Nebaj. The name rings magical. This town of 35,000 tucked into a lush mountain valley in the highlands of Guatemala is the political center of the Ixil Triangle region. The Ixil (pronounced Ish-il) Maya live here and in the nearly 100 villages surrounding. Nowhere else is the Ixil language spoken other than in these mountain villages; the traditions hold fast – beautiful textiles, strong family and community ties.
Though Nebaj is known among travelers for the hiking opportunities, relatively few will visit here. There are steep trails linking the villages – a whole complex of old and well-used trails lace the area surrounding the town. It is possible to walk three days over mountain passes west to Todos Santos Cuchumatán where the Maya are of the Mam group.
If you do this trek, you will have passed through much of the part of Guatemala most severely affected during the civil war and genocide of the 1980s, when indigenous people were slaughtered and villages razed. The area and its people are still very much scarred by the memories, still attempting to recover from the violence done here.
It is 10:30 am and I have just arrived in Nebaj, having left Uspantán before breakfast. The reason for the early start is that today is the Thursday market day in Nebaj. There will be a great deal of activity in the town, but markets are typically done by 1 or 2 pm.
The first task is to decide on accommodation. I walk the two blocks from the plaza to the Hotel Villa Nebaj. The hotel is clean, convenient, and the rooms with shared baths are very reasonably priced. It is, it turns out, the only option in town with wifi. And as a completely unexpected bonus, the sheets are percale instead of muslin. These are the first and only I encountered in Guatemala, and each night I take a few minutes to appreciate their welcoming smoothness before drifting into a comfortable sleep.
Having unburdened myself of my gear, I head out now to explore, and to find breakfast.
I am immediately hit with the rush of color, from the buildings and the textiles.
The traje (the traditional dress) here is like nothing I have seen before – the patterns and colors, the intricacy and skill of the weaving.
Stephen Connely Benz expresses it exactly in his book Guatemalan Journey
By the time I got to Nebaj, I had seen enough of Guatemalan weaving to begin taking it for granted, to see it without really noticing it any longer, as if it were another part of the scenery. But the huipiles of Nebaj demanded attention. There was a genius to them that defied description.
The women of the town and of the surrounding villages are out in force for the twice weekly market, and most are dressed traditionally. Their shirts (huipiles) have intricate woven-in patterns on a variety of mostly dark background colors. The skirts (cortes) are dark red with well spaced striping. Their hair is coiled and twisted with a cinta. The women wear traje that tell their personal histories, characteristic of the villages where each grew up.
This is the style of cinta seen in Nebaj. This huipil is less densely patterned than most.
This woman wears a huipil with a light colored background, and a darker green rebozo.
More views from market day.
Fruit on a stick
I don’t know why I found it so amusing that a hardware store is called a ferretería.
I suppose it has something to do with sounding like a cafeteria for tools and wheelbarrows, and reminded me of the Big Box stores. Nebaj must be the hardware center for all 96 surrounding villages; there were at least three ferreterías per block near the plaza.
The name ‘Ixil Triangle’ refers to the three main population centers in the region. Nebaj (Santa Maria Nebaj) is the largest. The others are Chajul (San Gaspar Chajul) and Cotzal (San Juan Cotzal) to the northeast, each about a half hour drive.
Friday – tomorrow – is market day in Chajul and the microbuses just happen to leave from outside the front door of my hotel. so visiting that village will be my plan for the morning.
On Saturday I hope to do a hike to some of the villages west of Nebaj.
On Sunday morning I will be leaving the Ixil region, heading down to El Quiché, working my way toward Guatemala City for my flight home.