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Spread across a verdant and mountainous chunk of land, Guatemala is endowed with simply staggering natural, historical and cultural interest. Though the giant Maya temples and rainforest cities have been long abandoned, ancient traditions remain very much alive throughout the Guatemalan highlands. Uniquely in Central America, at least half the country's population is still Native American, and this rural indigenous culture is far stronger than anywhere else in the region. Countering this is a powerful ladino society, characteristically urban and commercial in its outlook. All over the country you'll come across remnants of Guatemala's colonial past, nowhere more so than in the graceful former capital, Antigua.

It's this outstanding cultural legacy, combined with Guatemala's mesmeric natural beauty, that makes the country so compelling for the traveller. The Maya temples of Tikal would be magnificent in any arena but set inside the pristine jungle of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, with attendant toucans and howler monkeys, they are bewitching. Similarly, the genteel cobbled streets and plazas of colonial Antigua gain an extra dimension from their proximity to the looming volcanoes that encircle the town. This architectural wealth is scattered to a lesser degree throughout the country - almost every large village or town boasts a giant whitewashed colonial church and a classic Spanish-style plaza. Though most of the really dramatic Maya ruins lie deep in the jungles of PetAŠn , interesting sites are scattered throughout the land, along the Pacific coast and in the foothills of the highlands.

The diversity of the Guatemalan landscape is astonishing. Perhaps most obviously arresting is the chain of volcanoes (some still smoking) that divides the flat, steamy Pacific coast from the cool air and pine trees of the largely indigenous western highlands , with their green, sweeping valleys, tiny cornfields, gurgling streams and sleepy traditional villages. Further east towards the Caribbean , the scenery and the people have more of a tropical feel and at LA­vingston, life beside the mangrove and coconut trees swings to reggae rhythms and punta rock.

The rainforests of PetAŠn, among the best preserved in Latin America, harbour a tremendous array of wildlife , including jaguars, tapirs, spiders, howler monkeys, jabiru storks and scarlet macaws. Further south, you may be lucky and catch a glimpse of the elusive quetzal in the cloudforests close to CobA?n or see manatee in the RA­o Dulce. On the Pacific coast three types of sea turtle nest in the volcanic sand beaches of Monterrico.

All of this exists against the nagging background of Guatemala's turbulent and bloody history . Over the years, the huge gulf between the rich and the poor, between indigenous and ladino culture and the political left and right has produced bitter conflict. With the signing of the 1996 peace accords between the government and the ex-guerrillas, the armed confrontation has ceased and things have calmed down considerably, though many of the country's deep-rooted inequalities remain. At the heart of the problem is the red-hot issue of land reform - it's estimated that close to seventy percent of the cultivable land is still owned by less than five percent of the population. There is also a chronic lack of faith in the corrupt and inept justice system , which has led to a wave of public lynchings of suspected criminals across the country. At the same time the economy was destabilized badly by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and is still chronically weak. Guatemala remains heavily dependent on the export of coffee, sugar and bananas and has very little industry except the foreign-owned maquila factories which produce goods for export and typically pay their assembly-line workers under US$5 for a twelve-hour day. Poverty levels are some of the worst in the hemisphere and there's general discontent with the high cost of living.

Despite these structural inequalities, you'll find that most Guatemalans are extraordinarily courteous, and eager to help a lost foreigner catch the right bus or find the local post office. Guatemalans tend to be less extrovert than other Central Americans and are quite formal in social situations. Many will automatically assume you are wealthy, since very few Guatemalans ever get to visit another country. Though you may hear complaints about rising prices, endemic corruption and the lack of decent jobs, this is not to say that Guatemalans are not patriotic and sensitive to criticisms from outsiders

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