High up in the Cuchumatanes, in a landscape of steep hills, bowl-shaped valleys and gushing rivers, is the Ixil region. Here Nebaj, Chajul and Cotzal, three remote and extremely traditional towns, share a language spoken nowhere else in the country. These lush, rain-drenched highlands are hard to reach and have proved notoriously difficult to control, and today’s relaxed atmosphere of highland Maya colour and customs conceals a bitter history of protracted conflict.
The beauty of the landscape and the strength of indigenous culture in the Ixil are both overwhelming. When church leaders moved into the area in the 1970s, they found very strong communities in which the people were reluctant to accept new authority for fear that it would disrupt traditional structures, and where women were included in decision-making. Counterbalancing these strengths are the horrors of the human rights abuses that took place here during the civil war, which must rate as some of the worst anywhere in Central America. Despite this terrible legacy, however, the fresh green hills are some of the most beautiful in the country, and the towns are friendly and accommodating, with a relaxed and distinctive atmosphere in a misty world of their own.
Before the arrival of the Spanish, Nebaj was a sizeable centre, producing large quantities of jade. The Conquest was particularly brutal in these parts, however. After several setbacks, the Spaniards finally managed to take Nebaj in 1530, by which time they were so enraged that the settlement was burnt to the ground and the survivors enslaved as punishment. Things didn’t improve with the coming of independence: the Ixil people were regarded as a source of cheap labour and forced to work on the coastal plantations. Many never returned, and even today large numbers of local people still migrate to the coast, Guatemala City and the US in search of work.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, the area was hit by waves of horrific violence as it became the main theatre of operation for the Guerrilla Army of the Poor. Since the 1996 peace accords, normality steadily returned to the area, as villagers have returned to their ancestral settlements and rebuilt their homes.