After much organizing and two days of trekking, we finally reached the El Mirador archaeological site, one of the most important and most remote in Guatemala with sore feet and high hopes. We were not disappointed.
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 at what’s been called the cradle of Mayan civilization.
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.
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 lookout point.
Scientists at work
El Mirador was abandoned nearly 2,000 years ago. No one 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.
Most of this huge city remains unexcavated and there are signs of scientists at work all over the El Mirador site. Plastic tarps protected fresh finds. Rough sheds were 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.
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).
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 to explore right next to us.
Exploring El Mirador
A 1.5 mile (2.5 km) 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.
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.
It’s good luck when a monkey pees on you, right?
When we weren’t exploring the site (mornings and evenings were cooler) we were at our campsite just steps from the entrance to El Mirador hanging out in our hammocks 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 the Nakbe and La Florida archaeological sites instead of just backtracking out the same way we came in. But first, we were in for a treat.
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 that 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 area was only discovered four years ago.
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 trouble explaining is why some of the carvings face south when most known Mayan carvings face north.
This was, by far, the most Indiana Jones experience we’ve had at a Mayan site (and we’ve visited more than 100 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 sometimes persuade one of the site’s caretakers to escort you in for a tip.
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.
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…
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:
- Do you have insurance and an emergency evacuation plan if something goes wrong?
- 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 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 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. And for tips, of course.
Our ExOfficio BugsAway pants and shirts: Though mosquitoes and other biting bugs were not nearly as bad as we’d feared our repellent-infused clothing kept any little buggers away.
If you have your own sleeping pad bring it. The camping gear supplied by tour companies that offer El Mirador hikes is generally fine but certain items, like sleeping pads, are in short supply. You might end up sleeping on a pile of old blankets like we did, prompting Eric to retire to his hammock at night.
Here’s more about travel in Guatemala
Here’s more about Archaeological Sites