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Santa Cruz del Quiché & K'umarcaaj

Located some 19km (12 miles) north of Chichicastenango is the small mountain city of Santa Cruz del Quiché, or simply Quiché. Slightly off the main circuit, Santa Cruz del Quiché (the capital of the Quiché province) is much more representative of a modern highland Maya city than its more touristy neighbor. The pace of life here is quite slow, except on Saturday market days.

Quiché is also the gateway to the post-Classic Maya city of K'umarcaaj, also known as Utatlán, and sometimes spelled Q'uma'rka'aaj. K'umarcaaj was the ancient capital of the Quiché region, and is even mentioned in the Popol Vuh. The Maya K'iche offered some of the fiercest resistance ever encountered by the Spaniards. However, they were technologically outmatched and eventually defeated. K'umarcaaj was captured and mostly destroyed in 1524 under the orders of Pedro Alvarado, who had recently defeated the Maya Ki'che King Tucún Umán outside of Quetzaltenango. In fact, the story goes that the surviving Maya Ki'che had put forth a cordial invite for Pedro Alvarado to visit K'umarcaaj, where they planned to ambush him, but he wised up to the plan and sacked the city instead.

The ruins sit on a hilltop surrounded by steep ravines, a testament to the city's strategic wartime position. Little has been done here in the way of excavation, but the ruins of several temples, a ball court, and some well-maintained plazas can be visited. K'umarcaaj is still considered a sacred site by modern Maya, and it's not uncommon to find them performing rituals here. This is particularly true of a long tunnel or cave, known locally as la cueva. It's wise to plan ahead, bring a flashlight, be respectful, and definitely ask permission of the park guards and anyone you encounter there in prayer before entering the cave.

K'umarcaaj is located just 3km (2 miles) outside of Quiché. The ruins are open daily from 8am to 5pm. Admission is Q15 ($2/£1). There's a small museum (tel. 502/7702-0362) near the entrance with a detailed scale model of the city. A taxi from Santa Cruz del Quiché should cost around Q75 ($10/£5) round-trip, with an hour or more set aside to explore the ruins.

Quiché is serviced by frequent buses from Chichicastenango and Guatemala City. If you need or want to spend the night here, check into the Hotel Rey Ki'che, 8a Calle 0-39, Zona 5 (tel. 502/7755-0827).

Negaj & the Ixil Triangle

The Ixil Triangle is a remote region of northern Quiché populated by the Maya Ixil people. The people of this region are deeply tied to their Maya roots, and many speak only their local dialect and little or no Spanish. The small village of Nebaj is the heart of the Ixil Triangle. The town has cobblestone streets and a lovely colonial-era church. The two other principal towns forming the triangle are Chajul and Cotzal. This mountainous region is surrounded by tiny villages and communities, which are tied together by heritage and an active barter economy.

The Ixil Triangle suffered brutal repression during the civil war, particularly under the reign of General Ríos Montt (1982-83). Despite this past, the area is actually one of the safer regions for independent travelers. The local populations tend to be relatively open and friendly to foreigners, although you should still be very respectful and always ask permission before taking anyone's photograph.

The distinctive Nebaj huipiles are some of the most beautiful in Guatemala. Predominantly fashioned of purples, greens, and yellows, they feature incredibly tight embroidery of human and animal figures as well as complex geometric designs. The women wear a headdress of colorful ribbons with fluffy pompoms. As in Chichicastenango, market days here are Thursday and Sunday.

Most of your travel needs in and around Nebaj can be arranged with the folks at El Descanso restaurant and their sister operation Guías Ixiles (tel. 502/5847-4747; www.nebaj.com). This place is the central hub for many travelers into and around the Ixil Triangle. Multiday and overnight hikes and mountain-biking tours are offered around the Ixil Triangle, the most popular to the nearby villages of Acul and Cocop. They can also hook you up with language classes and homestays with local families.

If you need to spend the night here, check out the Hotel Villa Nebaj, Calzada 15 de Septiembre 2-37 (tel. 502/7756-0005 or 5614-2506; www.villanebaj.com), a modern hotel in the heart of Nebaj. A room with private bathroom and cable TV is less than Q900 ($120/£60) double occupancy. Backpackers and budget hounds should head to Hotel Ixil (tel. 502/7756-0036) or MediaLuna MedioSol Hostal, at the corner of 3a Calle and 4a Avenida (tel. 502/5749-7450; www.nebaj.com). For meals, I recommend El Descanso or Popi's (tel. 502/7756-0159).

Nebaj is located 95km (59 miles) north of Santa Cruz del Quiché. Buses between Santa Cruz del Quiché and Nebaj leave roughly every hour or two. The ride takes around 3 hours and costs Q12 ($1.60/80p).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.