Life in the cities of Guatemala City and Antigua is quite different from the more rural areas. Most people in the highlands make a living through small-scale farming. But families rarely produce enough to meet their basic needs, and poverty is extreme.

Guatemala Highlands Region

The Location


The Population


The Religion

Roman Catholic

The Weather

  • Guatemala’s sprawling capital, Guatemala City, is in the highlands region. The city is a contrast between rich neighborhoods and extremely poor districts ruled by violent gangs. Guatemala Aerial View of City
  • Each activity day at this Compassion-assisted child development center in the town of San Juan Cotzal begins with prayer. Guatemala Children Praying in Classroom
  • Access to clean water is a problem in the highlands. At this Compassion center, a water system was built to provide the children with water for drinking and practicing good hygiene. Guatemala Children Washing Hands
  • Each month, the children at this Compassion center celebrate the birthdays that have occurred during that month. Guatemala Two Boys Eating
  • These children are waiting to have their teeth checked by a dentist who regularly visits their Compassion center. Without Compassion, most would not have the opportunity to receive medical or dental care. Guatemala Children Sitting in Chairs
  • The Guatemala highlands are beautiful and lush, with many scenic waterfalls like this one. Guatemala Waterfall

Overview: Highlands of Guatemala

The highlands are in southern-central Guatemala, lying between the Sierra Madre de Chiapas Mountains to the south and the Petén lowlands to the north. The highlands are made up of a series of high valleys enclosed by mountains, with altitudes up to nearly 12,000 feet.

Temperatures range from 57 to 95 degrees in the dry season (November to March) and from 14 to 80 degrees in the cold season (late October through February). Most of the families living here are Maya descendants who typically wear colorful garments that make a distinction between ethnic groups.

Inhabited mainly by the indigenous Maya, the highlands region is still recovering from an internal war that lasted from 1960 to 1996. During the war, thousands of people disappeared, were kidnapped, and were massacred by the National Army and the URNG (Unidad Revolucionaria Guatemalteca — Guatemalan Revolutionary Unity) guerrillas. The war left as many as 200,000 dead and created an estimated 1 million refugees.

Because of this, the native people continue to be distrustful and fearful. Up to 70 percent of the rural highlands population lives in deep poverty — many of whom are widows and orphans.

Life in the capital of Guatemala City is quite different from the more rural areas. With more than 3 million residents, the city is the largest of the republic. Residents can find what they need, from necessities for daily life to extravagant gifts.

The war encouraged many highland Guatemalans to turn to God for comfort and protection. Approximately 70 percent are Protestant or Catholic, and residents are receptive to the gospel.

The highlands are home to 102 Compassion-assisted child development centers. Nineteen of Guatemala’s 23 languages are spoken in this area.


Culture Corner

Culture in Guatemala




  • 5 pounds of beef or chicken
  • 1 celery stalk
  • 2 bunches of green onions
  • 5 pounds of fresh green tomatoes
  • 5 cloves of garlic
  • ½ pound of tomatillos (canned or fresh)
  • 1 bunch of parsley
  • 1 bunch of coriander
  • ½ pound of green hot peppers
  • 4 ounces of laurel (or 2 ounces dried sweet bay)
  • 4 small sprigs of thyme
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 16 ounces beef or chicken stock
  • A bit of flour paste for thickening
  • Salt and pepper according to taste


Cook the beef or chicken.

Wash the other ingredients well, chop and mix them together.

Fry the mixture in oil, and add the beef or chicken stock.

When the mixture begins boiling, add the meat and flour paste to thicken.

When everything is tender and well-cooked, add salt, pepper and a bit of dried coriander.

Serve with rice or tortillas.

Yields 15-20 portions.

Life in the Highlands of Guatemala

The population of Guatemala’s central highlands includes 16 indigenous groups of Mayan heritage, with their own languages and customs. This region was heavily affected by the bloody civil war that lasted from the 1960s through 1996. Entire villages were massacred, and by the conflict’s end, more than 200,000 lives had been lost.

Most people in the highlands make a living through small-scale farming. But families rarely produce enough to meet their basic needs, and poverty is extreme. Because of poverty, people in the highlands often become involved in drug trafficking to make money.

Guatemala City, with more than 3 million people, is a particularly dangerous environment for children, who are vulnerable to being recruited by the many violent gangs that terrorize entire neighborhoods.

Children at Home

Parents, grandparents and children make up the eight to 10 people who live in most homes in the highlands. The father harvests sugarcane in southern Guatemala for six months of the year. While this income is needed, the long separations are difficult and result in the breakup of marriages and families, particularly if the father starts a life with a different woman while he is working far from home.


Community Issues and Concerns Community in Guatemala

Guatemala City experiences a significant number of crimes against women and bus drivers, along with kidnappings of the wealthy. Corruption of the judicial system makes the crime issue worse and nearly 90 percent of the cases remain unresolved. Throughout the region male chauvinism, the disintegration of the family, and a high rate of extreme poverty contribute to problems.

Most rural areas in the highlands lack clean running water and sanitation systems. High unemployment and lack of variety in diet result in chronic malnutrition, especially among children. Seven out of 10 children under 5 are malnourished.

Local Needs and Challenges

The extreme poverty of the highlands region affects children the most. About 85 percent of the population doesn’t have enough food, and children are often chronically malnourished. To earn money, some children work for the powerful drug cartels to smuggle drugs between the Guatemala-Mexico border. Human trafficking of children is all too common as families send their children to the cities with complete strangers who have promised to find them jobs. Usually, these “jobs” are in the child sex trade.


Schools and Education Education in Guatemala

Educational struggles in this region are twofold. The many students who leave school to harvest coffee or sugar in other parts of the country generally don’t return to their studies. Also, the infrastructure doesn’t support enough qualified teachers.

The government has recently offered incentives for parents to send their children to school. While this has improved attendance, many parents continue to make their children work to contribute to the household income.

At the Compassion Child Development Center

Children who attend child development centers learn basic hygiene habits that will keep them healthy. Families in impoverished countries generally do not know about the value of brushing teeth, washing hands, or covering mouths when coughing. Yet in areas where disease and infection are rampant, these simple activities can make the difference between life and death. Compassion’s holistic approach focuses on each child’s spiritual, economic, social and physical development.


Working Through the Local Church

Each of the 24 different ethnic groups in Guatemala has its own language and culture. Because the church is an integral part of its community, staff members understand the needs of the local people and what works best to meet those needs in the context of their unique culture. Churches also have credibility in their communities, which is vital for launching any new program.

Local churches have the God-given responsibility of affecting their communities for Christ, but in Guatemala, they are limited by a lack of resources. Compassion’s support, combined with the church’s understanding of the needs of local children, is an ideal partnership that is changing the country, one child at a time.

How Compassion Works in Guatemala Compassion in Guatemala

Compassion's work in Guatemala began in 1976. Currently, more than 39,400 children participate in 183 child development centers.

Compassion partners with local churches, helping them provide Guatemalan children with a long-term program of physical, educational, socio-emotional and spiritual development. Through this partnership between Compassion and local churches, children in need have the opportunity to rise above their circumstances and become all that God has created them to be.

The Role of a Partnership Facilitator

Partnership Facilitators play an important role in the alliance between Compassion and the local church. They are charged with nurturing that relationship to ensure that assisted children receive what they need to grow into healthy, responsible Christian adults.

Juan Díaz has been a Partnership Facilitator for Compassion Guatemala for seven years. Under his care are 11 local churches that operate Compassion centers. Juan enjoys his time at each partner church, training and encouraging staff. He also enjoys visiting children’s homes to hear what parents have to say about Compassion’s effect on their children’s lives.

“I think of Compassion as a blessing and opportunity to help others,” says Juan. “We get to support families, the community, the church and the children.”


Prayer Requests

  • Pray that children in urban areas will make wise decisions in an environment where it is common to quit school, join gangs, and abuse drugs.
  • Pray for complete healing of the soul and heart as the long civil war left painful scars in the lives of many.
  • Pray for God to provide more job opportunities.