The enormous hidden waterfalls of San Marcos

A community ecotourism adventure.

By Yessika Calderón – Travel & Health Guatemala

Too much of Guatemala’s natural beauty has remained hidden from its citizens and the world. Fortunately, intrepid Guatemalan and foreign travelers have been helping to rediscover the country’s beautiful places, many of which have been preserved for thousands of years. One fine example are the remote waterfalls at La Igualdad.

The community of Tocache in the area of La Igualdad is tucked in the foothills of Tajumulco, Central America’s tallest volcano, and surrounded by a dense and little-explored forest that features a beautiful climate and unique local flora and fauna that make the trek to the waterfalls a mystical experience. The waterfalls themselves reach approximately 187 meters – over 600 feet – into the sky, which puts them among the tallest waterfalls not only in Guatemala but in all of Central America.

Cataratas La Igualdad. Foto por Yessika Calderón

The waterfalls of La Igualdad. Photo by Yessika Calderón

All of Tocache’s land was once private property, the plantation of a wealthy landowner. The community won the right to land, however, so that all its members instead of just a single family could benefit from its natural resources. The community’s main source of income is its coffee cultivation, which requires a demanding, labor-intensive commitment from community members, and which is becoming ever more difficult.

la igualdadIII

The waterfalls of La Igualdad. Photo by Yessika Calderón

Middle men who collect coffee for wholesale business often underpay coffee growers, and climate change is causing longer, hotter summers that are intensifying the effects of coffee rust, a fungus that destroys coffee harvests (called la roya in Spanish). Many communities have only three choices to augment their income: migrate to the US, migrate to Guatemalan cities to try to find odd jobs, or migrate seasonally to coffee, banana, or African palm plantations that pay a paltry minimum wage.

Aguas termales cerca de las cataratas. Foto por Yessika Calderón

Hot springs on the way to the waterfalls. Photo by Yessika Calderón

Fortunately, Tocache community members realized they had access to a natural jewel that, with hard work and creativity, could help them reduce their dependence on coffee and make a better living. The community decided to clear a small path for visitors to access the waterfalls. As they did this, they found several volcanically-heated streams. They built small pools to create hot springs of the naturally heated and mineral-rich waters, and recommitted themselves to the preservation of the area, hoping that eco-tourism would make this preservation sustainable.

Community tourism projects like this Tocache’s have been developing all over Guatemala and many share similar stories.