Volcanoes, Mayans, and Quetzals are some of the things we instantly associate with Guatemala, but besides these, what is Guatemala famous for?
Located in Central America, in the core of the Mayan world, Guatemala is bathed by the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. It also borders Mexico, Belize, and Honduras. With a population of almost 18 million people (2023), it is the most populous country in Central America.
Despite its relatively small size Guatemala is a great destination almost all year round. It’s no wonder it calls itself the land of the eternal spring. The beautiful nature, the volcanos, the Mayan culture, the food, and the hiking opportunities, attract more and more people, but mostly adventure travelers.
But, without further delays, let’s illustrate what is Guatemala known for!
10 Things Guatemala is famous for
Guatemala is located at the core of what was the Mayan world many centuries ago. Even though the Mayan civilization didn’t resist the Spanish arrival to the Americas, the people did. There are still Mayan descents in Central America and Guatemala.
The ancient Maya civilization still influences Guatemalan daily life and culture. From the food and clothes to the religious beliefs and traditions, one can still see many Mayan features in today’s Guatemala as they play a significant role in Guatemala’s political and social life.
The ancient Maya civilization was one of the most influential cultures in precolonial America. They were famous for their sophisticated writing system and their mathematical, astronomical, and agricultural knowledge.
The Mayan architecture was also very developed, as they were able to build massive temples, palaces, and imposing pyramids. Some Mayan cities were huge with complex organizations, including the most famous Tikal.
Despite being conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century, they kept their identity, continued speaking their native languages (there are dozens of them), and were able to maintain some of their traditional customs and beliefs. The Mayans are still almost half of Guatemala’s population.
As we said, the Mayas had huge cities in what is today Guatemala. Some of these cities had more than 100 000 people, including Tikal – the most famous Mayan city and ruins in Guatemala.
Founded in about 600 BC, Tikal had its peak during the classic period of Maya history between 250 and 900 AD. During this time, it was one of the most powerful Mayan cities and a center of trade, religion, and politics.
Today Tikal is one of the most important archeological sites in the world and a UNESCO heritage site with many of the ancient buildings still standing today. These include the Temple of the Great Jaguar, the Lost World temple, and the Great Plaza.
Visited by thousands of people every day, Tikal is one of the most fascinating attractions in Central America and the main symbol of Guatemala’s cultural heritage. Though, we must mention that the country is full of ancient ruins.
Located in the famous Pacific ring of fire, Guatemala is home to a large number of volcanoes, many of them currently active. The volcanoes are probably the most striking geographical feature of the country and some of the most famous landscapes.
The Pacaya and the Fuego volcanoes are the most famous in Guatemala. They are both very active and erupt regularly. They are also very close to each other and make a perfect day trip from Antigua, the former capital of Guatemala.
Fuego is particularly famous for its explosive eruptions that produce vast amounts of ash and debris while lava drips down the mountain. It is possible to climb the Acatenango volcano (an active but not erupting volcano) and watch the Fuego erupting firsthand. It is a strenuous hike, but it is completely worth it.
While spectacular and one of the country’s most famous attractions, the volcanos are also a significant threat to the region’s people. Their eruptions don’t come with a warning and will destroy properties and lives. They also come with a high level of seismic activity which can be even more destructive.
On the other hand, people are attracted to them. The land surrounding the volcanoes is rich in natural resources and fertile, which is great for agricultural use. It is a delicate balance between the risks they pose, their beauty, and the wealth they bring.
Another famous landmark in Guatemala is Lake Atitlán. Located at a high altitude in the southwestern highlands of Guatemala, Lake Atitlan is usually considered one of the most beautiful in the world.
Surrounded by three volcanos (Atitlan, San Pedro, and Toliman) and other high mountains that provide a dramatic backdrop to the lake, it is truly an amazing place. The lake’s margins are dotted with small towns and villages, each with distinct characteristics and characters.
Panajachel is the largest and most popular village on the lake and serves as a hub of everything else. Santa Catarina Palopo is famous for its colorful houses. San Pedro de la Laguna is the backpackers’ hub. San Marcos is where yoga and meditation fans go. Santiago is also large, and it has a more local vibe.
Lake Atitlan is also a popular destination for SUP and kayaking. The water is beautiful and surprisingly warm for the altitude. As the lake sits on the top of a crater, the volcanic heat keeps the water at a steady temperature of about 21º C (70 ºF) year-round.
Another thing Guatemala is famous for is its food. Guatemalan food is a mixture of Mayan tradition, Spanish colonial dishes, and modern Mexican. As one would expect, it uses many traditional Mayan ingredients like corn, chiles, chocolate, and beans.
Guatemalan cuisine shares many modern dishes with Mexican food, but with one major difference, it isn’t as spicy-hot as Mexican. Like in Mexico, the tortilla is the most prevalent dish in Guatemala, as it is used in almost every dish and every meal.
Some of the most beloved foods in Guatemala include:
Chocolate is one of the most famous products in Guatemala and an important part of the economy, as it is one of the country’s primary export goods.
Chocolate lovers know their quality and unique flavor profile, so it is much sought after. Cacao from Guatemala tends to be fruity, nutty and even has some spicy notes. The combination of soil, climate, and other environmental factors make the flavor and quality of cocoa beans special.
Moreover, as it is still a traditional artisanal production, chocolate tends to have an even more complex and rich flavor. The best hot chocolate we have ever had it was in Panajachel, Guatemala. It was incredibly smooth, aromatic, and had deep flavor.
It is believed that the Mayans were the first people to cultivate and consume cacao. And they loved it so much that they deemed it “the food of the gods.” However, instead of eating it in bars, they drank cacao-based drinks (like atol and pozol).
What is Guatemala famous for? Coffee is one of the first things that comes to the mind of most people, as it is one of the finest in the world.
The coffee from Guatemala is grown all over the country. In the high mountain regions, which are usually fertile due to the richness of the volcanic soils, Guatemalan coffee is often smooth, full-bodied with nuances of spice and smoke. In a word, delicious.
However, there is also coffee production in the southern pacific regions. There the coffee is a bit fruitier and acidic. Coffee lovers will love these nuances and appreciate the differences.
As it is so well-known and beloved internationally, coffee is one of the major exports in Guatemala. The coffee industry employs thousands of people, and it is a particularly important source of income for small farmers and families.
The resplendent quetzal is the national animal of Guatemala and one of its major symbols, as it is pictured in the flag and the coat of arms. It even named their currency (the Guatemalan Quetzal).
This relatively small bird (up to 40 cm) is famous for its bright colors and complex plumage. Particularly the extravagant and long tail. They live in the cloud forests of Central America and Mexico and are notoriously shy and difficult to spot, as there aren’t many in the wild.
Like many other things in Guatemala, the importance of the quetzal comes mainly from the Mayan tradition. They considered it sacred and often depicted in art and mythology. There is a tight connection between the mighty god Quetzalcoatl and the bird.
The quetzal feathers were so precious to the Mayans that they even used them as currency.
Naturally, the resplendent quetzal was a symbol of wealth and nobility for the Mayas, and it still is sacred for the indigenous people of Guatemala, also becoming a symbol of freedom and independence. The quetzal is unique and iconic… and beautiful!
The chicken buses are the most popular means of transportation in Guatemala (and most of Latin America). They are old American school buses that have been repurposed to serve as public transportation.
Chicken Buses are cheap, (kind of) reliable and usually colorful, and beautifully decorated. They might also be very loud as usually they have loud music playing. It is one of Guatemala’s favorite ways of getting around, particularly in remote, rural areas.
GOOD TO KNOW:
Despite tempting to try, chicken buses may also be dangerous for tourists. Guatemalans recommended us not to take them, as foreigners may be easy targets for crime.
The curious name chicken buses were given by tourists because, besides transporting people, the buses may also carry livestock, most usually chicken. The locals usually call them colectivos, as they a public buses.
Jade is another important symbol of Guatemala that came from the Mayan civilization. For the Mayas, Jade was a sign of elite and status. They would shape jade into small statues, sculptures, masks, and many other tokens.
The type of Jade produced in Guatemala is Jadeite, which is known for its distinct hues of green that go from pale to deep emerald. It is also hard and durable, which explains why so many jade Mayan artifacts have survived.
Jadeite is still mined today in Guatemala (it is the third largest producer in the world), and it is still used in jewelry and decorating items. Jadeite products are one of the most popular tourist souvenirs in the country. The best place to buy them is Antigua, where you can also find the Jade museum.