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The history of the valley of
San Buenaventura Valley

At least five hundred generations of humans have walked, hunted, farmed and contemplated this valley and the landscape of the lake and its volcanoes.

Símbolo de Atitlán Lienzo s XVI.webp

Humans have been walking these lands for at least 15,000 years. In the last 12,000 years we occupied Nimajay, the rocky mountainside shelter that is now an important sacred site. And in the last 3 to 4 thousand years we have cultivated these valleys with milpas and recently with coffee and cash crops.

Historical records from the distant past are scarce. The oldest are the Annals of the Xahil, the Memorial of Tecpán-Atitlán or the Memorial of Sololá, which refer to the arrival of warrior peoples from the central valleys of Mexico in the 13th century. According to the Tecpán-Atitlán Memorial, this migration strengthened the presence of city-states and scattered settlements of the K'iche's, Kaqchikeles and Tzu'tuhiles in the Altiplano.

The 16th century Lienzo de Quauhquechollan tells the story of the conquests carried out by the Spanish army led by Jorge de Alvarado, guided and conquered by the Quauhquecholtecs who invaded the territory we now call Guateala. Over the millennia, human groups have left deep marks on the environment and have transformed the landscape, reducing biodiversity and, more recently, degrading the quality of the lake's waters.

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In the early 16th century, Spanish invaders found small settlements on the shores of the lake. By then, the fertile valleys and agricultural sites were used without further impact on the forests and without generating further erosion. The description of Panajachel as an "orchard" full of fruit trees and cultivated fields gives an idea of land use at that time. At that point there was also a settlement in the valley of San Buenaventura, but at the beginning of the 19th century, old deeds state that the land in the valley "corresponds to the State in reason (sic) of the complete extinction of the population of San Buenaventura". According to Don Moisés Rivera Soto (1888-1970), years before Independence and by royal mandate, Don Rafael de la Torre, a son of a prominent priest of the Spanish Court, came to take possession of these lands.

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Año 1836 San Buenaventura reducido_edite
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It is recorded in the deeds of 1836 that Don Rafael titled the "vacant land" of San Buenaventura, which was opposed by "the mayors, principals and other commoners (sic) of the town of San Francisco Panajachel". There, according to the neighbours of Panajachel, they had their "crops to pay for the maintenance of our Father priest and other urgencies and needs of the town". Eventually, as a result of the conflict of interests, Don Rafael died at the hands of his opponents.

By 1857, the valley of San Buenaventura "is planted with sugar cane and has a competent milling machine and workshops necessary for its work". The panela [brown sugar blocks] trade was of such importance that the western end of the bay ("bend of the Panajachel lagoon" also known as Ka'ibal or Gran Mercado because that is where the old town of San Jorge was located) served as a wharf for the panela coming from the sugar mills on the coast, which was sold in the markets of Sololá and Chichicastenango.

By the 1880s, heavy trade led to the introduction of the first steamboat on the lake. Its voracious boilers were partly responsible for the first major deforestation of the lake's shores.

However, agricultural activities changed and by 1881, the "offices" of San Buenaventura consisted of "a wheat mill, warehouses, dwelling house, its planting fields, water, uses and customs". At this time, the mill was "sold with all the machinery, tools, implements and existing sacks...".

During the 19th century there were several mills in the region and at least two of them were located in the hacienda of San Buenaventura. One of them, the Molino Buenavista, of which its large vaulted foundations remain in the upper part of the property, took advantage of the stream that then fell down the San Buenaventura waterfall.

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The work in the wheat mills required less labour, and it was only with the transformation of the valley into a coffee plantation in 1929 that the use of labour on the old hacienda intensified once again. For the harvest, San Buenaventura relied on workers who came from far away. Some of these travelled from neighbouring villages to Santa Cruz del Quiché, where they had incurred "obligations" by using the land that the employer had in those places. The old ranchería, now converted into houses for visitors at the entrance to the old farmhouse, is testimony to the last indigenous populations that inhabited the valley.

Un grupo de hombres portando el traje tradicional de San Pedro La Laguna empujan sus cayuco 1932 0 1938 Alfredo Gálvez Suárez - CIRMA

In 1972 the Hotel Atitlán began operating and the arrival of many visitors began. In 1989 the Hotel San Buenaventura de Atitlán was opened to the public with a vision of minimum environmental impact. It is with this orientation towards sustainability that the Atitlán Nature Reserve started with the butterfly garden in 1995, opened its first visitor centre in 1997, inaugurated the hanging bridges of the waterfall in 1999 and the new visitor centre in the first days of 2001. That same year took place the first gathering to talk about the future of Atitlán. By 2006 it launched the X-Tremos Cables, four years later the Ultras and in 2019 the BiciCables. In 2008, the first event was held in the auditorium and the Butterflies in the Geodome and its metamorphosis laboratory has been in operation since 2013. After the Covid pandemic the kitchen was expanded and in 2023 the restaurant.

This brief history of human occupation of the valley suggests that for millennia there was a dynamic balance between what was taken from the land and what was returned to it, and apparently no irreversible alteration of biological cycles. However, from a seasonal occupation gathering fruits from the land, fishing and hunting, people were forced to intensify the use of resources and to settle permanently in one place. The material life of the inhabitants slowly changed until the market economy drove accelerated changes and today there are clear signs of environmental deterioration: degradation of water quality, disappearance of forests and animal species, encroachment of rubbish and climatic changes, among others.

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