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The People

Guatemalan culture is influenced by the two major ethnic groups. The indigenous Mayans and those of mixed or non-indigenous heritage, known as mestizos.

The Garifuna people also live along the Caribbean side of Guatemala. The Garifuna are descendants of African slaves and Arawak Indians from the West Indies brought to Central America by the British in the 18th century. The Garifuna have their own culture that is separate from the rest of Guatemala.

Mayan mother & child / Dennis Jarvis / Flickr / Commercial Use Allowed

Spanish is Guatemala’s official language. But there are dozens of Mayan languages that are still spoken in the country. More than a million Guatemalans speak Quiche as their native tongue.

Many Mayans do not speak Spanish, although families are pushing their children to become fluent in the language to help them get ahead.

Formal education begins at age 7 in Guatemalan schools. Children generally continue their education as far as their family’s financial status permits.

As elsewhere in Central America, Roman Catholicism is the main religion. In Guatemala, though, it can have a different twist. Over the years, Catholicism has merged with ancient Mayan religions to produce something quite unique, especially among the Highland Mayan communities. The worship of Maximon, for example, is something to behold.

Easter Parade with a Mayan twist in San Juan Sacatepequez, Guatemala / Ebony / Flickr / Commercial Use Allowed

Guatemalans love their sport, especially – like the rest of the region – soccer. But Guatemalans excel at a form of soccer much like the five-a-side game. Futsal is a version of soccer played on a hard court with a small ball. Think soccer on a basketball court. Guatemala is one of the leading countries in the world at this version of the game.

Music-wise, Guatemalans listen to the Latin styles. Over on the Caribbean, reggae rules, as well as the Garifuna’s own traditional sound of punta. The Mayans also have their own music that sounds a lot like drums and flutes.

The Food

Guatemalan cuisine has flavors of the country’s Mayan and Spanish, African and Caribbean cultures.

Corn, beans, rice, beef, chicken, pork, cheese and tortillas form the backbone of most Guatemalan dishes. Most meals will include some component of the country’s fresh tropical fruits.

Perhaps the most popular dish in Guatemala is pepian. This is a hearty meat (chicken or pork) stew, perfect for the cooler mountain weather, and is a perfect crossover of Spanish and Mayan styles.

Pepian in the pot / erwin.flores69 / Flickr / Commercial Use Allowed

Other popular dishes include caldos (meat stews) and sopas (soups). Elotes – roasted ears of corn rubbed with butter, cheese, lime, and chili – are a delicacy. Like most other Latin American countries, popular desserts include tres leches and flan.

Limonada con soda, or freshly-squeezed lemonade mixed with soda water to make it fizzy, is a popular drink. The national beer is Gallo, which translates to ‘rooster,’ and the beer’s rooster-head logo is everywhere. Licuados (fruit shakes) are also popular, made with either milk or water.

Traditional Mayan dishes such as Kak’ik, a turkey soup mixed with spices such as achiote and chile peppers, are everywhere. Guatemala’s national dish is Chicken Pepian, which is chicken rubbed in a spicy pumpkin and sesame sauce.

Guatemala makes some of the most flavorful and delicious food in Central America. Because of its diverse history and ethnic makeup, the country has the benefit of enjoying lots of different gastronomic influences.

For the most authentic Guatemalan cuisine, head to the comedores, which are Guatemala’s version of diners.