20 facts about Guatemalan culture you probably don’t know

Jürg Widmer Probst Guatemala facts about Guatemalan culture

Guatemala is one of the most fascinating countries on earth. A mix of many traditional cultures, Guatemala inhabits fascinating terrain. While the country is relatively small, there is so much packed within its borders.

There are so many fascinating facts to discover about Guatemala that I can’t cover them all in one blog! But here are some of the most interesting facts about Guatemalan culture I’ve learned over the years.

Check out these 20 facts on Guatemalan culture, history and cuisine

  1. Guatemala is the heart of the Maya civilisation

Many of the biggest and most important Mayan cities were in Guatemala. Places like El Mirador and Tikal were built and abandoned within the country, with Mayans ruling the land until about 1000AD.

We don’t know how or why these Mayan cities fell, particularly as the Conquistadors didn’t even arrive for another 500 years.

  1. Mayan culture is alive and well

Around 40% of Guatemala’s population is made up of indigenous people, with most of them from Mayan descent. There are 23 recognised groups of Mayan people living in Guatemala today, including Mam, Kaqchikel, K’iche and Q’eqchi people.

  1. Spanish is not the only language

While Guatemala’s official language is Spanish, there are more than 20 other languages commonly in use throughout the country. In the highlands and mountainous areas, 21 Mayan languages are still spoken, with two non-Mayan languages in use on the Caribbean coastline.

  1. Corn is a staple food in Guatemala

Corn has long featured in Guatemalan cooking, whether in the form of tortillas or as corn masa, the dough used to make tamales. Pretty much every Guatemalan meal will have some form of corn tortilla, usually served with rice and beans.

  1. Traditional Guatemalan foods include tamales and pepian

There are loads of delicious Guatemalan dishes to try, including tamales. These come in lots of varieties but are all made from corn masa. The dough is stuffed with loads of different ingredients. Pepian is a meat stew, usually made with chicken. The sauce contains pumpkin seeds, which are called ‘pepitos’. These are ground up with lots of dried chillies and the stew is served with rice. It’s commonly made at times of celebration and festivity.

  1. The Mayans invented chocolate

Guatemala is the place where chocolate bars were invented. This was, of course, long after chocolate was used by the Maya elite in the form of hot chocolate mixed with chillies, cinnamon and other spices.

  1. Guatemala is an exporter of jade

The jade from Guatemala has been valuable for centuries, with the original site in the Montagua River Valley. Jade was used by the rich and elite and in ancient rituals. Today, Jade is exported by Guatemala to lots of other countries.

  1. Guatemala is the world’s biggest producer of cardamom

While spices are more commonly associated with India, Guatemala produces double the amount of cardamom.

  1. They produce the best coffee in the world

Coffee exports make up the biggest economic success story of Guatemala. It’s grown in the highlands and mountainous areas of Guatemala, and people particularly love coffee made from Antiguan beans.

  1. Mayan music is much-loved in Guatemala

Guatemalan culture is alive with music and sound, particularly during festivals such as Semana Santa. Wind and percussion instruments make up the bulk of Guatemalan instruments. These are usually made of bone and include flutes, ocarinas and whistles. Percussion instruments include rattles and drums covered with deer hide.

  1. The Garifuna culture is steeped in music

The Garifuna live on the Caribbean coastline of Guatemala and into Belize and Honduras. Their traditions and culture are more influenced by the Caribbean, and their music is a mix of African-style drumming, circular dancing and rhythmic singing.

  1. Ancient Mayan art can still be seen in Guatemala

Usually consisting of large murals and upright carved stones called stelae, Mayan art can be seen in Quirigua. This town is located in south Guatemala and houses one of the most impressive collections of Mayan art.

  1. Carlos Mérida is Guatemala’s most famous artist

Carlos was born in 1891 and died in 1984 and is probably the best-known artist from Guatemala. While he trained in Paris, his style mixed all kinds of influences to make Indigenista art. You can still see some of his murals painted in Guatemala City, with much of his artwork now housed in the Museum of Modern Art in Guatemala City.

  1. Guatemalan textiles are striking and still made in the traditional way

One of the most visually prominent examples of the culture and traditions of Guatemala can be seen in their textile work. The ancient Mayans worked with white and brown cotton, mostly creating textiles for the elites. Processing the cotton was labour intensive and skilled work.

  1. Holy Week (Semana Santa) is one of the biggest festivals in Guatemala

Holy Week is taken very seriously in Guatemala, with processions moving from surrounding villages into Antigua for the whole week. Hours go into making ‘alfombras’ out of sawdust. These are temporary carpets of coloured sawdust that are strewn over the streets.

  1. Each Guatemalan village has its own Patron Saint

Every village holds its own celebration of its particular Patron Saint, which typically includes folk dances, processions and music.

  1. The Day of the Dead is a major celebration every 1 November

Dia de Los Muertos is a yearly celebration of the dead. Held on 1 November every year, it’s a beautiful and moving celebration of those that have been lost and is a time of remembrance. Families head to the cemeteries to visit their lost relatives, and spend time remembering and honouring them.

  1. Guatemala has more than 30 volcanoes

Three of these volcanoes are still active, including Pacaya. This volcano is found near to Guatemala City and is often visited by tourists who want to see the still flowing lava. Another active volcano in Guatemala is Fuego, which is close to Antigua and erupts every day.

  1. The deepest lake in Central America is in Guatemala

Lake Atitlan is not only the deepest lake in the whole continent but is widely considered the most beautiful too. Surrounded by volcanoes and villages lived in by indigenous people, the lake is stunning. Around 1100 feet deep, it’s also a great place for scuba divers to get their high-altitude certifications.

  1. Independence Day for Guatemala was in 1821

Guatemala became independent of Spanish rule in September 1821, along with Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.