There’s no better way to discover the history of Guatemala than by visiting its museums

Jürg Widmer Probst history of Guatemala

One of the most interesting countries you can visit, Guatemala has a rich cultural history. Home to the ancient Maya civilization, which reached its peak between 250AD and 900AD, the history of Guatemala has many twists and turns.

The Mayan civilisation was already declining from its heady heights when the Europeans landed in the 14th century. And when the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado finally defeated the Mayans in 1524, Guatemala became a Spanish colony. Over the centuries, there have been separate capital cities: Cuidad Vieja followed by Antigua (both were destroyed by earthquakes). Finally, in 1776 Guatemala City was established as the capital.

In the early 19th century, Guatemala became independent from Spain. After a short stint as a member of the United Provinces of Central America and as part of Mexico, today the Central American country is independent. It’s extremely mountainous, with a narrow coastline on the Caribbean and the Pacific in the south.

Visit these five museums to discover the rich history of Guatemala

When the pandemic has finally passed and travel is back on the agenda, Guatemala is well worth visiting. I suggest you check out the following museums on your trip to learn everything you can about this wonderful country’s history.

  • Museum Popul Vuh, Guatemala City

You’ll find the Popul Vuh museum in the heart of Guatemala’s capital city. It’s a must visit, particularly for those interested in Mayan art. Popul Vuh is the name for the sacred book of the ancient Maya people. It is celebrated as one of the most important pieces of literature from Mesoamerica and is likened to Greece’s Odyssey and India’s Ramayana in its significance.

Popul Vuh translates as ‘Book of the People, which is an apt name for a museum packed with art. The museum’s collections follow the story of the Mayan people, before and after the Spanish conquest. Permanent collections include Pre-Hispanic Mayan art, which includes objects from all areas and periods of pre-Hispanic archaeology. It’s all in chronological order so you can track the history of Guatemala people.

Other collections include Vice Regal art, which is from the colonial period starting in 1523 and ending in 1821. Expect transient exhibitions too, such as The Legacy of the Kings. Whenever you visit, this museum gives you a comprehensive and fascinating insight into the history of this complex country. 

  • National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Guatemala City

Also found in the capital city, the Musei Nacional de Arquelogia v Etnologia offers an even deeper insight into the country’s history. This museum houses Guatemala’s largest collection of Mayan objects, from sites such as Tikal.

If you’re planning to trek to some of the archaeological sites during your time in Guatemala, my advice would be to check out both of these museums first. You will have a much clearer picture of what you’re looking at and the significance of the site. Both of these museums do a great job of immersing visitors in Maya culture and history. Because objects on display vary from art to cooking pots and from jewellery to all kinds of artefacts, you can get a really good idea of how this ancient civilisation lived, worked, fought and died.

  • Choco Museu, Antigua

The Chocolate Museum focuses on another vital aspect of Guatemalan culture – chocolate. One of the most important foods of the ancient Maya people, it’s now one of the biggest exports and incredibly important to the country’s economy and to its people.

Guatemalan people think of chocolate as ‘the food of the gods’. It’s seen as a sacred gift and this love and respect shines through at this Antigua-based museum. Visitors learn all about the process of making chocolate. But even more excitingly, you can make it yourself. The museum itself is free to visit, and there are reasonably priced workshops to make your own chocolate. It’s a must visit for all chocoholics but also for anyone interested in one of the most important products in the country.

  • Museo Casa del Tejido, Antigua

Dedicated to the Mayan craft of woven textiles, this museum offers another fascinating insight into an important craft in Guatemala. Visitors will learn about the importance of weaving textiles throughout Mayan culture. There are experts demonstrating the weaving techniques while they create this beautiful fabric before your eyes.

Each textile design comes from a different region within Guatemala, in a similar way to Scottish tartan. The varied designs give you a visual representation of Mayan culture, and of course you can also buy some for yourself at the market on site.

  • Centro Cultural La Azotea, Jocotenango

From chocolate to Mayan textiles to coffee – our final museum is dedicated to one of the most famous products from Guatemala. Located just outside Antigua in Jocotenango, this site actually houses three museums. One is for Mayan textiles, another for music and the final for coffee, which is called the Museo del Café.

It’s the perfect place to visit if you’re a coffee lover. You can find out everything about the plantation’s coffee beans, how they’re processed, roasted and finished. Visitors learn everything about coffee from farm to cup, with rooms for tasting, souvenirs, and exhibitions.