Guatemala City. Population: 951,000 (UN estimate 2003).
Republic. Gained independence from Spain in 1821.
Head of state:
President Otto Perez Molina since 2012.
115-125 volts AC, 60Hz. There are some regional variations. Plugs are the flat two-pin American type.
Antiquity is at the heart of Guatemala: the country incorporates many spectacular Mayan archaeological sites, and the pineforested hills of the highlands are home to Mayan communities that still wear traditional weavings. Guatemala has around 21 different ethnic groups, speaking some 23 languages.
Staggering Mayan monuments intensify a mystery that hangs in the air: the Mayan Civilisation dominated much of Central America from the fifth until the eighth centuries. The Spanish conquistador Cortés then overran Guatemala in the 17th century. The country enjoyed comparative stability after independence, but eventually slid into an exceptionally savage civil war between right-wing military governments and leftist guerrilla movements.
Even Guatemala's cities have been subject to cataclysm. Three attempts to establish a capital, before Guatemala City was founded in 1775, were thwarted by battles with indigenous warriors and repeated earthquakes. But nature has also formed astonishing sights, including volcanic peaks, subtropical forests and sulphurous lakes. Orchids spring out of soil, exotic creatures roam it and colourful birds soar above it. And despite Guatemala's often savage history, visitors are greeted by sincere friendliness. Indigenous culture also persists: If you thought the Mayans were eradicated centuries ago you may be surprised to bump into a few on your travels - they constitute almost half the population.