The birthplace of the ancient Maya offers ruins, rainforest and natural beauty
Spanning a mountainous slice of Central America immediately south of Mexico, Guatemala is loaded with incredible natural, historical and cultural appeal. As the birthplace and heartland of the ancient Maya, the country is in many ways defined by the legacy of this early civilization. Their rainforest cities were abandoned centuries ago, but Maya people continue to thrive in the Guatemalan highlands, where traditions and religious rituals, mingled with Catholic practices, endure to form the richest and most distinctive indigenous identity in the hemisphere.
Guatemala today is very much a synthesis of Maya and colonial traditions, fused with the omnipresent influences of twenty-first century Latin and North American culture. Baroque churches dating back to the Spanish Conquest coexist with pagan temples that have been sites of worship for millennia. Highland street markets prosper alongside vast glitzy shopping malls, and pre-Columbian festival dances are performed by teenage hip-hop fans.
Guatemala is still a developing nation, a young democracy with a turbulent and bloody history that’s beset by deep-rooted inequalities. And yet, despite alarming levels of poverty and unemployment, most Guatemalans are extraordinarily courteous and helpful to travellers, and only too eager to help you catch the right bus or practise your Spanish.
It’s this genuine and profound hospitality combined with the country’s outstanding cultural legacy and astonishing natural beauty that makes Guatemala such a compelling place for travellers.
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The Rough Guide to Guatemala
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After Guatemala, where next?
Check out Costa Rica