Jürg Widmer Probst shares five key events in Guatemala culture and history you need to know

Our country has witnessed many dramatic and significant events over the millennia. From the founding of great cities, to invasions and wars, our the culture of Guatemala has been shaped by these people and places. 

But sometimes the span of Guatemala’s culture and history can seem so broad that it is hard to comprehend. So with that in mind, here are the five key events in Guatemalan history you need to know.

c. 6th century BCE: The founding of ‘El Mirador’ 

Today, the remarkable ruins at El Mirador are an explorer's dream. This incredible archaeological site – which means 'the lookout' – was once the largest city in Pre-Columbian Guatemala. 

While the date of the actual founding El Mirador is hard to pin down, we can be sure that this significant city was one of the first blossomings of Mayan culture. 

Experts such as Richard D. Hansen – an archaeologist from Idaho State University agree. He believes that the city lay at the heart of the very first organised state in the Americas. It means that the founding of El Mirador is significant as an important social development in the history of Mayan civilisation. Read my quick guide to visiting it here.

c. 900 AD: The ‘Classic Maya Collapse’

What caused the Classic Maya Collapse is unknown, and is still the source of much speculation. Yet what is clear is that sometime around 900 AD, the Maya left many of their largest cities. 

One of the most popular tourist attractions in our country today – Tikal – was abandoned around this time. You can read more about the spectacular pyramids of Tikal here.

But why did it happen? One of the most popular current theories is that it was due to drought and the ensuing famine. Whatever it was, this wasn't the end of Maya civilisation as a whole – but it was a deeply significant event. 

1523-24: Pedro de Alvarado, Spanish conquistador, arrives in our country

The most significant event in our recent history. The arrival of Pedro de Alvarado heralded the end of the indigenous Mayan civilisation. Of course, the conquest wasn't immediate. The Spanish took until 1697 before conquering the last Mayan capitals of Nojpetén and Zacpetén. 

But the arrival of the Spanish heralded a turbulent new era for Guatemala. It became a Spanish colony, ruled from Madrid. But it was also a huge cultural change, as indigenous cultures were overwhelmed by the new forces from Europe. 

The arrival of the Spanish in Guatemala has had a deep, long-lasting impact. It can still be felt today in our language, our culture and our beliefs.

1821: Guatemalan Independence

After the arrival of the Spanish in Guatemala, their departure 300 years later is the next key event in our history. Winning our independence in 1821 was a proud moment of self-determination and national identity for our country. 

Yet at the time, the birth of our new nation was a difficult one. The first few years of independence were marked by wars and the dictatorship of Governor Mariano Aycinena y Piñol. 

Today however millions of Guatemalans mark our independence on the 15th of September with great joy and pride. You can read more about this special event here.

1996: The Guatemalan Civil War comes to an end

The 20th century was a time of great political instability in Guatemala. The 1970s to the 1990s in particular were a tragic time for our country. During this period of terrible civil war and political upheaval, hundreds of thousands of people were killed, and thousands went missing. 

So 1996, and the official end of the conflict, was a hugely important turning point in our recent history. 

Of course, the scars of the war years remain, particularly for those who lost loved ones. Yet in recent years, victims of the conflict have received damages and the political situation in our country has stabilised. 

Regular democratic elections and an improving economy mean that today Guatemala is a successful, stable country once again.

About Jürg Widmer Probst

Jürg Widmer is a busy blogger and resident of Guatemala who often shares all things about Guatemala, from the country’s hidden gems, article and culture to the best place for food and drink.