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Around León – Cerro Negro, Flor de Caña Rum Tour, León Viejo & Casita Volcano, Nicaragua

The best way to justify extending your stay in León, our favorite city in Nicaragua, is to sign up for some of the day trips and activities you can do from the city. One of the most popular options is volcano boarding down Cerro Negro (Black Hill) Volcano but you can also make day trips to take a tour of the Flor de Caña distillery, the mudslide memorial at Casita Volcano and León Viejo, all located around the city of León.

Cerro Negro Leon Nicaragua

As you approach Cerro Negro Volcano you can clearly see why it got that name.

Volcano boarding down Cerro Negro

It should really be called volcano sledding, however, that’s a lot less sexy. Anyway, you huff up a steep trail for about 40 minutes, suit up in day glow coveralls in a vain attempt to keep from getting an involuntary full-body exfoliation, sit your butt down on a piece of wood, grab the “steering” rope at the front then plummet down the black pumice-covered slopes of Cerro Negro Volcano, hopefully wearing a helmet.

Cerro Negro volcano boarding - Nicaragua

An orange-jumpsuited traveler goes volcano boarding down Cerro Negro in Nicaragua while a dude at the bottom clocks his considerable speed using a radar gun.

Cerro Negro is an active volcano and the youngest in Central America. Time has not worn down its slopes and the thing is steep – more than a 40 degree grade in places. The volcano is 2,388 feet (728 m) tall and it take most boarders about a minute to slide, swerve and sometimes wipe out from top to bottom. One woman topped out at 54 miles (87 km) per hour.

In 2002 “high speed specialist” Eric Barone smashed his own world record for fastest downhill speed on a bicycle when he reached 107 mph (172 kmh). Check out the video of his ride to see why that ride as very nearly his last.

We drove out to Cerro Negro but we did not go volcano boarding. However, our friend Matthew over at The Expert Vagabond did and (barely) lived to tell the tale.

Here’s our video of volcano boarders on Cerro Negro.

 

Cerro Negro volcano boarding - Leon Nicaragua

Our trusty truck at Cerro Negro Volcano in Nicaragua. The dust trail on the left of the slope is a volcano boarder. The dust trails on the right of the slope are people running down the access trail to the top, perhaps after chickening out…

Flor de Caña Rum Tour

We also drove about half an hour north of León to check out the tour offered at the Flor de Caña rum distillery in Chichigalpa where we learned why Nicaragua’s years of war and revolution were good for their rum, why you might want to think twice before buying a rum made using the “Solera” method (check your labels people) and how to spot top quality stuff (hint: wash your hands with it).

Tag along in this piece we did about the Flor de Caña tour which we did for TheLatinKitchen.com (the foodie web spin off of Latina magazine).

Flor de Cana Run, Nicaragua

This steam engine, once used to haul sugar cane from field to factory, now greets guest taking the Flor de Caña run tour in Nicaragua.

Flor de Cana Distillery Visitors Center - Chichigalpa, Nicaragua

This bar, gift shop and small museum is part of the tour at the Flor de Caña distillery in Nicaragua. The building’s design was inspired by rum barrels.

Flor de Cana Aged Rum, Nicaragua

Outside the barrel aging room where the rum magic happens.

Rum aging barrels Flor de Cana, Nicaragua

Rum barrels waiting to be filled and filed away for aging.

Mudslide memorial at Casita Volcano

Not eager to dig volcanic pumice out of every nook and cranny for the next three weeks (or worse), we chose to visit the Casita Volcano where, in 1998, Hurricane Mitch dumped 67 inches (1,700 mm) of rain on the area triggering a massive mudslide that killed more than 2,000 people.

Casita Volcano disaster Memorial, Nicaragua

This strange pyramid-like creation is a memorial to the more than 2,000 people who died in a massive mudslide in this area in 1998.

Now there’s a small museum on the site which includes an eerie diorama which shows the path and scope of the massive flow which came barreling down the volcano at 40 miles (65 km) per hour. A local man in the museum told us the slide happened in seconds.

mudslide stretched nearly 10 km

This diorama in the small museum at the site of a deadly mudslide in Nicaragua shows how the six mile (10 km) slide traveled from the rain-swollen crater of Casita Volcano down through hillside villages.

Just a few months after the slide US President Bill Clinton toured the destruction and a plaque in honor of his visit has been placed on a boulder that rolled down the slope.

Prsident Clinton visit to Casita Volcano Memorial, Nicaragua

A plaque commemorating the visit of former US President Bill Clinton to the site of the deadly Casita Volcano mudslide.

Casita and active San Cristobal Volcano Nicaragua

You can still see part of the path of the deadly 1998 mudslide on the slopes of the Casita Volcano (right). That’s San Cristobal Volcano puffing away on the left.

And don’t forget to visit the first León

About 20 miles (32 kms) from modern León lies the site where the Spanish originally settled the city in 1524. Now called León Viejo (Old León), earthquakes forced inhabitants to abandon the area in 1610. The ruins of the city, which is one of the oldest Spanish settlements in the Americas, were excavated in 1960 and the place was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.

Leon Viejo Nicaragua dog attacking indigenous sculpture

This grisly statue in León Viejo stands in memory of a brutal attack that happened there in 1528 during which the Spanish government used dogs to kill 12 Indian hostages.

Leon Viejo Ruins World Heritage site Nicaragua

Some of the excavated ruins of León Viejo.

Cathedral Leon Viejo Ruins Nicaragua

Excavated areas inside what was the Cathedral of León Viejo.

Mombacho volcano Nicaragua

León Viejo was founded at the foot of Momotombo Volcano.

 

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The Beverly Hills of Copán – Las Sepulturas and El Puente Archaeological Sites, Honduras

The Copán archaeological site is one of the top tourist attractions in Honduras and for good reason. Sadly, only a fraction of the visitors to Copán visit a little gem of a site located right next door (you can easily walk to it from the Copán site and your Copán ticket gets you in). It’s called Las Sepulturas and archeologists believe it was the Beverly Hills of Copán.

We’ve visited more than 60 Mayan sites and wandered around the residential areas at many of them. However, we never understood or appreciated the intricacies of day-to-day Mayan life until we visited Las Sepulturas with Mr. Perez who has worked with archaeologists at the site for years and works as a guide in his free time (+ 502 9699 5647, Spanish only).

Guide - Las Sepulturas, Copan, Honduras

Mr. Perez, our guide at Las Sepulturas archaeological site in Honduras, pointed out all the quirks and customs that existed in this residential area of the Mayan city of Copán.

 

The world’s first do-not-disturb signs

Mr. Perez told us that having mistresses was de rigeur for the upper class of Copán, but how can you keep your other wives and mistresses from walking in on you having sex? One of the nobles who lived at Las Sepulturas was famed leader 18 Rabbit who was believed to have had at least 15 concubines.

To avoid awkward situations, the Mayans invented what must be the world’s first do-not-disturb signs which they hung in front of their houses to make it clear that they were busy.

Houses of elite - Las Sepulturas, Copan, Honduras

Las Sepulturas was home to the upper class of the Mayan city of Copán and their houses were built and decorated accordingly. 

relief decoration - Las Sepulturas, Copan, Honduras

Fancy relief work like this stone carving was found in the homes of Las Sepulturas where the upper class of the Mayan city of Copán lived. 

 

Bizarre burial rites

Las Sepulturas means The Tombs because the residents (and, perhaps, all Mayans) had some pretty quirky burial customs which dictated the position of the corpse (fetal, laying down, standing up, etc) and the cardinal point it was meant to face.

At Las Sepulturas human remains have been found in special tombs built under beds and buried in courtyards around the houses of Las Sepulturas. One woman believed to have been of very  high rank was found buried in a standing position underneath a central plaza.

Bed - Las Sepulturas, Copan, Honduras

This stone structure covered in layers of plaster was a bed. It would have been covered with a mattress made from fluffy fibers produced by the sacred ceiba tree and maybe even draped with a jaguar skin. Family members were buried under beds like this which gives the Las Sepulturas site its name.

 

Home improvement

Red dye - Las Sepulturas, Copan, Honduras

Crushed leaves give up a natural red dye which the Mayans used to color the plaster they applied throughout the homes in the Las Sepulturas archaeological site. 

Mayans were just as clever with their homes as they were with their temples, calendars, stelae, stairways and sculpture. Mr. Perez pointed out the smoothness and durability of original plaster work, some of which is still visible, explained how the Mayans used the cotton-like fluff produced by the sacred ceiba tree (also called a cotton tree) to make mattresses and pillows (which were sometimes covered with jaguar pelts) and demonstrated how the leaves of another tree were crushed to created a vibrant red dye that was used like paint. The homes in Las Sepulturas even had indoor bathrooms with intricate drainage systems.

relief decoration - Las Sepulturas, Copan, Honduras

More relief decoration inside the remains of a nobleman’s home in the Las Sepulturas archaeological site in Honduras.

Structures - Las Sepulturas, Copan, Honduras

The remains of structures at the Las Sepulturas archaeological site in Honduras where the upper class from the Mayan city of Copán lived. 

 

El Puente archaelogical site

El Puente Mayan site, Honduras

Only a handful of the 200+ structures at the El Puente archaeological site in Honduras have been excavated.

El Puente Mayan site, Honduras

Excavation work inside a pyramid at El Puente archaeological site in Honduras revealed an earlier temple inside.

You can’t walk there, but El Puente archaeological site is another stop that will enhance your understanding of Copán. About 40 miles (60 kilometers) from Copán, El Puente is the second largest Mayan site in Honduras (after Copán) with more than 200 structures, though less than 10 are excavated. Archaeologists tell us that El Puente was it’s own city but was eventually absorbed into Copán.

We parked at the entrance, toured the small museum then walked about half a mile (1 kilometer) down a pleasant dirt road between fields to reach the small excavated plaza of El Puente.

 

 

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Inside the Sculpture Museum of Copán – Copán Archaeological Site, Honduras

The Sculpture Museum of Copán at the Copán archaeological site in Honduras may lack the romantic ambiance and sense of history of the site itself. However, the museum is home to the best original sculpture and architecture the Mayans of Copán produced and it should be an integral part of your visit to the UNESCO World Heritage site.

You enter the museum through a dramatic tunnel meant to mimic the experience archaeologists had while exploring the site. Inside, originals (and a few replicas) of Copán’s very best finds, including a full-size replica of the vibrant Rosalila structure, are well-displayed and easy to check out.

Absolutely worth the US$7 entry fee to see nearly 60 exhibits with more than 3,000 pieces of sculpture plus six restored buildings and some of the most important stelae from the site.

Here are some highlights.

Reconstruction of the Rosalila Temple

This reconstruction of the Rosalila Temple is what greets visitors to the Sculpture Museum of Copán next to the archaeological site in Honduras. The replica was created based on findings archaeologists made after studying the time-worn original which remains buried within Temple 16 at the Copán site itself. 

Rosalila Temple - Sculpture Museum, Copan, Honduras

The back of the reconstructed Rosalila Temple in the center of the Sculpture Museum of Copán in Honduras.

Stucco relief on Rosalila Temple - Sculpture Museum, Copan, Honduras

A stucco relief on the reconstruction of the Rosalila Temple, the centerpiece of the Sculpture Museum of Copán which is located right next to the archaeological site itself.

Mayn rain god Chaac with waterbirds sculpture - Sculpture Museum, Copan, Honduras

High quality sculpure is one of the things the Mayan city of Copán was known for. These intricately carved depictions of the Mayan rain god Chaac (center) and various waterbirds are original and on display in the on-site Sculpture Museum of Copán.

Tlaloc sculpture - Sculpture Museum, Copan, Honduras

Part of Structure 16 is preserved inside the Sculpture Museum of Copán, including this sculpture of the Mayan god Tlaloc which formed part of an ancient stairway. 

Macaw Heads - Sculpture Museum, Copan, Honduras

The Mayans revered scarlet macaws and this excellent original sculpture of a macaw in flight can be seen in the Sculpture Museum of Copán in Honduras.

Macaw Heads - Sculpture Museum, Copan, Honduras

The Mayans revered scarlet macaws and these macaw heads carved out of stone by the original inhabitants of Copán are on display in the excellent on-site museum. 

Reconstruction of Temple 22 - Sculpture Museum, Copan, Honduras

A detailed reconstruction of Temple 22 in the excellent Sculpture Museum of Copán in Honduras.

The Bat was the symbol of the ancient city of Copan - Sculpture Museum, Copan, Honduras

The bat was the symbol of the ancient Mayan city of Copán. This original sculpture can be seen in the Sculpture Museum of Copán, adjacent to the archaeological site.

Sculpture heads - Sculpture Museum, Copan, Honduras

Human and animal heads carved from stone centuries go by the Mayans who lived in the city of Copán. These original works of art are on display in the Sculpture Museum of Copán.

Detail of relief from Noblemans house in the Sepulturas area - Sculpture Museum, Copan, Honduras

This detail, now on display in the Sculpture Museum of Copán, originally adorned a Mayan nobleman’s house.

 

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New Copán – Copán Ruinas, Honduras

It’s confusing, we know: The closest town to the ruins of the Mayan city of Copán, the most famous and widely studied archaeological site in Honduras, is called Copán Ruinas.Therefore, the comparatively new city of Copán Ruinas is your base for exploring the positively ancient remains of Copán ruins.

Sunset view over Copan Ruinas, Honduras

Sunset view over the town of Copán Ruinas in Honduras as seen from Hacienda San Lucas hotel.

Copán Ruinas is tiny but jam-packed with tourists and the services that come with them. Because the number one tourist attraction in Honduras is right on the town’s doorstep, most offerings are of the mediocre but overpriced variety (case in point: laundry is $1 per pound). We visited Copán Ruinas on two different occasions and found a few finds that stand out from the rest.

Sleep with the Mayans

About a mile and a half above the center of Copán Ruinas lies one of the most noteworthy hotels in Honduras. Hacienda San Lucas is the 100-year-old home of the Cueva family, whose patriarch was a passionate amateur archaeologist and instrumental in early protection and exploration of the remains of the Mayan city of Copán.

Hacienda San Lucas - Copan, Honduras

The inviting patio and sprawling lawn at Hacienda San Lucas hotel above the town of Copán Ruinas in Honduras.

His daughter, Doña Flavia Cueva, oversaw a disciplined reinvention of the family home which she has transformed into an eight room hotel. Flavia did a lot of the work herself (don’t miss the photos of the restoration in progress–Flavia is smiling in every single shot) and she worked hard to retain country touches like exposed beams, thick walls and ample patios.

Modern touches like electricity, hot water, great beds and WiFi were added. One thoroughly modern addition to Hacienda San Lucas is the large, colorful, graphic art work of Falvia’s daughter, Frida Larios. Frida has turned her artists’ eye to Mayan glyphs, transforming the traditional ancient stone carvings into modern graphic art which decorates the hotel. Frida calls it Modern Mayan and it’s great stuff.

The Hacienda San Lucas kitchen, staffed by Mayan women, also turns out some of the best food in the region. We had some of the tastiest tamales we’ve ever eaten here and dinner, open to non-guests too, is a set menu, multi-course affair featuring dishes made from traditional Mayan recipes paired with wines. The town of Copán Ruinas and the edges of the Copán archaeological site itself can be seen in the valley below.

Hacienda San Lucas, yoga pavillion - Copan, Honduras

Yoga with a view at Hacienda San Lucas hotel just above the town of Copán Ruinas in Honduras.

Your own (sort of) private ruins

Though touring the ruins of Copán is the main draw, guests at Hacienda San Lucas are only a ten minute walk away from a tiny, little-visited archaeological site called Los Sapos (The Toads) that’s actually located on land owned by Hacienda San Lucas. About the size of half a football field, the Los Sapos area features boulders carved into the form of toads. Dozens of types of toads live in this area and the toad is the Mayan symbol of fertility. The origin and importance of this odd little site are still being studied but one theory is that Los Sapos was a fertility and/or birthing site used by the inhabitants of ancient Copán.

Los Sapos - Copan, Honduras

Look closely. Can you see the toad in this carved rock at the Los Sapos Mayan archaeological site near Hacienda San Lucas hotel?

If Hacienda San Lucas is out of your price range we can also recommend Hotel Patty. Located right in downtown  Copán Ruinas, the basic rooms are clean with bathrooms and TV, there’s a  big secure parking lot, the WiFi works and the owners are friendly. Rooms start at US$25 double occupancy.

The best microbrew in Central America?

Tomas, Sol de Copan Brewery Honduras

Your new hero: Thomas, owner and brew master of Sol de Copan Brewery in the town of Copán Ruinas in Honduras.

Sol de Copan beer

One of the best microbrews in Central America at Sol de Copan in Honduras.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank Fabricio. He’s a local customs officer who we met when we crossed the border from Guatemala into Honduras. If he hadn’t told us about “the big German making beer” in Copán Ruinas we might never have found Thomas Wagner.

Thomas 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 equipment and ingredients from his native Germany. He is not, however, very serious about signs. His tiny brewery and mini German beer hall is located down a residential side street with no more than a small sign right at the entrance. Ask anyone in Copán Ruinas for directions to the Sol de Copán Brew Pub (closed Monday and Tuesday), then look for the building with wacky castle-like turrets just a few blocks away from downtown.

 

Thomas, who has won awards for his beers in his native Germany, makes strictly German-style beer and you will find two different brews on tap along with a short menu of German dishes (spetzel, schnitzel) made fresh by Thomas’ bubbly Honduran wife. Their schnauzer, Sammy, usually makes an appearance too. Locals fill the place. Laughter spills out into the street–mostly Thomas’ laughter. He is visibly thrilled every time someone takes a sip.

It’s a good thing Thomas is getting joy out of his beer because he certainly isn’t getting rich. At 55 Lempiras (less than US$3) for a half liter of the delicious stuff, Thomas’ handcrafted beer is only slightly more expensive than a liter of Salva Vida, the ubiquitous but mediocre beer of Honduras.

We are happy to report that microbreweries are gaining a foothold in Central America but we can say with certainty that the stuff Thomas is making in tiny, remote Copán Ruinas is by far the best microbrew in the region.

Honduras draft beer - Sol de Copan Honduras

The only thing we loved as much as Thomas’ excellent German-style beers was his tattoo collection.

Hot springs worth the splurge

We set aside just a couple of hours to visit the Luna Jaguar Spa hot springs located in the town of (surprise, surprise) Agua Caliente about 12 miles out of town over a pretty rough dirt road. The US$10 per person entry fee seemed like a whole lot at the time, however, as soon as we walked through the gate, over a hanging bridge and into a series of atmospheric pools, falls and dipping areas artfully crafted into nature over a trail-laced hillside the fee suddenly seemed worth it.

 Luna Jaguar Spa hot springs - Copan, Honduras

The wonderfully natural Luna Jaguar Spa hot springs near the town of Copán Ruinas in Honduras.

None of the crystal-clear pools are sizzling hot, but they do the trick. There’s even a pool that includes containers of therapeutic mud which is high in minerals and great for your skin. Another area has a small circular path lined in smooth river stones and filled to ankle-level with hot water. Walk around it and you get a free foot massage! We could have soaked all day.

Relaxing at Luna Jaguar Spa hot springs - Copan, Honduras

Eric and his brother Jeff getting their money’s worth in the hot springs at Luna Jaguar Spa near Copán Ruinas in Honduras.

Mud bath Luna Jaguar Spa hot springs - Copan, Honduras

Eric’s brother, Jeff, trying out his moves on his sister-in-law. That’s hard to do while covered in mineral-rich mud…

A special note for drivers: If you’re driving to Copán Ruinas be prepared for the town’s cobblestone streets which are very narrow, sometimes steep and brutally bumpy. Parking is also tough. We had some tight squeezes in our truck.

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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.

 

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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

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