Etymologies of the Hot Tub Highlands – How Toto Got its Name.

Land of the Hot Springs

When I lived in Guatemala, I lived in a small city in the western highlands called Totonicapán, or more colloquially, Toto. The capital of its namesake department, it is home to some 50,000 people or more.

According to official demographic estimates, 98% of the population of Totonicapán are of Mayan ethnicity – mostly K’iche’. Toto itself is an important cultural and historical center for the K’iche’ people; one of the most important Mayan texts is a  historical/mythical epic, similar to the Popol Wuj, known in Spanish as the Titulo de Totonicapán.  It was also the setting of a major indigenous rebellion against the Spanish in 1820 (the leader who was named ruler of the K’iche’ people upon overthrowing the local Spanish government was Atanasio Tzul, whose last name will be extremely familiar to anyone whose spent any time in the area – it is very common.

Tour guides and people on the street will tell you that the word Totonicapán means “tierra sobre aguas calientes” or something similar, translating to some variation of “land of the hot springs.” Driving around the department of Totonicapan, the sight of hot springs is common, where the locals can be found doing laundry, taking medicinal baths or just passed out drunk at sunrise (such a photo came through my Facebook feed earlier this month courtesy of a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer).

And this is true – Totonicapán does mean “land of the hot springs.” It just doesn’t mean that in Spanish. Or K’iche’, for that matter, or Kaqchikel, or any Mayan or European language. It comes from a nahuatl (Aztec) language, originating over 1,000 miles away, near what is now Mexico city.

Granted 1,000 miles may not seem like such a long distance these days- after all, it’s just a bit farther than the 2 hour flight between San Francisco and Seattle. However, when the name Totonicapán was bestowed upon this lush jacuzzi landscape some 300 years ago, it was a world and a half of distance geographically, linguistically, and culturally. The Aztec and Mayan culture areas were completely separate and distinct kingdoms. So how did this name come from the Aztecs, so far away?

Alvarado and His Crew

History, and especially military history, loves to focus on specific men and their follies, conquests, and epic beards. In this case, one of the most notorious epic crumb-catcher and poofy shirt sporting characters in the conquest of Central America was Don Pedro de Alvarado, who was the right-hand man of explorer (read: genocidal lunatic) Hernán Cortés during his expedition to Mexico, where they took the ruler Montezuma captive and slaughtered him and a bunch of the noble ruling class (or, as the conquistadores called it, “a good day”). After this, Alvarado was put in charge of the invasion and conquest of the K’iche’ people (Wikipedia – Spanish Conquest of Guatemala):

“Pedro de Alvarado was sent out by Hernán Cortés with 120 horsemen, 300 footsoldiers and several hundred Cholula and Tlaxcala auxiliaries; he was engaged in the conquest of the highlands of Guatemala from 1523 to 1527.”Wikipedia


These ‘auxiliaries’ that Alvarado recruited for his 1,000 mile trek from Tenochtitlan to the hot tub highlands were speakers of Nahuatl, a group of related languages in the Uzo-Aztecan language family. Historian Laura E. Matthew has written an entire book dedicated to the subject of the Aztecs that were involved in the Spanish conquest of Guatemala alongside the Spanish. I have not read the book, but if this short post interests you, then you probably should.

Renaming “The Land of Hot Springs” to “The Land of Hot Springs”

And so, the name Totonicapan actually comes from the Nahuatl word atotonilco or totonilco, which means “land of hot springs.” But the name by which the place was known before the arrival of Alvarado and his crew was Chuimekená or Chui Mekená, which is a K’iche’ term which translates roughly into… “land of hot springs.” Wait… what?

This actually appears to have been a common pattern by which Nahuatl place names were established in Guatemala. That is, they would take the semantic meaning of the original place name, and translate it into Nahuatl, which would replace the old name. It bears mentioning that Guatemala is also a name which comes from Nahuatl. The Spanish set up their first city when they conquered the site of Iximche, a Mayan word for a certain species of tree. Thus the Spanish changed the name to cuauhtēmallān, a Nahuatl word meaning “land of many trees.” (Here’s a link to the Wikipedia page for Guatemala in the Nahuatl language – pretty cool). This new name for Iximche later became the name for the entire country.

lingua mexicana for the New World

“Nahuatl is commonly labeled a lingua franca of colonial Guatemala.” Matthew writes with co-author Sergio Romero in Nahuatl and Pipil in Colonial Guatemala: A Central American Counterpoint“Nahuatl place-names are prominent throughout the region, a fact usually attributed to their literal translation from Mayan and other languages by the Nahua allies of the Spanish who invaded the region in the 1520s.”

The Guatemalan indigenous adopted [Nahuatl] in order to communicate with the Spanish locals and also with the governors in Spain, including the king…

This concept of Nahuatl as the lingua franca of Central America during the early era of colonization by the Spanish means that it is not only the case that these Nahuatl place names were established because Alvarado just so happened to have his Aztec buddies following him around wherever he went. Rather, when the Spaniards first arrived to Mexico, where it was spoken, they began learning the language. Matthew writes about this in her article El náhuatl y la identidad mexicana en la Guatemala colonial (my translation):

“During the conquest [of Guatemala], some Spanish already spoke Nahuatl with their Mexican troops, along with those who spoke Nahuatl together with various other languages like Mixtec and Zapatec.”

Since there have been bilingual people everywhere throughout history, when Alvarado and his crew arrived in Guatemala they encountered some people who indeed did speak a bit of Nahuatl, and it became a language of translation, a means to communicate with the local population. After some time, it became informally established as such, and more Mayans would learn Nahuatl as a way to communicate with their new Spanish overlords:

“Upon arriving to Guatemala, many Spanish recognized how valuable it would be to speak a little Nahuatl to communicate with the indigenous at home, in trade as well as in governmental affairs, and as a means of translation between Spanish and the many languages of Guatemala.

…The numerous examples – in the published writings, in the legal documents and in the documents produced by the indigenous people – in which the Nahuatl language served as a lingua franca continued until as late as 1653, when the upper class of Petapa still used Nahuatl in their testimony against a Spanish resident of Santiago about a parcel of land.

Clearly, the arrival of the Spanish increased the practical utility of Nahuatl in the first centuries of colonization… The Guatemalan indigenous adopted it to communicate with the Spanish locals and also with the Governors in Spain, including the king, for example in the letters written by the Mayans of the towns surrounding Santiago de Guatemala in 1572, archived in the Archivo General de Indias de Sevilla and recently published by Karen Dakin and Christopher H. Lutz.” -Laura E. Matthews, El náhuatl y la identidad mexicana en la Guatemala colonial (my translation)


It’s one of those things where once you hear about it, you start noticing it everywhere. After I read about this I began noticing references to Totonicapan’s original name, Chuimekená, quite often. There was even a hardware store near my house named “Ferreteria Chuimekená” or something similar. There’s a random website which claims that “Among the Nahuatl place names are Totonicapán, Quetzaltepeque, Atitlán, and Chimaltenango.” I have no idea whether or not this is true, since they didn’t cite their blog as fastidiously as do I. It’s interesting to note that Nahuatl is not longer a language spoken in Guatemala, but remains a curious facet to this era in the country’s colonial history.


3 thoughts on “Etymologies of the Hot Tub Highlands – How Toto Got its Name.

  1. Reblogged this on Stretch Your Own Horizon and commented:
    Guatemala is a fascinating and beautiful place, with miles of mountainous terrain, lots of unique customs and traditional dress, over 20 volcanoes, and 23 mayan languages. However, one of the most interesting aspects of Guatemala is the way in which cities and towns are named. My compañero blogged this post, and, me being the curious person that I am (or nerdy, Sammy! jaja), I find this super interesting and wanted to reblog it. Please enjoy this very well-written entry and little (yet really big and defining) part of Guatemala’s history!

  2. I’m really flattered — you’ve read practically my whole (small) oeuvre! Yes, Atitlán, Chimaltenango, etc. all come from Nahuatl. Those interested in seeing how these names got translated into graphic form should check out Florine Asselberg’s wonderful book “Conquered Conquistadors” [] or the digital reproduction of the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan, a visual history the invasion of Guatemala done by some of the Nahua conquistadors around the 1550s.

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