Getting Organized & Getting In: El Mirador Archaeological Site Trek – Guatemala

This post is part 1 of 3 in the series Hiking to El Mirador

Of the nearly 100 archaeological sites we’ve traveled to so far, none is as cloaked in mystery or as hard to get to as the El Mirador archaeological site in the jungles of the Peten region in northern Guatemala. Here’s how to make it happen.

Mirador trek mules

One of three mules that carried our camping gear, food, and all water during our jungle trek to El Mirador archaeological site in Guatemala.

El Mirador was a massive city and it’s older than Tikal. It’s also home to the largest known Mayan pyramid, by volume, and is still reluctantly giving up game-changing secrets to a small army of archaeologists who swarm the site. Like our visit to El Mirador itself, it’s best to start with the basics since getting organized and getting in to the site requires a five to seven day adventure of jungle trekking, camping, and sweating and you’re gonna need some back up.

Choosing a trekking company for the El Mirador trek

A jungle trek can seem daunting. One that takes five to seven days (including one rest day) and covers roughly 40 miles (64km) depending on your route is even more daunting. Because there is no clear, fresh water along the trekking route you have to bring your own H2O and since it’s not possible for most people to carry enough water to last through this much sweaty hiking this means you’ll need a pack animal. Which, in turn, means you’ll need a mule handler. You’ll also need a guide and all of your camping gear and food. In other words, there’s a lot of stuff even for a bare bones trek.

You have three options for getting outfitted for your El Mirador trek.

1. Sign on with a full-service tour company to hook you up with transport to and from the trail head, a guide/cook, food, pack animals and their handler, and camping gear. You can find full-service tour companies offering El Mirador trips online or in Flores.

Manuel Villamar of Tikal Connection provided what we needed to get to El Mirador. Manuel has been involved in tourism in the Peten region for more than 20 years and has a strong focus on sustainable tourism which involves local communities instead of excluding them. Manuel was also a wealth of knowledge not just about El Mirador but also about the Mayans and eco issues in Guatemala in general.

2. Another option is to sign on with a mid-service tour company which can also supply transport to and from the trail head, a guide/cook, food, pack animals and their handler, and camping gear, but at a lower price point and lower quality level. There are many mid-service tour companies offering trips to El Mirador in Flores. A friend went to El Mirador with one of them on a five day trip for less than US$200 last year.

3. An even cheaper option is to head to the town of Carmelita (about 2 hours by van from Flores), at the trail head to El Mirador, and talk to Patricia Pinelo (aka Paty) about arranging all of your needs on your own. Paty is the heart of the local guide/mule handler clearing house in Carmelita. Nothing heads out to El Mirador without her knowledge. Even if you sign on with a tour company before heading to Carmelita, your mules, mule handler, and guide will come through Paty.

Patty - Mirador logistic

No man or beast gets to El Mirador without going through Paty who heads up the local guide/mule man cooperative in the village of Carmelita at the trail head to El Mirador.

There’s no guarantee, but if you head out there on your own you may be able to negotiate your mules/handler and guide directly through her.  Paty has the only phone in Carmelita and the number is +502 7783 3856 (yes, eight numbers is correct). But bring your own food from Santa Elena. There’s not much in Carmelita except scraps left over from previous trekking groups’ supplies. Paty says about 1,000 non-archaeologists hike into El Mirador every year, which seemed surprisingly high to us but if anyone knows, she does.

On the trail to the El Mirador archaeological site

When we arrived in the dusty village of Carmeltia our guide was nowhere to be seen. Two hours later, after breakfast and the unloading and re-packing of our supplies, Alex Francisco Machuca arrived guiding another group out of the jungle. As members of the group collapsed on the ground in sunburned, sweaty heaps Alex, an easy-smiling man in his 20s, turned on his well-worn heel and headed straight back into the jungle with us. Incredible.

We hit the trail to El Mirador with our guide, Alex, in the lead. He’d  just returned from the jungle with another group when we arrived and he turned right around to guide us in.

Soon our four man team (us, Alex, and Wiltur the mule man) were on the trail. Within seconds, the jungle closed in and Carmelita disappeared behind us. The terrain was profoundly flat but the trail conditions made walking hard. During the rainy season passing mules and humans churn the earth into deep mud. As it dries out, ruts and ankle-twisting indentations from hooves and feet get baked solid into the ground which becomes like cement.

It was necessary for both mules and humans to concentrate on putting their feet in the path of least resistance. This sometimes required bushwhacking off trail to avoid the most chewed up bits of trail.

Karen on the trail to the El Mirador archaeological site in Guatemala.

 El Tintal Mayan archaeological site

Most people think that El Mirador is the only archaeological site in the area, but the region is peppered with sites. After about four hours of walking we reached El Tintal, a pre-Classic, heavily looted archaeological site which has only really been scientifically explored since 2004. Still largely unexcavated, El Tintal features a sophisticated irrigation system.

We wandered through El Tintal (named for the tinted water in a nearby pond) and found a site that’s really just a collection of jungle-covered mounds inhabited by spider monkeys and littered with pottery fragments. We scrambled to the top of one of the pyramids, hoping for a glimpse of the famous, massive pyramids of El Mirador but everything just looked like endless jungle with one conspicuous bump that was way too close to be El Mirador.

View from top of a pyramid in Tintal

We were hoping for a glimpse of the massive La Danta pyramid at El Mirador, but all we could see from the top of a pyramid mound at the El Tintal archaeological site was another unexcavated pyramid nearby.

Meanwhile, Alex had set up a basic camp in an area slightly away from where the caretakers of El Tintal live and Wiltur had unpacked our three mules which rolled around in the dust–an afternoon ritual that marked the official end of each day of walking.

Our guide Alex (left) and mule man Wiltur unpack the mules and set up a basic camp at the El Tintal archaeological site during our first night in the jungle on our way to El Mirador.

Mayan suburbs

The next morning we were up early and managed to have breakfast, pack up camp, and get on the trail by 6:30 am in order to take advantage of the cooler morning hours. We were also revved up with excitement since the day’s walking would take us to El Mirador itself.

An unexcevated Mayan mound along the trail to the El Mirador archaeological site in Guatemala. A looters’ trench can be clearly seen down the front of the mount.

This section of trail was not nearly as chewed up and pot-holed as the previous day’s trail which made it easier to take our eyes off our feet long enough to appreciate the virgin jungle, toucans, spider monkeys, and intriguing humps of unexcavated mounds of Mayan ruins all around us.

After about six and a half hours of walking we reached La Muerte, a sort of suburb of El Mirador. We stopped there to have some lunch and appreciate the small buildings before walking a bit further where we finally reached the camping area on the doorstep of the El Mirador site.

La Muerta group at El Mirador

We felt a little bit dead by the time we reached the La Muerta group at the end of a long second day of jungle hiking. La Muerta is sort of a suburb of El Mirador.

El Mirador travel tips

Before you sign on the dotted line ask your tour operator these key questions:

1. Do you have insurance and an emergency evacuation plan if something goes wrong?

2. What, exactly, will I be eating?

You will be told that you must wear good, solid hiking boots. However, our boots, which we normally love, were too stiff for the trail conditions which often had deep ruts and holes baked solid into the concrete-like earth resulting in severely fatigued, almost bruised feet. We ended up wearing our Crocs with our hiking socks for a good portion of the hike and the roomy, flexible rubber proved much more comfortable and more than durable/supportive enough since we were only carrying light day packs (the mules carry the rest).

You will probably also be told that there is nowhere to shower, but that’s not true. At El Mirador a basic shower building has been set up (10Q or about US$1.25 for a 5 gallon bucket of water) and at La Florida it’s possible to take an outdoor bucket shower for free using water from a pond near the camping area. Both felt like heaven so bring your PacTowel and some eco-friendly soap.

The last thing you want during your El Mirador hike is rain which turns the trail into knee-deep goop. The rainy season in the region is roughly June through November. We had perfectly dry weather when we were there in March and it’s exhausting just to think about doing the hike through deep mud. But that’s exactly what the archaeologists do when they return to the site every summer.

The walk into and out of El Mirador is almost entirely flat and much of the trail is shaded under deep jungle cover, though that does little to cool things off.

Wiltur arrives with lunch as we all take a break on the trail to the El Mirador archaeological site in Guatemala.

Glad we had

Our hammocks. There are precious few places to sit down comfortably at the camping areas into and out of El Mirador and you can believe us when we tell you that after hours of walking through the jungle you will want a comfy place to relax. Our hammocks were the perfect places to collapse plus they broke the ice with our guides. Alex, of course, had his own hammock with him and Wiltur taught us a clever quick and easy way to string up a hammock.

Our Crocs. These were the perfect comfy camp shoes and we even wore them on the trail after our stiff hiking boots started to hurt too much over the unforgiving terrain.

Some cash: Needed to pay for the showers we totally enjoyed at the El Mirador site and the celebratory beer at Paty’s little store in Carmelita at the end of our adventure. And, of course, for tips.

Our ExOfficio BugsAway pants and shirts: Though mosquitoes and other biting bugs were not nearly as bad as we’d feared, our repellent-infused clothing kept any little buggers away.

If you have your own sleeping pad bring it. The camping gear supplied by tour companies that offer El Mirador hikes is generally fine but certain items, like sleeping pads, are in short supply. You might end up sleeping on a pile of old blankets like we did, prompting Eric to retire to his hammock at night.

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Tikal Base Camp Option #2 – Flores, Guatemala

In a recent post we told you about some of the best places to stay and eat in chilled out El Remate which, along with Flores, is one of two main base camps for travelers headed to the thoroughly awesome Tikal archaeological site. Here’s what you need to know about Flores.

Sunset over Lake Peten Itza as seen from Flores, Guatemala.

Despite (or maybe because of) the fact that Flores is the larger, more established of the two base camp options we found less to rave about in Flores than we did in El Remate. Yes, it’s a bit of a thrill to stay in a town that’s an island unto itself (a short causeway connects Flores to the bustling, dusty “mainland” town of Santa Elena). And the sunsets over the branch of Lake Peten Itza that wraps itself around Flores are spectacular (though the water was weirdly murky and unsatisfyingly warm when we were there).

Sleeping in Flores, Guatemala

What we certainly can rave about in Flores is Hotel Casa Amelia (280Q, about US$35, double). There are a lot of hotels in Flores but you can’t miss the bright green shutters of this lakeside hotel that opened in 2005 in what used to be the family’s home. The owners kindly hosted us while we were in Flores and we loved watching sunset from the roof deck and the Wi-Fi connection. The great staff even babysat our truck while we spent a week trekking to and from El Mirador archaeological site.

Hotel Casa Amelia, right on the lake in Flores, Guatemala.

Eating in Flores, Guatemala

While there are many hotel options in Flores, finding someplace to eat was more of a challenge. We do agree that traveler favorite Cool Beans is an excellent place for big, delicious breakfasts (including homemade bread) and great coffee. But we had a  harder time finding budget lunch or dinner options.

After a few days in town we stumbled upon a man barbecuing chicken and beef on the street between the Gran Hotel de la Isla and the causeway and his 28Q (about US$3) plates with grilled chicken or beef, fresh salad, and fries were good and good value.

And for a worthy splurge we can recommend La Albahaca. Albahaca is the Spanish word for basil and they know what to do with it at this corner cafe (open after 6pm Monday to Saturday) just around the corner from Hotel Casa Amelia. We had some of the best pesto sauce we’ve ever had here over a plate full of homemade fettuccine for 45Q (about US$5.75). The homemade bread and herb butter was a treat too.

A replica of a Mayan mask discovered at the El Mirador archaeological site greets visitors to Santa Elena, Guatemala.

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Tikal Base Camp Option #1 – El Remate, Guatemala

If you want to visit the Tikal archaeological site (and you do) there are two base camp options for travelers: Flores or El Remate. We spent time in both towns. First up: El Remate which we believe is emerging as the better of the two options.

Sunset over Lake Peten Itza as seen from El Remate, Guatemala.

El Remate is a chill, village on Lake Peten Itza near the Biotopo Cerro Cauhi which has a growing list of budget and mid-range accommodations and a few solid economical eating options. El Remate is also closer to Tikal than Flores is, making your trip to the dramatic remains of this Mayan city shorter and cheaper. El Remate has the look and feel of what Panajachel on Lake Atitlan might have been like 30 years ago.

Sleeping in El Remate

El Remate has a small selection of the usual passably clean hostels and dumpy guest houses. But if you have few more quetzales to rub together El Remate also offers some real values for money, all on the north side of the lake.

Looking down at Lake Peten Itza while horseback riding in the hills above El Remate, Guatemala.

Mon Ami had nice-looking stand alone bungalows in a quiet back garden for around US$20, but we didn’t stay there because we were being hosted at Posada del Cerro (300Q doubles, or about US$36, including breakfast featuring homemade bread) which turned out to be as interesting and worthy as we hoped it would.

Owned by a German biologist and community organizer named George and his Brazilian wife Raimunda, Posada del Cerro opened in 2008 right next to the entrance to Biotopo Cerro Cauhi. The Posada has seven rooms and bungalows, two charming apartments with kitchenettes, and one guesthouse with seven beds. Each one of them contains no less than five different types of local woods, some of them costing more than US$25 per foot on the open market. These gorgeous woods (yellow, toffee, dark chocolate) were used in building construction and in the clean, crisp furniture–much of it designed and created by George.

Our room at the charmingly hand-crafted Posada del Cerro boutique guesthouse in El Remate, Guatemala.

Rooms are minimal, homey and stylish–like an IKEA catalog (utilitarian design, primary colors) in the jungle and the place reminded us a bit of a budget version of Verana boutique hotel in Mexico. Excellent home cooked meals are available (often eaten with George and his family) and there’s Wi-Fi throughout and good views of the lake from some rooms. Check the mattresses before settling on a room, however. They’re all new and clean but some are very, very hard.

A romantic open-air loft room at Posada del Cerro boutique guesthouse in El Remate, Guatemala.

Right across the road there’s even a lovely dock jutting into the blue/green water of the surprisingly long and clear Lake Peten Itza, perfect for a cooling swim.

Karen starting the day off right at Palomino Ranch Hotel with two of her favorite things: coffee and a horse.

A slightly splurgier accommodation option in El Remate is Palomino Ranch Hotel (400Q doubles, or about US$50). The place has a dude-ranch-meets-hacienda vibe and a swimming pool with a horse head tiled mosaic in the bottom. There’s also a stable full of real horses–appaloosas, quarter horses, palominos, and even a cremello stallion which is a horse that’s pure white with blue eyes and whose genes guarantee to produce a palomino (beige coat with white mane and tail) foal when bred with a chestnut mare. It’s genetic magic.

Palomino Ranch owner Arturo Iriarte has been passionate about horses since he worked on his dad’s ranch as a child. Looking at him at the ranch you’d never guess he owns an advertising business in Guatemala City. Arturo’s well-trained horses (overseen by maestro de caballos Jose) were a pleasure to ride.

Maestro de caballos Jose with the distinctive cremello stallion at Palomino Ranch Hotel in El Remate, Guatemala.

Us riding around Lake Peten Itza with gorgeous horses from Palomino Ranch Hotel in El Remate, Guatemala.

Arturo also owns a chunk of land near his hotel that’s dotted with unearthed Mayan ruins and abuts the neighboring Biotopo Cerro Cauhi which means he has fantastic, essentially private trails as well. Riding through these steep, jungly hills (150Q or US$20 for three hours) we got great views out over Lake Peten Itza and ample opportunities to dismount and wander through areas full of the remains of small Mayan settlements, mostly untouched by archaeologists or tourists.

Owner Arturo Iriarte showing off the jumping skills of one of his horses at Palomino Ranch Hotel in El Remate, Guatemala.

Palomino Ranch Hotel owner Arturo Iriarte in the saddle.

The next day we took the horses along the shores of nearby Lake Salpetén then looped back to the Ixlu archaeological site. The remains of this Mayan civilization have been excavated (and are probably being meticulously raked and swept by the devoted care taker even as we speak). Riding around and among the hulking structures added a fresh layer of adventure to the site. There’s just something cool about signing the visitor book at an archaeological site from horseback.

Jose, Palomino Ranch Hotel’s maestro de caballos, takes a break.

Eating in El Remate

Mon Ami, which had the bungalows in the garden which we mentioned before, is also known for it’s food which was much better than average and very reasonably priced. One warning: Don’t get hoodwinked by their less-than-clear sign about internet charges. The 10Q (about US$1.25) amount posted is PER HOUR even though that’s not mentioned on the sign…

Two places that caught our eye but we never got the chance to try are Sugar Sap, an open-air cafe with homemade desserts and what looked (and smelled) like real coffee (located near Mon Ami) and Las Orquídeas (also near Mon Ami) where people swear by the pizza.

The crystal clear waters of Lake Peten Itza at El Remate in Guatemala.

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Beyond Tikal – Uaxactun Archaeological Site, Guatemala

There are plenty of great reasons why Tikal archaeological site gets so much attention (and thousands of visitors). However, Tikal is not the only former Mayan civilization in Guatemala’s Peten region that’s worth your time. About 15 miles (23 km) along a good dirt road beyond Tikal lies Uaxactun.

Karen in front of what remains of a Mayan structure in Group A at the Uaxactun archaeological site in Guatemala.

Inhabited from the middle pre-Classic period through the Classic Period, Uaxactun thrived from 500 AD to 900 AD and was the longest lasting Mayan city in the Peten region of Guatemala. While Uaxactun and Tikal may have been neighbors they were not friends. War eventually broke out between them and Tikal won, effectively absorbing Uaxactun.

The longest carved mask wall in Mesoamerica

Many of the structures at Uaxactun, which cover an area that’s smaller than Tikal, have been cleared but not reconstructed and digs large and small are ongoing. When we were at the site a team of archaeologists from Slovakia (funded by a rich countryman) were hard at work on a major discovery. Along with a fascinating local archaeologist named Neco, who’s single-handedly putting the rock star back in the profession (picture Indiana Jones meets Salvador Dali), the Slovenians have found the longest known carved mask wall in Mesoamerica.

The longest known carved mask in Mesoamerica covers the base of this building at Uaxactun. Unfortunately, we can’t show you the mask because the Slovakian archaeologists who discovered it have prohibited photos of their find.

The elaborately carved panels, in an area of Uaxactun called Group H, cover the length of an enormous base for an enormous temple and appear in two panels–one on either side of a central staircase. The archaeologists have been meticulously excavating the mask panels, documenting them, then burying them again to protect them. During our visit the carved panels to the right of the staircase were being reburied. The mask on the left side was being unearthed and was partially visible.

The detail in the carving was amazing, but we can’t show you any pictures of the mask. As a major new discovery, the archaeologists lay claim to it and prohibit photographs until they’ve published their findings.

Earliest known Mayan astrological observatory

One of the most interesting aspects of Uaxactun is its observatory which is believed to be one of the first astrological structures in the Mundo Maya. Three short temples line one side of an area that’s now called Group E. During the Spring Equinox (March 20 or 21) and Fall Equinox (September 22 or 23) the sun rises directly behind the middle temple (called Temple II). During the Summer Solstice (June 20 or 21) the sun rises over the structure on the left (Temple I) and during the Winter Solstice (December 21 or 22) it rises over the structure on the right (Temple III).

The Mayans constructed a larger temple, called the Pyramid of the Masks, across a small plaza from the temple trio, providing a perfect viewing platform for these astrological events. 

The trilogy of temples in the top photo is the oldest known astrological complex in the Mundo Maya. The structures mark the spot where the sun rises during the equinoxes and solstices every year, as shown in the sign below the picture of the structures.

Equinox ceremonies at Uaxactun

Uaxactun is an engaging site at any time of the year but when we visited Uaxactun during the Spring Equinox we got to witness a series of special events including sacred pre-dawn and post-dawn ceremonies in Group E featuring chanting, fire, dancing and drumming lead by traditionally-dressed tatas (Mayan men who are, literally, the “counters of days”) and nanas (their female counterparts) along with spiritualists from around the world.

Our video of the ceremony is below:

Mayan rituals performed during special pre-dawn and post-dawn ceremonies marking the Spring Equinox at Uaxactun archaeological site in Guatemala.

Tata Chus taking part in Mayan rituals performed during special pre-dawn and post-dawn ceremonies marking the Spring Equinox at Uaxactun archaeological site in Guatemala.

Mayan rituals performed during special pre-dawn and post-dawn ceremonies marking the Spring Equinox at Uaxactun archaeological site in Guatemala.

Mayan rituals performed during special pre-dawn and post-dawn ceremonies marking the Spring Equinox at Uaxactun archaeological site in Guatemala.

Mayan rituals performed during special pre-dawn and post-dawn ceremonies marking the Spring Equinox at Uaxactun archaeological site in Guatemala. This guy came all the way from Peru to take part.

Sunrise lights up the Pyramid of the Masks as Mayan rituals mark the Spring Equinox at Uaxactun archaeological site in Guatemala.

These feathered costumes are actually Aztec and were worn by a couple from New Mexico.

A conch shell is blown during Mayan rituals marking the Spring Equinox at Uaxactun archaeological site in Guatemala.

There was also a demonstration of the traditional Mayan ball game which is sort of like soccer and basketball combined (with a touch of fire-ball field hockey thrown in) but with way better costumes and the ball is made out of stone.

Our video, below, shows the game as it was played in the architecturally unique ball courts that are fixtures of almost every Mesoamerican archaeological site.

Modern Uaxactun

Modern inhabitants of Uaxactun, none of them Mayan, make a living by tapping chicle trees to collect a substance that was once used to make chewing gum (and now has a market among organic gum makers). Locals also harvest a wild palm called xate that’s prized by international floral companies who use it as filler in bouquets because it’s cheap and stays fresh for up to 60 days after cutting. 

The brightly painted Bodega de Xate in Uaxactun. Various panels along the bottom depict wild xate, havesting, packaging, exportation, and the use by flower companies around the world.

At the Bodega de Xate in Uaxactun men bring in various forms of xate palm which are harvested by hand from the jungle. The operator of the co-op claim that the xate is collected sustainably with xateros never taking more than two fronds off a single plant. The harvesters told us that they get 1.10Q (about US$0.14) per bundle of 10 palm stems.

A crew of about 20 women sort the stems for quality, discarding about 10%. They said they earn .20Q (about US$0.02) per 20 stems sorted, washed and packed.

Workers sorting xate in the Bodega de Xate in Uaxactun.

A worker sorting xate in the Bodega de Xate in Uaxactun.

Some environmentalists claim that the demand for xate has fueled over-harvesting. Some also claim that xateros are also crossing borders illegally to gather xate from jungles in neighboring countries where they also poach animals and clear land. Before you order your next bouquet, read our post about the xate environmental controversy.

Uaxactun in 2012

Another great time to visit Uaxactun is the Winter Solstice (December 21), which also rubs shoulders with December 21, 2012–the day the Mayan calendar mysteriously ends. Uaxactun will be doing it big in 2012 with even more elaborate Solstice and Equinox ceremonies enabling Mayan-minded visitors to immerse in the culture and traditions without the crowds that will surely be at 2012 events scheduled at Tikal.

Pyramid of the Masks in group E which serves as the observation platform for astrological events marking the Solstices and Equinoxes over a trio of temples on the other side of the plaza.

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Photo of the Day: Cat Suckling From a Dog

In the tiny town of Uaxactun, Guatemala (near the Mayan ruins of the same name) we saw an adult cat suckling from a dog. Neither seemed to care at all that they were contributing to extreme inter-species shenanigans. But we cared and as we stood staring an old lady walked past and noticed the spectacle. She clasped her chest and hissed “Dios mio!” (My God) before rushing away as if she’d just seen the devil himself. Perhaps she had…

This is just wrong.

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If We Had to Pick a Favorite – Tikal Archaeological Site, Guatemala

When Eric visited the remains of the vast and powerful pre-Columbian Mayan city of Tikal in Northern Guatemala in 1993 he quickly dubbed it his favorite Mayan archaeological site. Eighteen years later we have now visited more than 50 other Mayan sites, including a return to Tikal. Though we’ve loved most of the Mayan sites we’ve visited Eric says that Tikal is still his favorite. Here’s why.

Tikal main plaza - Temple 1

Temple 1 in the Gran Plaza at Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

Though it feels a bit like choosing one child over the others, there’s just something about the combination of epic architecture, deep jungle (more than 20 square miles of it) and legendary history that makes Tikal appeal in ways few other Mayan cities do. Apart from being the country’s most famous archaeological site, Tikal was also Guatemala’s first national park (designated in 1955) and it became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1977. 

You can’t rush Tikal

To get to the Tikal site you must first pass through Tikal National Park. If you’re driving (as we were, of course) you get a time-stamped form (called a Boleta de Contro de Velocidad or Speed Control Form) at the national park entrance and a warning about the 25 mph speed limit within the national park. Arrive too quickly at the second park check point 10 miles (16 km) down the road and they’ll know you were speeding. Pretty clever.

To be honest, we were worried that time, “progress” and the pitter patter of so many tourist feet (Tikal attracts bus loads of visitors) might have changed the vibe of the site or, worse, damaged it. Some things have changed since Eric’s first visit. Conservationists complain of damage to structures and jungle areas and too much garbage (though there are plenty of trash cans and we didn’t notice trash on the ground during our visit).

Also, you can no longer climb Temple 1 in the Grand Plaza, in large part because at least one tourist has fallen down the crazy-steep stairs of this structure and died.

Tikal Group Q twin pyramid

A pyramid in Group Q at Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

Start at the top

Temple 1 in the Gran Plaza at Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

After paying 150Q per person (about US$20, the priciest archeological site admission in Guatemala) we walked along a shaded path with jungle encroaching on either side. At 6:30 am the sound of the birds starting their day was almost too loud. After passing an enormous ceiba tree, we reached the main attraction: the massive Grand Plaza and its facing temples.

At that time of the morning fog draped the imposing structures that anchor the Grand Plaza, adding to the already substantial amount of mystery. Temple I (aka The Great Jaguar temple) is 144 feet (40 meters) high and was the burial place of a beloved leader. It faces shorter Temple II (aka Temple of the Masks) where his wife was  entombed.

Early morning fog over the Gran Plaza at Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

Tikal Temple 2

Temple 2 in the Gran Plaza at Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

In the Central Acropolis between Temples I and II an impressive mask can be seen on a an inner part of the temple which archaeologists have thoughtfully excavated for easy viewing.

Tikal mask

A mask in the Central Acropolis at Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

Tikal temple vista from Temple IV

Temples 1 and II as seen from Temple IV at Tikal–much like the footage shot here for Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope–the very first Star Wars movie which was shot in part at Tikal in the ’70s.

Beyond Tikal’s Grand Plaza

Temple V at Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

Tikal’s Grand Plaza is breathtaking, but this massive site–with more than 3,000 structures and 250 stele (most of them unexcavated) spread over six square miles and cris-crossed with trails–has other surprises in store.

In fact, limelight-hogging Temple 1 is not the tallest structure at Tikal. Temple IV, one of the most massive structures in the known Mayan world, is 212 feet (65 meters) high (more than 60 feet taller than Temple 1). It’s also still climbable via a vertiginous set of stairs that switch-backs up the side of the structure.

Temple V may only be 187 feet (57 meters) high, but it’s the steepness that will get you. It requires a practically vertical trip up and down a rickety, rusting metal staircase built up the side of this structure to reach the breezes and views from the top.

Steep steps down Temple 5 Tikal

Looking down from the the top of Tikal’s incredibly steep Temple V.

One of the distinct pleasures of Tikal is the trail system that connects all of these various plazas and areas. A peaceful stroll through the jungle is rewarded with the “discovery” of another civilized area, like Mundo Perdido (Lost World) which may date as far back as 500 BC.

Mundo Perdido pyramid

A pyramid in the Mundo Perdido area of Tikal archaeological site.

Even further afield you find five groups, each given a different letter. One of our favorites was Group Q with its twin pyramids. Group R at Tikal also has twin pyramids. The only other known Mayan site with twin pyramids is Yaxha.

A rebuilt pyramid in Group Q in Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

Though they weren’t Mayans and they lived more than 600 miles way, experts believe that the rulers of Teotihuacan, near what is now Mexico City, taught inhabitants of Tikal how to use spears (instead of hand-to-hand combat) and that helped Tikal dominate the Mundo Maya, control other Mayan cities and sustain a peak population of 60,000.

Our video, below, gives a sense of Tikal’s Grand Plaza in morning mist followed by the epic views you get from the top of Temple IV.

The end of the Mayan calendar

You may have heard that the astoundingly accurate Mayan calendar abruptly ends on December 21, 2012. Depending on who you ask, this marks the end of the world, a chance for humanity to hit the re-set button, or nothing at all.

In 2012, countries in the Mundo Maya are laying on special celebrations of Mayan culture all year long as a way of marking the end of mysterious Mayan calendar. There are so many special events planned that Moon decided to publish a special guide called Maya 2012: A guide to celebrations in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras and we contributed to it. 

At Tikal, 2012 celebrations will include an amped-up version of the annual Dia de La Razas (Day of the Races, October 12)—an alternative to Columbus Day which celebrates the accomplishments of the Latin American population and honors indigenous cultures.

We were also told that special ceremonies and rituals, lead by Mayan tatas and nanas (accomplished male and female spiritual leaders whose job is, literally, to “count the days”) will be held on December 21 at Tikal–the exact day the Mayan calendar ends. Details were thin when we were there, but all are welcome to attend just be prepared for crowds.

Looking for a less-crowded place to mark the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012? Just 12 miles (23km) beyond Tikal lies Uaxactun archaeological site which has the earliest known astrological complex in the Mundo Maya.

Pop culture tidbits

Part of of the original Star Wars movie, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, was shot at Tikal mostly from on top of Temple IV looking back at the tops of Temple 1 and Temple II. And in 1525, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés basically rode right past Tikal.

Tikal travel tip

Debate rages on about the pros and cons of using El Remate vs. Flores as a base camp for your visit to Tikal. However, your time, price of admission, and access to the site will be unquestionably maximized if you can spend two nights at one of the hotels located at Tikal itself.

Tikal Temple III

Karen with Tikal’s Temple III behind her.

New admission rules have eliminated a policy that used to allow you to use one ticket to enter the site in the evening then again in the morning and you now need a new ticket every single day. This means that if you want to see and photograph Tikal in the morning and in the evening (and you do) the easiest way to do that is to stay two nights at the site.

This allows you to arrive, sleep, get up and enter Tikal early, then sit out the afternoon heat and crowds, re-entering the site in the evening before spending a second night at the site.

Another option is to pay 250Q per person (about US$31) on top of the normal 150Q (US$20) entrance fee to gain access to Tikal before and after opening and closing times (6 am to 6 pm).

There are three hotels within a few hundred yards of the entrance to Tikal. We were hosted at Jaguar Inn which has 10 big, clean, tile-floor bungalows with great beds and Wi-Fi plus a decent on-site restaurant. There’s a grassy, flat camping area too including a few sites under a thatch roof.

As an added bonus, the grounds of the Jaguar Inn are full of plants that attract monkeys, so if you didn’t see enough of them in the site itself, you can check them out from the patio and hammock on the front porch of your bungalow.

A spider monkey having lunch–just one of the wild animals that live in Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

Here’s more about travel in Guatemala


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