The Mayan civilization, which dominated Central America from before 2000 B.C.E. until about 1000 C.E., had a profound and lasting impact on the society and culture of Guatemala.
During the Mayan era fishing and farming communities thrived along the Pacific coast of Guatemala. Between 600 and 900 C.E. the center of power moved toward the El Petйn lowlands. Thereafter the Mayan civilization declined swiftly as the result of natural disasters such as drought and famine, as well as inept leadership.
The weakened and divided Mayans were defeated in 1523–24 by the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado (1485–1541), who became captain general of Guatemala. The first colonial capital was Ciudad Vieja, or Santiago. The conquerors found very little gold in the area but, with the use of forced labor, cultivated cacao and indigo. The Central American Union, a political confederation (1825–38) of the republics of Central America united under a captaincy general in Spanish colonial times—Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Salvador—gained independence in 1821. For a brief time Guatemala, along with the other Central American republics, was annexed to the Mexican Empire. Guatemala became an independent and separate nation in 1839.
Jorge Ubico Castaсeda (1878–1946), who became president in 1931, greatly improved the nation’s economic position but also ran a politically repressive regime. After Guatemala declared war on the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) in 1941, the large German-owned coffee holdings were seized by the government. Popular discontent with his repressive regime led to Ubico’s overthrow in 1944.
His successor Juan Josй Arйvalo (1904–90), launched a series of labor and agrarian reforms, and Jacobo Arbenz Guzmбn (1913–71), who succeeded him in 1951, continued the reforms.
In 1954 U. S.-backed rebels, calling themselves anticommunists, overthrew the Arbenz government and placed Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas (1914–57) in power. When Castillo Armas was assassinated in 1957, Miguel Ydнgoras Fuentes (1895–1982) became president. Guatemalan bases were used to train anti- Castro guerrillas in the early 1960s; around that time dissident leftist military officers and students commenced a guerrilla movement.
Violence continued during the 1970s and 1980s; in 1977 the United States cut off military aid to Guatemala. After three supposedly fraudulent elections General Rнos Montt (b. 1926) assumed power in a 1982 coup, only to be deposed in 1983 by General Уscar Mejнas Victores (b. 1930). During the early 1980s leftist guerrillas formed the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (URNG) and began an insurgency against the government.
In 1996 Бlvaro Arzъ Irigoyen (b. 1946), a former mayor of Guatemala City and foreign minister, won the presidency. He conducted a purge of top military officers, and in December 1996 his government signed a UN-sponsored peace accord with the URNG guerrillas, who subsequently regrouped as a political party.

More than 66 percent of the country is mountainous, while 62 percent is under forest cover.
Guatemala can broadly be divided into four topographical regions: the Pacific coast with a tropical savannah plain and lagoons; the high plateau and mountain systems, which include the Sierra Madre, Sierra de Chaucus, and Sierra de las Minas, among others (this region also contains around 30 volcanoes); the Continental Divide and Caribbean Lowlands, which include three deep river valleys— the Motagua, Polochic, and Sarstun; and the El Petйn, a rolling limestone plateau covered with dense tropical forests. Eighteen short rivers flow from the highlands to the Pacific Ocean. The region abounds in lakes, the most famous of which are Lake Atitlбn, Lake Amatitlбn, Lake Izabel, and Lake Peten Itza.

Coffee, sugar, and bananas are the leading commercial and export crops in Guatemala’s principally agricultural economy. The United States, Mexico, El Salvador, Venezuela, Germany, and Japan are Guatemala’s major trading partners.
Guatemala is a source, transit, and destination country for women and children from Guatemala and other Central American countries trafficked internally and to the United States for the purposes of sexual and labor exploitation.

Guatemala has a rich and varied cultural heritage.
The indigenous Mayan groups were never completely subjugated by the colonizing Spaniards, and the descendants of the Maya have preserved some of their indigenous culture. Guatemala’s culture today reflects two distinct heritages: Western and Mayan. While the former is found primarily in Guatemala City, a modern, cosmopolitan hub, the latter thrives in the highland villages. In these villages the colorful dress, handicrafts, and celebration of religious, cultural, and social festivals preserve many Mayan traditions.
Each community in Guatemala has its own characteristic motifs, patterns, and designs that are particular to that area. Music and dance are integral aspects of most Mayan religious festivals. The marimba is the favorite national instrument, and it is played on all-important occasions. Semana Santa (Holy Week, or the week preceding Easter) is Guatemala’s biggest festival, and the Antigua region is home to the largest Easter celebration in the world. The colorful processions, dating from 1543 and originally modeled on Spanish processions, attract large numbers of tourists who throng the streets along with the faithful.

Corn is the staple food of the Guatemalans. It is the basic ingredient for dishes such as tortillas, tamales, and enchiladas, among others. The indigenous contributions to Guatemalan cuisine include beans, squash, chocolate, and plantains, and chili-based sauces are an important part of the local diet. The Spanish influence is evident in soups, stews, and special dishes such as fiambre (a mixture of meat, fish, sausage, and vegetables). Melons, mangoes, and papayas, along with honey, nuts, and cinnamon, are the main ingredients of desserts. The most popular drink of the Guatemalans is coffee, which is also the country’s principal export item.

Mayan traditions and beliefs dominate Guatemalan birth rituals. The most important ritual is the burying of the detached placenta. This act of burial is very important because it signifies that the individual is now firmly planted in his or her native soil, which he or she must respect and honor throughout his or her life. It is expected that the person will not become individualistic or self-centered; rather, he or she will remain a part of the community and a true son or daughter of the soil.

The coming-of-age ceremony, known as the quinceanos, is an important family event in Guatemala. It refers to a party hosted to celebrate a girl or boy’s 15th birthday, which is considered the year when children become adults. Both boys and girls wear special jewelry for the occasion, which is later symbolically removed. The boy wears white beads in his hair, and the girl a red shell in her belt, representing her virginity. After this ceremony, the parents may begin contemplating and making plans for the marriage and future life of the child.

When a potential match between a young man and woman is found, the prospective bridegroom’s family hires the services of a professional atanzahab (matchmaker) to study and match the couple’s horoscopes and names to ensure their celestial and earthly compatibility. The matchmaker also negotiates between the couple’s families to fix the dowry (the price the groom will have to pay to the bride’s family) and the period of time for which the groom would have to work for his parents-in-law. This period may vary from five to six years and depends largely on the atanzahab’s negotiating skills.
Once the date of the wedding is finalized, the mother of the bridegroom weaves and embroiders a loincloth decorated with parrot feathers for her son and a skirt and brocaded blouse for her future daughter-in-law. For the guests a meal of turkey, tamales (steamed cornmeal dumplings), beans, potatoes, and tortillas is prepared. During the wedding ceremony the couple prays and receives a blessing from the priest. Traditionally the couple does not exchange a single word until the ceremony is over.

As their Mayan ancestors did the Guatemalans treat death as their final journey to heaven. The death of a Mayan woman, however, is treated differently from that of a man. Women approaching middle age start preparations for this final journey long before their actual death. They weave their own burial dresses, which are then carefully stored away until the time of the funeral.
The family and friends of a dying man stay with him throughout his last hours. As soon as he passes away, his children inform all the relatives. Thereafter only the male members of the house join together to make preparations for the funeral, while the women raise the funds for it. The dead person is attired in his finest jewelry and clothes for his final journey to heaven, away from this world. Coffee and aguardiente (alcohol) are served to the guests who come to offer their condolences.