Hiking in the Cuchumatanes near Nebaj: lessons about the horrors of the Guatemalan civil war

“I was 2 months old when I lost my father. He was killed by the army.”

We haven’t yet properly met, only exchanged names and pleasantries when Francisco, our ever-smiling guide, drops a bomb on our path. A muddy path at that, because we have just set off for a two-day hike through the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, the highest non-volcanic mountain range in Central America. We have left Nebaj, the biggest city in the Ixil Triangle, one hour earlier on a chicken bus that dropped us off in a village so small that it surprised me that it is even on any chicken bus schedule.

“My father supplied the guerrillas with food”, says Francisco. We follow his lead over lonely country roads. “He was walking on mountain roads like these with his friend when nature called. He asked his buddy to wait, jumped into the bush to do his business and looked straight into the eyes of a soldier. My father’s friend managed to get away. He told my family the bad news. We are not sure what exactly happened to my father. But the army almost certainly tortured him before killing him. Some villagers saw a helicopter that night, with a lifeless body bungling from it.”

Anete and Francisco hiking near Nebaj.

Francisco was born in 1986, the same year as I, which somehow makes his revelation hit home. His life story is hardly an exception, though. Not in Nebaj and the surrounding rural mountain villages. The people of the Ixil Triangle, mostly subsistence farmers, suffered intolerably during the Guatemalan civil war. Tens of thousands of Ixil Maya died at the hands of the Guatemalan army in a conflict that lasted almost forty years. I had read about that before coming to Nebaj, but Francisco gives the horrors a human face and makes the history of these hills almost palpable.

Anonymous in death

We first learn about the atrocities committed in the area when we make some solo-hikes the previous days. One day, we walk up the mountain from Nebaj, a relentless and seemingly never-ending climb – sore legs all the way up – that leaves us hooting and panting and thinking we’d never make it until, after several false alarms, the road finally starts to descend into a lush valley. Our destination for the day comes into view – Cocop, more like a shattered collection of wooden houses than a proper village.

Two muddy streets, that’s all it is. Two village shops and a pink pentecostal church. The evangelicals have infiltrated even the remotest backwaters of Guatemala. The owner of one of the shops points us in the direction of the graveyard. We find 68 uniform tombs, little grey bunkers in a country which usually boasts remarkably colourful, almost cheerful, graves. Some have names and birth dates – many of women, many of young children. Others don’t. En memoria de F1-X6 reads one. It’s as if, almost forty years later, her death still isn’t recognised.

Graveyard in Cocop, near Nebaj.

An eerie sight: 68 graves in the middle of a tiny village.

On 16 April 1981, just before Easter, the Guatemalan army pillaged Cocop. The soldiers killed 68 people and buried their bodies in a ditch near the entrance to the village.

37 years later, life goes on in Cocop. On the other side of the graveyard, children play on a rope swing and crawl into what looks like a doghouse. Women in gorgeous scarlet skirts walk by with wood on their backs, or with bowls of corn balancing on their heads. Clothes are air-drying on long lines in the sun. A young boy races over the dirt roads on an old bike without tyres, purely on the rims of his bike. Two puppies hop playfully behind one another.

When we leave the town, dredging through a muddy cow track, I see a man in his 70s, chopping grass in his garden with a machete. Upon noticing us, he raises his hand in greeting. I wonder what he has gone through, how many relatives and drinking buddies he has lost and how often he thinks about it. Life goes on, whether he wants it or not.

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Three-star dining at Nebaj street food carts

It’s hard to imagine the magnitude of violence in a place so peaceful and serene, so far away from the hubbub of big and mid-sized Guatemalan cities, their rowdy markets, shouting busboys and celebratory firecrackers. In the Cuchumatanes, Nebaj already feels like a metropolis, even though it doesn’t have a cinema, a bookshop or a café and the closest semblance to a culinary experience comes when you sit down in front of one of the food carts serving quick-fire quesadillas, tacos and Mexican tortas. On our path, next to a small stream, the only noises are those expelled by nature.

Cocop wasn’t the only village where the army went amok. Here’s an excerpt from a book I read to give meaning to all I’d seen in Guatemala, about another local community called Las Dos Erres:

“Years later, a forensic team would exhume the remains of ‘at least’ 162 people, including 67 children, and some of the soldiers would tell the Truth Commission what they had done there – how they had killed the younger children by grabbing hold of their legs and swinging them so their heads smashed against a wall, and how they had killed almost everyone else by making them kneel at the edge of a well and, with a blow of a sledgehammer to the head, sending them plunging into the mass of dead and dying bodies piling up inside.

They would recount how they had spread the killing over three days and saved for last a group of women and girls whom they raped repeatedly up till the end, and how they forced several pregnant women to miscarry by beating on their stomachs. One would recount how, as they filled in the top of the body-packed well with dirt, they could hear the cries of some of those who were still alive.” (From Daniel Wilkinson – Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal and Forgetting in Guatemala)

A bit of history on the Guatemalan civil war

What had the villagers of Cocop and Las Dos Erres, mere civilians, done to incur the army’s wrath?

That seed was sown in the 1950s when a nationalist president called Jacobo Arbenz ruled Guatemala. He was only the second democratically elected president ever in the country. During the Agrarian Reform, he confiscated a percentage of uncultivated lands from big fincas and plantations. He redistributed those amongst the poorest Guatemalans, mainly Mayan peasants. Historically, these indigenous people didn’t have title deeds or land rights or fancy paper contracts, and with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, they lost the majority of the lands they had worked for millennia. More often than not, this sentenced them to low-paid labour on other people’s farms.

Arbenz wanted to put an end to that injustice, by giving the most unfortunate enough land to make a living. Unfortunately for him, he kicked the wrong shins. Some of the land belonged to the United Fruit Company. This American corporation controlled the banana industry in Guatemala and, like many corporations today, barely paid a cent in taxes. United Fruit Company was not amused. Not only because it lost some land – for which the Arbenz administration paid compensation. More crucially, United Fruit Company feared that the Agrarian Reform would liberate the peasants and stop forcing them to work others’ land at hunger wages. Before you knew it, the banana bosses reasoned, they’d actually have to start paying them a decent living wage.

No, it was definitely better to keep the locals, those wild savages, dependent, docile and meek as long as it was still possible. United Fruit Company made a couple of phone calls. So whilst Arbenz was trying to improve the life of the poor, the CIA plotted a coup against him under the anti-communism banner. Air bombings and psychological warfare drove Arbenz out of the country in 1954, in his underwear. He drowned 17 years later in a bathtub in Mexico City, by then a broken man and a heavy drinker. But Arbenz wasn’t the only one who never really recovered. Until now, Guatemala carries the scars of the American démarche more than 60 years earlier.

After Arbenz’ retreat, one military dictator after the next rose to power. The USA was more than happy to let that happen, as long as the one in charge gave companies such as United Fruit all the tax benefits from yesteryear. The army ruled with an iron fist, killing off every potential opponent. Many Guatemalans started revolting. Secretly, dissidents formed guerrilla groups, intent on overthrowing the military dictatorship. They hid in the mountains, in rugged places such as the Cuchumantanes we are hiking in, and plotted their acts of rebellion from there. The army wouldn’t let that slide and hit back hard. Consequently, support for the guerrillas kept rising.

Baby football

And that’s exactly why the Guatemalan army went on a killing spree in the 1980s. The government identified the mountain communities automatically as allied with the guerrillas, revolutionary strongholds that needed cleaning out. Operation Sofia had the goal to “exterminate subversive elements”, but finally it was nothing more than a bully campaign to scare people into submission to the army. A way of saying: we don’t care whether or not you helped any guerrillas, but somebody has to pay for their actions. Until the last rebel had handed in its weapons or, even better, lay six-feet under, no civilian – however innocent – would be safe.

The army had turned normal people into revolutionaries, had made the ever-apolitical Maya peasants suddenly sympathise with the guerrillas. Operation Sofia reversed that process. The brutal reprisals silenced the support for the struggle against the army. The only way to stop the guerrillas was by teaching the civilian population a lesson. It crushed their spirit and beat the heart and soul out of the Guatemalan people. The Ixil Maya from Nebaj and the rest of the Ixil Triangle were amongst the hardest hit.

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“Guerrillas knocked on the door of a young woman with a new-born baby, barely a couple of days old”, Francisco says. We have just reached the bottom of the valley, crossed two rivers and the road starts to run up again. “They asked for food, so she fed them. A soldier had seen the guerrillas leave the house and returned with a couple of friends. The men demanded to be fed, but the lady had nothing left. So they used her baby as a football and kicked it around. The child coughed blood and wouldn’t stop crying. It died later that day. The woman was locked up with others, but she managed to escape. The ones staying behind were raped and killed. She survived and lives in a nearby village. She is in her 50s now.”

Trying boxbol, the regional speciality

Not that Francisco is grim company. He talks extensively of his love for country music, Tom Petty and, perhaps oddly, Coldplay. He even burst into song once. But I’m still happy when we climb into Xeo, a collection of houses planted in a vertical row on the hill. Finally, we can sit down for a meal. Change the heavy conversations for chitchat.

In the kitchen of a local home burns a wood fire. A shy woman is hunched over a huge black pot, regularly chasing away a cat begging for food. The ancient radio speaks in Spanish and on the wall hang other pots, all completely black with soot. A bunch of maize has a special place in the kitchen, as the holy element in every Mayan household.

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The woman serves us a bowl of boxbol. A speciality of the region, these bitter spinach-like squash leaves with cornmeal inside are nevertheless not to be found in restaurants. You have to visit a local family to taste them. We pour a generous amount of spicy red sauce over our portion and, like real Chapins, grab for the pile of corn tortillas. Nutritious and filling, it’s the perfect hiking food.

And god knows we need it. Hiking in the Ixil Triangle is not for the weak-legged. The pattern is basically the same for the next two days: we hike up all the way up up up, over a hill pass, and then all the way down down down, to the bottom of the valley. Repeat ad infinitum. But the scenery is worth all the suffering. The pine forests are some of the richest we’ve seen in Guatemala, despite ongoing logging to clear land for farming Ixils.

A landscape in the Ixil Triangle near Nebaj.

Squirrel for lunch

Halting to catch a breath, we spot a big black cat behind us on the road. It swiftly retreats into the wilderness. “A jaguar”, claims Francisco. He is happy that the kitten crossed behind us and not in front, as the latter would be a bad omen. After a quick research of felines in Guatemala, I reckon it could’ve also been a jaguarundi, the jaguar’s smaller cousin that roams the Cuchumatanes.

There is not a lot of traffic, but we encounter many pedestrians. A drunk waggles down the hill – fortunately, helped by a Good Samaritan. “He drank too much cusha”, whispers Francisco, referring to the Guatemalan take on moonshine. In the villages, we see weaving looms on the terraces of many houses. Even young boys in tracksuits are apt at making beautiful garments, which – I must add – look more valuable than the ramshackle houses in which most Ixils live. Regularly, we hear gunshots from hunters. Once, we even see a man carrying a squirrel – his lunch, according to Francisco. But most of all, we see collectors of firewood. Whole families are collecting wood, including grandfather with a Slayer backpack. An old toothless lady carries a tree trunk on her head, seemingly effortlessly.

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“It’s bad for the environment, I know”, says Francisco. He spends a third of his wages on firewood. “That’s why I’ve got the idea to make biofuel from human and animal manure.” It shows his sharp mind but, like many Ixils, Francisco lacks the possibilities to pursue his ideas. He has a teaching degree, but can’t find work in this field. To be appointed permanently, Francisco needs 20.000 quetzals (around 2.300 euro) to grease the deal, money he or his family simply can’t raise. Corruption is rampant in Guatemala. Thus, he works as a tailor for 45 quetzals a day (5,14 euro). The guiding work pays more but is highly erratic.

The afternoon and the next day go by like the morning. We hike, listen to Francisco’s stories and laugh at his jokes. Somehow, we manage to communicate in our broken Spanish and his broken English – at this point, we haven’t taken language classes in Xela yet. And although we’re happy when we walk into Ak’ Txumbal – or at least our weary feet are – the whole experience in the Ixil Triangle was unique and unforgettable.

We urge every traveller to Guatemala to visit Nebaj and explore this fascinating region. It’s a real-life history lesson, away from the dusty books. You’ll make friends, spend money away from tourism factories like Antigua and help the people who actually need it.


3 Replies to “Hiking in the Cuchumatanes near Nebaj: lessons about the horrors of the Guatemalan civil war”

  1. Fran Tilley

    Hi Tomas
    Loving your Central American stories, I’m in Xela at the moment and keen to hike in the Cuchumatanes. How did you connect with your guide?

    • Tom Peeters Post author

      Hi Fran

      Thank you! We didn’t connect in advance with any guides or organisations, and I don’t think there’s any need to. We just popped into the El Descanso Restaurant in Nebaj, which is connected to a 100% Ixil community tourism organisation. They organised it all for us. We really liked the way they worked – with local guides and host families taking turns, so everybody in the community can profit. They have all kinds of hikes, ranging from 1/2-day excursions to multiple day trekking. You can find all the hikes on this page: https://www.nebaj.com/hikingtours

      In my experience, you can do a lot of the shorter hikes (Acul, Cocop,…) by yourself, especially if you’ve travelled a bit in the region and can speak at least basic Spanish. You only have to make sure you set out on the right track from Nebaj. For the multiple day hikes, a guide is definitely needed. We did the Xeo-Cotzal hike (in two days instead of three).

      Hope it helps, but let me know if you have any additional questions.



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