The Sierra de los Cuchumatanes

Sunrise from the surroundings of Unicornio Azul

‘Forced together…’

The spectacular Sierra de los Cuchumatanes is the highest non-volcanic region in all of Central America. Its crescent shape runs from the neighbouring Chiapas in Mexico, northeast until the mountains of the Verapaces to the east crossing the departments of Huehuetenango and El Quiché. In total it covers 15 percent of the country.

The unusual and sometimes austere landscapes of the Sierras, created through its rise from the ocean in the third archaeological age, makes it well deserving of its Mam name which is most likely to have originated from the words ‘cuchuj’ (to join) and ‘matán’ (through force).

In between 500 and 3800 metres high, one can find a grand variety of climates, ecosystems and agricultural diversity that make Huehuetenango one of the ‘most biologically diverse regions’ (source: CONAP). Although these lands have ore woodland vocation, agriculture constitutes the principal production base, for example corn maize, beans, and wheat are common to the entire department. Moreover, Aguacatán is famous for its garlic and onions, Nentón for its Jamaican rose, the heights of Chiantla for its potatoes, Barillas for cardamom, meanwhile the coffee from Huehuetenango, originated from the med-range heights of the region, is renown worldwide. Sheep have been a characteristic of the high parts since the colonial period. San Meteo Ixtatán and Sacapulas (Quiché) are known for its salt production.

In the pre-colonial period the region had a strong Mam presence, although there was a Toltec influence and hegemonic periods of the K’iche. The religious and political centre of the Mam region was Zaculeu until the fall of its chief Caibil Balam in 1525 following a large siege from the troops of Gonzalo de Alvarado. One hundred and forty different archaeological sites ascertain the rich pre-Hispanic history and culture of the department. The Silver Virgin from the church of Chiantla and the church of San Mateo Ixtatán, among others, are fascinating testaments from the colonial period. There are also a number of legends that still linger in these places.

The population of the department is on its way to a million (8 percent of the country’s population) of which 65 percent is indigenous and has the richness of nine different languages (akateko, awakateko, chuj, k’iche’, mam, pópti, q’anjob’al, tektiko and Spanish). The communities of mestizos are mainly found on the borders of the south, north and west parts of the Sierra, whereas the injustices of history have relegated the indigenous populations to the highest and remotest parts of the centre and the east. The migrations in search of work, initially in coffee harvests and more recently to the United States, has complimented the agricultural systems of subsistence which has always been a constant the rural populations. Huehuetenango also was one of the departments most impacted by the armed internal conflict of the 80s (sources: "Conquista y cambio cultural : la Sierra de los Cuchumatanes de Guatemala - 1500-1821" (George Lowel) / "Huehuetenango en cifras" (CEDFOG))

Places to visit

The highest part of the Sierra- more than 3000 metres high, above Chiantla and Todos Santos- is the most unusual and impressionable places to visit. It is interesting to visit the Mam towns of Todos Santos Cuchumatán ad San Juan Atltán where the men as well as the women still where (and show off) their gorgeous traditional suits. There are also plenty of lakes and lagoons to visit, like the spectacular Yolnajab Lake and the small lagoon of Magdalena. You will be amazed at the blue, almost turquoise colour of the River Azul and its melancholy native sabino trees.

The Cimarrón ‘void’ is another of nature’s mysteries and an interesting site to visit. Despite its cultural riches, beauty and natural diversity, the department of Huehuetenango still has little tourism infrastructure. This makes it a great destination for the audacious that want to get off the beaten track and for those that do visit will be rewarded with the authenticity of the places and its people.

Sierra de los Cuchumatanes
Fiest of the sheep
Sierra de los Cuchumatanes
Fiest of Chancol - Horses Race

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Recommeded circuits:

  • Quite close to the capital of the department, you will find the high part of Chiantla (Unicornio Azul), Lake Magdalena, the summit of the Cuchumatanes, Todos Santos.
  • With more time, it is worthwhile continuing to the Huistas, the Cimarrón void and the Yolnajab Lake.
  • From Huehuetenango it is easy to return via the Ixil area (2 hours in car Huehuetenango- Nebaj) which is worth a nights stay before continuing the way to Cobán
  • The more daring and with access to a vehicle can span the department until Barillas and then crossing the River Ixcán, arrive to the Ixcán region, the lagoon La Chúa and Cobán, Alta Verapaz or Peten

Yolnajab Lake

People from Todos Santos choosing horses for the fiest