Map of Atitlan of 1696
History of the San Buenaventura Valley
At the beginning of the 16th Century, the Spanish invaders found small towns on the banks of the lake. At that time, the fertile valleys and the lands favorable for agriculture were used with little impact on the forests and limited erosion. The description of Panajachel as an “orchard” full of fruit-bearing trees and cultivation fields, gives an idea of the use of the land at the time.
At that time there was a small Mayan town in the valley of San Buenaventura, but at the beginning of the 19th Century, it is stated in old land deeds that that the lands of the valley “belong to the State because the town of San Buenaventura had been completely extinguished.” As Don Moisés Rivera Soto (1888-1970) used to recount, years before Independence and by Royal Decree, Don Rafael de la Torre, a son of a well known priest of the Spanish Court, took possession of these lands.
In the land deeds of 1836, it is affirmed that Don Rafael declared San Buenaventura as “fallow lands”, with opposition from the "mayors, the Elders and the commoners of the town of San Francisco Panajachel.” There, according to the neighbors of Panajachel, they had their "planting fields to pay for looking after and maintaining our Father the Priest and other urgencies and necessities of the town”. Eventually, as a result of the conflict of interests, Don Rafael died at the hands of his opponents.
The operation of the wheat-mills required less manpower and it was only with the transformation of the valley into a coffee plantation in 1929, that once more the use labor was intensified in the old hacienda. For the harvest, San Buenaventura depended on workers that came from afar. Some walked from the neighboring towns of Santa Cruz del Quiché where they had incurred in “obligations” when using the lands that the hacienda owner had in those places. The old workers’ quarters, today transformed into homes for visitors at the entrance of the hacienda’s old homestead, is testimony to the last indigenous populations that inhabited the valley.
In 1972, the Hotel Atitlán began to operate and visitors began to arrive in large numbers. In 1989 the Hotel San Buenaventura de Atitlan opened its doors to the public with a vision of minimal environmental impact. It is with this orientation toward sustainability that the Atitlán Nature Reserve began with the Butterfly Preserve in 1995, by 1997 it opened its first Visitors Center, by 1999 it inaugurated the 5 hanging bridges over the waterfall river and the new Visitor Center opened at the beginning of 2001. In 2006, the zip lines Cables X-Tremos opened and four years later the Ultras were operating.
The historical records of this distant past are scant. The oldest is the Annals of the Kaqchikels that refers to the arrival of warring people from the central valleys of Mexico in the 13th Century. According to the Annals, this migration established the presence of city-states and dispersed settlements of the Kiches, the Kaqchikeles and Tzu’tuhiles in the Highlands. Since that time, human groups have left deeper imprints in the environment and transformed the landscape reducing the biodiversity.
By 1857, the valley of San Buenaventura “it is planted with sugarcane and it has adequate milling machinery and the necessary shops for its works.” The brown sugar block trade was of such importance that the western tip of the bay (“corner of the lagoon of Panajachel”, also known as Ka’ibal or Great Market for there stood the old settlement of San Jorge) served as pier for the brown sugar blocks coming from the sugarmills of the coast to be sold in the market Sololá and Chichicastenango.
By the 1880s, the intense existing trade, lead to the introduction of the first steamship in the lake. Its voracious boilers were partially responsible for the first great deforestation of the banks of the lake.
Nevertheless, the agricultural activities changed and by 1881, the “shops” of San Buenaventura consisted of “a wheat mill, warehouses, a house, planting fields, waters rights, uses and customs.” At this time, “the mill is sold with all of its machinery, its utensil and tools and the existent sacks…”
During the 19th Century there were several flour-mills in the region and at least two were at the “hacienda” San Buenaventura. One of them, the Buena Vista Mill, of which large vaulted foundations still exist, was located in the upper part of the property and operated with the water flow of the San Buenaventura waterfall.
This brief history of the human occupation of the valley insinuates that during millennia a dynamic balance existed between what was taken out of the earth and what was returned to it. Seemingly, there was no irreversible alteration of the biological cycles. However, starting from a seasonal occupation gathering fruits of the earth, fishing and hunting, eventually people needed to intensify the use of the resources and with agriculture they settled permanently in one place. The material life of the inhabitants changed slowly until the market economy impelled rapid changes and, at present, there are signs of environmental deterioration appeared: water quality degradation, disappearance of forests and animal species, invasion of garbage and climate change, among others.
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