A rough guide to Guatemalan history

jurg widmer probst guatemala

In a country with as rich and complex a cultural, social and political history as Guatemala’s, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the past. But understanding all of these historical influences and the impact that they have had on the story of Guatemala is a fundamentally important part of getting a better idea of what makes the country and its people so special.

So, with that in mind, here is our rough guide to some of the key events in Guatemalan history.

18,000 BC

Many brief histories of the land that is now known as Guatemala begin in the 1500s, when the Spanish colonists first arrived. But the region has a history of settlement that stretches far further back – with early inhabitants gathering food and hunting with obsidian arrowheads.

2,000 BC

The earliest appearance of the Mayans. Beginning in the mountains of present-day Guatemala, they soon spread across much of the region. Their civilisation grew quickly into a fantastically sophisticated society, with artistic, cultural, architectural and scientific influences that we still see today in modern Guatemala. Many of the most spectacular Mayan buildings were built in the Late Pre-classic period (around 1,400 BC), and include the sites at Xulnal, Tintal and Wakná which are now among some of Guatemala’s most popular tourist attractions.


Things change dramatically for the worse for the indigenous Mayan population with the arrival of the Spaniard Pedro de Alvarado. Using internal rivalries within the local population to his advantage, de Alvarado was able to quickly conquer and destroy much of the once great Mayan civilisation.


The Spanish conquer the last great Mayan cities of Tayasal and Zacpetén, and throughout the 1600s the former Mayan lands continue to be divided up among Spanish landowners.


Guatemala becomes an independent country, joins the Mexican empire, then a part of the United Provinces of Central America until full independence in 1839.


The country is ruled by conservative leader Rafael Carrera, who works hard to consolidate the power and maintain the influence of both the large Spanish landowners and the church.


The beginning of Guatemala’s ‘Liberal Revolution’. This movement was led Justo Rufino Barrios, and was in many ways a reaction to the many years of conservative rule by Carrera. It was an important period of modernisation for the country and saw the birth of an iconic Guatemala product: coffee.


Towards the end of the Second World War, Guatemalan president Juan Jose Arevalo begins to introduce more rights for peasants, including returning some of their land and also creating a social security system to support the very poorest in society.


After an American-backed coup, Colonel Carlos Castillo takes power. He is later assassinated in 1963, and civilian rule eventually returns in 1966.

The 1970s and ’80s

This stable civilian rule doesn’t last for long, as the ’70s, ’80s and ‘90s were one of the darkest periods in Guatemalan history. In the 1970s, the country’s military rulers kill around 50,000 people in an attempt to eradicate the left. After a series of military coups in the 1980s, a civil war erupts which eventually leaves over 100,000 dead and 40,000 missing.


After many brutal years of civil war, hostilities finally come to an end – but the country is left with many deep scars that that its people are still dealing with today.


Victims of the civil war receive around $3.5 million in damages.

2004 to present

In recent years, Guatemala has enjoyed a little more political stability, with more regular elections, some reconciliation with the crimes of the civil war period, and a slowly improving economy thanks to the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States.

Jürg Widmer Probst 

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