Despite it being one of the first settled areas in Guatemala, relatively little is known about the Pacific region’s early history. Many archaeological sites are presumed overgrown by jungle; others have been destroyed to make way for agriculture.
What is known is that the Olmecs were among the first to arrive, followed by the Ocós and Iztapa, whose cultures appear to have flourished around 1500 BC.
Although these cultures were much more humble than those of their northerly counterparts, they developed a level of sophistication in stone carving and ceramics. It’s also thought that the coastal region acted as a conduit, passing cultural advances (like the formation of writing and the Mayan calendar) from north to south.
Between AD 400 and 900, the Pipil moved in, most likely displaced by the turmoil in the Mexican Highlands, and began farming cacao, which they used to make a (rather bitter) chocolate drink. They also used cacao beans as currency.
Towards the end of the postclassic period, the K’iche’, Kaqchiquel and Tz’utujil tribes began moving in as population expansion in Guatemala’s highlands had made food scarce and land squabbles common.
Pedro de Alvarado, the first Spaniard to land in Guatemala, arrived here in 1524, pausing briefly to fight the K’iche’ as a sort of forerunner to a much larger battle around present-day Quetzaltenango. Franciscan missionaries were dispatched to the region and began a lengthy, largely unsuccessful attempt to convert the locals.
Further agricultural projects (mostly indigo and cacao) were started around this time, but it wasn’t until independence that the region became one of the country’s main agricultural suppliers, with plantations of coffee, bananas, rubber and sugarcane.
In the languid tropical climate here, not much changes, particularly the social structure. The distribution of land – a few large landholders and many poorly paid, landless farmer workers – can be traced back to these early post-independence days. You’ll see the outcome as you travel around the region – large mansions and opulent gated communities alongside squalid, makeshift workers’ huts.