Sunday, April 13, 2014

El Mirador

Oh, El Mirador. Where to begin with this jungle adventure? I suppose from the beginning. That would make sense. While staying in Flores, we decided it'd be cool to hike for days into the jungle to find the ruins that mark what was once a very large, pre-Colombian Mayan settlement. El Mirador wasn't discovered until 1926 and had little attention paid to it until the 1960's. To the surprise of archaeologists, it was discovered to have been constructed centuries before any of the other ruins in the area, such as Tikal. There is a lot of interesting history here, but what I found to be most amazing is that El Mirador is home to one of the largest pyramids in the world (which you'll see below)!

So, our adventure began at 4:30 in the morning. We waited outside our hostel, nervous to see whether or not our sketchy tour agency was in fact going to come and pick us up as promised. (P.S. - don't use ONCA Travel Agency in Flores if ever there!)  They did come, but also proved to be bad people with a bad business later on. Anyways, we traveled by chicken bus (Guatemala's colorful, crammed, and suuuuper smooth riding school buses - they are very cheap though, so, you get what you pay for I suppose) to the very small town of Carmelita. 

I was told by our cook, María, a native of Carmelita, that back in the 20's Carmelita was a beautiful & lively town; with movie theaters and shops. It's hard to picture that nowadays, with it's aged, dusty, rusted over appearance and dry, arid conditions. No matter where you go though - you can always grab a coke. They still sell coke in glass bottles here - it's even sweetened with real sugar cane! And yes, you do notice a difference. 

We were fed before we took off for the day, before we knew what we were about to endure. Eggs, beans, tortillas and coffee. Good & simple. We dined under a thatched roof with dirt floors. I remember thinking how neat and rustic it all felt, feeling excited to head into the jungle. Little did I know how excited I'd be to get the hell out of there in a few day's time. 

Our bellies were full and we were off. We were joined by two other men, Erdal from D.C. (originally from Cyprus), and Thomas the Irishman. We were immediate pals and quickly became a jungle family. 
The first day was easy. Only a 6 hour hike. 

Below Lindsay & Josh admire "los árboles del amor", or, trees in love. A brutal love - this is actually one tree being overtaken by another plant, known as a strangler fig, which will actually grow on another tree and climb up it towards the sunlight. These greedy lovers can eventually strangle and kill the other tree. 

We walked along Mayan highways, or causeways, that internally connected important architectural compounds as well as linked other external ancient cities within the Mirador basin. The quantity and size of these causeways is another notable feature of El Mirador. We even crossed ancient paddle ball courts where men were once selected to play to represent their city. When you lost you not only lost some dignity but also your head. Mayan hunger game action up in this jungle.

 Here is the view from atop one of the first pyramids we encountered. Much of this area has yet to be excavated and simply appears as a large hill in the jungle. In the distance here you can see another pyramid. That is the large pyramid known as El Tigre, where we'd climb to another day to catch the sunrise.

We made it in time to enjoy sunset. It had been a fairly long, very hot and very sweaty walk and it was great to be able to sit and enjoy such a wonderful view for a bit. 

The Jungle Fam

 Marissa the yoga goddess

We got to our camp and enjoyed one of the best fried chickens I've ever had. I really don't know how our cook, María, did it but, damn - that chicken was good. 

I headed back into the jungle after dinner with Erdal to climb the pyramid we had climbed earlier once more to see the stars. It was a bit tedious in the dark, with only one headlamp to share and scorpions roaming about but it was well worth it. A good glimpse of a clear night sky is always worth it. On the lower, left-ish side you can see Orion. The entire Milky Way shone so bright, and I swear you could see the curve of the Earth. I could stare at a sky like that forever and never know any time passed. I thought of you, Jackie Bolinger and wished you were there with me to marvel at such beauty and talk about the insanity that is space. Like when we used to sneak out of our houses just to go lay in the grass somewhere and talk all night. 

We were up early, shortly after sunrise. We had some time to gather ourselves and pack up before beginning our 8 hour hike to the next camp. 

We made it to La Muerta that day and got our first glimpse of some excavated temples. We climbed about and rested for awhile and got a good chance to sit and talk to our incredible guide, Miguel. Miguel was a soldier in Guatemala's gruesome civil war that was fought for 36 years (1960-1996).
The war raged on mostly between Guatemala's government and various rebel groups that were supported by the rural poor - ethnic Mayan indigenous people and Ladino peasants. In the 60's Guatemala's security forces began using forced disappearances against the people, with 40,000-50,000 people having "disappeared" over the war's span. These were the country's indigenous activists, journalists, students and critical academics, suspected government opponents, left-leaning politicians and street children.

On a lighter note, I spy a Mernrat...

From Joshua at the top to Lindsay at the bottom, we're all in there! 

We had the chance to go inside one of the temples, where bodies were buried. The entrance and passageways were low and narrow and you had to nearly crawl to get through.

We were not alone in there - bats hung along the top and in crevices, flying around enough for us to feel the light breeze from their passing bodies.

We stayed 2 nights at the next camp in the heart of El Mirador. Here's where the employees that maintained the camp stayed. They live here in stints of 20 days at a time. 

In our cozy kitchen with Thomas either enjoying some delicious instant coffee or the actually delicious tea that was brewed each day for us made from a leaf picked from the jungle during our hike. It smelled like clove and with the addition of some sugar and "smilk" (powdered milk) resembled the warm, spicy goodness of a chai tea.

María preparing our pasta and toasted bread for dinner. 
At night, we not only had to protect ourselves against mosquitoes but we had to dodge scorpions! One night we watched as the men that worked at a camp killed scorpion after scorpion. Last I heard they had counted up to 21. That was only in the area that surrounded our tents. 

It's not the best picture, but, here's one of the little suckers. 

On the 3rd day Melissa and I woke up with Miguel at 4:30 to catch sunrise. We climbed to the top of  the El Tigre pyramid, which rises above the canopy at 180 ft. The howler monkeys were going crazy at this time and echoed through the trees with their raucous banter. It almost sounded like lions roaring and you could hear different groups of them from different directions. 

The sun rose slowly and inch by inch spread it's golden rays over the treetops. Below you can see the shadow of the pyramid we stood upon, listening as the jungle awoke with the sun. It was the monkey's hoots and hollers first, then came the buzz of the insects, followed next by the calls & whistles of countless birds. They all joined in and created quite the jungle symphony.


One of those birds being "el pavo real". When we got back to camp this handsome fella was strutting across an open field. His call was one I'll never forget - sounding almost like a drum of sorts at times.

It's hard to imagine what these ancient cities once looked like. Many of the structures are barely, if at all unearthed, meaning we literally just touched the surface of another world that lay hundreds of feet beneath ours. 

All of these trunks met and became one giant tree. 

Excavating a site like this is a very long, slow process. Miguel estimated that in maybe 50 years El Mirador will be excavated and mostly visible like other popular ruins in the area. 

If you look closely above you can see an X marking where I stood taking this picture. We stood at the very base of the platform atop which these pictured pyramids sat. Where we'd hike to was the very top of La Danta, the central pyramid in this drawing. La Danta measures about 230 ft. tall and has a total volume of 2,800,000 cubic meters, making it one of the largest in the world. Most of what is seen above has yet to be unearthed. 

Here are the stairs that merely bring you on to the platform. 

The very top most part of La Danta.

Hey Cupani - thanks for my rocks! 

We saw countless spider and howler monkeys each day. They would actually come to us while we were hiking, just as curious about us as we were them. They would watch us and stare down as we stared up. Then they would look you in the eye as they dropped tree branches down on you. Others would get pretty aggressive and jump around shaking the branches in an apparent attempt to scare us away. 

Extremely well preserved glyphs of Mayan gods and spirits. 

It's hard to see but some even had the original red and black painting that once colored these ruins. 

After two days of exploring central El Mirador we were headed out. This is where times got tough. Our first day heading out we walked for 11 hours. At this point I had a swollen knee with a possible meniscus tear,  Melissa had a rolled and swollen ankle, and Marissa had ridiculously swollen ankles and feet  that acted like memory foam when you poked or touched them. Weird stuff was happening to us in that jungle and we were ready to be out of there. Cue the bitterness as we so uncomfortably drug our bodies out of there with no option but to just keep walking. We were sweaty and had been without any chance to shower or rinse off in any way for 6 days, hungry - as our food rations had dwindled and left us with fairly pathetic meals of old refried beans and tortillas and warm, filtered rain water for drinking. Our bodies were stiff and sore after having slept in tents with no padding and only a couple blankets and no pillows. Each morning when we'd wake, everything was damp and uncomfortable and we were left with clothes that had already been worn for days. Clothes whose mere memory of their stench will haunt my nostrils for years to come. We marched on in silence for most of the next 2 days. Adding insult to injury, we took a bumpy chicken bus ride out of there and were so covered in dust from the dry country roads that we looked like we had aged 50 years. But, we did it! We survived El Mirador. Never to forget it, and never to return again. 


  1. Wow...I wish i could have gotten a whiff of you. I love this blog. Pics are amazing. Love the history you are sharing with us.