Cost: $50 a day
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
Two days of trekking through muddy paths deep into the mosquito infested jungle of Northern Guatemala’s Peten region brought me and nine other adventurous travelers to the ancient Mayan city of El Mirador. Upon first viewing the ruins I was struck by how thoroughly nature can reclaim its territory after human abandonment. Thick layers of soil and dense vegetation surround, infiltrate and in some cases completely cover structures that are believed to have been abandoned almost two thousand years ago.
Even the higher reaches of the mighty, multi-tiered La Danta temple rising roughly seventy meters (230 feet) from the jungle floor are covered with trees. Archeologists have deliberately left the vegetation there to provide shade and protect the antiquated walls from the debilitating effects of the sun. Without our leather skinned Guatemalan guide Antonio, I’m sure that myself and my compadres would’ve been largely unaware that we were standing on the most massive ancient Mayan structure in the world. Unlike at the more popular site of Tikal it’s easy to mistake parts of the structure for normal contours of the land.
Over time it appears that the wilderness can erase almost all traces of a civilization. El Mirador, which is thought to have been populated by as many as 200,000 people at its peak was engulfed by the jungle and only discovered in 1926.
Sitting atop the 55 meter (180 foot) El Tigre temple as the sun set and pink oozed over the horizon like a slow bleed, I pondered the tenacity of nature. As if to punctuate my thoughts some howler monkeys started a chorus of guttural roars, spider monkeys crashed though the canopy and a diminutive humming bird the size of a large insect helicoptered onto a near by branch. Left alone the wilderneas is raw and formidable.
Describe a typical day:
I rise at 4.30am with my tent mates Rune and Raul who share my enthusiasm for watching sunrises from the top of ancient temple ruins. Huffing and puffing we make our way up the steep stairs of El Tigre. The jungle never seems to lose its heat and humidity and we emerge from under the canopy and reach the top panting with sticky skin moist with perspiration. It’s still dark at the top but there is a merciful breeze. The shine of Venus is picked out easily amongst the stars but within a few minutes the sun starts creeping over the edge of the jungle clad horizon and the forest awakens with the discordant sounds of unseen creatures.Howler monkeys covered by a tangle of dark green canopy to the north sound off with their distinctive territorial roars and an almost constant high pitched bleating is commenced by hundreds of tree frogs. We sit in silence and gaze out to the east as the sky turns pink and violet before brightening into the rich blue of day. Once the theater of a jungle sunrise has ceased we make our way back down to earth. ‘That was beautiful’, I remark to the others. It’s a bland and inadequate description for what we have just witnessed.
On the short walk back to camp mosquitoes thirsty for a blood meal hum around my ears with an irritating persistence. I’m constantly slapping at my head and neck like a mental patient. When we arrive back the other members of our rag tag crew have awoken and Veronica, our sturdy Mayan cook is serving breakfast. Scrambled eggs and beans yet again, it seems we eat nothing else.
After breakfast Antonio takes us hiking through El Mirador’s ancient streets, little more than dirt and mud trails ridden with tree roots ready to trip us up. Antonio is a native of Carmelita the last town bordering the dense sub tropical jungle that makes up the El Mirador basin. Having spent all of his life within or in close proximity to the jungle he has developed an acute eyesight for animal life and spots a small toucan high in a near by tree. It’s grand brightly colored bill is at odds with its tiny body like a huge jewel encrusted crown on the head of a toddler.
We continue on through the Danta complex and up the multi-tiered La Danta pyramid. When we get to the final platform three tall pyramidal structures greet us. Antonio explains to us that the triadic configuration is thought to represent three stars in the constellation Orion that the Maya believed were stones surrounding the fire of creation. Our group disperses to explore the area as we see fit.
I immediately head for the top of the central structure and highest point of the immense pyramid. After climbing a steep wooden set of stairs erected on the eastern face I reach the summit. As I catch my breath I turn around slowly taking in 360 degree views of dense green jungle blanketing the terrain as far as the eye can see. Antonio arrives at the top a short while later and hands me some binoculars. I focus in on a family of howler monkeys napping in a near by tree top. My guide points to a distant branch. ‘Loro’, he says. I squint but I can’t see anything with the naked eye so I focus in on the general spot indicated by his index finger and a colorful parrot pops into view. Resplendent in its bright green, red and blue plumage the parrot sits serenely, perhaps surveying the landscape like I am. My fellow hikers join me atop La Danta and we spend the next hour spotting wildlife and examining the ruins.
By the time we decide to head back to camp for a late lunch my stomach has taken on the voice of a howler monkey and is rumbling and groaning for food. I see a queer looking black and red bird the size of a turkey leaping and fluttering from branch to branch high in the canopy. It doesn’t appear to be able to maintain flight and its large eyes give it a startled expression that seems to suggest it’s as surprised as I am to find itself so high in the tree tops. Antonio, ever the fountain of knowledge tells us it’s a crested guan and we scamper around the bases of trees trying to photograph the ridiculous feathered creature. It’s quite camera shy and leaps from one branch to the other every time I get it in my sights. Eventually I realize that I’m not going to capture a national geographic worthy shot and we continue on.
My stomach is still growling when we trudge into camp. I wonder what splendid feast Veronica has cooked for lunch and then curse a little under my breath as some scrambled eggs and beans are slopped onto my plate.
The heat and humidity are intense in the early afternoon and I feel as if I’m wrapped in a hot damp towel that I can’t shake off. We are tired from all the trekking over the last three days so the group decides to take a siesta. There’s no respite in our tents from the sauna like conditions and I sweat profusely as I try to get comfortable. An insect crawls across my face and jars me out of my fitful nap. I brush it off my face and my skin crawls.
Later in the afternoon Antonio leads us around more of El Mirador and shows us some highly intricate stucco panels depicting ancient Mayan myths. He tries to explain the myths depicted but their significance is somewhat lost on me due to my poor Spanish. Never the less I’m quite happy to admire the effort and workmanship put into these walls so many years ago.
The whole crew decides to head up to El Tigre again later in the day to watch the sunset. It doesn’t disappoint and red and orange hues light up the undersides of the clouds like hot coals. When darkness finally descends we carefully make our way down the staircase. Hundreds of fire flies moving in slow motion through the inky air flicker like old light bulbs striving to stay alight.
Back at camp I sit at the dinner table with my weary companions and the mood is somewhat glum. Tomorrow we begin the two day trek through the mud and mosquitoes back to Carmelita. I have resigned myself to another serving of scrambled eggs and beans and as I start feeling a little sorry myself Veronica surprises us all with a delicious chicken soup. The absence of rubbery scrambled eggs on my plate overjoys me and I feel invigorated and ready for tomorrow’s trekking. Immediately after dinner I head to the tent. Sleep comes easy.
Describe an interesting conversation you had with a local:
Whenever I go into the wilderness I like to be well informed on all the horrific ways that I could potentially die, and in particular what animals inhabiting the area have the ability to maul or maim me. Because of this my first conversation with our guide Antonio was on the topic of jaguars. According to Antonio there are hundreds of jaguars in the El Mirador basin, however unlike in the movie Apocalypto, in real life jaguars don’t tend to eat people’s faces. They are supremely elusive and generally afraid of humans despite being powerful predators. In over ten years that Antonio has been leading treks into the interior of the Peten jungle he has only seen three jaguars. I get the feeling that the jaguars see him a lot more than he sees them.
What do you like about where you are? Dislike?
The thrill of seeing and hearing the abundant wildlife from the top of an immense and remote temple built in antiquity by citizens of an abandoned ancient metropolis almost 2000 years ago is a truly unforgettable experience.
Like any jungle environment Peten is rich in insects of all shapes, sizes and colors. I’m not fearful of creepy crawlies and I usually find them fascinating rather than grotesque. However it’s disconcerting, to say the least, when a big bug awakens you from your slumber as it crawls across your bare skin. Every day several insects, the likes of which I had never encountered before would land on me. I’m sure most of them were harmless but it’s impossible to know if the huge proboscis on your new friend is built for extracting nectar or penetrating flesh.
In addition to the new varieties of insects I encountered there is an incalculably huge number mosquitos. These disease riddled vectors with unquenchable thirsts for human blood necessitate the use of DEET, long pants and long sleeved shirts, none of which are particularly pleasant when your slogging through muddy paths in a sauna like climate.
One must also keep an eye out for ants. If you unknowingly step on them they have a nasty habit of latching onto your shoe before making the journey up your trouser leg to your inner thigh. Once they have reached this particularly sensitive area they decide to sink their pincers in. Over the course of the trek this happened to me more than I care to remember and invariably resulted in me shrieking, before performing a strange jig whilst slapping at my inner thighs like some drunk yokel dancing to his favorite jangle.
Describe a challenge you faced:
The challenging terrain, mosquitoes, heat and humidity are unpleasant and certainly not for everyone. For me the chance to see incredible Mayan ruins devoid of other tourists and abundant in wildlife more than made up for the discomfort and I would recommend the trek for anyone with similar interests and a lust for adventure. Of course there are other ways to see El Mirador and with the right amount of funds you can do a Mel Gibson and helicopter your way in. But where’s the fun in that?
What new lesson did you learn?
The human race is capable of incredible feats and the ancient Maya were no exception to this. They had a written language and knowledge of celestial workings but they never invented the wheel. Because of this the temples and other structures we see today were built largely by hand with teams of men lifting immense limestone rocks into place. Millions of man-days labor were spent erecting La Danta alone and it’s a testament to the vision and determination of the former inhabitants of this part of the world.
Despite the impressive achievements of the ancient Maya their total abandonment of large cities like El Mirador undeniably reveals the fallibility of humans. These days most researchers agree that the reasons for the ancient Mayan civilizations collapse were multi-factorial. Environmental degradation, overuse of limited resources and war were largely to blame and these problems still plague many societies today. It’s a worrying thought indeed.
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If you would like to read more about El Mirador please click here for a great article