Guatemala’s history can be divided into three main time periods: pre-Columbian Mayan civilization, the Spanish conquest and the colonial era, and independence. All aspects make Guatemala a culturally-rich country, with recent developments seeing the nation grow on the world stage.
There is evidence of human settlements on Guatemala as early as 12,000 BC. The Mayas originated around 2,000 BC and built an empire that spanned much of Central America including Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. They thrived between 250 and 900 AD and built vast cities consisting of huge stone buildings, remains of which can be seen to this day, at 1,500 archeological sites.
Around 900 AD, the entire civilization curiously collapsed, which is still a mystery to scientists today. One popular theory is that they were subject to a series of prolonged droughts, leading to an unbeatable mass famine. The few survivors passed down the remaining Mayan traditions for generations, grasping to hold onto the culture. After that era, Guatemala was divided into many regional kingdoms.
The Spanish first arrived on an expedition in 1519, although it was not until 1524 that an official conquest was underway. By 1697, they took control of the entire country. The Spanish moved the capital three times within their rule, eventually choosing the present day Antigua Guatemala. However, in 1773, a giant earthquake destroyed the city and in 1776 it was abandoned.
In 1821, Guatemala proclaimed independence from Spain, following in the footsteps of other Latin American countries which had been colonies. Departure of the overarching empire left a power vacuum in Guatemala and by 1838, the country had entered its first civil war which lasted two years. By 1898, Guatemala fell to its first dictatorial ruler, Manuel Estraba Caberra, backed by the powerful United Fruit Company.
Dictatorships in Guatemala lasted throughout the first half of the 20th century until the military coups of 1944 set the country into a period of political instability. By 1966, guerilla movements were fighting against the military for democracy. The civil war officially ended in 1996, with both sides signing a United Nations Peace Accord. Since then, Guatemala has experienced rapid economic growth and democratic elections, improving the quality of life for all.
Guatemala is currently the most populous country of Central America, with 15 million residents. Many of its inhabitants are direct descendants of the Mayan civilization and you can find Mayan heritage in the villages surrounding Lake Atitlan and around the central highlands. For further insight, visit the National Museum of Archeology and Ethnology in Guatemala City, which displays the most complete collection of artifacts, including jade stones and indigenous textiles. For further understanding of the meaning behind the designs, visit the Ixchel Museum of Indigenous Textiles and Clothing in Guatemala City. The famed Mayan ruins and UNESCO World Heritage site at Tikal provides detailed information on the history of the relics that remain here.
If you wish to learn more about the Spanish colonial era, visit the Colonial Art Museum in Antigua Guatemala, which houses art of the 16th and 17th centuries. Another good stop is the National History Museum in Guatemala City, which has a collection of objects reflecting the economy, society and culture of the country since 1821.