At the heart of the western highlands, the department of El Quiché encompasses the full range of Guatemalan scenery. The south is fertile and heavily populated while to the north the landscape becomes increasingly dramatic, rising to the massive, rain-soaked peaks of the Cuchumatanes. For the traveller, El Quiché has a lot to offer, including Chichicastenango, the scene of a vast, twice-weekly market and still a pivotal centre of Maya religion. Beyond here are the ruins of K’umarkaaj and, further to the north, the extraordinary scale of the mountain scenery is exhilarating. Isolated villages set in superb highland bowls sustain a wealth of indigenous culture and occupy a misty, mysterious world of their own – above all in the land of the Ixil.
The department takes its name from the greatest of the pre-conquest tribal groups, the K’iche’, who overran much of the highlands by 1450 from their capital at K’umarkaaj. With little in the way of plunder, this remote, mountainous terrain remained an unimportant backwater for the Spanish. The region became a centre of intense guerrilla activity in the late 1970s and was the scene of unrivalled repression, as tens of thousands of villagers were wiped out by the military. Today these highlands remain a stronghold of Maya culture, and El Quiché, dotted with small villages and mountain towns, is the scene of some superb fiestas and markets.