Nebaj (also known as Santa Maria Nebaj) is the main town of the Ixil Triangle region of Guatemala, situated at an altitude of over 6,200 feet above sea level and surrounded by the Cuchamatan Mountains. The Ixil Triangle is a rather inaccessible part of the western highlands, home to the indigenous Ixiles. But the isolation of this region has enabled the Ixiles to preserve their language, culture, and traditional way of life. Today, Nebaj is not only itself a traditional town with a prominent indigenous culture, but it also serves as a gateway to exploring the region’s other remote Maya villages like Chajul and Cotzal.
Nebaj’s recent history has not been the rosiest. The surrounding mountains were used during the Guatemalan Civil War as the base for various guerrilla armies. Many violent conflicts between the Guatemalan Army and guerrilla groups took place around the Ixil Triangle; many villagers and civilians of Nebaj were killed as a result of getting caught in the middle of the crossfires.
Since the civil war ended, many international non-governmental organizations have moved into Nebaj. A number of development organizations now work in and around the area. Since the war, Nebaj has also moved slowly away from its prior isolation and welcomes more and more travelers each year. The town’s tourist facilities, infrastructure, and amenities are rather modern.
People and Culture
The people of Nebaj, who are ethnically Ixil, are quite friendly and open-hearted, greeting even strangers on the streets. Nebaj villagers are known for their skillful weaving, their strict adherence to customs and traditions, and their lively celebrating of fiestas honoring patron saints and Maya deities.
As you pass through the white adobe walls while strolling down Nebaj’s cobbled streets, you’ll see the local women wearing some of the most beautiful traditional huipiles in all of Guatemala. The huipiles worn by the women in Nebaj are generally white-based with blue, black, red, and especially green features. Their long hairs are often beautifully wrapped into green cintas that tie around their heads. On a cold day, they’ll even wear green shawls over their shoulders.
There is not much to see in Nebaj other than a large colonial church in the central plaza of the town. While the town’s cobblestone streets are charming, its predominately brick and concrete buildings are not.
Nebaj is known for its artisania. On Thursday and Sundays, the town is filled with stands and stalls manned by vendors from the surrounding villages looking to sell their weavings. The woven huipiles in Nebaj are recognized for being among the best in the world, incorporating intricate geometrical designs in vibrant colors like green, red, yellow, and orange.
The main tourist draw of Nebaj is perhaps its hiking and biking. The surrounding Cuchamatan Mountains also offer some of the best hiking trails and biking routes that weave through various terrains and altitudes as well as pass through scenic lakes, waterfalls, and mountainside villages.
Nebaj is a relatively safe place for tourists and foreigners. You can generally walk around town without being fearful as you would in the larger Guatemalan cities. The town’s people are very friendly and welcoming to visitors.