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The mournful voice of a reed horn, the beating of a drum echo down narrow streets, through misty morning mountains. A feast day is dawning deep in the Cuchumatanes Mountains of Guatemala, in a remote mountain village of the Ixil Triangle.


The Ixil are a small ethnic group descended from the mighty Maya Empire and their area is delineated by three villages: Nebaj, Chajul and Cotzal. Each has its weekly market, where a kaleidoscope of colors collides with the sushes and clicks of the local language, and the intriguing aromas wafting through the air.


Nebaj, the principal town, celebrates its feast days August 12 to 15; Cotzal, June 21 to 24, with conquistador dances; and Chajul, the second Friday in Lent, with a procession of the Christ of Golgotha. According to legend, this statue was discovered in a nearby cave. The Christ was brought to Chajul, but one day it disappeared from the church. Again it was found in the cave. Upon its return, two men were posted to guard the Christ—and they themselves were turned to stone. Over the years, their uniforms have changed according to the political climate: Roman centurions, camouflaged soldiers, or the traditional white pants and bright red coats of Ixil men.


Ixil women wear intricate huipiles (embroidered blouses) and woven ribbon head wraps with pompoms. These and other items may be bought directly from the weavers or from cooperatives.


In homes and co-ops, one can study weaving, Ixil language, Spanish and regional cooking. Several women also offer traditional dinners and temazcales (sweat baths) in their homes. A number of community development collectives welcome visitors.


Nebaj, Chajul and Cotzal all have churches dating from the 16th century. All have memorials to victims of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, which hit this region very hard.


The surrounding countryside teems with opportunities for all kinds of hikes: to waterfalls and through the mountains, to traditional villages and those “model villages” set up by the military during the war. One such village, Acul, is known for its cheese. Independent guides offer tours to these sites, and can also arrange ceremonies by curanderos (shamans).


To get to the Ixil Triangle, take the bus from Sacapulas. As it climbs and climbs into the Cuchumatanes Mountains, it stops just short of paradise: on a clear day, you can see the Pacific Ocean. Before you know it you’re in Nebaj, gateway to the Ixil Triangle: up the green mountains from the Pacific and over the ridge from heaven.

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