History of Guatemala

The history of Guatemala is marked by moments both magic and tragic. Guatemala’s indigenous Maya people form the base of Guatemalan culture, and their large indigenous presence is perhaps what makes Guatemala most standout from other Central American countries. The surviving Maya people not only give a face to the country, but to much of its history as well. The magic in Guatemala’s history comes from the Maya and from the people of Guatemala as a whole, for they are people who continue to celebrate life in the face of adversity. Throughout the history of Guatemala, wars over land and power characterize the tragic. Thankfully, the democratic society that many Guatemalans desire to adhere themselves to is becoming more and more a reality.

Guatemala History first sees proof of human settlers as far back as 10,000 BC, with possible human activity as far back as 18,000 BC. Predominantly hunters and gatherers, these original inhabitants only begin to establish more permanent settlements near the beginning of the Pre-Classic Era. Pre-Columbian Guatemala history is divided into 3 periods, with the Pre-Classic Era lasting from 2000 BC to 250 AD. The period from 250 AD to 900 AD is known as the Classic Era, and the Post-Classic Era covers from 900 to 1500 AD. During the Pre-Classic Era, the first nation states and cities were being formed. It is also a period that sees the first examples of the large scale architecture that characterizes the ceremonial ancient Maya. The Pre-Classic period highlights the important early Maya cities that flourished during this time, among them El Mirador. Among the more interesting Guatemala facts, El Mirador was not only the most populated pre-Colombian city in the Americas, but also the region’s first politically organized state. During the Classic Era, Teotihuacan, found near present day Mexico City, replaced El Mirador as the prime Mesoamerican power. The greatest Maya cities from this era were Tikal, Palenque (Mexico) and Copán (Honduras). By this time, the Maya had already established the most advanced form of writing in the New World, as well as developed their mathematic and artistic genius. During the Post-Classic Era, the ancient Mayan civilizations begin their mysterious fall and as the Aztecs begin their domination of Mesoamerica, the coming of the Spanish conquistadors changes everything.

Beginning expeditions to Guatemala by 1518, the first Spanish visitors came under a friendly guise. However, before long their arrival would unleash a smallpox endemic that had rather unfortunate effects on the native populations. Having conquered Mexico, Hernán Cortés would authorize Gonzalo de Alvarado and his brother Pedro de Alvarado to conquer Guatemala. Pedro de Alvarado was an especially ruthless soldier who used warring Maya factions to his advantage. Entering from the Pacific coast, he would cause wide-scale death and destruction on his way to Quetzaltenango. His newly conquered lands were called the Kingdom of Guatemala. At the time, this kingdom extended from Chiapas, Mexico down to Panama. The capital of this new Spanish territory would be moved to Antigua by 1543, then subsequently re-located to its present spot in 1776, due to earthquakes that damaged much of Antigua. After Alvarado died in a war in Mexico, the army and monks he left behind withheld the territory, often failing to convert the surviving Maya to Christianity. The ornate churches and cathedrals the Spanish built in Guatemala were often supplied by the Maya temples they destroyed, which figures among the uglier Guatemala facts. Near the end of the 18th century, the Spanish would lose interest in Guatemala, finding little silver or gold. They would relinquish their hold over the area, however, causing great civil unrest in the 1800"s. Among the most important dates in Guatemala history is September 15, 1821, when the country declared its independence from Spain. Around this time, Central America began to split from Spanish Mexico, forming separate countries.

Corrupt officials, shifting land ownership and coups would characterize the following decades leading up to the beginning of the Guatemalan Civil War in 1960. The United States and the American-owned United Fruit Company were partly to blame for building unrest, as their control of land and other assets drew stark contrast between them and the starving Guatemalan people. By 1960, the seeds of rebellion had been sowed, and the Guatemalan Civil War began to slowly build. In 1961, left-wing military personnel staged a rebellion against the American-backed government, and Guatemala facts show that America’s sending of arms to the Guatemalan army only helped to flame the fire. As was the case throughout Latin America, the Civil War, which lasted until 1996 caused the death or disappearance of thousands, many of whom were innocent. Among the Although tensions remain to this day, the war officially ended with the peace treaties that were signed after the election of Alvaro Arzu, then leader of the leftist and indigenous National Advancement Party. As continuing democracy seems like it will be the way of the future, Guatemalan culture and tourism appear to be making positive strides.

Antigua Guatemala


Just west of the capital of Guatemala City res...

Chichicastenango Guatemala


From pre-Hispanic times until the present, Chichicastenango Guatemala has re...



Quirigua is a Mayan archaeological site in Guatemala that is famous for its s...

Latest Topics

Tikal Experience?

Hello, I have visited Guatemala twice, but never been to Tikal. But this time, that is in early D...

guatemala travel tips

if you are planning to travel to Guatemala, you'll be glad to know that you can do everythin...

More Forum Posts »