Roughly the size of Newfoundland, Guatemala is the most northern country in Central America. To the north lies Mexico, while to the east lie Belize, the Caribbean Sea and Honduras. South are El Salvador and the Pacific Ocean, while Mexico lies to the west.
Running east to west through the country are two mountain ranges, the Cuchumatanes and Sierra Madre, both continuations of the Andes. The highest peak is Tajumulco, at 4,000 metres. Numerous mountains are volcanic; three active ones along the Pacific coast regularly spew clouds of ash. Thermal springs abound, and like other Central American countries, Guatemala experiences yearly earthquakes, though most are too mild to cause damage. Most Guatemalans live in the central mountainous area, and many towns lie at an altitude of over 2,000 metres. Guatemala City - the largest city in Central America, home to over two million people - lies near the active volcanoes Pacaya and Fuego, and is sometimes covered in grey fallout.
Coffee plantations dominate the central landscape around the Alta Vera Paz region, home of an almost perpetual drizzle called the chipi-chipi. Damp forests filled with orchids and lichen support many of Guatemala's remaining quetzals, the iridescent green birds that are the country’s symbol.
In the west and south, the Pacific coastal lowlands are flat, hot and fertile, fed by many mountain rivers that flow into the ocean. Behind a thin strip of black volcanic sand lie huge plantations of rubber, cotton and sugar cane. Uphill are the western highlands, home of most of Guatemala's Mayan population. Warm valleys support crops of bananas and cacao (the plant from which cocoa and chocolate are made), while the hillsides are covered in forests of pine and cedar.
The lush eastern lowlands, known for their banana plantations and cattle ranches, serve as a trade route connecting the Caribbean to Guatemala City. The whole northern area - more than one-third of the country - is a vast jungle called the Petén. Once the heartland of Mayan culture, it contains the ruins of massive cities in its dense forests, filled with mahogany trees over 50 metres tall. Spider and howler monkeys, tapirs, jaguars, and hundreds of species of birds and butterflies live here; in fact, Guatemala has as many bird species as Canada and the United States combined. However, recently settlers and oil exploration have begun to threaten the Petén.
While light frost and snow occur in the high mountain ranges, most of highland Guatemala experiences a spring-like climate year round. In lowland areas, such as the Petén and the coastlines, temperatures are hot and humid all year, up to 37°C. The country’s two seasons are dry and wet, known as summer and winter. Winter (May to October) brings daily heavy rains and sometimes dramatic storms.