Population: 14 million
Race: Ladino – 59.5%, Mayan groups – 40% (the main ones being K’iche, Kaqchikel, Mam and Q’eqchi), Garifuna/others – 0.5%
Languages: Spanish is spoken by most of the population, at least as a second language, but there are also 21 officially recognised Mayan languages and numerous sub-dialects, plus Garifuna and Xinca.
Religion: Predominantly Catholic, though among the Mayans it is often so spiced up by ancient beliefs it is barely recognisable as Catholicism at all. Thanks to some aggressive evangelism during the last few decades Guatemala also has one of the largest Protestant populations in Latin America – almost 40% according to some estimates. About 1% still practice the indigenous Mayan faith.
Government: Now, finally, democracy. Which makes a nice change from the four decades when they had a military coup roughly once every ten minutes. Currently the centre-left party UNE is in power, under Alvaro Colom. They say a lot of nice things about indigenous rights, reducing poverty and tackling corruption, but in a poor country with the rich implacably opposed to tax increases it looks to be an uphill struggle. And Colom himself isn’t free from allegations of corruption. This is Latin America after all.
Guatemala’s main airport is in Guatemala City. Unless you find a special deal it can be hard to find cheap flights that go there, as it’s not a particularly popular destination. If you have more time on your hands than money, it could be worth flying into Mexico and making your way south from there. Many airlines from the US and Europe offer cheap deals to Cancun, and from there you can hitchhike or get a bus to one of the border towns in Chiapas. This has the added advantage of letting you start out in Guatemala’s northern highlands, which are a much better introduction to the country than the dirty rat warren of the capital.
How Long Can You stay in Guatemala?
On arrival you’ll be given 90 days in the “C4”. This is like a general visa that covers Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. If you want to stay longer, you’ll either have to leave the C4 area and come back the next day (i.e. cross into Mexico or Belize, not Honduras or El Salvador), or apply for a visa extension at the immigration office in the capital. They’ll usually grant you another 90 days without any trouble, but start grumbling if you try to extend again. It’s much less hassle just to go to Mexico and come back. The border guards have a tendency to invent random ‘taxes’, but they’re pretty small and generally not worth the effort of arguing about. You’re not going to win anyway.
The Guatemalan Climate
Almost unbearably hot and humid in the lowlands, with a rainy season from May to September. The nicest weather is in the mountains – still warm but not so sticky. It can get chilly at night though.