About 40% of Guatemala’s 15 million inhabitants are of Mayan ancestry. “Maya” is actually a collective term for Amerindian people who, to some degree, share cultural and linguistic heritage. Apart from Spanish, 21 Mayan languages are spoken in Guatemala but they are not recognized as official languages.
A highly developed civilization
The pre-Columbian Mayan civilizations inhabited the regions of what is today Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and western Honduras. They had a fully developed writing system, and are noted for their architecture, calendar, art, mathematics, and astronomical system.
Many of the former Maya cities and villages today lie buried in the jungles of Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico. One of them – and one of the biggest cities of its time – is El Mirador in northern Guatemala. The city was at its peak between 300 BC and 100 AD and had an estimated population of 100’000 to 250’000 inhabitants. Its highest structure, the Danta (72m high), is, considering its volume, one of the largest pyramids in the world. Like many other cities in the area, El Mirador was abandoned at around 150 AD (numbers vary depending on the source).
El Mirador is one of the many only partially excavated Maya ruins in northern Guatemala. According to Dr. Richard D. Hansen, around 50 to 80 cities are still awaiting re-discovery. Its location far from any modern village makes el Mirador hard to reach and therefore even more fascinating: Imagine a lost city in the jungle, a once very powerful place where thousands of people lived, that is now abandoned and can only be reached on a multi-day hike through the forest. Or by helicopter.
Most tour operators in Flores offer 5 or 6 day hikes to el Mirador. Be careful, though: They promise you all kinds of things (extra mules, a cook, mattresses, etc.) that you will most likely not get. So beware (of El Gran Jaguar 2 Tours especially), read Tripadvisor, or get in touch directly with the Cooperativa de Carmelita (www.turismocooperativacarmelita.com). Virtually all the guides work with them.
The long hike
Our guide was 61-year old María, a small woman who walks through the jungle in flip-flops as though she’d be wearing NikeAir. Unfortunately, we soon found out that she’s a much better cook than a guide. She knew virtually nothing about the Maya and the Mirador which was very disappointing and my “to google”-list grew longer every day.
After breakfast in Carmelita, literally the town at the end of the road, we started the walk to the first camp at El Tintal. This Maya city that used to be linked with el Mirador by a long causeway, which we walked upon for quite a bit of the trek. From el Tintal’s pyramid we could already see el Mirador – far, far away.
At night, the jungle is full of noises, the night sky is beautiful, but there are also some – for us – unwelcome visitors, such as poisonous snakes. Two of them. Right next to our tent. And there are people who don’t know that that snake is poisonous and try to take pictures of it, even poke it with a stick (“look at the camera, snake”). Tourists…
Finally at el Mirador
It takes seven to eight hours to walk from el Tintal to el Mirador; always depending on the group, of course. The trail is easy but it’s long. Very long. And it’s hot in the jungle. But: there’s a shower at the camp at el Mirador (that’s what kept me going), it costs 10 Quetzales and is absolutely worth every cent. It’s that moment when a simple rainwater shower becomes pure luxury.
To watch the sunset we went to el Tigre pyramid, the second highest structure of El Mirador. Up there we found an illustrious crowd: Not only did we meet archeologist Dr. Richard D. Hansen, the director of the Mirador Basin Project, but also Tony Wheeler, co-founder of the Lonely Planet, and Sam Coswell, the guy who descended into Marum crater on Vanuatu, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. Some people completely forgot about the sunset.
Exploring el Mirador
The third day was all about discovering the Mirador site and visiting the different complexes. We were exceptionally lucky that Dr. Hansen was there so we had the rare opportunity to see mascarones (an ornament depicting a face) hidden in a tunnel beneath a pyramid that is usually closed to tourists.
Oh, and did I mention I fell down the stairs of an ancient Maya temple? The fall was bad and I hit my head and it bled a lot (luckily though, my camera survived unharmed). Nobody brought a first aid kit – why, I mean, we’re only in the jungle and far from civilization for five days – but fortunately one of our group had a bottle of rum back at the camp and rum is a great disinfectant.
Back to Carmelita
Days four and five we hiked back the way we came. On the last day we arrived at 11 am in Carmelita and headed directly to the comedor for a cold coke or two. Aah. So good. Our agency, in order to save money and keep more for themselves, didn’t provide private transport for us and we were supposed to go back like we came: by public bus. What they didn’t think of was that the day we came back was Easter Sunday and therefore there was no bus. Somehow our guide managed to organize a car; the agency had to pay for it. At least the car was much faster than the bus and, once back in Flores, we all practically ran to our hotels to finally take a real, long shower (and drink some good ol’ purified water).
El Mirador was a great experience I wouldn’t want to miss but the organization and the guiding was definitely not what we expected and hoped for. But those are things that, after some time, we will laugh (or just forget) about, and what remains are the memories of those days and nights in the jungle, the impressive ruins, the awesome views from the pyramids, the beautiful sunsets, and the people we met along the way.