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Guatemala - Combining A Relaxing Vacation With Affordable Dental Treatment

Guatemala's Lake Atitlan

Country Profile

Guatemala, officially the Republic of Guatemala, is a country in Central America with an estimated population of around 15.8 million; it is the most populated state in Central America. Guatemala is a representative democracy; its capital and largest city is Nueva Guatemala de la Asunción, also known as Guatemala City.

Guatemala's abundance of biologically significant and unique ecosystems includes a large number of endemic species and contributes to Mesoamerica's designation as a biodiversity hotspot. The country is also known for its rich and distinct culture, which is characterized by a fusion of Spanish and Indigenous influences.

The three regions of Guatemala (highlands, Pacific coast and the Petén region) vary in climate, elevation, and landscape, providing dramatic contrasts between hot, humid tropical lowlands and colder, drier highland peaks.

National Demographic 

Guatemala is heavily centralized: transportation, communications, business, politics, and the most relevant urban activity takes place in the capital of Guatemala City, which numbers around 2 million inhabitants within the city limits and more than 5 million in the metropolitan, constituting over a third of the country's population.

Guatemala is a highly diverse country, populated by a variety of ethnic, cultural, racial, and linguistic groups. About 41.5% of the population is Mestizo (also known as Ladino), reflecting mixed indigenous and European heritage. A similar proportion of Guatemalans (41%) are of full Amerindian ancestry, which is among one of the largest percentage in Latin America, behind only Peru and Bolivia. Most indigenous Guatemalans are of the Maya people, namely K'iche' (11.0% of the total population), Q'eqchi (8.3%), Kaqchikel (7.8%), Mam (5.2%), and "other Maya" (7.6%). Less than 1% is indigenous non-Maya. White Guatemalans of European descent (also called Criollo); represent 18.5% of the population. The majority are descendants of German and Spanish settlers, followed by other Europeans like Italians, British, French, Swiss, Belgians, Dutch, Russians and Danish. There are smaller communities present including Salvadorans, Garífuna, Chinese, Koreans, Lebanese and Syrians.

Guatemala's sole official language is Spanish, spoken by 93% of the population as either the first or second language. Twenty-one Mayan languages are spoken, especially in rural areas, as well as two non-Mayan Amerindian languages: Xinca, which is indigenous to the country, and Garifuna, an Arawakan language spoken on the Caribbean coast. There are also significant numbers of German, Chinese, French and English language speakers.

Christianity continues to remain strong and vital for the life of Guatemalan society, but its composition has changed over generations of social and political unrest. Roman Catholicism, introduced by the Spanish during the colonial era, remains the dominant church.  A more recent 2012 survey reveals Catholics at 47.6%, Protestants at 38.2%, other religions at 2.6%, and the non-religious at 11.6%.

Telecommunications

While telecom infrastructure in Guatemala is fairly modern in the main urban centres, rural telephony remains inadequate and antiquated, though a lot better that prior to the 1996 liberalization of the telecom market. With a high percentage of the population living in rural areas, the country’s fixed-line teledensity is at the low end of the scale for Latin America. Though also not high by Latin American standards, mobile telephony has been a fast growing market, helped along by one of the most liberal radio spectrum regulatory models in the world. Mobile phones overtook fixed lines in 2001, and are now more than double the number of fixed lines in service. This report provides an overview of the country’s telecom sector accompanied by relevant statistics, and brief profiles of the main operators.

English Literacy

Spanish is the official language of Guatemala. English is spoken at most tourist hotels, restaurants, and attractions. Outside of the tourist orbit, English is not widely spoken, and some rudimentary Spanish will go a long way. Some 23 Mayan dialects are also widely spoken around the country. In many rural areas, many residents speak their local dialect as their primary language, and a certain segment of the population may speak little or no Spanish.

School System

Education in Guatemala is free and compulsory for six years. Guatemala has a three-tier system of education starting with primary school, followed by secondary school and tertiary education, depending on the level of technical training. 74.5% of the population age 15 and over is literate, the lowest literacy rate in Central America. Despite primary education being compulsory and provided free by the government, the mean average years of schooling in 2011 was 4.1 years per student.

25.5% of Guatemala's population is illiterate, with illiteracy rates up to more than 60% in the indigenous population. Although it has the lowest literacy rate, Guatemala has a plan to increase literacy over the next 20 years.

The government runs a number of public elementary and secondary-level schools, as youth in Guatemala do not fully participate in education. These schools are free, though the cost of uniforms, books, supplies, and transportation makes them less accessible to the poorer segments of society and significant numbers of poor children do not attend school. Many middle and upper-class children go to private schools. Guatemala has one public university (USAC or Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala), and fourteen private ones. USAC was the first university in Guatemala and one of the first Universities of America.

Organizations such as Child Aid, Pueblo a Pueblo, and Common Hope, which train teachers in villages throughout the Central Highlands region, are working to improve educational outcomes for children. Lack of training for rural teachers is one of the key contributors to Guatemala's low literacy rates.

Higher Education

There are five institutions of higher learning in Guatemala, all located in the capital city. The most prominent of these is the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala (USAC), the country's largest institution of higher education (and the largest in Central America) with an enrollment of over 60,000 students. As the only public university in Guatemala, USAC offers a comprehensive list of degree options in business, education, the arts, medicine, law, agriculture, veterinary, and in other disciplines. The university also operates a number of satellite or complimentary campuses located throughout the country.

The remainders of Guatemala's universities are private: the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala (UVG), the Universidad Rafael Landivar (URL), the Universidad Francisco Marroquín (UFM), the Universidad Mariano Gálvez (UMG), and the Universidad Galileo, the country's youngest university. Many of the private universities in Guatemala are linked to the Roman Catholic Church (la Universidad de Francis Marroquin was established by an Archbishop, for example), although the la Universidad de Mariano Galvez is a Protestant church-governed institution. All institutions offer a variety of degree and certificate programs in all areas of study, including arts and letters, business, medicine, law, engineering, and agriculture.

Admission to universities in Guatemala is based on applicants' holding of the bachillerato (equivalent to a high school diploma), a knowledge of Spanish, and, in the case of the private schools, a satisfactory grade on the appropriate Examen de Admision (entrance examination). Once enrolled, students must obtain a minimum grade of 51% to pass coursework; at some private institutions, a minimum grade of 61% is required. When students complete their programs of study, they are issued a diploma by Guatemala's Minister of Education (Ministerio de Educación (MINEDUC)), not by the individual institution. Students from other countries may enter Guatemala's universities provided they have credentials similar to the bachillerato and a knowledge of Spanish.

Students may complete many different types of programs at the university level. The first stage is known as the licenciatura. This is equivalent to a bachelor's degree in the United States. A student receives this credential after three to seven years of study, depending on the subject area: a technical certificate (tecnico) requires three years of study, a degree in Arts and Sciences requires four years; a degree in ingeniero (engineering), requires five to six years; and a degree in medicine requires seven years. Usually each degree is accompanied by some type of professional certification. Also as part of their mandatory curriculum, students must complete a seminar in Social Issues, which requires them to write about a significant problem facing Guatemalan society, such as the illiteracy rate. The school year lasts from January to October.

Beyond the licenciatura is the maestrado (master's degree), which requires two years of additional study and a thesis, and the doctorado (doctoral degree), which requires two years' study in addition to the time required for the maestrado. Doctoral students must also complete a thesis in one of the following areas: law, humanities, education, economics, or social sciences. To combat the illiteracy problem, each graduating university student must complete an internship which requires them to teach five Guatemalans how to read and write as part of his/her program of academic study.

Medical Education

In Guatemala the term “medical school“ involves a period of 6 or 7 years where students learn basic sciences (biology, biochemistry, pathology, etc.) and complete rotations in several hospitals. There you will learn about internal medicine, surgery, pediatrics, OB-GYN and various other areas of medicine. This is very different than in the United States and Canada where you must first complete an undergraduate (Pre-med with a major in Biology, for example) followed by the MCAT and application to medical school and residency.

In Guatemala, the first three years of the academic career will be spent intensely and rigorously studying all of the basic sciences. During the last three years of the academic career, life is reduced to working in a hospital. Students are able do what all doctors love to do: interact with patients. Here, they are assigned three or four patients and must study their cases. While doing rounds, they are able to help the resident with ideas on how to cure the patient and are the one fully responsible for caring for the patient. The student must take him to get an ultrasound, CT scans, MRIs and draw blood samples to be taken to the laboratory, among many other tasks.

In the course of study in the United States, a student would not be given this much responsibility and experience until later in their academic career.

Medical students do not receive any monetary payment for the first two years of shifts they complete. During the third year, payment is minimal. Perhaps a payment will not be received during the course of study, but in the end, the rewards will be much greater.

The Dentistry Profession

In Western countries a ratio of 1 dentist to 2,000 persons is advocated. The underprivileged countries have hardly begun to approach this figure and at present production rates have no hopes of attaining such a ratio. One of the countries, Guatemala, varied from a ratio of 1 to 15,000 to 1 to 250,000.

Of the 50 to 60 students, starting the dental course of study per year, only 7 to 9 finish-a loss of more than 75%. This loss rate is largely responsible for the high production cost of $23,000 per graduate. During the next 25 years the population of Guatemala is expected to double, reaching nearly 9 million, and 4,500 dentists will be required for a ratio of 1 to each 2,000 persons. Allowing for a loss of one-third and subtracting the present number of dentists, Guatemalans will require nearly 6,000 dentists, or more than 250 per year. Even by reducing the heavy attrition rate in the university, enough dentists could not be trained to meet the needs without considerable increase in costs.

The shortage of dentists is even more aggravated by maldistribution than is the shortage of physicians. In Guatemala the capital has 137 (81%) of the dentists, 6 are out of the country, which leaves 33 for the rest of the country. Thus the city has a dentist-to-person ratio of 1 to 4,700 persons and the remainder of the country 1 to 100,000; 11 out of the 23 administrative areas had no dentist for a total population of 1.2 million. In the 11 other administrative areas, the range is from 1 to 25,000 to 1 to 290,000.

Getting There for Dental Care

Most people get to Guatemala by plane. Guatemalan land and sea entry-points are relatively hassle free, unless you’re bringing your own transport, in which case you can expect plenty of red tape, dubious entry fees and delays. Airfares always depend on the season, with the highest being from Christmas to February, around Easter and in July and August.

Most international flights land at La Aurora International Airport (GUA). A few international and regional airlines fly directly into Mundo Maya International Airport (FRS), formerly Flores International Airport, near Tikal. If you're only interested in visiting the Maya ruins at Tikal and touring the Petén, this is a good option. However, most visitors will want to fly in and out of Guatemala City.

It takes between 3 and 8 hours to fly to Guatemala from most U.S. cities. American Airlines, Delta, Avianca El Salvador (formerly known Transportes Aereos del Continente Americano, simply known as TACA Airlines), Iberia, Aeroméxico, Spirit, and United all have regular flights from a variety of North American hub cities. Presently, there are no direct flights from Canada to Guatemala, so Canadians will have to take a connecting flight via the United States.

There are no direct flights to Guatemala from the U.K. & Europe, although Iberia does have a direct flight from Madrid. Otherwise, you will have to fly via a major U.S. hub city and connect with one of the airlines mentioned above.

To get to Guatemala from Australia or New Zealand, you'll first have to fly to Los Angeles or some other U.S. hub city, where you can connect with one of the airlines mentioned above.

You'll find various shuttle companies offering hotel transfers as you exit either the national or international terminal.  Many of the larger hotels also have regular complimentary airport shuttle buses. If you don't want to wait for the shuttle to fill or sit through various stops before arriving at your hotel, there are always taxis lined up at the airport terminal exits. Expect to pay the higher rate, maybe even a little more, after dark. Avis, Budget, Hertz, National, Tabarini, and Thrifty all have car-rental desks at the airport.

Guatemala is connected to Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras by regular bus service. If at all possible, it's worth the splurge for a deluxe or express bus. In terms of travel time and convenience, it's always better to get a direct bus rather than one that stops along the way - and you've got a better chance of getting a working restroom in a direct/express or deluxe bus. Some even have television sets showing video movies. There are several bus lines with regular daily departures connecting the major capital cities of Central America. Tica Bus Company has buses running from Mexico all the way down to Panama, while Pullmantur and Hedman Alas connects Guatemala with daily service to San Salvador, El Salvador, and Tegucigalpa, Honduras, San Pedro Sula.

Getting to Guatemala by boat - Santo Thomas de Castilla, Puerto Quetzal and Puerto Barrios are the main ports. There are regular water taxis services between Punta Gorda, Belize and Puerto Barrios and boats between Punta Gorda and Livingston. There is also a service from Omoa, Honduras to Livingston. From Palenque in Mexico, there are a number of routes to Flores involving a mixture of bus and riverboat travel.

Visitor Highlights

Tourism has become one of the main drivers of the economy, with tourism worth $1.8 billion to the economy in 2008. Guatemala received about two million tourists annually. In recent years an increased number of cruise ships have visited Guatemalan seaports, leading to more tourists visiting the country.

In its territory there are fascinating Maya archaeological sites (Tikal in the Peten, Quiriguá in Izabal, Iximche in Tecpan Chimaltenango and Guatemala City). As natural beauty destinations is Lake Atitlan and Semuc Champey. As historical tourism goes, the colonial city of Antigua Guatemala is recognized by UNESCO Cultural Heritage.

There is a strong interest of the international community for archaeological sites like the city of Tikal was built and inhabited in a period where the culture had its greatest literary and artistic expression, was ruled by a dynasty of 16 kings, the Maya of Tikal built many temples, a ball park, altars and stelae in high and low relief.

Guatemala is very popular for its archaeological sites, pre-Hispanic cities as well as tourist-religious centers like the Cathedral Basilica of Esquipulas in the city of Esquipulas and the beautiful beaches on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of Guatemala. Other tourist destinations are the national parks and other protected areas such as the Maya Biosphere Reserve.