the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean.

The literacy rate is 75 percent, around 80 percent for males age 15 and over and 70 percent for females.

The vast majority of people are at least nominally Roman Catholic, although indigenous religious beliefs and other types of Christianity are also common.


Temple of the Great Jaguar on a sunny day.
The Temple of the Great Jaguar is one of the Mayan ruins at Tikal, Guatemala.

Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

Mayan culture dominated what is now Guatemala and the surrounding region for hundreds of years. This continued until a decline occurred around A.D. 900 in the Great Mayan Collapse, which was possibly caused by repeated droughts. Various Mayan groups eventually set up rival states in the highlands until their conquest by Spaniard Pedro de Alvarado in 1524. The Spaniards ruled with a heavy hand in a system that strongly favored the Spaniards over the ladino and Mayan populations.

The colonial period came to an end in 1821, although Guatemala didn't become independent from other parts of the region until 1839 with the dissolution of the United Provinces of Central America.

A series of dictatorships and rule by strongmen followed. Major changes came about in the 1990s when a civil war that began in 1960 came to an end. Over the war's 36 years, government forces killed or forced the disappearance of 200,000 people, mostly from Mayan villages, and displaced hundreds of thousands more. A peace accord was signed in December 1996.

Since then, Guatemala has had relatively free elections but continues to struggle with rampant poverty, government corruption, wide income disparity, human rights abuses, and extensive crime.

Spanish in Guatemala

Local women and tourists in Antigua, Guatemala.

CarlosVanVegas/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Although Guatemala, like every region, has its share of local slang, in general, the Spanish of Guatemala can be thought of as typical of most of Latin America. Vosotros (the informal plural "you") is very seldom used, and the c when coming before an e or i is pronounced the same as the s.

In everyday speech, the standard future tense can come across as overly formal. More common is the periphrastic future, formed by using "ir a" followed by an infinitive.

One Guatemalan distinctive is that in some population groups, vos is used for "you" instead of when speaking to close friends, although its usage varies with age, social class, and region.

Studying Spanish

An old city street, with an archway at the end, at sunrise
The Santa Catalina Arch in Antigua, Guatemala, at sunrise.

Filippo Maria Bianchi / Getty Images

Because it's close to the country's major international airport at Guatemala City and has an abundance of schools, Antigua, Guatemala, a one-time capital before its destruction by an earthquake, is the most visited destination for immersion study. Most schools provide one-on-one instruction and offer the option of staying in a home where the hosts don't (or won't) speak English.

Tuition generally ranges from $150 to $300 per week. Home stays begin around $125 per week, including most meals. Most schools can arrange transportation from the airport, and many sponsor excursions and other activities for students.

The second most important study destination is Quetzaltenango, the country's number two city, known locally as Xela (pronounced SHELL-ah). It caters to students who prefer to avoid the tourist crowds and be more isolated from foreigners speaking English.

Other schools can be found in towns throughout the country. Some of the schools in isolated areas can also provide instruction and immersion in Mayan languages.

Schools generally are located in safe areas, and most ensure that host families provide food prepared under hygienic conditions. Students should be aware, however, that because Guatemala is a poor country, they might not receive the same standard of food and accommodations that they are used to at home. Students also should study ahead about safety conditions, particularly if traveling by public transportation, as violent crime has been a major problem in much of the country.


Guatemala on the map with the country highlighted in red.

Vardion/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

Guatemala has an area of 108,889 square kilometers, about the same as that of the U.S state of Tennessee. It borders Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador and has coastline on the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Honduras on the Atlantic side.

The tropical climate varies considerably with altitude, which ranges from sea level to 4,211 meters at Tajumulco Volcano, the highest point in Central America.

Linguistic Highlights

Busy street in Guatemala on a sunny day.

Christopher Aragón/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

Although Spanish is the official national language and can be used nearly everywhere, about 40 percent of the people speak indigenous languages as a first language. The country has 23 languages other than Spanish that are officially recognized, nearly all of them of Mayan origin. Three of them have been granted status as languages of statutory national identity: K'iche', spoken by 2.3 million with about 300,000 of them monolingual; Q'echi', spoken by 800,000; and Mam, spoken by 530,000 people. Those three languages are taught in schools in the areas in which they are used, although literacy rates remain low and publications are limited.

Because Spanish, the language of media and commerce, is all but mandatory for upward economic mobility, the non-Spanish languages that don't receive the special protection are expected to face pressures against their survival. Because they are more likely to travel away from home for employment, male speakers of indigenous languages more often speak Spanish or another second language than do the women.


A brightly-colored quetzal bird perched on a branch.

Francesco Veronesi from Italy/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

The quetzal is the national bird and the country's currency.


"Guatemala." Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 2019.

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Erichsen, Gerald. "7 Facts About Guatemala You Never Knew." ThoughtCo, Apr. 12, 2021, thoughtco.com/facts-about-guatemala-3079147. Erichsen, Gerald. (2021, April 12). 7 Facts About Guatemala You Never Knew. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/facts-about-guatemala-3079147 Erichsen, Gerald. "7 Facts About Guatemala You Never Knew." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/facts-about-guatemala-3079147 (accessed March 24, 2023).