Heading north from Santa Cruz del Quiché, the highway climbs high into the mountains before splitting at El Tronque (the trunk). Choosing the left fork of the Tronque will lead you up through the clouds and over the ridge of the Cuchumatanes into the fascinating Ixil Region of Quiché. Surrounded by mountains, this lush, isolated valley gets rain year-round, but the heavy afternoon fog is punctuated by perfect sunny days. Whereas the greenery of the rest of the highlands slowly turns brown as the dry season goes on, the Ixil valley retains its bright colors all year.
Locals speak Ixil, a language found nowhere else in the world. This indigenous group enjoyed a simple lifestyle of subsistence agriculture for more than 1,400 years before the arrival of the conquistadors. The Spanish partnered with the K’iche’ to conquer the area in 1530. So isolated and intensely traditional is the region, however, that outsiders paid little attention to it until the 20th century. Then, during the Guatemalan armed conflict, local culture was utterly devastated. Only 140,000 people populated the region during the 1980s, a number amounting to only 1% of Guatemala’s population. Sadly, this 1% was subjected to 11% of the human rights abuses that occurred during the armed conflict.
Most locals were forced to choose sides, allying themselves either with the guerrilla movement or the
Guatemalan army in an attempt to survive. General Efraín Ríos Montt, the President of Guatemala famous for the scorched earth policies of the early 1980s, is especially loathed in the Ixil region – the phrase ‘Ríos Montt asesino’ (assassin) is seen spray-painted around town. He formed “model towns,” tightly controlled settlements that spelled forced eviction for most rural communities. Massacres were common throughout the region, and an estimated 25,000 civilians were murdered during the violence. Others escaped to the mountains and jungles to avoid the killings. The period polarized the ixiles, disrupting the united social fabric that once characterized their culture.
After the Guatemalan Peace Accords in 1996, some residents of the mountains and model communities returned home. Many foreign NGO’s set up shop, but relatively few tourists made the trek until recently. You can expect beautiful scenery, towering waterfalls, and the striking colors of local indigenous traje, frequently touted as the world’s most beautiful. The Ixil-speaking population inhabits the region’s trio of municipalities – Santa María Nebaj, San Gaspar Chajul, and San Juan Cotzal. Locals are incredibly proud and aware of their cultural identity as evidenced by numerous cultural centers and museums.
SANTA MARÍA NEBAJ
Nebaj, the gateway to the Ixil Region and the most developed of the three towns, sits at the base of a bowl-shaped valley surrounded by forest-clad ridges. Just past the community of Chiul, you’ll catch your first glimpse of this glimmering mountain town. Nebaj was the center of abuses carried out by the Guatemalan military during the armed conflict. After the Peace Accords ended the violence, Nebaj began to expand rapidly and continues its growth spurt today. Despite being basically off-limits during the 1980s, this fascinating place is now remarkably safe for foreigners looking to get off the beaten gringo trail, and locals are happy to have them. While the constant pouring of concrete puts a slight damper on Nebaj’s aesthetics, its beautiful surroundings hold natural wonders for the adventurous traveler.
To experience the beauty of Guatemalan traje at its finest, a simple walk down the streets of Nebaj will leave you mesmerized. Local women sport a fashionable combination of bright red corte skirts, intricate huipiles embroidered with animal motifs, and purple-and-green pom-pom cintas. Like neighboring Cotzal and Chajul, the language spoken in Nebaj is Ixil, a language both limited and strengthened by the region’s isolation from its K’iche’ speaking neighbors. However, as it develops, more and more Spanish crops up – many people in the urban center are ladino locals or fully bilingual. The town’s festival occurs yearly during the second week of August and is a rip-roaring good time.
At Nebaj’s center is an expansive plaza and enormous whitewashed Catholic church. Food vendors and shoe-shine boys yelling “lustre!” fill the park with energy. Inside the church, the mood is somber – numerous white crosses stand in honor of countless massacred civilians. The lively market east of the park is filled with just fresh vegetables and just about anything else you can imagine. Market day is held on Thursdays and Sundays, though daily sales of some sort happen near the bus terminal. Nearby is the Mercado de Artesanías, an indoor market dedicated to the sale of Nebaj’s gorgeous textiles. You can also check out the Museo Arqueológico for some interesting history and artifact exhibits. A trip to the nearby community of Acul will leave you feeling you’ve left Guatemala and entered the Swiss alps.
SAN GASPAR CHAJUL
Just 19 kilometers north of Nebaj, visiting Chajul is like taking a step back in time. The newly renovated central park sits below a staircase leading up to an imposing white Catholic Church with massive, hand-carved wooden doors. Inside is the famous Christ of Golgotha, the focus of a massive religious pilgrimage on the second Friday of Lent. Below is the under-construction municipal market, where the cement square fills with life on Tuesdays and Fridays. Throughout town, small adobe and wooden homes are topped with tile roofs turned black from years of the smoke from open cooking fires.
While the Ixil culture is strong in Nebaj, it is absolutely dominant in Chajul. Some tourists occasionally pass through and people are very friendly, but you are bound to get some inquisitive looks and stares the further you venture from the center of town. Spanish is so limited here that you won’t be called gringo, but vir/viriiko, the Ixil word for foreigner. Children will undoubtedly yell out to greet you in the only word of Spanish they know – “Hola!”, and adults will wish you buenos días (good morning) at four in the afternoon.
The women of Chajul almost always wear traditional dress. Compared to the bright red skirts of Nebaj, the Chajul corte is slightly darker and has horizontal stripes. The animals depicted on local huipiles are bigger but less intricate, and women use a unique style of earrings made by attaching a small coin and metal ball to several strands of colored string. The string is threaded through the hole in the ear with the strand of a broom. The economy of Chajul is run by corn, beans, and coffee. The Asociación Chajulense next to the market exports organic coffee abroad. In recent years, the combination of plummeting prices and a new disease called roya (rust) has sent coffee-producers reeling.
Like the rest of the region, Chajul was especially hard hit during the Guatemalan armed conflict during the early 1980s. At the height of the violence, the population of Chajul was 13,000 people, a fraction of the 55,000 that live here today. Despite its small population, Chajul hosted a fearsome army garrison of over 6,000 soldiers, evidenced today by multiple landing strips in town. Rigoberta Menchú describes the burning of an innocent civilian in Chajul’s central park, just one of many massacres perpetrated by the military. In fact, the majority of Chajul’s communities are recently rebuilt after being razed to the ground. Such violence forced many to flee into the mountains. Today, close to twenty years later, Chajul is still struggling to recover and remains a noticeable destitute place.
SAN JUAN COTZAL
Cotzal is the smallest of the three municipalities and lies somewhere between Chajul and Nebaj in terms of indigenous culture and development. Decades ago, Cotzal was the largest and most important of the three Ixil towns, but the construction of the paved road between Sacapulas and Nebaj gave the latter a tremendous advantage for growth. The market on Wednesday and Saturday centers around an attractive yet small central park. To get here, catch an hourly micro in Nebaj in front of Hotel Villa Nebaj.
Women in Cotzal wear intricate pastel-colored huipiles, and back-strap weaving is just as important here as in Nebaj and Chajul. A small tourism project called Tejidos Cotzal is located just behind the market and is dedicated to the promotion of local weavers’ hard work. At the office, you can either buy some of their crafts or organize guided tours of weaver’s houses, indigenous altars, and local waterfalls.
Photo Credit: Jon Kaplan, Rosa Vazquez