Guatemala is the northernmost country in Central America. It borders the Caribbean, between Honduras and Belize, and also borders the Pacific Ocean, between El Salvador and Mexico. It has a territory of about 42,000 square miles (slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Tennessee) and a population of about 11 million people, the majority of which are Mestizo (Amerindian or mixed Amerindian-Spanish). The official language is Spanish, but some 28 indigenous languages are also spoken.
Guatemala enjoys a warm climate throughout the year, with an average temperature above 20C (75F) in the mountains, somewhat warmer along the South Pacific Coast and the Tropical Lowlands of the Peten Region and Caribbean Coast. Cooler averages are found in Quetzaltenango and the Western Highlands.
Guatemala is a small country, but it has much to offer the visitor who has opted to travel this ecologically beautiful and culture-rich region. Its natural wonders include truly breathtaking mountains, lakes, volcanoes, flora and fauna. Guatemala boasts a number of black-volcanic sand beaches on the Pacific Ocean, and some large coral reefs on the Caribbean side. Guatemala ranks very high in biological diversity, and has numerous tropical low rainforests and mountain cloud forests.
In addition to its natural treasures, Guatemala also has some of the largest and most fascinating Mayan ruins found anywhere in Latin America. The most famous of these ruins is Tikal, making it a very popular destination during a trip to Guatemala. The Mayan population, which is composed of several distinct groups including the Quiche, Kakchiquel and Mam in the Western Highlands, still proudly maintain their ancient culture and traditions; for many Spanish is a second language to be learned in primary school.
The first human settlers to arrive in Guatemala are presumed to have migrated from the north at least 12,000 years ago. The civilization that subsequently developed there flourished, with little to no contact with cultures from outside of Mesoamerica. The Maya civilization dominated the region for nearly 2000 years before the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century, although most of the Great Classic Maya cities of the PetÚn region of Guatemala's northern lowlands were abandoned by the year 1000 AD. The states of the central highlands, however, were still flourishing until the arrival of the Spanish Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado, who subjugated the native states, beginning in 1523.
Guatemala remained a Spanish colony for nearly 300 years, before gaining its independence in 1821. It was then a part of the Mexican Empire until becoming fully independent in the 1840's. Since then, Guatemala's history has been divided into periods of democratic rule and periods of civil war and military juntas. Most recently, Guatemala emerged from a 36-year civil war, reestablishing a representative and stable government in 1996.