In Chichicastenango some fellow gringos at our hotel asked where we were headed next. When we told them Nebaj all we got in response was a blank look.
Nebaj is that kind of place: not very well known, fairly remote, a little hard to get to, and definitely branching a bit off the main tourist trail. It’s the largest town in the Ixil triangle, a trio of isolated highland pueblos with a strong indigenous presence. This was one of the hardest hit areas during Guatemala’s long civil war with many horrible stories of atrocities committed. The natural setting is beautiful, with green rolling hills and mountains covered in a mixture of forest, fields and cropland.
We found Nebaj to be an interesting place, despite a general lack of touristy sights and activities, and tourists in general. We only saw a few other gringos while we were in town, and of course that’s what makes it such a compelling place to visit. Unlike Chichi there aren’t giant hordes of tourist groups descending every week and bugging all the locals with their cameras, jading them against visitors. People here are reserved, but friendly. The economy doesn’t seem to depend too much on tourism either (although they can definitely use any bit of money they can get), so there isn’t such a “rip off the gringo” tradition here. One evening on the street I paid with a five Quetzal coin for a hot rice and chocolate drink from a younger girl, who very slowly and deliberately handed me back my change one Quetzal at a time. I hadn’t asked how much it cost, so each time she gave me a coin I thought I had all my change and tried to walk away. This happened four times; in the end it only cost 1Q (about 13 cents, but it wasn’t very good), either she was very honest or it didn’t even occur to her to keep the extra money.
For sights Nebaj has a simple and austere little central plaza and church, small streets fairly busy with traffic and people, and a scruffy little market a couple days a week. Quite a few of the women wear their traditional traje clothing along with some really intricate head wraps, but most of them men and many of the younger people wear western clothes. It’s over 6,000 feet in elevation and tends to be fairly drizzly and cool. There are a few good and cheap comedores and a few hotels, and that’s about it. We liked it a lot.
Unfortunately we both were fairly sick during our four days here, especially me (Andy). We’d each had stomach issues a few times already in Guatemala, more than in any other country we’ve visited, but only the usual problems. Here I was really sick, feeling very weak and extra painful in addition to the normal nastiness. In India I once had giardia and a moderate strain of E. Coli at the same time, and it was nothing like this. I generally prefer to wait out stomach troubles, but I finally gave in and started a round of Cipro and within a day felt fantastic, but that was the day before we left. With the rain and the illness we spent a lot of time in our hotel room, which unusually for us had a TV. There weren’t any English channels but we caught up on our Latin American music videos, always one of the most entertaining channels in a foreign country.
We took a collectivo van one day to the little town of Chajul, about an hour away. It was a beautiful place and we’d made sure to go during market day, so the town was buzzing with people and energy. It seemed like everyone in town was wearing traje, and wandering through the market it felt like we’d stepped back in time. Again there were no real sights to speak of other than a quaint little plaza and church, but the people were friendly and this was genuine Mayan country, incredibly interesting to be around. On the way back to Nebaj I talked for a while with an older guy, and he obviously wasn’t understanding my questions. I was feeling frustrated and baffled about where my Spanish was failing me, until I finally realized that this man didn’t speak Spanish. Ixil is the primary language around here.
Another day we went to the third town in the Ixil triangle, San Juan Cotzal. It was another pretty village similar to Chajul, but unfortunately our guidebook had listed the wrong market day and there wasn’t much going on. This is the village that Rigoberta Menchu is from, and we’d heard about her account of villagers being systematically machine-gunned in the plaza during the war. To be in the same place and imagine what had happened thirty years ago was a powerful experience. While we were sitting there three boys came up and started chanting the word “orange” over and over again. Finally we figured out that it was the only English word they knew, so we taught them to say “watermelon.”
Nebaj, Cotzal, and Chajul are located here.