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Guatemala

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Continent:America National flag
National flag: Guatemala
Capital city:Guatemala
Area:108,889 km2 ( 104. )
Population:14,655,189 Person ( 61. )
People density:135 Person / km2
GDP per capita:1,050 $ / Person ( 105. )
GDP:15,387,948,450 $
Official language:spanish

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Spanning the narrow Central American isthmus, Guatemala is a physical and cultural microcosm of Latin America, incorporating an astonishing array of contradictions in a country roughly the size of Ireland. Uniquely, it still has a population which is at least half native American, and the strength of indigenous culture is greater here than perhaps anywhere else in the hemisphere. More than anywhere, Guatemala is the product of the merger of sophisticated pre-Columbian cultures with Spanish colonialism and the consumerist influences of modern America.

Today, its Maya society is a hybrid of ancient traditions and more recent cultural and religious influences, which combine – above all in the highlands – to form perhaps the most distinctive culture in all of Latin America. Countering this is a powerful ladino society of equal strength, a blend of Latin machismo that is decidedly urban and commercial in its outlook. At the edges there is a certain blurring between the two cultures, but the contrast between the hustle of Guatemala City and the murmur of indigenous village markets could hardly be more extreme.

Both cultures have left Guatemala with an exceptional wealth of architectural and archeological remains, and it is this outstanding legacy that makes the country so compelling for the traveller. The Maya civilization, which dominated the entire region from 2000 BC until the arrival of the Spanish, has left its traces everywhere, and Guatemala is scattered with ruins, rising mysteriously out of the rainforest and marking out the more fertile of the highland valleys. These ancient cities, such as the magnificent Tikal, surrounded by pristine jungle, are a fascinating testament to a civilization of great complexity and with a tremendous enthusiasm for architectural grandeur. In contrast, the country’s ladino heritage is typified by the colonial grace and beauty of the former capital, Antigua, with almost every town or large village in the country boasting a whitewashed church, belltower and a classic Spanish-style plaza.

Physically, Guatemala offers an astonishing range of landscape, defined by extremes, and shaken by regular earthquakes and volcanic eruptions (though you’re unlikely to encounter either of these). In the south, the steamy ladino-dominated Pacific coastal plain rises towards a string of magnificent volcanic cones that mark the southern limit of the central highlands. Beyond them lies a series of rolling hills and larger granite peaks, forming the country’s heartland, and home to the vast majority of the indigenous population. The scenery here is astonishingly beautiful with unfeasibly picturesque lakes, forests and lush pine-clad hills, dotted with sleepy traditional villages. Further east towards the Caribbean coast, the landscape is more tropical, replete with mangrove swamps, banana plantations and coconut palms. In the north of the country the peaks of the last great mountain range, the Cuchumatanes, drop off into the lowlands of Petén – a huge, sparsely populated area of virgin rainforest, among the best preserved in Latin America, which harbours a tremendous array of wildlife, including jaguar, ocelot, tapir, spider and howler monkeys, storks and scarlet macaws. Further south, in the cloudforests near Cobán, you may glimpse the elusive quetzal, Guatemala’s national symbol, or spot a manatee in the Río Dulce.

All this natural beauty exists against the nagging background of Guatemala’s turbulent and bloody history. Over the years the huge gulf between the rich and the poor, and between indigenous and ladino culture has produced bitter conflict. With the signing of the 1996 Peace Accords between the government and the former guerrillas, however, the armed confrontation has ceased and things have calmed down considerably, though many of the country’s deep-rooted inequalities remain. Despite the country’s considerable difficulties, most travellers find Guatemalans to be extraordinarily courteous and helpful. Though more reserved than neighbouring Mexicans or Salvadoreans and often formal in social situations, they are an incredibly hospitable nation, and you’ll find most people only too eager to help you make the right bus connection or practise your Spanish.

[ Buy on Amazon: Rough Guide to Guatemala 2 ]

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Map of country Guatemala

Map of country  Guatemala

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