Introduction to Guatemalan Culture

If you’ve ever visited (or considered visiting) Central America, the odds are high that Guatemala was on your short list of potential places to stay. Not only is it a gorgeous country with a thriving culture but it’s the birthplace of the iconic Mayan empire. The Mayans were revered for their complex language (the only written language among pre-Columbian cultures), their advanced mathematics and architecture, and their astronomical calendar. Today, the Mayan ruins attract thousands of visitors every year. Tourists also flock to Guatemala for the pristine beaches, ample trails for horseback riding and quiet community setting. Guatemalan culture is truyly unique.

History of Guatemala

Guatemala gained its independence from Spain in 1821 and then faced a series of military and authoritarian rulers. In 1954, the country experienced a 36-year civil war. Severe violence in the 1970s and 80s ultimately ended with peace, when Maya woman Rigoberta Manchu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.

Guatemalan culture has been largely influenced over the last decade by the vast amount of people immigrating from Japan, China, Korea, and the Middle East, as well as by the increased movement of Guatemalans to and from the United States.

Religion, Language & Etiquette

Guatemalan Culture Religion
Catholicism has been very popular in Guatemala ever since Spain conquered the country. However, Evangelical Christianity has been making a big impact over the last several decades. One-third of the population identifies as Protestant. However, ancient Mayan spirituality is still practiced in some regions, especially the mountainous regions. People living in the Western Highlands continue to use the Mayan calendar, which is more closely linked to agricultural cycles in the region. They also frequently perform costumbre (modern Mayan religious practices) in caves and ancient archeological sites. Judaism and Islam also exist in small pockets within Guatemala City.

Spanish is the official language in Guatemala, but 22 different dialects (many of Mayan descent) are recognized in the country. However, many Indians in the region have decided to turn their back on their native languages in order to promote Spanish for their children. It is considered vital for children to learn Spanish in order to have a successful future in Guatemala. English, German, and French are also frequently taught in schools.

Etiquette practices vary across Guatemala (depending on ethnicity). In the past, a sort of caste system was acknowledged in which Indians deferred respect to Ladinos. It was even considered acceptable for Ladino officials to be openly rude to Indians in the region. But this is changing. The newer generation is more openly accepting of the various cultures and religions within Guatemala.

Mayan children bow their head as if in prayer when they greet an adult. Adults greet one another vocally with a “How is your family?” or a “Hello.” Physical greetings (such as handshakes, kisses, and hugs) are only common among Ladino women. Ladino men hug family members and women and offer them a kiss on the cheek. The men embrace one another as a greeting and a farewell.

Relationship to Surrounding Countries

Guatemalan Culture
Guatemala has a close relationship with Mexico. Both countries were originally home to the Mayan culture and ultimately conquered by Spain. During the Guatemalan Civil War, tensions were high between the two nations as people fled to Mexico for safety and asylum. Since the war ended in 1996, the two countries have experienced a symbiotic relationship, fighting together for things like human trafficking, drugs, and organized crime.

Food and Drink

Guatemalan Culture Coffee
If you love coffee, you’ll be in good company in Guatemala. The country’s coffee is considered to be among the best in the world. But obviously, Guatemalans can’t sustain themselves entirely on caffeine. Other Guatemalan culture staples include corn and cornmeal, beans, fresh fruit and vegetables (especially mangos and papayas), rice, eggs, and cheese. Meat and fish are consumed in more affluent areas. Guatemalans eat three meals each day, with their largest meal at noon. Until recently, most businesses closed for two to three hours each day so workers could eat the mid-day meal with their families.

Festivals & Attractions

Since Guatemala is largely Catholic, a lot of the festivals in the country center around Christian events. Holy Week (Semana Santa) is celebrated the week leading up to Easter. During Semana Santa (in March or April), Guatemala City and Antigua feature large processions throughout the streets on rugs made of sawdust. These celebrations are colorful and lively. On August 15th, Guatemalans celebrate the Assumption of Mary into Heaven (Dia de la Asuncion), and on November 1st or 2nd they celebrate All Saints Day (Dia de Todos Los Santos).

On December 7th, Guatemalans celebrate the Burning of the Devil. This celebration is meant to cleanse their homes for the holy weeks ahead. During the Burning of the Devil, people remove everything that is burnable from their homes (trash, paper, wood, etc.) and set it on fire outside of their homes.

Money & Exchange Rates

Guatemala uses the Quetzal. 7 Quetzales is worth roughly $1 USD. The Quetzal is worth about twice the value of the Mexican Peso and the Honduran Lempira, and one quarter of the value of the Belize Dollar.

Generational Differences & Where the Country is Going

While older generations relied heavily on agriculture for their livelihood, the younger generation is much more interested in getting an education and working in medicine, journalism, law, and social work. Others are moving into factory and clerical work. The youngest generation is also more likely to volunteer for the armed forces, having never been forced into them in the country’s Civil War.

There is also a big shift happening in Guatemalan architecture. While homes used to be located in the center of town, most people have moved to the peripheries of cities, opting to use the city centers as locations for business and commerce. Most of the old colonial homes have been converted into hotels and offices.

Build Abroad Volunteer Opportunities in Guatemala

Build Abroad is actively involved in building local schools and other community projects in Antigua, where these buildings are currently in short supply. Antigua is located just 45-minutes outside of Guatemala’s capital city: Guatemala City and is close to tourist hot spots like Lake Atitlan and Monterrico Beach. It is also widely considered to be safer than Guatemala City and more popular for visitors. If you’re interested in volunteering, this unique travel experience will allow you to stay in Antigua homestays and get to know local Guatemalans.

Those who are fortunate enough to spend some quality time in Guatemala will likely never see another country so beautiful and steeped in culture. If you’re considering checking this experience off your bucket list, visit our Guatemala program page to learn more about our volunteer opportunities in Antigua.