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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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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.

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Survivor Mayan Style – Yaxha Archaeological Site, Guatemala

Little known fact: Eric sent in a video application to be on the very first season of Survivor. That obviously didn’t pan out and, in hindsight, that was for the best. What does that little confession have to do with Yaxha, the remains of a pre-Columbian Mayan city in Guatemala? Quite a lot, actually.

Surviving Survivor

In 2005 Survivor Guatemala (ridiculously called “The Mayan Empire” season) descended on Yaxha where cast and crew spent weeks shooting and stirring up controversy over things like whether it was culturally sensitive (or even accurate) to ask participants to dress up like Mayans by smearing on face paint and sticking feathers in their hair. Hmmm.

The Northern Acropolis at Yaxha archaeological site in Guatemala where a season of Survivor was shot in 2005.

One of dozens of stelae (carved stone pillars) that have been found at Yaxha archaeological site in Guatemala.

Anyway..Yaxha survived Survivor. Yaxha is one of the largest Mayan sites in Guatemala and has nine plazas and more than 500 buildings, most of them relatively un-reconstructed. Most of the big structures (and there are plenty) have their original stairs. To facilitate climbing, wooden staircases have been built up the sides of the buildings allowing us to get to the top but leaving the original architecture intact and looking pretty authentic. The staircases also happened to be gorgeous and ingeniously constructed with wooden pegs instead of nails which would just rust way in the jungle humidity.

Yaxha also has a twin-pyramid complex in Plaza C. The only other known Mayan site with a twin-pyramid complex isTikal.

The Northern Acropolis at Yaxha archaeological site in Guatemala.

One of the ball courts found at Yaxha, one of the largest Mayan archaeological sites in Guatemala.

We loved the rounded corners on this pyramid at Yaxha.

The wildlife of Yaxha

Temple 216, the big daddy of Yaxha.

Templo 216, aka the Eastern Acropolis, is the highest structure at Yaxha. The temple itself is only 100 feet (30 meters) high, but its constsructed on top of a massive platform. The top of Temple 216 is a great place to get an overview of the site and peer down into the surrounding croc-filled lakes and dense jungle, home to howler monkeys, spider monkeys, coaties and birds including raucous Montezuma Oropendolas dashing in and out of their strange pendulous nests in the huge trees that dot the plazas.

Howler monkeys (named for the sound they make) must be heard to be believed. Check them out in our video, below.

Survivor may have brought some degree of fame to Yaxha, but you wouldn’t know by looking at it.  During our two days at the site we saw fewer than 25 other travelers. At times it felt like there were more groundskeepers than tourists at Yaxha, each of them armed with a green palm frond broom which they used to meticulously sweep every possible surface.

Guatemala’s Yaxha archaeological site is book-ended by two croc-filled lakes as you can see in this shot taken from the top of Temple 216.

 

The best campground in Guatemala

Survivor did, however, prompt an upgrade of the facilities at Yaxha so, in a roundabout way, we have producer Mark Burnett to thank for the awesome camping area at Yaxha.

Yaxha is part of a trio of pre-Columbian Mayan cities, along with nearby Nakum and Naranjo which make up the Yaxha-Nakum-Naranjo National Park. Your admission fee of 80Q per person (about US$10)  includes access to all three parks (though Naranjo is remote and best reached on horseback) and two nights of camping at Yaxha in one of five raised platform camping shelters with weather tight thatch roofs (we know because it poured) and views of lake. It was like camping on the awesome porch of a friend’s lake house.

Two nights in one of these awesome camping platforms is included with your entrance fee to Yaxha-Nakum-Naranjo National Park in Guatemala.

The camping area also has outdoor showers, indoor flush toilets and a communal outdoor grilling area. Howler monkeys woke us up each morning and adorable pacas (basically very large jungle hamsters) scampered around on the ground at dusk. It would have been one of the best campgrounds in Guatemala even without the Mayan ruins. We still can’t figure out why we were the only ones using it.

Templo-de-los-Tableros at Yaxha archaeological site in Guatemala.

GLAD WE HAD

Our SteriPEN which allows us to quickly and easily purify water anywhere using UV light, not chemicals. This allows us to say yes when a lovely camping opportunity (like Yaxha) unexpectedly comes our way, even if we’re not prepared with extra drinking water.

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Here, Kitty Kitty – Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize

The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize includes 200 square miles of protected land. Established in 1984 and made a sanctuary in 1990, it is the world’s first jaguar sanctuary. It’s now home to roughly 70 of the big cats along with many of their smaller kin including ocelot, jaguarundi and margay.

Welcome to Cockcomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize, the world’s first jaguar sanctuary.

Of course, we arrived at the sanctuary hoping to see a jaguar and we did our best to increase our chances of a sighting.

First, we decided to camp in the sanctuary. This was not a hard decision because the lodging option in Maya Village, the nearest “town” to the sanctuary, are not cheap and not great (we paid US$25 for a grotty, basic room with a shared bathroom at Nu’uk Che’il Cottages the first night because it was late by the time we arrived).

Also, the campground in the sanctuary happens to be awesome. A large, grassy area has palapa-covered, flat tent sites plus an outhouse and an area for cooking over a fire with ample firewood supplied. There’s even a rain-water cistern. The camping fee of US$5 per person also includes access to a well-equipped communal kitchen that’s shared with anyone else staying in the sanctuary’s other basic accommodations which includes a dorm and shared or private cabins.

A big plus about camping here (besides the bargain price and great facilities) is being in the sanctuary itself where mornings and evenings, in particular, were heralded with a symphony of jungle noises. Sadly, none of them were jaguar growls…

At 3,688 feet Victoria Peak, seen in the distance, is the second highest mountain in Belize.

Staying in the sanctuary also allowed us to just wander away from our tent at dusk and stroll down the dirt road that runs through this corner of the sanctuary in the evenings, which is when the cats start to get active. We saw gibnut (picture a huge hamster), tiny brocket deer and a small yellow bird fast asleep on a branch during our night walks and we even got what we believe was a fleeting glance at a margay, but no jaguar.

Camping in the sanctuary also put us in the perfect position for hiking. Most of the Cockscomb sanctuary is totally undeveloped and set aside as a true human-free haven. However, a small area has been developed for human use and it offers 12 miles of gorgeous trails, beautiful waterfalls and swimming holes and a meandering river perfect for tubing (tubes area available for rent  for US$2.50 a day).

The super-ambitious can even climb to the top of Victoria Peak in the Cockscomb Mountains via a trail through the sanctuary. At 3,688 feet, Victoria Peak is the second highest mountains in Belize and it takes most people three to five days to summit and return.

We stuck to the trails within the basin and the foothills.

Our own private swimming hole at the end of the Tiger Fern trail in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

First we hiked the 4 mile (round trip) Tiger Fern trail which delivered some steep sections before we reached the pay off: two waterfalls with swimming holes. While we cooled off in the deep, clear, wonderful swimming hole beneath the upper falls a tiny hummingbird darted in and out of the waterfall spray, apparently taking a shower. A short climb above the waterfalls leads to an overlook with good views of Victoria Peak and the Cockscomb range–so named because its ridge line looks like a rooster’s comb.

A hummingbird takes a bath in one of two waterfalls accessed via the Tiger Fern trail in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

The next day we tackled the various easy walks in the basin itself with eyes mostly glued to the trail since there are deadly fer-de-lance snakes here. Then we headed up the 3.2 mile (round trip) Ben’s Bluff trail. Less steep than Tiger Fern, this trail also leads to a great waterfall.

A stand of hobbit-ready trees in a seasonally-dry mangrove area within the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

A stand of hobbit-ready trees in a seasonally-dry mangrove area within the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

Perhaps the ugliest jaguar sign we’ve ever seen…

Cockscomb is also home (or on the migration path) for hundreds of species of birds including scarlet macaws (best seen around noon when the heat inspires them to roost in the shade), swooping parrots and huge guans.

Special thanks to Abel, a guide from Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Adventure Co. & Jungle Lodge, who turned up in Cockscomb to do some early morning bird scouting and allowed us to tag along. Abel pointed out many birds that our untrained eyes might never have seen, including these…

A laughing falcon in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

A black-headed Trogan in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

A violaceous trogan in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

A lineated woodpecker in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

A tiger heron in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

 

A boat-billed heron in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize.

 

GLAD WE HAD

Even professional guides are impressed with our SureFire flashlights which helped us see all kinds of critters during night walks in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary.

Our ExOfficio Bugs Away pants and shirts, impregnated with Insect Shield repellent, kept the mosquitoes at bay so we could really enjoy our campsite.

Because we had the campground all to ourselves we took over a second palapa and strung up our Hennessy Hammocks for afternoon napping.

 

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Beach Bound – Bahias de Huatulco, Mazunte & Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca State, Mexico

Sand and surf may not be the first things you think of when you think of Oaxaca State in southern Mexico. This region more commonly conjures up visions of exquisite food, the Monte Alban Mayan ruins, uber-Mexican handicrafts, mexcal, more exquisite food and an awesome annual Dia del Muertos celebration.

But beaches they got–and each one with its own personality.

The first sandy-feet stop we made in Oaxaca State was at a stretch of bays called Bahias de Huatulco. Developed by Fontur (the often heavy-handed tourism development branch of the Mexican government which created Cancun), Bahias has wide grand boulevards, gated condo developments and hotels with lofty names. What it doesn’t have is tourists.

The Bahias de Huatulco coastline.


By most accounts the untold millions of pesos the government invested in the infrastructure of Bahias de Huatulco and the promotion of that infrastructure has largely flopped. Sure Mexicans vacationers looking for a cheap beach hang come to the Bahias but very few foreign tourists willing to shell out for hotels with lofty-sounding names have been attracted to the place.

We were looking for a cheap beach hang too so we parked it in a small town called La Crucecita, a low-key town just inland from the string of bays and beaches. Apart from the usual flip-flop shops, bakeries and taco stands La Crucecita has one other noteworthy feature: The Paroquia de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe church on the main plaza has an enormous image of the Virgen of Guadalupe painted on the ceiling.

Though the bays are technically part of a coastal park system we were never asked to pay an entrance fee when we visited Playa la Entrega. La Entrega means “the delivery” which makes a lot more sense when you learn that in 1831, Mexican independence hero Vicente Guerrero was handed over to his enemies at Playa la Entrega. Guerrero was then  taken to Cuilapan near the city of Oaxaca where he was executed.

The palapa-roofed seafood restaurants and happy Mexican tourists of Playa la Entrega, part of Bahias de Huatulco.


The only people being dragged ashore when we were at Playa la Entrega enjoying 100 peso (about US$8) plates of fresh grilled fish and cold beer were the wayward children of the may Mexican families who were enjoying the beach too.

Later that afternoon we drove further out to Bahia Magay which was an even lovelier crescent of sand than Playa la Entrega (but still no park entry fee). Weirdly, Bahia Magay was nearly deserted and more than half of the palapa restaurants weren’t even open.

This lovely crescent of sand is found at Bahia Magay.


A half day’s drive northward got us to world (in)famous beachtown of Zipolite which was deserted in a depressing, down-trodden kind of way which trampled all over our very fond memories of the laid-back vibe of this beach town when we visited it on a previous trip to Mexico about 10 years ago.

At that time it was an idyllic combination of happy hippies, cheap everything and a kind of organic sense of community aptly demonstrated when the palapa roof of one of the beach restaurants caught fire and all the travelers formed a bucket brigade to the sea until the flames were out.

But things change. Like our plan.

We were glad we decided to ditch Zipolite because the next beach town to the north is Mazunte where the vibe was lively yet chelaxed without being decrepit. At Mazunte a lone (terribly weather-worn) road juts off the highway and dead ends at Playa Rinconcito–Mazunte’s petite and sheltered arc of sand.

Playa Rinconcito in the chelaxed beachtown of Mazunte.


There, clinging to a craggy rocky outcrop, is an eclectic collection of accommodations called Posada del Arquitecto. Created by an Italian architect, the rambling place has accommodations which run the gamut from hammock hooks under a tin roof (with the best views in the house) to a bare bones dorm to one of the most romantic rooms (in a Robinson Crusoe kind of a way) that we’ve ever stayed in (it’s called Cactus).

Inside the Cactus duplex hideaway at Posada del Arquitecto in Mazunte.


We were guests in the Cactus room which is where the owner used to live. The multi-level thatch-roofed open-air bungalow is perched on a cactus-covered rocky outcrop a couple dozen feet above the Pacific Ocean which crashes dramatically (some guests even complain about the noise but we loved it).

It is rustic romance personified with a private entrance and peep-free location that encourages traipsing around half-naked, a hammock made for two, a petite kitchen (just big enough to chill some beer, whip up a guacamole snack or pasta dinner and brew morning coffee) plus the sound and sight of those waves 24/7.

kitchen

Dinner for two in progress in the petite kitchen in the Cactus duplex room at Posada del Arquitecto in Mazunte.


The whole duplex opens up thanks to wooden panels rigged up to ropes and pulleys and the toilet faces a window with a million dollar sea view (the perfect place to watch the locals boogie board). There’s free Wi-Fi and you get a full frontal view of Punto Cometa, the southernmost point in the state, from almost every window.

The sheltered art of Playa Rinconcito in Mazunte.


Mazunte, which once supplied the turtle meat market until turtle hunting was banned in 1990, is now home to the Centro Mexicana de la Tortuga turtle center where a collection of tanks lets you get THIS CLOSE to a vast array of turtle types.

This is about as crowded as Playa Rinconcito in Mazunte got while we were there.


We capped off our Oaxaca beach tour with lunch in Puerto Escondido where we munched on more fresh fish and watched the area’s famous surf break right in front of us. Unlike Zipolite, we were pleased at the changes we saw in Puerto Escondido since our last visit. Yes, it’s bigger and more built up. However, it retains a pleasant beach bum feeling and there are still a range of restaurants and hotels in all price (and style) ranges.

A dramatic free-form sculpture of a pair of hands stands watch in Puerto Escondido.


GLAD WE HAD
Though we never felt like we were really in danger of having our things stolen, whenever we left the unlockable duplex we played it safe by securing our computers, cameras and other valuables in our Pacsafe exomesh bag protectors. We just put everything into the un-cutable metal mesh bag, secured the top, locked it closed then latched the whole bundle to the post of the staircase. Instant peace of mind.


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