Of the more than 100 archaeological sites we’ve traveled to so far, none is as cloaked in mystery or as hard to get to as the El Mirador archaeological site in the jungles of the Peten region in northern Guatemala. Here’s how to make it happen.
El Mirador was a massive city and it’s older than Tikal. It’s also home to the largest known Mayan pyramid, by volume, and is still reluctantly giving up game-changing secrets to a small army of archaeologists who swarm the site. Like our visit to El Mirador itself, it’s best to start with the basics since getting organized and getting in to the site requires a five-to-seven-day adventure of jungle trekking, camping, and sweating and you’re gonna need some back up.
Choosing a trekking company for the El Mirador trek
A jungle trek can seem daunting. One that takes five to seven days (including one rest day) and covers roughly 40 miles (64km) depending on your route is even more daunting. Because there is no clear, fresh water along the trekking route you have to bring your own H2O and since it’s not possible for most people to carry enough water to last through this much sweaty hiking this means you’ll need a pack animal. Which, in turn, means you’ll need a mule handler. You’ll also need a guide and all of your camping gear and food. In other words, there’s a lot of stuff even for a bare bones trek.
You have three options for getting outfitted for your El Mirador trek.
1. Sign on with a full-service tour company to hook you up with transport to and from the 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 provided what we needed to get to El Mirador. Manuel has been involved in tourism in the Peten region for more than 20 years and has a strong focus on sustainable tourism which involves local communities instead of excluding them. Manuel was also a wealth of knowledge not just about El Mirador but also about the Mayans and eco issues in Guatemala in general.
2. Another option is to sign on with a mid-service tour company that can also supply transport to and from the trailhead, a guide/cook, food, pack animals and their handler, and camping gear, but at a lower price point and lower quality level. There are many mid-service tour companies offering trips to El Mirador in Flores. A friend went to El Mirador with one of them on a five day trip for less than US$200 last year.
3. An even cheaper option is to head to the town of Carmelita (about 2 hours by van from Flores), at the trailhead 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.
On the trail to the El Mirador archaeological site
When we arrived in the dusty village of Carmeltia our guide was nowhere to be seen. Two hours later, after breakfast and the unloading and re-packing of our supplies, Alex Francisco Machuca arrived guiding another group out of the jungle. As members of the group collapsed on the ground in sunburned, sweaty heaps Alex, an easy-smiling man in his 20s, turned on his well-worn heel and headed straight back into the jungle with us. Incredible.
Soon our four-man team (us, Alex, and Wiltur the mule man) were on the trail. Within seconds, the jungle closed in and Carmelita disappeared behind us. The terrain was profoundly flat but the trail conditions made walking hard. During the rainy season passing mules and humans churn the earth into deep mud. As it dries out, ruts and ankle-twisting indentations from hooves and feet get baked solid into the ground which becomes like cement.
It was necessary for both mules and humans to concentrate on putting their feet in the path of least resistance. This sometimes required bushwhacking off the trail to avoid the most chewed up bits of trail.
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 that 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.
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.
The next morning we were up early and managed to have breakfast, pack up camp, and get on the trail by 6:30 am in order to take advantage of the cooler morning hours. We were also revved up with excitement since the day’s walking would take us to El Mirador itself.
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.
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.
Glad we had
Our hammocks. There are precious few places to sit down comfortably at the camping areas into and out of El Mirador and you can believe us when we tell you that after hours of walking through the jungle you will want a comfy place to relax. Our hammocks were the perfect places to collapse plus they broke the ice with our guides. Alex, of course, had his own hammock with him and Wiltur taught us a clever quick and easy way to string up a hammock.
Our Crocs. These were the perfect comfy camp shoes and we even wore them on the trail after our stiff hiking boots started to hurt too much over the unforgiving terrain.
Some cash: Needed to pay for the showers we totally enjoyed at the El Mirador site and the celebratory beer at Paty’s little store in Carmelita at the end of our adventure. And, of course, for tips.
Our ExOfficio BugsAway pants and shirts: Though mosquitoes and other biting bugs were not nearly as bad as we’d feared, our repellent-infused clothing kept any little buggers away.
If you have your own sleeping pad bring it. The camping gear supplied by tour companies that offer El Mirador hikes is generally fine but certain items, like sleeping pads, are in short supply. You might end up sleeping on a pile of old blankets like we did, prompting Eric to retire to his hammock at night.
Here’s more about travel in Guatemala
Here’s more about Archaeological Sites