Guatemala Facts - Compassion International

Compassion has been working in Guatemala since 1976. Through our work there, we gather Guatemala facts about children in poverty. These Guatemala facts and statistics provide a good picture of the reality of poverty and how Compassion is making a difference.

Poverty is a common problem in the country of Guatemala but Compassion is working to change this. The Guatemala facts tell a discouraging story, but Compassion is bringing hope in the midst of this discouragement. Our programs are changing the statistics one child at a time.

Don't let the hopelessness of Guatemala facts overwhelm you. You can make a difference to a child in Guatemala today!


Compassion partners with churches throughout Guatemala to help them provide children the opportunity to rise above their circumstances and become all God has created them to be.

Compassion's work in Guatemala began in 1976 as a Family Help Program that was operated by missionaries. The Child Sponsorship Program was started in 1980. Currently, more than 55,900 children participate in more than 215 church-partnered child development centers.

Learn About Guatemala

The Mayan civilization flourished throughout much of Guatemala and the surrounding region long before the Spanish arrived. There are temple ruins, courtyards and steles, which record events from A.D. 771 and A.D. 810. Tikal, located in Peten, north of Guatemala City, has been declared a world heritage site by UNESCO. The Mayan culture was already in decline when the Mayans were defeated by Pedro de Alvarado in 1523-24. During Spanish colonial rule, most of Central America came under the control of the Captaincy General of Guatemala.

The first Spanish settlement in Guatemala was in Iximché (the city of Santiago), but was destroyed by an earthquake. The second colonial capital, Almolonga, flooded in 1542. Survivors left the city and founded Antigua, located near Almolonga, which became the second capital in 1543. In the 17th century, Antigua became one of the richest capitals in the new world with many baroque churches and the first Central American university, Universidad de San Carlos, which is now the nation's most prestigious university, known for medicine and social expertise.

Always vulnerable to earthquakes, Antigua was destroyed by two earthquakes in 1773. The remnants of its Spanish colonial architecture have been preserved and declared a world monument and heritage site by UNESCO. The third capital, Guatemala City, was founded in La Hermita Valley in 1776, after Antigua was abandoned.

Guatemala gained independence from Spain on Sept. 15, 1821, but was officially established as a Republic in 1847 after a brief annexation with Mexico. From the mid-19th century until the mid-1980s, the country passed through a series of dictatorships, insurgencies (particularly beginning in the 1960s), coups and stretches of military rule, with only occasional periods of representative government.

Several attempts have been made to end the decades-old dispute in Guatemala, and the most recent was the 1996 signing of a series of peace accords by the government, leftist guerrillas and various other feuding factions.

A high crime rate and a serious and worsening public corruption problem were cause for concern for the government of Guatemala. These problems, in addition to issues related to the often violent harassment and intimidation by unknown assailants of human rights activists, judicial workers, journalists and witnesses in human rights trials, led the government to begin serious attempts in 2001 to open a national dialogue to discuss the considerable challenges facing the country.

Source: The World Factbook, 2014.


The typical school year runs from January through October. Guatemalans go to preschool four years, primary school six years, secondary school three years and high school two to three years, depending on technical training. Many Guatemalans do not attend school, but instead start working at a young age to sustain their families. Many don't see the long-term benefits of schooling, and many others get married or get involved in gangs.

The educational structure is in need of an overhaul. Schools sometimes don't have enough supplies to give children and some don't even have chairs or desks. In some areas, there are not even schools. Low teacher salaries also contribute to a shortage of teachers. Despite these struggles, government initiatives have helped Guatemala's education system. But the needs are great.

Guatemalans' attitudes toward education depend on their social level in society. Many parents think girls should not attend school since they should be preparing for motherhood. In other cases, parents feel their children will improve through work, not academic study. Others would like to attend but the cost of school fees is prohibitive. Guatemalans who are wealthier value education, but still find it to be a financial burden.


There is no state religion; however, the constitution recognizes explicitly the distinct legal personality of the Catholic Church.

The government does not establish requirements for religious recognition or impose registration requirements for religious members to worship together. However, the government requires religious congregations as well as non-religious associations and non-governmental organizations to register as legal entities if they wish to transact business. Such legal recognition is necessary, among other things, for a congregation to rent or purchase premises, enter into contracts, and have tax-exempt status. Although registered religious entities are legally exempt from taxes, Protestant leaders note that their churches sometimes are required to pay property taxes by local officials. The Catholic Church does not have to register as a legal entity; it is so recognized in the constitution.

The government does not subsidize religious groups. The constitution permits, but does not require, religious instruction in public schools. There is no national framework for determining the nature or content of religious instruction in public schools. Accordingly, when provided, such instruction tends to be programmed at the local level.

The government does not have any organized programs to promote interfaith understanding or dialogue. Nonetheless, the government has sought the support of diverse religious groups for passage of legal statutes on the rights of children and for implementation of health and literacy programs for children. For a number of churches, social projects are the primary forum for interaction with adherents of other faiths.

Source: International Religious Freedom Report, released in 2012 by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.



Guatemalans make hand-woven Indian textiles, pottery, clay and wood carvings.


Music is made with many instruments, including the marimba, an instrument made from different sized gourds, resembling the xylophone. Indian music is made using flutes and drums.

Holidays and Festivals

Holy Week, March or April: The week before Easter. Guatemalans make intricately patterned designs on their streets, sometimes made of flowers and leaves but most often of colored sawdust. 
Labor Day, May 1 
Independence Day, Sept. 15
Revolution Day, Oct. 20: The anniversary of the 1944 revolution that resulted in a liberal government.
Saints Day, Nov. 1: Families get together to give thanks and eat.
Christmas, Dec. 24, 25: Guatemalans decorate their homes with life-size replicas of nativity scenes, pine wreaths, poinsettias and fruit. Tamales are served on Christmas Eve.

Visit the Compassion blog to read about Easter in Guatemala.

Sports and Games

Guatemalans are passionate about soccer. They also enjoy basketball and bicycling. Children enjoy ball games, such as volleyball and dodge ball.

Typical Foods

Guatemalans eat frijoles (black beans), maize (corn), chicken, eggs, white cheese, tamales, tostadas and hard, rolled tacos with meat. Guatemalans also make a unique array of soups and seed and vegetable sauces.

Guatemalan Tostadas

To present and eat your tostadas in Guatemalan style, top each one with only salsa, guacamole or beans. Use blanched onion rings, parmesan cheese and parsley to garnish them.

Fried Corn Tortillas

Place tortillas in oil and fry them until toasted. Pat with napkins to take out the extra oil and let them dry.

Salsa Recipe

  • 1/2 onion
  • 1 pepper
  • 1 16 oz. can tomatoes
  • 1 Tb. butter
  • salt to taste

Boil half the pepper and 1 quarter of the onion until soft. Add canned tomatoes then blend in a blender. Next sauté the rest of the onion and pepper with the butter until softened, then stir the blended mixture with the sautéed mixture. Add a small amount of salt to taste.


  • 2 avocados, peeled
  • 1/4 cup onion, chopped
  • 1 tsp. salt and pepper
  • 1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
  • 1/4 tsp. chicken powder or more to taste

Mash avocadoes (leave the seed in the bowl to keep them from getting dark) and mix with all other ingredients.


  • 1 Tb. butter
  • 1/4 cup onion
  • 1/4 cup red or green bell pepper
  • 1 16 oz. can black beans
  • 2 Tb. water
  • chicken broth to taste
  • salt to taste

Fry the onions, pepper, beans and water in the butter. Add a small amount of chicken broth and salt to taste. Stir constantly until most of excess water evaporates.

You may also like this recipe for rellenitos, mashed plantains stuffed with sweet black beans then fried to create tasty little dumplings.



  • Hola (Hello)
  • ¿Cómo está? (How are you?)
  • Bien (Fine)
  • Sientese.(Please sit down.)
  • ¿Quiere cafecito o un vasito de agua? (Would you like a little cup of coffee or a little glass of water?)
  • ¡Es bien rico! (It is really good!)
Compassion in Guatemala

Child Sponsorship Program

Children age 11 and younger meet at the child development center 4 hours a day, 2 days a week. Older children meet for 4 hours on Saturdays.

Children are provided with a nutritious snack every time there is an activity at the child development center. The centers also provide special meals for celebrations and extracurricular activities organized by the staff. A typical meal consists of meat (chicken or beef), rice, vegetables and tortillas. Meals may also include chicken broth, a piece of chicken, vegetables and tortillas. Snacks may consist of cereal and a banana, a sandwich with cheese and ham along with chips and a fruit, or a tamale with bread. For drinks, children will enjoy a hot beverage called atol made of different cereals like corn and wheat. In the warmer areas of the country, children get lemonade or fruit juices.

The youth are involved in activities such as community service, organization of children's activities for leadership development, tutoring and vocational training. The child development centers offer vocational training based on where the youth live. Some of the trainings and workshops offered are beauty school, carpentry, pastry baking, tailoring, typing, computing, English, seamstress training and handicrafts.

Camps and retreats for different ages, special devotionals, worship nights with bonfires, and evangelism activities with the community are all part of spiritual development. Celebrations include special birthday celebrations, Children's Day, end of the school year celebrations, Family Day, rallies, graduations for each level at the child development center, Christmas and others. Most of the activities hosted by the centers include a devotional time to seek the Lord.

There are regular parent meetings to discuss each child's progress. Parents are also invited to meetings in which the staff and guest speakers discuss topics on child development like health issues and providing better care for children. Some centers also host parents' retreats.

Visit the Compassion blog to learn more about our work in Guatemala and to read a post about living in Guatemala by experiencing a day in the life of a sponsored child named Melissa.

Guatemala Facts and Figures
Capital Guatemala City
Population 14,647,083 (2014 estimate)
Languages Spanish 60%, Amerindian languages 40% (23 officially recognized Amerindian languages, including Quiche, Cakchiquel, Kekchi, Mam, Garifuna and Xinca) (2014 estimate)
Religions Christian (Roman Catholic, Protestant), indigenous Mayan beliefs
Literacy rate
Definition: Age 15 and over can read and write.
Male: 81.2%
Female: 71.1%
(2011 Estimate)
Percentage of population using improved drinking water sources Urban: 99.1%
Rural: 88.6%
(2011 estimate)
Percentage of population using adequate sanitation facilities Urban: 88.4%
Rural: 72.1%
(2011 estimate)
Climate Tropical; hot, humid in lowlands; cooler in highlands
Percentage of population urbanized 49% (2011 estimate)
Life expectancy Male: 69.82 years
Female: 73.76 years
(2014 estimate)
Under-5 mortality rate 33/1,000 (2012 estimate)
GDP per capita $5,300 (2013 estimate)
Monetary unit quetzal (GTQ), U.S. dollar (USD), others allowed
Number of people living with HIV/AIDS 57,800 (2012 estimate)
Percentage of population living below $1.25 a day 14% (2007-11 study)

Sources for facts: The World Factbook, 2014; The State of the World's Children, 2014