[contextly_main_module]

Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2011 – Best Food & Beverages

This post is part 3 of 4 in the series Best of 2011

Welcome to Part 2 in our “Best Of 2011″ series of posts. Part 2 is all about the Best Food & Beverages of the year from the necessary (homemade bread) to the not so necessary (cow udder). Part 1 covered the Best Adventures & Activities of 2011 and Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year.

Yes, end of year round-ups can be lame. On the other hand, they can also be a valuable chance for us to look back on the year that was and remember just how damn lucky we are.

Done right, an end of year round-up can also be a quick and easy way for you to get a dose of the best tips, tricks and truths that made our Trans-Americas Journey travels so special in 2011. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll hit the road yourself in 2012 (or 2013, no pressure).

First, a few relevant stats:

In 2011 the Trans-Americas Journey…

…thoroughly explored four countries (Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador)

…drove 8,055 miles (we said they were small countries)

…spent $2,300 on fuel (yes, that’s in US dollars)

…had one flat tire (we drove over a nail in Copan, Honduras)

…bounced over about a billion topes (viscious Latin American speed bumps) and through twice that many pot holes

We’ve also eaten nearly all our meals in restaurants of one description or another from street food stalls to bustling markets to multi-star restaurants. In no particular order, here are some of the best bites and top tipples that made all that time on the road even tastier.

You will notice that this list is significantly shorter than our Best Food & Beverages of 2010 list. Honestly, that’s because we didn’t spend any time in Mexico this year. You just can’t beat Mexico for spectacular food. Still, we managed to eat all right. Here are our picks for…

The best food & beverages of 2011

Best ice cream: Sin Rival truly is without rival. With locations all over El Salvador, this mini-chain, which started out as one street cart, offers all-natural flavor bombs of goodness that comes satisfyingly close to gelato.

Best beer in Central America: Tomas Wagner is serious about beer. Serious enough to drive 10 miles for his spring water. Serious enough to wear a lab coat while he brews. Serious enough to import all of his gear and ingredients from his native Germany (where he’s won awards for his beers). None of that would be remarkable in Amsterdam or Portland or Sydney but Tomas is brewing artisanal, strictly German style beer in Copán, Honduras—a small town best known for its neighboring Mayan ruins of the same name. Sol de Copán Brew Pub is not in your guidebook (yet) and the sign is easy to miss so ask anyone in town and look for the building with the turrets. We were tipped off to the existence of this truly delicious micro-brewed beer by the border agent we made friends with when I crossed into Honduras from Guatemala. He made me promise we would go see “the German” while in Copán and that we did, three nights in a row. 

Best steak: Overall, the food in Guatemala did not thrill us. Except for the steak served at a restaurant called Guajimbo on the main drag in the town of Panajachel on Lake Atitlán. It’s not the cheapest restaurant in town by a long shot, but for 72Q (about US$9) the tender, juicy expertly grilled beef with chimichuri and vegetables is so worth it. And did we mention the awesome basket of garlic bread that comes with it?  Add that in and you’ve got all the fixin’s for a five star steak sandwiches.

Best ceviche: Okay, there was one more dish that wowed us in Guatemala. What started out as a humble street cart has morphed into not one but two Los Chavos restaurants (both in Zone 5) in Guatemala City. They serve up plenty of cooked seafood dishes but the real reason to come is the ceviche. You choose your ingredients (fish, shrimp, calamari, etc) and your size and they whip up a bowl of unbelievably fresh fish perfectly seasoned and marinated. A tiny bowl of seafood bisque is the perfect amuse bouche. At 100 quetzales (US$13) for a large ceviche which is big enough to share, it’s reasonably priced too.

Best pupusas: Take a palm-full of masa (corn or rice paste), form it into a ball, spoon in a dollop of filling, then flatten it and grill it on a hot griddle and you’ve got yourself a pupusa. It’s basically the national food of El Salvador, usually filled with chicharon (fried pork), beans, cheese, loroco (see below) or a shredded squash called ayote or any combination of said ingredients. After nearly three months in El Salvador (and hundreds of pupusas later) we can say that (in our humble opinion) the best made, best priced examples of this ubiquitous food are found at La Unica, a large, bustling, bright pupuseria which hunkers down behind the church in the square in Antigua Cuscutlan, a neighborhood in the capital San Salvador. Antigua Cuscutlan is known for having some of the best pupusas in El Salvador and there must be a dozen or more pupuserias competing for your attention within a 10 block area. Many swear by a nearby much fancier pupuseria that is certainly the place to go if you want ingredients that go beyond the usual suspects (like jalapeños and mozzarella cheese). They’ll even give you a knife and fork (!?!?) to eat your gourmet pupusa with. However, we’re traditionalist who prefer the classic ingredients and using our hands.

Best chic bar surprise: There are many reasons to visit Gracias, Honduras, including great hiking in Celaque National Park and great culture in the heart of an area still inhabited by the Lencas, the largest indigenous group in Honduras. What we weren’t expecting was a cool bar. Then we were tipped off to Kafe Kandil which has a loungy vibe, good music, original art on the walls and properly made cocktails which attracts a fascinating crowd of young local hipsters, Peace Corps volunteers and couples on dates. Read more about travel to Gracias, Honduras in this feature we did for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Best unlikely combination: Steam some yuca (aka cassava), make a spicy sauce, pickle some shredded squash then pile it all onto a banana leaf and top it with chunks of rich, juicy chunks of fried pork and you’ve got yuca y chicharrón (pictured below), a staple in El Salvador.

Best bread: So the Kafe Kandil bar in Gracias, Honduras was a surprise. Equally unexpected? A whole-grain, nutty, chewy loaf of crusty home made bread (available in whole or half loaves). You can thank Lizeth Perdono, owner and chef at Rincon Graciana which is the only restaurant in town that serves traditional Lencan food and the only place in all of Honduras to get bread like this.

Best food we’ll never eat again: Grilled cow udder. We had it in Metapán, El Salvador. Tasted like foie gras. Sort of.

Best everyday local ingredient: Loroco. This flower bud is a staple in El Salvador, particularly in pupusas. It tastes like asparagus.

 

Support us on Patreon


6 Comments - Join the conversation »


Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2011 – Best Adventures & Activities

This post is part 2 of 4 in the series Best of 2011

Welcome to Part 1 in our “Best Of 2011″ series of posts. Part 1 is all about the top Adventures & Attractions of the year (from falconing in El Salvador to diving in Honduras). Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of 2011 and Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year.

Yes, end of year round-ups can be lame. On the other hand, they can also be a valuable chance for us to look back on the year that was and remember just how damn lucky we are.

Done right, an end of year round-up can also be a quick and easy way for you to get a dose of the best tips, tricks and truths that made our Trans-Americas Journey travels so special in 2011. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll hit the road yourself in 2012 (or 2013, no pressure).

First, a few relevant stats:

In 2011 the Trans-Americas Journey…

…thoroughly explored four, albeit very small, countries (Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador)

…drove 8,055 miles (we said they were small countries)

…spent $2,300 on fuel (yes, that’s in US dollars)

…had one flat tire (after driving over a nail in Copan, Honduras)

…bounced over about a billion topes/tumulos (vicious Latin American speed bumps) and through twice that many pot holes

We did manage to spend some time outside of our truck doing and seeing exciting things. In no particular order, here are some of the adventures and activities that made all that time on the road even better. Enjoy!

 Best Adventures & Activities of 2011

Best adventure surprise: There are only a handful of falconers in all of Central America and only one who’s certified to guide guests. That would be Roy Beers, owner of Cadejo Adventures. We walked through the hills above San Salvador with Roy and his Harris Hawk Chucky (named after the horror movie character). We strolled through coffee plantations and forested hillsides as Chucky followed along from tree to tree, landing on our gloved hands when we called and half-heartedly hunting (he wasn’t very hungry). Somehow the forest looks and feels different with a hiking buddy who can fly and the experience made hiking without a bird of prey in tow seem downright boring.

Best natural swimming pool: Guide books and travelers rave about the descending pools of water called Sumac Champay in Guatemala. We are happy to report that these pools, totally created by Mother Nature, lived up to the hype and were worth the serious side trip to get there. Crystal clear water (except in the rainy season), a perfect warm temperature, dramatic surrounding cliffs, not crowded (though avoid weekends) and we even got free pedicures thanks to gazillions of tiny fish intent on removing every last scrap of dead skin as we soaked.

Best adventure we did for the first time:  We love to SCUBA dive and we’ve done it hundreds of times all around the world. However, we’d never been on a liveaboard dive boat until we boarded the Aggressor III in Belize in 2011. Specially built and equipped to accommodate just 18 divers with plush cabins and a huge dive deck. Even better? The swanky SCUBA services including hot showers and warm towels post dive, freshly made snacks all day long (hey, diving is hard work) and great dive masters. Bonus:The 3-D dive site maps drawn by the staff on-board the Aggressor III were colorful, informative and playful (sometimes they even featured plastic sea creatures stuck on the white board for effect). Best of all, the maps were clear. Even directionally-challenged Karen could quickly understand the layout of the site and navigate around during our awesome underwater adventures.

Best National Park name: Parque Nacional El Imposible in El Salvador.

Best guide: We don’t usually hire guides. However, when we wanted to get an authentic glimpse of the FMLN perspective on the decades of war between the El Salvadoran army and FMLN guerrilla fighters which started with genocide in the ’30s and really flared up in the ’70s and ’80s we went straight to Bar El Necio in Suchitoto and asked for the bartender. Luis Carrera is a treasure (and not just because rum cocktails and ice-cold beer are just $1.50 at this revolutionary-themed bar). Luis has since quit his job as a bartender to focus full time on guiding. He will take you to nearby villages that were obliterated during the war and introduce you to elderly people and translate when they recount their often horrifying first hand experiences during the country’s darkest moments. He’ll even take you home to meet his mom, an infectiously bubbly woman who survived a massacre, fled into the jungle and quite literally gave birth to Luis on the trail while she was on the run. Contact Luis at [email protected] (dot) com.

Best voluntourism opportunity: Love and Hope Children’s Home in the hills above San Salvador lives up to its name providing a truly homey home for children whose own families are unfit or unwilling to care for them. Rachel Sanson, a native of Ohio, has been in El Salvador since 2001 and she helped start the home in 2004. She’s still there and she can use all the help she can get. Volunteers are accepted for short or long-term stays (room and board included). We visited the home and a friend of ours still raves about his experiences during a brief volunteer stint. We were impressed with Rachel and with the home’s policy of putting all volunteers through a background check before allowing them through the doors to help heal and teach her needy kids.

Best zip line: In the hills above Metapan in El Salvador, just shy of the Montecristo National Park, lies Hostal Villa Limon. In addition to a handful of lovely, multi-bedroom cabins with kitchens Villa Limon has one hell of a zip line. Eight different sections criss-cross the slopes up to 300′ (91 meters) above the jungle and coffee plantations below. One particularly steep stretch is 1/4 mile (.40 km) long. It’s almost enough to distract you from the awesome views of volcanoes in the distance.

Best private waterfall: For $120 you can reserve your own private waterfall, swimming hole and rustic picnic pavilion in the vast protected area around Hidden Valley Inn in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve in Belize. They’ll even bring you a four-course champagne lunch and string a handmade Do Not Disturb sign across the trail to ensure complete privacy.

Best hot springs: Just outside Ahuachapan in El Salvador lies Termales Santa Teresa, a paradise for anyone who likes to soak in water super-heated and full of healing minerals. Huge, deep pools ($10 pp for a full day of access) already exist in the shade of a well tended garden surrounded by a vast coffee plantation. A few large villas are also available for rent right around the pools and a new hotel and reasonably priced dorms are being constructed right now. Our thanks to Claudia and Roberto from the lovely La Casa de Mamapan hotel in Ahuachapan for taking us to this hidden gem!

Best borrachos: The pro partiers in the town of Todos Santos in Guatemala know how to drink and these borrachos (Spanish for drunks) don’t let a little inebriation get in the way of a good time either. A popular regional pass time is drunken horse racing which is every bit as baffling (and dangerous) as it sounds…

Best tour operator: Miguel Huezo of Suchitoto Tours in El Salvador. He knows the most unique places, the most enjoyable activities, the most innovative guides and tour operators and he devoted a tremendous amount of time, effort and passion to make sure that we got acquainted with all of them. And he’ll do the same for you: [email protected] (dot) com

Best adventure honeymoon suite: Eric and I well past the honeymoon stage but if we weren’t we might consider spending part of our honeymoon inside a cave owned by Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch in Belize. First, you hike for an hour into the jungle then you rappel nearly 300′ (91 meters) down a cliff face called the Black Hole Drop (we did this as part of our awesome cave adventures with Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch). After the rappel, a short walk leads you to the mouth of a cave where a real bed has been set up and strewn with flowers, candles have been lit and champagne has been chilled. Your guides cook you a romantic dinner, then wander off to leave you two alone. In the morning, they cook breakfast and guide you back out.

Best jungle hike: We were hot. Our feet were sore. Our minds were blown. Hiking through the jungle to reach El Mirador in northern Guatemala isn’t easy, but the remains of one of the biggest and hardest to reach Mayan cities is worth it–as is adding a day onto your adventure so you can hike back out via Nakbe and La Florida archaeological sites (where we finally saw a jaguar, sort of). Our thanks to Manuel of Tikal Connection for providing us with the gear and guides needed to have this amazing experience.

Best religious festival: Turns out, there are very good reasons why the Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations in Antigua, Guatemala are world famous. In 2011 we were lucky to spend the entire week leading up to Easter in Antigua (huge thanks to Gene and Judy for letting us stay in their gorgeous home). We watched elaborate religious floats paraded through the streets. We saw artistic but temporary alfombras (carpets) created on the streets and even got to help make one thanks to Evelyn of Hotel San Jorge.

 

 

Best National Park entrance: The swing bridge that gets you into Parque Nacional Pico Bonito in the Cangrejal Valley in Honduras.

Best (easy) bird sighting: Quetzals are known for three things: the technicolor plumage and extravagantly long tails of the males, their shy nature and their love of a narrow swath of remote cloud forest. In other words, they are exciting to see but usually very difficult to see.  During their mating season (roughly March to June) all you have to do is manage to wake up at dawn and stumble from your basic room at Ranchito del Quetzal Hotel on the edge of the Biotopo del Quetzal in the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala and head down to the hotel’s humble comedor. There, you will find a hot cup of coffee and quetzals waiting for you. You almost don’t even have to leave your seat to watch the extraordinary birds dip and dive from tree to tree, tails streaming and feathers glinting.

Best (worth the effort) bird sighting: The resplendant quetzals we saw during our morning at Ranchito Quetzal came so easily that we almost felt like they didn’t count. So we made the rough journey to a remote privately run nature preserve called the Chelemha Cloud Forest Reserve. In addition to a stylish, sustainably handcrafted guesthouse and gourmet, organic, locally grown food you will find quetzals here, but you’re going to have to hike for it. We walked for three hours high into the protected cloud forest where our guide finally pointed out a known nest site inside the hollow stump of a dead tree. After sitting silently nearby, camera at the ready, the male emerged from the nest and obligingly posed on a branch for a while.

Best dive site: During a few days of diving with Utopia Dive Resort on the island of Utila in Honduras we visited a dive site called The Pinnacles. In the course of a 55 minute dive in warm, crystal clear water we saw dramatic coral and rock pinnacle formations, the most enormous green moray we’ve ever seen (easily 6′ long) plus spotted morays, golden morays and a turtle feeding serenely on a coral head with a bevy of colorful angel fish scavenging around it.

Best camp site: We spent our very last nights in Guatemala camped on the shores of Lake Ipala, a lake in the crater of the Ipala volcano. The road up was wicked, it rained like hell and some dude stole our cooler, camp stove and camp chairs (which were all recovered with the help of our friend George Boburg of Guatemala’s awesome Proatur tourist assistance organization). Still, what we really remember was the scenery and serenity of this spot.

Best bird watching platform: Belize Lodge & Excursions has a lot going for it including three of the most unique lodgings in Belize and an equally unique approach to conservation.  Jungle Camp, a lodge so deep in protected jungle that it’s only accessible by boat, offers one more superlative to add to the list: epic bird watching platform hung around the girth of a sacred ceiba tree 100′ off the ground.

Best National Park infrastructure: Parque Nacional Cerro Azul in Honduras was developed in partnership with a Canadian NGO. This helps explain the extraordinary infrastructure which makes it such a pleasure to explore this park. In addition to a variety of very comfortable rooms, the park has a covered camping area with running water, flush toilets, cold showers and electricity. The park’s nine miles (15 km) of trails through the jungle and past waterfalls are all well marked and well maintained. And the restaurant even has WiFi service. Well worth a night or two.

Best church: We’ve seen hundreds of churches during our Trans-Americas Journey but the most memorable and unusual one so far is the irreverent, controversial, absolutely compelling Church of the Rosary (Iglesia el Rosario in Spanish). The church, located in downtown San Salvador, was created in 1971 by artist and architect Ruben Martinez who tweaked everything you normally associate with a Catholic church in Latin America. The exterior looks like a particularly ugly crumbling airplane hangar. The cross looks like a rudimentary ship mast. Inside there are no pillars or columns. Stained glass windows have been created by randomly imbedding hunks of colored glass into the curved, bare concrete walls and ceiling. The stark, simple altar is on the same level as the pews. To the right of the altar is an area that houses the remains of brother Nicolas Vicente, and Manuel Aguilar (heroes of El Salvadorean independence) and representations of the stations of the cross. So often melodramatic and predictable, the stations of the cross in the Iglesia el Rosario are depicted in thoroughly modern, enticingly abstract sculptures created by Martinez in carved stone, wrought iron and re-bar. If you see just one thing in the capital of El Salvador it should be this ground-breaking church.


Support us on Patreon


5 Comments - Join the conversation »


Fire Spinning with La Semilla del Fuego – Poptun,Guatemala

We are very  lucky to have become friends with Mandy and George, two amazing people who live near Poptun in the Peten region of Guatemala. One of the many reasons they are so amazing is La Semilla del Fuego (The Seed of Fire), a fire spinning group they started. The group performs at events around the region and here’s a look at their mesmerizing work.


For the full effect, check out our video of Mandy and George spinning fire with their troupe La Semilla del Fuego.

 

Read more about travel in Guatemala

Support us on Patreon


12 Comments - Join the conversation »


Take the Long Way Home: Trekking to El Mirador – Guatemala

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

So far so good. Despite what we’d heard, the two day trek to the El Mirador arcaheological site in Guatemala hadn’t been as hard or as hot as we’d feared and our “rest day” at the site itself was pure pleasure (except for the part about getting peed on by spider monkeys).

However, things were about to change.

Because we hate to back track

We’ve always hated back tracking so we opted to add a day on to or El Mirador jungle trek (making it a six day adventure, not the usual five days) which let us return to Carmelita by making a loop rather than retracing our steps back over the same ground we covered during the walk in.

This sacbe (a raised paved road built by the Mayans) connects El Mirador to Nakbe. This ancient highway was used by the Mayans then and is used by visitors like us now.

After our rest day spent exploring the El Mirador site we packed up camp and headed to another archaeological site called Nakbe. The trail from El Mirador to Nakbe was the most untouched feeling stretch of jungle on the trek so far and we often felt like jaguars must be nearby though we never actually saw one.

We did see a spectacular bird. At first we thought it was a juvenile harpy eagle (a massive and rare bird of prey that we’ve been dying to see in the wild) but it turned out to be a juvenile ornate hawk eagle, which was still a thrilling sighting for us.

We thought this was a juvenile harpy eagle but it turned out to be a juvenile ornate hawk eagle, which is also cool.

Karen and our guide, Alex, arrive at “Nakbe City Center.” Who knew archaeologists have a sense of humor?

A mere three hours after leaving El Mirador we reached Nakbe archaeological site where we set up camp in a cleared area that was once a massive Mayan plaza.

Discovered in 1930, Nakbe is believed to have been a large city (though mere glimpses of it are currently excavated) and important in the region because of its deposits of limestone which were needed to make the pure white plaster the Mayans were so fond of putting on everything from temple facades to bedroom floors.

 

 

 

Modern stairs up the side of an ancient pyramid at the Nakbe archaeological site in the El Mirador Basin in Guatemala.

The view from the top of a pyramid in the Nakbe archaeological site in the El Mirador Basin in Guatemala. That bump on the horizon is the massive La Danta pyramid at El Mirador.

 

We were warned

Getting from El Mirador to Nakbe had been the easiest and shortest day of walking on the entire trek so far. However, our guide Alex was careful to make it clear to us that the following day would require at least eight hours of walking to reach our next camp at La Florida. Even if we left before dawn we’d still be walking through the heat of the day.

Alex wasn’t kidding.

We were up at 3:45 am and had eaten breakfast and packed up camp by 5:00 am, well before day break. We all hit the trail with our headlamps on, determined to cover as much ground as possible before the temperature started to rise.

By 9:00 am it was 80 degrees (27 C) on the trail. By 11:30 am it was 95 degrees (35 C) and the trail had become both hillier and less shady than the terrain on previous days. Even Alex started looking tired and Wiltur, our mule wrangler (or arriero), started singing “No voy a trabajar” (I’m not going to work) in a jovial way. We think he was only half-kidding. We amended it to “No voy a caminar” (I’m not going to walk) and it became the battle cry of the day, something we uttered to ourselves simply to keep going.

By 1:00 the termperature reached 99 degrees (37 C) and we stopped looking at the thermometer. Then the ticks arrived. About the size of a pinhead, the little suckers swarmed out of nowhere and were soon crawling all over us (they were especially fond of Eric’s hairy legs). While giving up was obviously not an option, let’s just say that all of us were ready for the trail to end.

Nine hours after we left Nakbe (eight hours of walking and about an hour of accumulated rest stops) we finally reached La Florida.The mules barely had enough energy left for their afternoon roll in the dust.

A hand made sign on the trail in the El Mirador Basin in Guatemala. Note the use of Mayan glyphs.

 

Finally, a jaguar!

Just another day at the office for El Jaguar, carekater of the La Florida archaeological site and costumed marathon runner.

Our spirits picked up as we were greeted by El Jaguar, the one-of-a-kind caretaker of the La Florida archaeological site. Also know as Miguel, El Jaguar is famous as a marathon runner who runs his races wearing jaguar print shorts and shirts–even his shoes somehow had jaguar prints on them. He greeted us wearing a jaguar mask and spotted short shorts.

Oh, and Miguel trains for marathons by running along the jungle trails we’d just been walking on, only he can do the stretch that just took us nine hours in just three hours. Incredible. He proudly shows us a flip book of photos of him from various marathons, always in his jaguar duds.

Not only is El Jaguar the most interesting caretaker in the El Mirador region, he also operates the nicest camping area. First of all, it’s spotless (even the pit toilet is clean).

Karen and our guide, Alex, in front of the massive ceiba tree at La Florida archaeological site in the El Mirador Basin in Guatemala.

He’s landscaped the area using ornamental jungle plants. There’s even a lime tree. Everything is raked clean and there’s a thatch roof that shades a large area where we set up our hammocks and tents.

El Jaguar has also constructed a small shelter where he deposits bits and pieces he’s found while patroling the La Florida site. Some of them rival what we’ve seen in museums, including an intact, intricate painted bowl with eyes and a nose sculpted into it.

Best of all, there’s a pond nearby which meant it was possible for all of us to take a refreshing outdoor bucket shower and wash the dust and sweat of the day away.

 

Back to Carmelita

It’s a very short day from La Florida back to “civilization” in Carmelita so we all agreed to sleep in. Nevertheless, we were all up by 3:00 am anyway After breakfast we toured the tiny La Florida site. One highlight is an enormous ceiba tree (sacred to the Mayans as a link between our world and the underworld and the national tree of Guatemala).

A unique walk-through structure at the La Florida archaeological site in the El Mirador Basin in Guatemala.

Inside the unique walk-through structure at the La Florida archaeological site in the El Mirador Basin in Guatemala.

The other highlight of the La Florida site is a temple that has been somewhat reconstructed and opened up so that you can walk through it, observing the layers of construction as you go. We’ve never been inside a Mayan building like that and it was eye opening.

By 8:00 am we were packed up and on the trail for the last leg of our journey.Two hours later we reached Carmelita where it did not seem two early for a few rounds of sort of cold beer and some well-earned pats on the back.

We’d completed a trek that was challenging at times and we admit to feeling just a bit proud when Alex told us we were fast–and that was after we’d already tipped him!

 

Outside the unique walk-through structure at the La Florida archaeological site in the El Mirador Basin in Guatemala.

The jungle in the El Mirador basin was full of toucans, inclluding these two above the trail as we walked from La Florida back to Carmelita.

 

 

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?

We asked both of those questions and were more than satisfied with the answers from Manuel Villamar of Tikal Connection tour company. In addition to full insurance and plenty of food, Manuel generously supplied his expertise (based on decades in the tourism business in Guatemala) and everything else we needed to get out to El Mirador.

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 five 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.

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 our mule wrangler 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 your adventure.

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 the 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.

 

Read more about travel in Guatemala

Support us on Patreon


1 Comment - Join the conversation


A Site for Sore Feet: Trekking to El Mirador – Guatemala

This post is part 2 of 3 in the series Hiking to El Mirador

A “rest day” at El Mirador doesn’t include much rest. That’s because almost everything about what remains of the Mayan city now called El Mirador in the Peten region of Guatemala is spectacular–from the jungle trekking as you travel there (and the resulting spectacularly sore feet) to the cultural, artistic and architectural importance of the area that’s been called the cradle of Mayan civilization.

No guards, no entrance fee, no parking lot. This  is the humble welcome sign for El Mirador in Guatemala–one of the most important (and most remote) Mayan archaeological sites in the world.

 

El Mirador by the numbers (prepare to be amazed)

With up to a million inhabitants at its zenith between 300 BC and 100 AD, El Mirador and its surrounding neighborhoods would have been the largest city in the world at the time. To accommodate so many people, the city sprawled for over a nearly 2,500 square mile patch of heart-shaped jungle that’s referred to as the El Mirador Basin. The city center covered 14 square miles. That’s three times larger than downtown Los Angeles.

El Mirador illustration

An artist’s conceptual drawing of what  the center of El Mirador might have looked like between 300 BC and 150 AD (Illustration by T.W. Rutledge ©National Geographic).

Even the name is dramatic: The Look Out. One reason for the name is La Danta pyramid, which some calculate as the largest pyramid, by volume, in the world. The pyramid itself may only be 230 feet high but its massive multi-tiered foundations contain something like 99 million cubic feet of rock and fill. La Danta’s massive first tier is 980 feet wide, 2,000 feet long and covers 45 acres. It’s even more massive than the Great Pyramid of Giza and makes for a great look out point.

La Danta pyramid view - El Mirador, Guatemala

The view from atop the massive La Danta pyramid at El Mirador looking across the seemingly-endless jungle. That bump to the right in the distance is the El Tigre pyramid at the other end of “downtown” El Mirador.

There are actually three temples on top of the massive La Danta pyramid at El Mirador archaeological site in Guatemala.

 

Scientists at work

El Mirador was abandoned nearly 2,000 years ago. No one really knows why. The site slept and the jungle crept until 1926 when archaeologists found it. These days it’s impossible to separate El Mirador from archaeologist Dr. Richard Hansen, who has been studying the site since 1979, sometimes funding research himself. When he’s not at the site (usually May through September), Dr. Hansen is busy as the director of the Mirador Basin Project.

This nearly perfect stucco frieze was discovered at El Mirador in 2009 and is the earliest known depiction of the Maya creation myth, the Popol Vuh.

Most of this huge city remains unexcavated and there are signs of scientists at work all over the El Mirador site. Plastic tarps protect fresh finds. Rough sheds are packed with tools and supplies. But the jungle still owns most of El Mirador and to the untrained eye the site can seem like just another patch of jungle, save for La Danta and El Tigre pyramids which rise above the jungle canopy in a way that even a layman can see is the work of man. Actually, many thousands of men. It’s estimated that it took 15 million man days of work to build La Danta.

El Mirador - Groupo Leon

Much of El Mirador remains unexcavated like this pyramid in the Leon (Lion) Group.

It takes most visitors two days to walk to El Mirador from the village of Carmelita, unless you take a helicopter in like Mel Gibson did a few days before we arrived. The actor came at the invitation of the Guatemalan government, which pissed off some Mayans who still resent Gibson’s portrayal of Mayans as blood-thirsty savages in his movie Apocalypto (which Dr. Hansen consulted on and which is said to be loosely based on the fall of El Mirador).

Fragments of Mayan life at El Mirador, like this pottery shard, are all over the site.

No such controversy tainted our visit to El Mirador.where we quietly set up camp in an area set aside for visitors. Though the next 24 hours were considered a “rest day”, we didn’t get much resting done with all that Mayan-ness right next to us.

 

Exploring El Mirador

A 1.5 mile (2.5km) trail joins the El Tigre and La Danta pyramids, which hunker and squat at the west and east ends of the city center respectively. We walked this trail many times. El Mirador is essentially never closed and it was an unforgettable experience to walk through the site to La Danta near dusk, watch sunset over the jungle from on top of its massive bulk, then walk back to our tent through the site in the dark. Under those circumstances we could almost see Mayans all around us. Certainly we could feel them.

Sunset view from La Danta Pyramid El Mirador

Sunset from the top of the massive La Danta Pyramid at El Mirador. The jungle covered “mound” on the right is the slightly smaller, yet still huge, El Tigre pyramid.

jaguar paw temple - El Mirador, guatemala

A jaguar mask, part of giant carved panels on the Jaguar Paws Temple at El Mirador archaeological site.

But there’s more to El Mirador than its two giant pyramids. Perhaps predictably, the Garras de Jaguar (Jaguar Paws) Temple at El Mirador features a large panel carving of jaguars. What’s not predictable is the amount of color still left on the panel. And new treasures are being found every year at El Mirador.

Detail of Jaguar temple mask

This detail of the Jaguar Paws Temple mask shows what remains of the original pigment.

Another El Mirador mystery (there’s a pyramid in there somewhere).

 

It’s good luck when a monkey pees on you, right?

Monkey pee, monkey do.

When we weren’t exploring the site (mornings and evenings were cooler) we were at our camp site just steps from the entrance to El Mirador hanging out in our hammocks (see Glad We Had, below) and drinking delicious, spicy, invigorating tea our guide Alex made from the leaves of the Ramon tree.

Karen also turned 45 at  El Mirador, and a troop of spider monkeys celebrated by peeing on her as she tried to take a nap. No respect.

 

 

Into a secret tunnel (don’t tell anyone)

After our full day at El Mirador it was time to break camp and continue our jungle trek. Now that we’d reached the site we had to make the return trip back to Carmelita and we’d opted to add on a day and return via a loop that includes Nakbe and La Florida archaeological sites instead of just back tracking out the same way we came in.But first we were in for a treat.

Part of a tunnel archaeologists are using to study staircases and carvings recently discovered under the Jaguar Paws Temple.

Behind an innocuous looking locked wooden door under the Jaguar Paws Temple lies a hidden world. Once inside the door our flashlights revealed a network of tunnels which we followed, gawking at  long-abandoned staircases and elaborate carvings with a remarkable amount of color left on them. Despite the fact that teams of archaeologists have been swarming over the Jaguar Paws Temple for years this areas was only discovered four years ago.

The experts believe the carvings in this hidden area were on a smaller temple that was ultimately covered over and swallowed whole when it was expanded to create the Jaguar Paws Temple. What they have more trouble explaining is why some of the carvings face south when most known Mayan carvings face north.

Part of old mask covered with color which was recently found buried within the Jaguar Paws Temple at El Mirador archaeological site.

This was, by far, the most Indiana Jones experience we’ve had at a Mayan site (and we’ve visit nearly 60 of them). We honestly expected that big boulder to come rolling down after us at any minute. The feeling was heightened by the fact that we weren’t supposed to be in there. The area behind the wooden door is technically off limits to everyone but archaeologists. If you’re discreet about it you can sometime persuade one of the site’s caretakers to escort you in for a tip. It made a great 45th birthday present, that’s for sure!

 

Pending protection

Whether motivated by eco-ethics or the lure of tourism dollars (between 1,000 and 3,000 people visit El Mirador each year) the Guatemalan government has afforded some protections to El Mirador as part of the El Mirador-Río Azul National Park which is located inside the 8,000 square mile Maya Biosphere Reserve.

The region has also been nominated for UNESCO status and protections. On the other hand, Guatemalan government officials have also been talking seriously about putting in a tram or other form of mass transit through the jungle to the site…

El Mirador Toucans

Toucans in the canopy above El Mirador archaeological site in Guatemala.

In December, the Guatemalan government was presented with a plan for the future management of El Mirador drafted by the non-profit group Global Heritage Fund in collaboration with Dr. Hansen and others. The plan aims to control activity at El Mirador over the next 15 years in ways that allow for sustainable science and sustainable tourism.

 

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?

We asked both of those questions and were more than satisfied with the answers from Manuel Villamar of Tikal Connection tour company. In addition to full insurance and plenty of food, Manuel generously supplied his expertise (based on decades in the tourism business in Guatemala) and everything else we needed to get out to El Mirador.

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 and 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 five 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 thinkabout 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.

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 our mule wrangler 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 your adventure.

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 the 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.

 

Read more about travel in Guatemala

Support us on Patreon


8 Comments - Join the conversation »


Getting Organized and Getting In: Trekking to El Mirador – 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 during the Trans-Americas Journey none is as cloaked in mystery or as hard to get to as El Mirador in the jungles of the Peten region in northern Guatemala. We’ll get into the intriguing details of El Mirador in our next post, for now, suffice to say, El Mirador was a massive city which is older than Tikal, is home to the largest known Mayan pyramid, by volume, and is still reluctantly giving up game-changing secrets. 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.

Getting outfitted

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, you’ll need help.

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.

 

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 trailhead, 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 was kind enough to provide what we needed to get to El Mirador, which was exciting for us because it meant we were actually going to get to El Mirador and because 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 and Guatemala in general.

2. Another option is to sign on with a mid-service tour company who 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 $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.

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.

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.

 

On the trail to El Mirador

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 crew (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.

Karen on the trail to the El Mirador arcaheological 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 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.

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 the 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.

Read more about travel in Guatemala

Support us on Patreon


2 Comments - Join the conversation »


Page 4 of 11«First23456Last»