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Guatemala Guatemalan Culture



The largest and most populous of the Central American countries, Guatemala is famously a land of contrasts and contradictions. It has great physical beauty, with ancient Mayan ruins, volcanoes, lakes, and rain forests, and a conglomeration of diverse peoples and cultures had together by fierce national pride and love for a country they want to improve.

Guatemala is unique in Central America in that more than half its population is of Mayan Indian origin. Today it is combination of ancient Mayan heritage, Spanish colonialism, and Western influences, mainly from the United States. There has been an increase in tourism since the 1996 peace accords between the government and leftist insurgents ended a brutal thirty-six-year civil war.

Key Facts

Official Name:
  República de Guatemala ( Republic of Guatemala)
Capital City:
  Cuidad de Guatemala ( Guatemala City)
Main Cities:

Guatemala City , Quetzaltenango , Antigua, Chichicaste nango , Puerto Barrios, Escuintla


12,293,545 (2006 estimate)

  42,042 sq. miles (108,890 sq. km)
  Quetzal (Q) which divided into 100 centavos; named after the national bird, the quetzal
  GMT minus 6 hours (Central Standard Time)

Spanish 60%
Amerindian languages 40%

Guatemalan Land & People

Geographical snapshot

Guatemala , the northernmost of the Central American countries, is approximately 42,042 square miles (108,890 square km), making it about the size of the state of Tennessee, or of Ireland. It shares borders with Mexico and Belize to the north and northeast, Honduras and El Salvador to the east and southeast, and stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Honduras on the Caribbean Sea.

Three tectonic plates on the earth’s crust meet in Guatemala, and there are many volcanoes in the mountainous areas, some which are active and occasional violent earthquakes. The short Caribbean coastline is susceptible to hurricanes and other tropical storms. The country consists of three main regions: the temperate rolling central highlands, with the heaviest population; the fertile tropical areas along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts; and the tropical jungle in the northern lowlands known as El Petén which contains the famous Mayan site of Tikal .

The capital, Guatemala City, has a population of about 3 million people. Other major cities include Quetzaltenango ( Xela ), Antigua, Chichicaste nango , and Puerto Barrios. In 2006 the population was about 12,3 million with an annual growth rate of 2,3 percent. Guatemala is divided into twenty-two administrative departamentos , each of which has its own distinct cultural heritage and traditions.


Guatemala has been described as “The Land of Eternal Spring”. This name comes from the tapestry like countryside, the year-round, spring like, moderate climate, and the vibrant colours of Mayan weaving. There are two seasons – the dry seasons, from November (inland) or January (along the coast) to April; and the wet season, from May to October (inland), or December (along the coast). The coasts are hot and humid, with heavy rain during the wet season, although there is some decrease in humidity during the dry season. During the wet season it stays damp, with rain storms sometimes and are cooler at night. Temperatures vary with altitude, ranging from an annual average of 77º to 86ºF (25º to 30ºC) on the coast, to 68ºF (20ºC) in the central highlands, and 59ºF (15ºC) in the higher mountains. It is coolest during December and January, and in some areas there is even a small amount of snow. Overall, much of Guatemala enjoys warm or hot days and cool evenings year-round.

The cultural divide between Maya and Ladinos

Guatemala is home to the largest group of indigenous within Central America. They are collectively referred to as the Maya (or the Maya or Mayan Indians). Westernized Maya and mestizos (mixed European and indigenous ancestry or assimilated Amerindian) are known as “Ladinos” or locally as Guatemaltecos . The name “Ladinos” was originally used to identify Spanish-speaking Mayan Indians who provided labour and overseeing of the plantations and were supposed to keep the Maya in line. Later, Ladinos began to acquire land and wealth, and today the term has become chiefly a description of the national culture of Guatemala, but still distinguishes it from that if the true Mayan Indians.

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Guatemalan Values & Attitudes


The differences between the Maya and the Ladinos make it difficult to generalize about Guatemalan populations as a whole. There are really two distinct cultures in Guatemala – the dominant culture of the Ladino minority, and the abiding culture of the Mayan majority. Extremes of poverty and wealth contribute to the range of values and attitudes found among the people, as do the differences between rural and urban life. That said, the Guatemalan people can fairly be described as proud, strong, and vibrant. Visitors to the country are welcomed, and generally find a warm and friendly reception.

Importance of family and community

In Central America generally there is an emphasis on family life and the community. It has been suggested that this focus on the collective rather than the individual may have originated in colonial times, when people preferred to solve problems within their communities rather than involve the Spanish authorities. In Guatemala, the Maya kept many indigenous beliefs and customs secret from outsiders. Today, the Maya still rely on their villages and communities for support and resources. Many Mayan communities have their own laws and a network of spiritual and political leaders who are effectively independent of the authorized government structures.

This emphasis on family unity (familismo) includes a strong sense of respect, loyalty, solidarity, reciprocity, interdependence, and cooperation among nuclear and extended family members. It is not uncommon in Guatemala to see extended living together and sharing responsibilities such as child care, the provision of food, and financial matters.

Mañana and the time orientation

Most Guatemalans operate within a “ mañana ” time frame. This means that punctuality is not a consideration, especially if something more important occurs. Mañana means “tomorrow”, and indicates that time can be viewed flexibly. Rather than assuming that Guatemalan are irresponsible slackers, it is important to remember that, for most of them, time consciousness is simply not a top priority. These ideas about time also mean that the quality of an interaction is more important than how long its lasts. It is fairly common for Guatemalans to arrive thirty minutes or more late for an appointment or meeting. For them, 4:00 p.m. can mean any time between 4:00 and 5:00 – what’s important is showing up, and the quality of the time spent together.

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Spanish Language Courses in Guatemala

:: Antigua
:: All Guatemala locations

Culture Smart

The above extract is kindly provided by Culture Smart! the essential guide to customs & culture. The 168-page guide retails at £6.95 + P&P and is available directly from Kuperard, the publishers of Culture Smart! guides.

CultureSmart!Consulting in conjunction with Cactus Language Training creates tailor-made seminars and consultancy programs to meet a wide range of corporate, public sector, and individual needs. Find out more at

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