Guatemala City History Facts and Timeline

(Guatemala City, Central Highlands, Guatemala)

Built over an ancient Mayan settlement and now ranking as both Guatemala's capital and largest city, Guatemala City has a history rooted in Spanish colonialism.

The city began life as a Jesuit monastery and through a series of unexpected events, it eventually emerged as the capital of Spanish operations in this region of Central America. Guatemala City has also been pivotal in the struggle for independence in Central America and is today one of the region's liveliest and most appealing cities.

The Ancient Settlement of Kaminaljuyu

The Mayans were here long before the modern history of Guatemala City began with the arrival of the Spanish. Kaminaljuyu was the name of this ancient Mayan city when it was inhabited for around 2,000 years, between 1,200 BC and 800 AD. Unfortunately, most of Kaminaljuyu was paved over by modern development. However, the cultural ceremonial centre and a handful of other sites have been protected by the Guatemalan government and are currently open to the general public.

An Unexpected Capital

This city was a small and relatively unimportant outpost during the early years of Spanish colonialism in Central America. A monastery known as El Carmen was established here in the late 1620s and was the main purpose of the town's existence, that is until the Santa Marta earthquakes altered the history of Guatemala City in a major way.

The series of devastating earthquakes that began in July of 1773 levelled most of the Spanish colony's existing capital, Antigua Guatemala. Fortunately, Guatemala City had emerged unscathed from the event and in the year of 1775, Charles III, King of Spain, officially authorised the capital to be relocated here. At the time, the administrative division known as the Spanish Captaincy General of Guatemala encompassed the majority of modern Central America.

A City on the Rise

Once the capital of Spanish operations in the region was moved to Guatemala City, its history truly began. Development grew rapidly as Spanish resources poured into the infrastructure of the city, much of which remains intact in the historic heart known as Zone 1. This is also where the preserved remains of the Mayan city of Kaminaljuyu can be found.

Independence from Spain

The financial investment made by the Spanish in the city never had time to pay dividends, because the capital declared independence from Spain in 1821. With little resistance, Guatemala City rose to become the capital of the new United Provinces of Central America, which comprised the modern nations of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, as well as Guatemala.

This sovereign federation of states lasted until 1838, when conflicts between the states led to its dissolution and a series of civil wars that would plague Central America for decades to come.

Guatemalan Civil War

The country's Liberal Revolution was sparked in 1871 and led by Justo Rufino Barrios, the man responsible for modernising so much of Guatemala. Based out of the capital, Barrios introduced coffee and fruit production to the countryside, and worked tirelessly to improve trade with the outside world. Barrios served as the country's president between the years of 1873 and 1885, and believed that he could reunite Central America under a federation, but sadly lost his life in 1885 fighting El Salvador forces.

A series of military strongmen took control of the country after Barrios, led first by dictator Manuel José Estrada Cabrera until 1920 and then by Jorge Ubico y Castaneda until 1944, when he was forced out of presidential office. More recently, a civil war raged in Guatemala between guerrilla forces and the government until 1996, when a truce was finally brokered by the United Nations.