Early History

Before the arrival of the first Europeans, Guatemala was the land of the ancient Maya. Here, mathematicians came up with the concept of zero, astronomers developed a solar calendar accurate to a single day every 6,000 days, and scribes invented an 850-word hieroglyphic vocabulary that scholars consider the world's first advanced writing system. Some of this civilization's practices were less than civil: The Maya built extensive ball courts to play a game called "pok a tok," where the losing team could be executed.

Unlike the Incas of Peru, the Maya had no centralized ruler. Instead, the civilization consisted of a series of independent city-states, usually ruled by hereditary kings, often at war with one another. The most famous city-state is Tikal, in the northern Petén region, whose massive stone temples are the principal draw for tourists in Guatemala. In A.D. 562, Tikal was defeated in battle by the kingdom of Caracol, located in what is now the Cayo District of Western Belize. Other city-states inside contemporary Guatemala include Quiriguá, known for its detailed stelae, Kaminal Juyú near contemporary Guatemala City, Zaculeu, Iximché, Utatlán, and Petén Itzá.

Evidence of human presence in the Maya region dates as far back as the 10th millennium B.C. Maya history is often divided into several distinct periods: Archaic (10,000-2000 B.C.), Pre-Classic (2000 B.C.-A.D. 250), Classic (A.D. 250-900), and Post-Classic (900-1540). Within this timeline, the Classic period itself is often divided into Early, Middle, Late, and Terminal stages. At the height of development, as many as 10 million Maya may have inhabited what are now Guatemala, Belize, Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. No one knows for sure what led to the decline of the Classic Maya, but somewhere around A.D. 900, their society entered a severe and rapid decline. Famine, warfare, deforestation, and religious prophecy have all been cited as possible causes. See Jared Diamond's bestseller Collapse (Penguin, 2005) for more information.

Spanish Conquest

On his fourth and final voyage to the New World in 1502, Christopher Columbus sailed past the Caribbean coast of Guatemala on his way to Panama, but did not land. However, his oversight did not save the area from Spanish conquest.

The conquistador Pedro de Alvarado was sent by Hernán Cortés to Guatemala in 1523. He had roughly 120 cavalry troops, about 300 infantry men, and several hundred indigenous slaves and mercenaries. In a ruthless campaign, Alvarado pitted different Maya tribes against each other, and then quickly turned on his unwitting accomplices. According to legend, when Alvarado killed the powerful Quiché king Tecún Umán at the Battle of Quetzaltenango in 1524, the quetzal (Guatemala's national bird) swooped down into the vast pools of blood and gained its red breast.

By 1525 Alvarado had completely subdued the western highlands, but the Spanish subsequently met with fierce resistance from many Maya tribes. Multiple invasions of the Petén failed, and the Kekchi in the central highlands held out as well.

Unable to control the Kekchi by force, the military allowed a group of Franciscan friars under the leadership of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas to attempt the "humane" conversion of the tribe to Christianity. The friars succeeded, the population converted, and the area was given its Spanish name, "Verapaz" or "true peace." A human rights advocate until his death, Las Casas also successfully convinced the Spanish crown to pass the New Laws in 1542, awarding some basic protections to the indígenas.

Colonial Rule

During Spanish colonial rule, Guatemala was a Captaincy General, part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. The Spanish established Guatemala's capital at Ciudad Vieja in 1527, but moved to what is now Antigua (then called Santiago de Guatemala) in 1543 after the old capital was buried in a wave of water and mud that cascaded down from the Volcán de Agua.

For 200 years, Antigua was the center of political and religious power of the entire "Audiencia de Guatemala," including the provinces of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and Chiapas in Mexico. After severe earthquakes ravaged Antigua in 1773, the crown decided to move the capital to safer ground. They chose the site of the ancient city of Kaminal Juyú, giving rise to Guatemala City.

In this colonial society, racial divisions were enshrined in law. Peninsulares, or Spanish-born Spaniards living in the New World, were at the top of the economic and political pyramid, followed by criollos (descendants of Spaniards born in the New World), mestizos (of mixed Spanish and Amerindian ancestry), mulattos (mixed Spanish and black), Amerindians, zambos (mixed Amerindian and black), and blacks. Individuals from the latter three groups were usually enslaved outright.

The Roman Catholic Church wielded enormous power, controlling vast plantations of sugar, wheat, and indigo run by forced indigenous labor. They used their wealth to construct some 80 churches, along with convents, schools, colleges, and hospitals.

There was great need for these hospitals: The diseases the Europeans brought decimated the Maya. By some estimates, nearly 90% of the Maya population was wiped out after Alvarado arrived. Those who survived his violent wrath fell rapidly to diseases such as plague, typhoid, and smallpox, to which they had no natural resistance.


Discontent with the exclusive rule of peninsulares reached a boiling point in the early 19th century, and a mood of reform swept across New Spain. Most of the fighting for independence took place in Mexico, where an unlikely coalition of conservatives and liberals eventually prevailed.

On September 15, 1821, Gabino Gainza, the captain general of Central America, signed the Act of Independence, breaking the region's ties with Spain. Although all of Central America initially remained part of Mexico -- Mexico sent in troops to make sure that was the case -- all Central American nations continue to celebrate their independence on September 15.

In 1823, an independent Central American Federation had taken shape. The Federation had a constitution modeled on that of the U.S. It abolished slavery, religious orders, and the death penalty, and instituted trial by jury, civil marriage, and a public school system.

By 1840, the Federation had dissolved in civil war, instigated by the conservative dictators who had seized power in most of the nations, such as Rafael Carrera, a charismatic 23-year-old swineherd-turned-highwayman who, in Guatemala in 1838, raised an army, seized control, declared Guatemala independent, and promptly reversed decades of liberal reforms. With the adoption of a constitution in 1851, Carrera officially became independent Guatemala's first president.

Banana Republic

Over the course of the next century, power generally continued to change hands by military rather than democratic means. Liberal reformers traded off with conservative reactionaries, but one entity saw its influence grow fairly consistently: the United Fruit Company.

United Fruit, nicknamed "El Pulpo" (the Octopus) for its sweeping influence, first arrived in Guatemala in 1901, when it purchased a small tract of land to grow bananas. The company built its own port, Puerto Barrios, and after being awarded a railway concession leading inland from the port, it had a virtual monopoly on long-distance transportation in the country. United Fruit's rise to prominence coincided with the successive and enduring dictatorships of Manuel José Estrada Cabrera and Jorge Ubico. Collectively, these two men ruled, with great deference to United Fruit Company, from 1898 to 1941.

"The Ten Years of Spring"

In 1941, a band of disgruntled military men, joined by students, labor leaders, and liberal political forces, overthrew Ubico and ushered in a period popularly referred to as "The Ten Years of Spring." Marked by moves to encourage free speech and liberal reforms, this time saw the election of Guatemala's first civilian president of modern times, Juan José Arévalo.

In 1951, Guatemala held its first-ever universal-suffrage election, bringing retired army colonel and political reformer Jacobo Arbenz to power. Confronting a vast gap between rich and poor, Arbenz fought for the passage of the 1952 Agrarian Reform Law, which redistributed thousands of acres of unproductive land to an estimated 100,000 peasant families. United Fruit was furious, having lost half its land. In 1954, the CIA, whose director sat on United Fruit's board, sponsored a coup d'état. Guatemala's new government, largely drawn from the ranks of its military, was flown into the capital aboard a U.S. Air Force plane.

Civil War & War Crimes

The new U.S.-sponsored regime eliminated the constitutional reforms of the previous decade, reinstituting rule by and for the ladino minority. In the early 1960s, a guerrilla war began between government forces and Marxist rebels, who drew their strength largely from indigenous communities and were headquartered in the highlands.

For the next 30 years, a succession of authoritarian rulers, nominally center-left or center-right, were brought to power by rigged elections or coups d'état. They largely followed the maxim of president and army colonel Arana Osorio, who said, "If it is necessary to turn the country into a cemetery in order to pacify it, I will not hesitate to do so." An estimated 200,000 people died or disappeared during the conflict, most of them indigenous. Death squads roamed the cities and highlands killing those suspected of rebel activity. Professors, students, union leaders, and priests were especially prone to attack.

In 1983, the Maya activist Rigoberta Menchú published Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia (translated into English as I, Rigoberta), an autobiographical tale of government massacres and the assassination of her own parents, who raised international awareness of the horrendous human rights situation in Guatemala. It won Menchú international acclaim, and in 1992, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. Some scholars later disputed factual claims made in the book, but the Nobel Committee has maintained its support for Menchú.

In August 1987, the five Central American presidents met in Esquipulas, Guatemala, to sign the Accords for Firm and Lasting Peace ("Paz firme y duradera"). The Accords called for free elections, national reconciliation commissions, and perhaps most revolutionary of all in the midst of the Cold War, the rejection of foreign interference in Central American affairs.

Following the recommendations of the 1987 accords, Guatemalan President Alvaro Arzú successfully negotiated a peace agreement with the URNG (as the united rebel factions were known) in December 1996. The agreement ended the 36-year-old civil war, with the government promising to support a Truth Commission led by the UN Mission to Guatemala, MINUGUA. The Constitution was also amended to allow for greater indigenous rights.

From Paz Firme to the Present

Guatemala's security situation improved after the end of the war, but great challenges remained. First, the military still wielded significant power, and did its best to cover up its involvement in the atrocities of the war. In 1998, days after delivering a report on human rights that blamed 80% of the abuses on the military, Catholic Bishop Juan Geradi was bludgeoned to death in his home in Guatemala City. Government and judicial officials were too afraid of suffering the same fate to investigate the crime.

With low coffee prices fueling economic stagnation, the crime rate soared after the 1996 accords. Murder and armed theft were commonplace. The unemployed, many former soldiers, turned their machine guns to the lucrative profession of highway robbery, pulling over buses and trucks, especially in the Petén. Kidnappings became appallingly common.

Today, kidnappings and highway robbery have receded considerably, but still occur. Moreover the economic and security situation in much of the country remains precarious. Violent gangs, or maras, are having a noticeable impact across Guatemala, particularly in poor urban areas, and drug trafficking and money laundering are major problems.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.