Local traditions and culture in Guatemala

  • Market in Santiago Atitlàn
    Market in Santiago Atitlàn
    by toonsarah
  • In San Antonio Popolo
    In San Antonio Popolo
    by toonsarah
  • Selling fresh herbs
    Selling fresh herbs
    by toonsarah

Most Viewed Local Customs in Guatemala

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    Where Most People Can't Read....

    by vaticanus Updated Feb 11, 2012

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    Public education in Guatemala is severely hobbled by incompetence and patronage. School supplies sit in warehouses and schools (when not closed for innumerable holidays) close after half a day. Literacy is a luxury for "Guatemaltecos". Bookstores are unheard of. Other than newspapers and a few magazines there is little to read besides pulp fiction novellas printed in Mexico.

    Because of widespread illiteracy, shop owners, particularly in rural areas, paint their walls to advertise their products and services. Keep your camera going and you'll bring home some striking pictures.

    A little off topic, but another theme to follow with a camera (particularly in Guatemala) is doorways.

    Related to:
    • Work Abroad

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    IODINE, SALT AND RETARDATION

    by vaticanus Updated Jan 4, 2012

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    The relationship between mental development in children and iodine has been known for many decades. Most nations of the world require that salt be iodized- but not Guatemala.

    Although the cost of iodizing salt is negligible, Guatemala does not iodize its salt.

    Nor does Guatemala import iodized salt.

    The reason? To protect the producers of domestically mined salt.

    The most visibly effected are the children of the Maya in the mountain villages. But children everywhere suffer from the negligence of Guatemala's leadership.

    EXCERPT FROM EMORY.EDU:
    Hallmarks include mental retardation, pyramidal neurological signs in an upper limb distribution, extrapyramidal signs, and a characteristic gait related to the neurological disorder, as well as joint laxity and deformity.

    Squinting of the eyes, deafness, and persistence of primitive brain reflexes are frequently noted (33). In some populations, there are additional manifestations of endemic cretinism resulting from continuing postnatal thyroid hormone deficiency: severe stunting of growth, skeletal retardation, and sexual immaturity (14). A prevalence of cretinism as high as 3 to 15 % may be found in severely affected rural populations, imposing a major social and economic burden on the community (14, 33, 62).

    Mild iodine deficiency has been reported to reduce intelligence quotients (I.Q.) by 10-15% (15, 25, 81) and cause increased rates of stillbirths, perinatal mortality, and infant mortality (36, 54). There is good evidence from community-based assessments and iodine intervention trials that IDD can leave entire populations with below average intelligence and irnpaired motor functions.

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    Studies on Guatemala - CIA world fact book

    by tampa_shawn Updated Apr 4, 2011

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    Life expectancy at birth: (Lower than industrial countries – BUT I have learned from experience not to totally trust this number – in many countries the people in the poorer areas are not counted so are not reflected in the number – I do not believe this number is this high)
    total population: 69.38 years
    male: 67.65 years
    female: 71.18 years (2006 est.)

    Total fertility rate (studies have found a direct correlation between birth rates and education and a countries economic prosperity – so this high birth rate is a reflection of the countries poor economic state):
    3.82 children born/woman (2006 est.)

    Literacy:
    definition: age 15 and over can read and write (this is pretty low – even for a third world county – study after study has found education, particularly of women, is the most important factor in predicting the future success of a country)
    total population: 70.6%
    male: 78%
    female: 63.3% (2003 est.)

    GDP - per capita (PPP): PPP is purchasing power parity and basically put the dollars in US equivalent terms – meaning if you live in the USA imagine living on $4500 a year here.
    $4,700 (2005 est.)

    Household income or consumption by percentage share:
    lowest 10%: 1.6%
    highest 10%: 46% (1998)
    This means that the top 10% of the population consume almost half of the goods in the country and the bottom 10% only consume 1.6%. This number reflects the large difference between the rich and the poor in this country. This discrepancy is often a sign of repression of “lesser” people and corruption.

    Distribution of family income - Gini index: The Gini index is a measure of inequality of a distribution. It is defined as a ratio with values between 0 and 1. Here, 0 corresponds to perfect income equality (i.e. everyone has the same income) and 1 corresponds to perfect income inequality (i.e. one person has all the income, while everyone else has zero income). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gini_coefficient
    for a map that shows how the country ranks.
    48.3 (2000)

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    Studies on Guatemala - Human Development Index

    by tampa_shawn Updated Apr 4, 2011

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    UNITED NATIONS HUMAN DEVELOPMENT INDEX (HDI) is another index that really tells how a country is doing.

    The HDI measures a countries progress in human development in an attempt to show how they rate to different countries. The categories are (1) living a long and healthy life (measured by life expectancy), (2) being educated (measured by adult literacy and enrolment at the primary, secondary and tertiary level) and (3) having a decent standard of living (measured by purchasing power parity, PPP, income).

    A “perfect score is 1” - The HDI for Guatemala is 0.673, which gives Guatemala a rank of 118th out of 177 countries in the world.

    The HDI gender-related development index (GDI) measures the same achievements in the same indicators as the HDI but looks at the inequalities in achievement between women and men. So basically it is HDI adjusted to reflect gender inequality. The greater the gender disparity in basic human development, the lower is a country's GDI relative to its HDI.

    Guatemala’s GDI value is .659 (since this is a ratio – some countries score higher than 1)
    This needs to be compared to its HDI value of 0.673. Its GDI value is 97.9% of its HDI value. Out of the 136 countries with both HDI and GDI values, 113 countries have a better ratio than Guatemala's.

    See the following link for more information:

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    Information on Guatemala from the World Bank

    by tampa_shawn Updated Apr 4, 2011

    It has been ten years since the Peace Accords that ended a debilitating 36-year civil war were signed. The World Bank (to my surpise) defines Guatemala as a middle income country. Take a look at the indicators below to form your own opinion...

    In 2000 -
    - 56% of all Guatemalans (and 76 percent of indigenous groups) lived in poverty
    - 16% of Guatemalans lived in extreme poverty (defined as poverty that kills - at this level people lack the basics for life - food, clothes and shelter - the UN often defines this group as living on less than $1 to $2 US a day)

    Poverty and therefore the poverty indicators that we track are improving
    + Gross national income has increased from $1740 in 2000 to $2400 in 2005
    + Childhood mortality have decreased from 53/1000 children under 5 dying in 2000 to 45/1000 childhood deaths in 2004
    + Secondary school enrolment (Jr High) has increased from 38% in 2000 to 48.6% in 2005 (meaning 48.6% of secondary school aged children are attending school)

    However, social indicators for Guatemala fall below those of countries with lower per-capita incomes.
    - Average schooling of the adult population is 5.4 years and only 1.9 years for the indigenous population.
    - Overall health outcomes are poor - including life expectancy, infant and maternal mortality rates, and and childhood malnutrition.

    The economy is growing, which is a good sign for the future of Guatemala
    + Real GDP growth was 2.7 percent in 2004 and 3.2 percent in 2005. Growth projections are 4.5 percent per year in 2006 and 2007

    The world bank attributes most of this growth to a variety of internal and external factors. Positive internal factors include the goverments work in improving governance and credibiltiy part of which is responsible fiscal and monetary management, a low debt to equity ratio and investment in social programs and some judical reforms

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    Information on Guatemala from the World Bank II

    by tampa_shawn Updated Apr 4, 2011

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    In 2000 -
    - 56% of all Guatemalans (and 76 percent of indigenous groups) lived in poverty
    - 16% of Guatemalans lived in extreme poverty (defined as poverty that kills - at this level people lack the basics for life - food, clothes and shelter - the UN often defines this group as living on less than $1 to $2 US a day)

    Poverty and therefore the poverty indicators that we track are improving
    + Gross national income has increased from $1740 in 2000 to $2400 in 2005
    + Childhood mortality have decreased from 53/1000 children under 5 dying in 2000 to 45/1000 childhood deaths in 2004
    + Secondary school enrolment (Jr High) has increased from 38% in 2000 to 48.6% in 2005 (meaning 48.6% of secondary school aged children are attending school)

    However, social indicators for Guatemala fall below those of countries with lower per-capita incomes.
    - Average schooling of the adult population is 5.4 years and only 1.9 years for the indigenous population.
    - Overall health outcomes are poor - including life expectancy, infant and maternal mortality rates, and and childhood malnutrition.

    The economy is growing, which is a good sign for the future of Guatemala
    + Real GDP growth was 2.7 percent in 2004 and 3.2 percent in 2005. Growth projections are 4.5 percent per year in 2006 and 2007

    The world bank attributes most of this growth to a variety of internal and external factors. Positive internal factors include the goverments work in improving governance and credibiltiy part of which is responsible fiscal and monetary management, a low debt to equity ratio and investment in social programs and some judical reforms

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    Traditional costume

    by toonsarah Updated Dec 14, 2010

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    One thing that is bound to strike you in Guatemala is the high number of people, especially women, wearing their traditional costume as an everyday matter of course. In areas with a high proportion of native Mayan residents, such as around Lake Atitlàn you may find it hard to spot anything else other than on tourists. We were told that the reason is that the people believe it keeps them closer to their ancestors and gives them a sense of continuity.

    The most distinctive element of the local dress is the huipile, the colourful loose blouse which is gathered into the skirt. The latter is usually a simple length of fabric wound round and fasten with a wide belt, although I did see some young women wearing a huipile with a regular skirt. Traditionally every village has its own distinctive design of huipile. So in San Antonio Polopo you will find that almost every woman and girl is wearing the same shade of blue, as in photos one and two, while in Santiago Atitlàn, just a couple of miles away across the lake, huipiles are distinguished by heavy floral embroidery around the neckline as in photo three. It is in Santiago too that you will see the striking headdresses made by wrapping a broad strip of cloth round and round to form a large red or orange disk (photo four) and also men in cropped cream trousers with purple stripes (photo five).

    These differences are easy for even casual observers to spot, but apparently there are also distinctions within a village, enabling the expert local eye to identify whether a woman is single or married for instance. It all adds up to a rich tapestry of colour, as rich as the fabrics they use.

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    Chicken buses

    by toonsarah Written Dec 4, 2010

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    I’ve said already that Guatemala is a colourful country, and it is not only the people’s costumes that make it so. Just look what they do with the old school buses that they import from the US! These form the mainstay of public transport in the country, and are known colloquially as “chicken buses”. I’ve heard two theories behind the name. One is that you are as likely to find yourself travelling next to a chicken (or sheep, or goat, or ...) as to a person, because local people use the buses to transport livestock as well as themselves. The other is that the people on board are often packed in so tightly they look like caged chickens. Either way, a journey on a chicken bus is reputedly an experience to remember – although I have to confess that it’s one that we wimped out of! It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted. The drivers travel at high speeds and take enormous risks on the roads. They cause many fatal accidents and several locals warned us off them and bemoaned the culture that has led to each driver wanting to out-do the others.

    But if you decide to give it a go there are a few tips worth knowing. Every bus has its ayudante, a sort of conductor, who has several roles. At the bus station or bus stop he will call out the destination, for the benefit of the many illiterate local travellers (the cacophony of calls in Antigua’s bus station is quite something to hear). Once the bus is moving he will take the fares, even if this means clambering outside and up on to the roof of the bus.

    When not being fascinated by the agility of the ayudante and passengers, you can admire the decorations. Each bus reflects the owner and driver’s personal style. Scantily dressed women, American eagles, religious images, scenery and family names are all scattered across the bodywork, often in close proximity to each other. Even if like us you don’t plan to travel on one, do seek out these colourful emblems of Guatemala – they will be a great addition to your photo album.

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    Market day

    by toonsarah Updated Dec 4, 2010

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    As it is almost everywhere, market day is when each town or village really comes alive, and it’s a perfect opportunity to observe local customs, check out local food stuffs and take some great photos.

    Some towns are rightly famous for their colourful markets, most notably Chichicastenango, which has become a major tourist draw for that reason. We didn’t make it there as our timings in the area didn’t coincide with the best days for the market, but we were very pleased instead to experience several markets more local in character – in Antigua (surprisingly local given the city’s large number of tourists), in Santiago Atitlàn and especially in Petzun, a lively local hub in the Guatemalan Highlands. We stopped here briefly on our drive from Panajachel to Guatemala City and enjoyed squeezing our way through the crowds (watch your bags and pockets!), dodging the chicken buses and grabbing photos where we could.

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    Public laundry

    by toonsarah Written Dec 4, 2010

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    Every town or village in Guatemala has its public laundry – a communal space in the centre of town with stone basins, running water and usually a roof for shade. In the past these would have been essential as houses didn’t have their own water supply and streams can be arid and waterless in the dry season. Even nowadays remote villages will still not have water piped to each home, but many places do, yet the custom of the public laundry persists. Why? Well, it’s a great opportunity for a good gossip! Washing for a large family is hard work when it all has to be done by hand – how much better to do so in convivial company with friends to chat to and to distract you for the tedium of the chore.

    This photo was taken in San Pedro Huertas near Antigua, but there is also a large public laundry in that city itself, in the Playa Union, although on the two occasions we were in the square washing had obviously stopped for the day.

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    Carrying the baby

    by toonsarah Updated Dec 4, 2010

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    The colourful cloths and wraps of Guatemala are used for all sorts of purposes. They form skirts and belts, are wrapped around bulky packages to make them easier to carry, and decorate shop fronts to entice tourists.

    But perhaps their nicest use is in these improvised baby slings. The position can be adjusted to suit (front or back, high or a little lower), baby’s head tucked inside for warmth or outside for a better view, and when mum stops for a rest the wrap becomes a shawl or a cover while baby sleeps.

    An unintentional benefit is the potential for great photos, of course!

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    Chicken Buses

    by JessieLang Written Jun 26, 2010

    Chicken buses are old U.S. school buses that are privately owned. A family will usually own several. When a bus arrives, it gets modified in a special shop—it is painted in 5-10 bright colors, more seats are added, hand straps go along the center aisle, and it gets roof racks and a rear ladder. They also put in a more powerful engine.

    When the bus is ready, they hire drivers. The drivers have to be good (they are tested) but also fast. Fast is more important. The owner expects to make a certain amount per day, and the excess over that is the driver’s wage so he has an incentive to speed. (All the roads have big speed bumps to slow them down.) The driver hires (and pays) the doorman. He is the guy that stands in the open doorway calling out their destination and drumming up trade.

    The bus will often have 100+ people in it, along with their packages, chickens, etc. Sometimes they might have a pig or some furniture. If the items are too big to bring into the bus, the doorman loads them on the top rack. He may still be on the roof tying things down when the bus starts down the road, so he climbs down the ladder and squeezes in through the back emergency door. Then he weaves his way through the packed-in passengers to collect fares. Sometimes the bus is so full that passengers hang out of it.

    Chicken buses are the main mode of transportation for many people. They don’t cross borders, so if you are going to another country you have to transfer to a different one at the border.

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    Mother's Day

    by JessieLang Written Jun 6, 2010

    In Guatemala, Mother’s Day is always on May 10, regardless of the day of the week, and it is a really big deal. We stopped at the cemetery in Sololá the day before, and saw people decorating graves for Mother’s Day.

    We were in Panajachel on Mother's Day, and it started very early! We were all awakened at 3:30 a.m. by loud booms, followed by car alarms, firecrackers, and a sound truck going by. The noise continued until about 6 a.m. Each time one of the big fireworks exploded, it set off more car alarms.

    Although we missed it, there seems to have been quite a celebration in the early morning.

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    Maximón, the Smoking God

    by iwys Updated Aug 21, 2008

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    Mayan villagers in the Guatemalan highlands, especially on the shores of Lago de Atitlán, have their own unique religion, mixing elements of shamanism and Christianity. They worship a god called Maximón. It is believed that he is a combination of the ancient Mayan god Rilaj Maam and the biblical figure Judas. Although there are other theories that he is partly based on San Simón, a conquistador and even a Spanish priest who once worked in the area. The shrines of Maximón are usually moved around every year to a different house and offerings of money, candles, cigarettes and liquor are made at the foot of an effigy.

    The most colourful shrine is the one in Santiago Atitlán. Maximón is depicted as a smoking god, with a burning cigar in his mouth. when the cigar has burned down to a stub, it is replaced with a new one. Interestingly enough you can see stone carvings of a smoking god in ancient Mayan temples. I guess this is hardly surprising in a land of smoking volcanoes. You can enter the shrine and for a small fee take photos.

    Related to:
    • Historical Travel
    • Arts and Culture
    • Road Trip

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    Understanding Guatemala through books and movies

    by tampa_shawn Updated Oct 13, 2007

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    Normally I highlight the books I've read about a country- but most of the reading I've done to date has been economic research which I'll summarize in order to provide an overview of Guatemala. I'll read some books on Guatemala when I come back and add list my favorites.

    Amazing documentary by HBO - Recycled Life - story of life in the main Guatemala City Garbage Dump

    It is difficult to find movies on Guatemala in the US of A - here is a list of what I have been able to find. Most likely you will have to order these on line

    Movies on Guatemala - quick and easy info on the country
    • El Norte (1984) - A brother and sister make their wasy to the U.S. after their family is murdered their family.
    • The Silence of Neto/El Silencio de Neto (1994) - A boy coming of age story during the 1954 CIA-backed coup.
    • Men with Guns/Hombres Armados (1998). Tells of the 1980s civil war - covers scorched earth, military intimidation, forced relocation camps presented as “model villages”; mostly committed against the indigenous population.
    •Precarious Peace, God and Guatemala - Documenatary
    •Men With Guns - Civil war
    • Apocalypto - Mel Gibson's Mayan movie (comming soon)
    • IMAX - Mystery of the Maya
    •The Fountain

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