Traveling to Guatemala is a life long ambition for me. I always remember having to write an essay about ‘The Chicle Gatherers of Guatemala’ at school, and I fell in love with the name and became intrigued with the history, from that day. So here are some things that you may like to know about Guatemala.
The country of Guatemala is situated between Mexico and Honduras, in Central America. It’s slightly smaller than Tennessee and has a Pacific coastline. It has a very long, rich, cultural history and was home to the amazingly evolved Mayan population. Here’s our brief guide to this fascinating place.
What does the word Guatemala mean?
Although it is known that the name originated in the area, its precise origin is not known. There are some theories. One is that ‘Guatemala’ means ‘land of the trees’ and is from the language of the Maya-Tolec people. Another theory is that the country was named by Tlaxcaltecan soldiers who travelled with Pedro de Alvarado during the infamous Spanish Conquest. They called it Quauhtitlan. This could have been the local word ‘quiche’ meaning ‘many trees’ which they then translated into their language.
Earliest known people
Arrow heads made from obsidian have been found in Guatemala which could date the earliest human settlers there to 18 thousand years BC! Other ancient sites on the central Pacific coast date back to 6,500 BC. An altar was discovered in San Marcos from 1000 BC. There are ceremonial sites at Miraflores and El Narango which go back to 801 BC.
El Mirador, in the Petén region of Guatemala, flourished from around 600 BC, reaching its peak between 300 BC and 100 BC. It was home to over 100,000 people, which was most of the people who lived in pre Columbian America. It was first discovered in 1926, and was photographed from the air in 1930. However, because it was so deep in rain forest territory, it was left alone until it was first mapped in 1962. It’s the site of enormous pyramids, with a volume bigger than 250 thousand cubic meters. It was a highly evolved area, with twenty six cities built in extensive virgin tropical rain forest. The feat of building them is staggering. Especially when you consider that these cities were all connected by highways that were up to forty meters wide. They were many kilometers long and sat up to four meters above the ground. They were paved with stucco and can clearly be seen from an airplane.
Irreplaceable history is being lost every day
The Mirador Basin contains the largest concentration of Maya cities in Central America. These cities have the most spectacular architecture in the Maya world. The area is known to have at least 26 sites, many of which are among the largest and earliest in the Maya world. Only 14 of the 26 have been so far been studied. Experts estimate that there are another 30 which haven’t even been found yet. But sadly, the trafficking of Mayan artifacts is a big money business. Archeologists and historians fear that by the time they arrive, the looters may have already done their work. And it’s not only the looters that are threatening this priceless history. Many people know that the rain forests are falling under massive deforestation. The huge equipment that is used for logging is also destroying areas which may hold undiscovered settlements.
Arch of Santa Catalina – Antigua – Guatemala
This is a very popular tourist destination and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The name means ‘Old Guatemala’. It was the third capital of Guatemala and has a dramatic history. The first capital was on the site of a Maya city (now called Iximche). After several uprisings, it was relocated to a site in the Valley of Almolonga in 1527. It was destroyed 14 years later by a mudflow from a nearby volcano. Once again it was moved, this time to the Valley of Panchoy. In 1543, it was named Santiago de los Cabelleros and remained as the home for the governor of the now Spanish colony of Guatemala. In 1717, a huge earthquake hit the area and sadly destroyed most of the city’s 3,000 buildings. Another move was considered but not implemented, which was a pity because in 1773, yet more earthquakes destroyed the town and forced a move to the Valley of the Shrine, where modern day Guatemala City now stands. People were ordered to leave the devastated ruins of Santiago de los Cabelleros but many refused and the town became Antigua Guatemala.
The Country was torn by unrest and war for years, with over 45,000 people crossing the border into Mexico, where they were placed in refugee camps. In 1982, Rigoberta Menchú won the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing attention to the genocide of the indigenous people by their own government. Mass emigrations continued and to give you some idea of the huge numbers involved, the following fact is rather chilling. Remittances (money sent by a foreign worker to his home country) from Guatemalans who fled to the United States during the civil war now make up the largest single source of foreign income for the States. The amount of Guatemalan Remittances adds up to more than the value of all the exports and tourism of the United States put together!
The Guatemalan Civil War ended in 1996 but the area had paid an unimaginably high price. During the first ten years of this awful conflict, the state targeted young professionals, students and those who openly opposed them. However, in the last years, thousands of peaceful Mayan farmers were killed. More than 450 Mayan villages were ruined. Over one million people became refugees. Happily, this part of history is now closed and Guatemala now has democratic elections and peace.
In 1900, the population of Guatemala was around 885,000. The population then exploded and for the rest of that century, the country had the fastest population growth in all of the Western Hemisphere. Since the Civil War, emigration to the United States has been steady and there are now Guatemalan communities in California, Florida, New York, Texas, Illinois and many other areas. Despite this continuous emigration, by 2007 the population stood at almost 13 million!
What can I see and do there?
El Mirador – If you would like to visit El Mirador, there are organized treks available but be aware that you need to be physically fit to attempt this!
Guatemala City – If you’re more of a city dweller, then try Guatemala City. It has numerous libraries and museums, including the National Archives, the National Library and the Museum of Archeology and Ethnology which houses an extensive and fascinating collection of Maya artifacts. For smaller, private museums, you could try the Ixchel textile museum or the Popol Vuh, which is a museum of Maya archaeology. The good news is that both of these are inside the Universidad Francisco Marroquin campus in Guatemala City! There are 329 municipalities in Guatemala and nearly all of them have their own, small museum.
Rain Forests – If you yearn to visit the rain forests, it is possible. You can sign up for a guided exploration. The same company also offers a variety of unusual and exciting Guatemalan experience holidays, including Mayan archaeolgy tours and sail fishing.
Markets – You can enjoy walking around the markets, tasting the food and buying up artefacts, bright coloured fabric and clothing.
So much more to Guatemala…
It is impossible to cover the magic and fascination of Guatemala in one article – you could spend a lifetime falling in love with it. We hope that you visit this amazing place and we are sure you will go back again and again! And I haven’t even covered the life of the Chicle gathers in this post.
You can book your airfare, hotel and car hire quickly and easily online at expedia.com. We book with Expedia because they are the travel professionals and their website is easy to navigate and understand. Plus the deals are excellent so we save time and money.