Zacapa – One of The Most Interesting Regions of Guatemala

  • Zacapa is one of the 22 departments of Guatemala. It has 11 municipalities, with its capital also called Zacapa.
  • The country has a population of 245,374 (2018 census). Christianity is the dominant religion in this area.
  • The climate is generally warm, and the landscape is varied.

Zacapa is one of the most interesting of the twenty-two departments in Guatemala, with its fascinating geography and the charismatic local population who boast unique, inventive ability. It is also famous for its dairy by-products and traditional cuisine.

Located in the country’s north-east region (Region III), it is surrounded by the other departments – Izabal and Alta Verapaz in the north, Jalapa, and Chiquimula in the south, Republic of Honduras and Izabal in the east and El Progresso in the west. It is around 112 kilometers away from Guatemala City. Its official language is Spanish.

This building was the first Municipal Palace in Zacapa, 1926. Source: Diego Lechuga.

The department of Zacapa has a varied geographical configuration, with heights ranging from 880 masl in La Unión to 130 masl in Gualán. Its climate is generally warm. The head of the department of Zacapa is also called Zacapa. This town is located at 738 feet above sea level along the San José River. The town is old, but its importance and size increased only after the completion of the Puerto Barrios–Guatemala City railroad, which made it a junction of the line from El Salvador. Zacapa town is also a manufacturing and commercial center for the pastoral and agricultural hinterland, which yields mainly corn (maize), sugarcane, melons, tobacco, beans, and livestock. This town is locally well-known for cigars and cheese. In 1976, there was a massive earthquake in this region, so this town suffered enormous structural damage.

98.4 percent of the population of Zacapa is Ladino, while the rest is indigenous. Zacapa is one of the departments of Guatemala that have a low proportion of indigenous people in their population – the other departments being Guatemala City, Chiquimula, Retalhuleu, and Jutiapa. The Zacapa department has the highest literacy rate in the entire country. It is divided into ten municipalities. There are as follows:

  1. The map of Zacapa Department with San Jorge, the newest Municipality. Source: Prensa Libre.


  2. Estanzuela
  3. Gualán
  4. Huité
  5. La Unión
  6. Río Hondo
  7. San Diego
  8. San Jorge
  9. Teculután
  10. Usumatlán
  11. Zacapa


As explained by poet and historian, Capitán Don Francisco Antonio De Fuentes y Guzmán, the name “Zacapa” is derived from Nahuatl zacatl (meaning weed or grass) and apan (meaning in the river) – a word which itself is derived from alt (meaning water). Therefore, “Zacapa” means “on the river of grass.”

A Brief History

Zacapa was initially created as a much larger department on 10 November 1871. However, from that time onwards, its portions have been converted into other departments, for instance, the creation of El Progresso department from the western region of Zacapa in 1908.

During the colonial period, the towns present in the western region of Guatemala were pacified by April 1530, even though they were still considered to be uprising for at least a decade. The Spanish arrived in the country in 1524, but the exact events in the following decades are not clear due to the unrelatedness of the accounts from that period.

The General Archive of Central America has some documents that are from 1535. In them, mentions of the town of Zacatlán or Cacitlán (current head of Zacapa) have been found. There is a possibility that the evangelization following the encomendaderos may have begun in the fourth decade of the sixteen century. It is also possible that Corregimiento de Chiquimula was formed in the middle of the 16th century. This derivation is based on the presence of documents for the respective appointments for Corregidores that date back to 1545 only.

Historian Domingo Juarros has inferred that the Zacapa region belonged to the township of Zacapa and Acazaguastlán. The town of Zacapa was formerly known as “San Pedro Zacapa” during the Hispanic period, later becoming the departmental capital. According to Juarros, it was “a fairly neighborhood town, which has some families of Spaniards, and many of mulattos and Indians; He is the head of the parish, and the party, because the lieutenant of the Corregidor assists in it.”


The town of Zacapa has a population of about 30,000 (figure from 2002), while the population of the whole department of Zacapa is 245,374 (2018 census).


Christianity is the dominant religion in this area. The breakdown of the religious groups is as follows:





Protestants and Evangelicals


Without religion


Other religions

2 %

Since the author has lived and served in a Lutheran Church in Zacapa, it is important to mention that in this department, there are three Lutheran Churches:

  1. Iglesia Luterana en Guatemala (Zacapa and Gualán)
  2. Iglesia Luterana Guatemalteca – ILUGUA (Zacapa)
  3. Iglesia Evangélica Apostólica Luterana (Zacapa)


There is an exciting variety of dishes in the department of Zacapa. They include:

Chicharrón con yuca (1), quesadillas (2), marquesote (3), pepita juice, and caldo de marisco (4). The best restaurant in the area of Zacapa is Mi Ranchito, located on the road to San Jorge, the newest municipality. Quesadillas are a type of sponge cake that contains eggs, flour, and other ingredients and is prepared in a mold. It is served with locally made cheese, and this is a popular traditional dessert of the Zacapa department. At present, flour toritllas have become a traditional dish in Zacapa, although they did not originate here.

Zacapa cuisine features a wide range of spices as many of the world’s spices grow here. Essentially each traditional dish has its age-old recipe and story that the chefs proudly narrate to visitors. The locals are well versed in the variety of spices and ingredients available in the local market. Visitors who explore the local market are sure to come out with a new wealth of knowledge of food vocabulary and ingredients, including cardamom and ajonjoli. The daily staples include vegetables and fruits, including exotic species like pacayas, pitaya, and jocotes. Red Tuna (cactus fruit) is a popular fruit here. Other options like avocados and traditional melons are also available in the wide variety.

Famous Rum

The Zacapa rum was named after the commemoration of the centenary of the foundation of Zacapa in 1976, which is also the year of the creation of the rum. This rum is very unique because it is aged in the coolness of the high lands of Quetzaltenango. The creator of the rum was Alejandro Burgaleta, who was doctor and chemist. Moreover, this rum has won four times the first place in the rums category number 4.


The majority of the Zacapa region has warm, or calido, climate. The inhabited highlands are relatively colder due to the shadow effect that Sierra de las Minas has over the land that follows to the south. The average temperature fluctuates between 30° to 40° C throughout the whole year. The maximum temperature high is 45° C, which is reached during the “Semana Santa” (Holy Week) and Summer (March, April, May). Even in the summer months, there are days when the maximum is capped at 25° C for the day. The minimum temperature might oscillate from 15° C in cases of “extreme” conditions over some cold spell north winds to 25° C.

While the previous temperature occurs only rarely, the latter is considered hot. Generally, the temperature stays around 20° C.

Zacapa also experiences a pronounced dry season, often for above two months without any rain, which gravely harms the air quality of the region. The region’s flat areas are well-known for their chicharras (loud insects that chirp in the fields and along the roads during the dry season).

Landscape and Geography

The main source of water in the department of Zacapa is the Motagua River. It originates from the Granadillas Mountains, part of the Sierra del Merendón. The Rio Grande or Motagua is one of the most important in the Atlantic Basin – it is born in the municipality of Chichicastenango and is known as Selapec river there. Later, it receives the name of Motagua or Grande, up to Usumatlán, and from here to its mouth, it is called the Motagua River. The Motagua River has several tributaries. One main tributary is the Hondo River, and it is very important for the region because the force of
its waters is utilized in the power plants of Zacapa. Starting from its origin, it precipitates into deep ravines. However, its course becomes softer at the height of Gualán, where its waters are used for irrigation.

Motagua River in San Pablo village, Zacapa. Source: Miguel Torneire

Apart from Motagua, there are other minor rivers that bathe the soil of Zacapa. They include Negro, Blanco, Teculután, Hondo, Pasabién, Jones, Mayuelas, Santiago, Los Achiotes, El Lobo, Doña María, San Vicente, Agua Fría, Huijo, Huité, El Tambor, Grande de Zacapa, Las Naranjas, Carí, Guaranja, Cañas, El Islote and Biafra.

Around half of the Zacapa region towards the north is mountainous as it is crossed by the Sierra de las Minas from west to east. There are some small hills and mountain ranges towards the south, and they are separated by more or less deep ravines. In the central part of the Motagua river’s channel, there is an extensive valley that narrows and widens (depending on the topographic configuration), forming very fertile plains. Also, large plains like La Fragua are there, and they are irrigated for the benefit of the Zacapa department by extensively growing crops like tobacco, sugar cane, and high-quality tomato.

Interestingly, the presence of changing elevation along the Motagua creates three regions, each having distinctive physical characteristics. The Upper Valley is a temperate forest area, the Southern Valley is a dry and arid area while Lower Valley possesses an extension of the humid tropical forest. The Lower Valley creates a fertile plan where banana has been planted.

The Zacapa region also has protected areas. The Sierra de Las Minas is managed by “Defenders of Nature” and is classified as a Biosphere Reserve. In addition, another protected area is the “Granadillas” mountain. It occupies a part of the department of Zacapa, along with a small part of the department of Chiquimula.


Zacapa is primarily a rural area containing a large flat area that is utilized to grow crops. The Zacapa valley is bordered by Sierra de las Minas, that possesses fine hardwood forests, and has coffee plantations marble mines. It also has some of the world’s finest jade.

Owing to the constitutions of its lands and its warm climate, all kinds of crops cannot be grown everywhere. Therefore, some crops are grown in irrigated areas known as “vegas”. These conditions also encourage the local people to dedicate themselves primarily to commerce and cattle breeding.

According to the department’s soil types, climate, and terrain topography, the local people plant beans, corn, coffee, cassava, pineapple, banana, tomato, melon, tobacco, grapes, and watermelon, as well as textile plants such as cotton. The locals also engage in cattle raising. There are also forests present, including natural, mixed and integrated management, and having a range of shrub, tree or creeping species. These contribute to the department’s special touch in its environment and ecosystem.

The inhabitants also dedicate themselves to raising cattle and producing high quality of butte rand cheese. Zacapa has not fully exploited its mining industry. The minerals found in this region include iron, copper, silver, a little gold, chromium, superior quality white, and other marble and calcareous stones.


According to UNDP (2014), Zacapa has 55.9% of its population in poverty and 21.4% in extreme poverty.


Zacapa has the following tourist centers: Balneario Pasabién Balneario las Mesas, Turicentro Valle Dorado, Balneario Barranco Colorado, Termas de Santa Marta, and Balneario Doña María.

One of the main attractions of the Zacapa department is the Museum of Paleontology, Archeology, and Geology, currently known as Roberto Woolfolk Saravia located in the municipality of Estanzuela. This museum was started when it was noticed in 1985 that the municipality contained Mayan remains and fossils. It contains a complete skeleton of a giant sloth (third of its kinds in the whole world) that was discovered within the Chinautla municipality as well as the complete skeleton of a mastodon.


The shield of the Club Social y Deportivo Zacapa. Source: @CSDZacapa.

Football is a popular sport in Zacapa. Its football club called Club Social y Deportivo Zacapa (former Deportivo Zacapa) plays their home games at the Estadio David Ordoñez Bardales and competes in Guatemala’s top division. Gallo (rooster) is their team mascot.

Zacapa inhabitants are fond of music, and a popular form of music/song is called Soy de Zacapa. Music remains an integral part of all festivals in this region.

The Coronavirus Situation in Zacapa

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected the whole world, leaving only the continent of Antarctica. In Guatemala, 1643 cases have been recorded as of 16 May 2020. In the region 3, which include Izabal, Zacapa, Chiquimula, Jalapa and El Progresso, there are 166 cases reported. In the department itself, 15 cases in Gualán and 1 on Zacapa as of today. Unfortunately, it has killed 30 people so far in the entire country. To prevent the further spread of this intensely contagious disease, the inhabitants are observing social distancing and self-isolation. Moreover, every citizen must wear mask as they live home. As with other areas of the world, this situation is having a negative effect on Zacapa’s economy as several economic activities have been put on hold or slowed down.

The author of this blog and Developing Our World’s Founder and Director, has resided in Zacapa from August 2004 to August 2008 (four years) as a missionary. This experience has allowed him to gain a deep understanding and knowledge of the region, culture and language, which positions him to guide others who are interested in visiting this department. Please feel free to contact us for this purpose.

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Miguel Torneire

Is the founder and the Executive Director of Developing Our World, an organization that seeks to put holistic community development into action. He loves Jesus! And, he is a husband, a father, a Lutheran Pastor, a Missionary, an Author, a flamenguista (a supporter of Clube de Regatas do Flamengo soccer team), and a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner.

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