A Travellerspoint blog

October 2013

Jungle Trek to El Mirador

(English version)

semi-overcast 30 °C
View Around The World on manolo84's travel map.

Here is a post which I meant to post back in August, from Guatemala, but it actually took me more time that I thought...
I am also planning to translate it in french soon so hang on there french readers! (I don't have the time actually...)

--------------------------------------------------------

El_mirador_schema.png

During my time in Mexico, I made some researches on the internet to know about the best treks to do in Central America and came across the ruins of El Mirador in the Guatemalan jungle. El Mirador was actually discovered a long time ago (I think in the 20´s) but the actual restoration work only started in the 80's and slowly, because of the lack of money (as usual). And in a way it is a shame because El Mirador is probably the biggest and one of the earliest Maya settlements in America, with the biggest pyramid in the world (according to National Geographic).

So this was my main goal when reaching Flores in Guatemala, first to find out if doing this trek was still possible (because we were in the rainy season) and if it was, to find a group to go with as it is more complicated and more expensive to go alone (and not as much fun).

After visiting Tikal and El Remate, I then arrived in the hostel Los Amigos and started straight away to chat with a Dutch guy sitting in the lounge area. And after exchanging our names and chatting a bit about our travels, he told me that he also was considering trekking to El Mirador in the next days. I had found my first trekking companion, Jeroen. And apparently Jeroen had been talking during the last days with a German guy travelling with his mother, who were also looking for people to join them to El Mirador. And that's how in less than an hour, we had a group of four: Jeroen, Lars and Maria.

El_Mirador_concept_art.png

El-Mirador-La-Danta-631.jpg

Time had now come to find out about prices and when we could start.

There are several tour agencies in Flores offering packages to trek to El Mirador, and the average price for a 5 days trek is about 250$ US, so not that cheap. Searching after reviews on the internet, we found out that the situation in Carmelita, the village from which all the treks depart, is quite complex. I will try to explain this in another post if I get the time but basically the locals are fighting a bit to be the only ones to guide tourists in the jungle, as this is a good business for them. So after going back and forth between agencies, we finally booked a 6 days trek (which avoids going back the same way you took and make you do a loop) for a total cost of 235$ US, which I think is one of the best deal we could find. It would possibly have been cheaper a year ago but these days, the prices for services have risen a bit.

And in the meantime, we had found (or rather we were found by) a new companion, who had heard us talking in the hostel about the trek. Joël, from Quebec, would be our last companion and our fantastic group was now complete, ready to battle through the jungle with the mosquitoes, jaguars and all the other ferocious animals the jungle has to offer... ;)

large_hotw_mirador_map.jpg

map.png

  • The Trek

The dry season being from January until May, starting our trek in the end of July meant that we would really be in the middle of the rainy season, and for this reason we decided to buy gumboots at the local market before leaving. As I said before, doing the 6 days version of the trek meant that we would be walking for two days before reaching El Mirador, then spend a full day around the site, talking with the archaeologists and seeing their most recent work, then carrying on walking for 3 more days to see other ruins before reaching back Carmelita on the morning of the 6th day.

  • Day 1 - 4 hours walk - 18km

Starting from Flores at 5am, we boarded the unique bus which goes to Carmelita, the last village before the jungle, and after a 3 hours bumpy journey and 2 different control points, we reached Carmelita in the morning and met our guide, cook and said hello to the lovely mules which would be carrying our bags. The first problem occurred when the local organisation which takes care of the trip, "la Cooperativa" told us that we had too much things to carry and that we didn't have enough mules to do so. Apparently they had contacted back the tour agency from which we had booked the trek but the only response they had received was to find a solution which doesn't involve more money (so no additional mules)... Nice...
Anyway after a little while the solution found was to take as much stuff we could with ourselves in our backpacks and that more food would be sent during the middle of the trip through another way.

Then we were on our way, Juan Carlos our guide leading the group through a small path filled in with mosquitoes, and clearing branches and other plants with his machete. It took us about 4 hours and a litre and a half of water each to reach the site of El Tintal where we would first camp.

El Tintal, which is the second largest city in the Maya World, lies then halfway between El Mirador and Carmelita. These two sites are linked through a 20 km long causeway, "la Caretera Maya". Tintal has monumental ruins scattered densely over a 9 km2 area, with at least 850 large structures up to 50m in height. What is surprising about the settlement pattern is that the civic centre is completely surrounded by an artificial moat of 2.2km long, 15m wide and 8 metres deep at places.

  • Day 2 - 6 hours - 21km

On day 2, after a big breakfast cooked by our cook Doña Marta, we started early (6am) following the ancient Mayan highway (unfortunately still not cleared and completely recovered by the trees and mud) and reached El Mirador after 6 hours of walking. It was not a surprise after my trip in the Peruvian jungle 2 years ago, but I still have to say that it is quite impressive to see these clouds of mosquitoes following us, all craving for fresh blood... So the goal was to never stop and carry on until we could reach our final destination (the mosquitoes are slow...).

In the process we passed through the complex of La Muerta (The Death) , an archaeological site which received its name from the chicleros some years ago following the sad death of the cook that accompanied them, bitten by a snake and far from any help... It is found approximately 3.5 km south of the encampment of El Mirador.

  • Day 3 - El Mirador visit

That day, we spent it relaxing our legs and visiting the different structures of El Mirador and the biggest pyramid in the world, la Danta. I have uploaded a few pictures and diagrams which you can see below (more in the gallery section).

The archaeological site of El Mirador includes La Danta, El Tigre, Los Monos, León, Tres Micos and Guacamaya Complex (group), the Great Central Acropolis and dozens of other smaller groups and structures. The monumental architectural constructions are accompanied by numerous homes scattered through the center of each site and other remote regions. The epicentre of the site is composed of the groups Eastern, Western and Los Cruces, covering an approximate area of 2.07 km2.

The Great Plaza of La Danta is one of the largest plazas in the entire Maya region, measuring up to 300 x 200 m. Unfortunately unlike Tikal, the excavation and restoration work is slower (always a money issue) and the entire site is still under trees and ground. I could give you more information about the size and all the work which has been achieved in El Mirador but if you are interested, the best is to check this website (ElMiradorHike) and download the pdf document (on the right - "the hike") which is very complete.

As a reward for our efforts, we ended that day by going to the top of the other pyramid (El Tigre) and watching the stars and the milky way around a bottle of rum (two things which were not allowed apparently, drinking and climbing in the dark...) :)

  • Day 4 - 3 hours - 10km

Starting another time early, this walk was quite easy compared to the other day (only 3 hours on a pretty much flat surface). I was just letting my buddies clearing out the path and getting all the spiders and cobwebs in their face... :)
So around 10am, we reached another site called Nakbé. This is probably one of the oldest Mayan site ever discovered and is also massive in size (but the pyramids are not as tall as the ones of El Mirador). We ended up spending the day going around the site (not much has been cleared and restored yet unfortunately) and trying to provoke the few howler monkeys which were around us and definitely not happy to find us in "their" territory.

  • Day 5 - 10 hours - 28km

This day was probably the toughest of all, starting early and still with our hiking shoes, we soon ended up in a very muddy area which was really hard to go through. It had rained a bit the day before and some parts of the track were really wet and even flooded. At first we were trying to avoid the mud and walk on the side of the track, but it quickly became clear that it wouldn't be enough and at that point I think all of us regretted not to have taken our gum boots which were travelling behind, on the mules... Anyway we all became wet with water above our ankles (or more) but after a while, with the warm weather, everything dried up quickly.

The other annoying things were the mosquitoes that day. Usually it would be fine as when you walk, they are mainly following you and are not really a bother. But that time for lunch, we had to stop in a clearing and mosquitoes were waiting for us to have their "lunch" as well... :)

Resuming our walk with some more bites then, it took us a total of 10 hours to reach the camp called La Florida, a small Mayan settlement with a few houses. I think our feet were definitely happy that the walk didn't last any longer!

  • Day 6 - 2 hours - 10km

Finally, our last day was quite an easy one. Waking up once again early, we started our walk by exploring the few ruins from the complex La Florida (a few Mayan houses) and then walked back in direction of Carmelita. The whole walk would take us around 2 hours and I can assure you that we were really glad to see the village and get ourselves a cold beer, well deserved!

  • Summary

This whole trek was definitely testing our fitness level and although not difficult technically, the conditions (high temperature, humidity, mosquitoes) made any walk quite a challenge. But at the end of each day we were rewarded by more ruins or pyramids and we also got to talk and share with archaeologists along the way, thing that you can hardly do when you visit other Mayan sites which are already fully or more than partially restored. The fact that there are very few tourists along the way (probably a group or two every day maximum, sometimes none) made that trek also special and off the beaten track of the traditional tourist trail.

The whole ruins are amazing (even though you definitely need a good dose of imagination to figure out how the whole thing looked like thousand years ago, when everything was all cleared, without the trees) and I would recommend it for any aficionado of Maya ruins who wants more than just a simple guided tour. This is really what you will get by trekking to El Mirador, a real feel of the Mayan culture and architecture.

The only negative points I would have would be concerning the organisation of the trek:

Firstly, we felt let down by our tour agency (Mayan princess) who basically left us on our own to deal with any issues which would arise (like the lack of a mule in the beginning to transport our bags) and who were really keen to sign us up for this trek at a certain price (235 US$) but once they realised that they would not have enough people to make a good margin out of us, were trying to make us pay more although the price had already been agreed upon long ago.

Secondly, the situation in Carmelita between the Cooperativa who now organises the treks and the independent guides and families who used to do the same for years is not healthy. Carmelita is a small village full of rivalry or so it seems and the fact that they cannot come to an arrangement between themselves makes that the tourists (us) are being caught in the middle and don't who is right and who is wrong. As someone said before on another blog (see link on the side), there is probably no one who understands perfectly the present situation in Carmelita and this makes it hard to support the local economy of this tiny village, even with the best will in the world. I just hope that the situation will clear up and that everyone will be able to work in good conditions in the future.

3D radar image of the La Danta structure (Mirador Basin Project, 2006

3D radar image of the La Danta structure (Mirador Basin Project, 2006

Our fantastic group, Juan Carlos, Joel, Jeroen, Lars, Maria and myself.

Our fantastic group, Juan Carlos, Joel, Jeroen, Lars, Maria and myself.

The Danta pyramid

The Danta pyramid

large_El_Mirador__136_.jpg

large_El_Mirador__69_.jpg

More pictures in the gallery section here.

Posted by manolo84 17:01 Archived in Guatemala Tagged ruins jungle english pyramids treks mayas Comments (9)

From Quito to Huaraz by bus


View Around The World on manolo84's travel map.

This time here is a post which differs a bit from the others as this is mainly an informational post for people who want to travel from Ecuador to Peru at a lower cost. I was looking for this type of advices myself when I was in Quito and wanted to go directly to Huaraz in Peru, but at the time there was only little information available on the internet. So here is the summary of my journey:

  • Quito to Guayaquil: 8 hours - 11$

I was originally planning to go straight to Huaquillas but someone recommended to go first to Guayaquil as there is a huge bus terminal there and it's easy to hop on any bus and compare the prices of the different companies.

I therefore went from Quito to Guayaquil for 11$ (8 hours) with Panamericana buses and left Quito in the Friday evening (10pm) to arrive in Guayaquil around 6am the next day.

  • Guayaquil to Piura: 12 hours - 10$

In the beginning my plan was to cross the border myself by stopping on the Ecuadorian side, getting my passport stamped, finding a taxi to cross the border and getting my passport stamped on the Peruvian side. From the lonely planet and other reviews I could read online, this border crossing is apparently the most dangerous or the most painful as it is frequent that taxis try to scam you (taking you somewhere else to take your money) or that fake policemen do the same.

outside-peru-customs.jpg

So the best was for me to book a bus which would stop at the immigration points, wait for me to get my passport stamped, and then carry on into Peru. I therefore booked a CIFA bus to Tumbes (Peruvian town near the border) for 10$ leaving at 7.20am (so only had to wait 1 hour in Guayaquil), and the bus stopped outside Huaquillas for the immigration (both Ecuadorian and Peruvian), then carried on to Tumbes.

That is actually what has changed recently. I believe the Ecuadorian and Peruvian authorities became aware of the problems at the border and decided intelligently to gather the immigration points in Huaquillas, which means that you also get the Peruvian stamped there, thus avoiding another stop on the other side of the border.

Carrying on, at Tumbes I went off the bus, got my bag and started to ask for other buses to Trujillo, but I was told that actually my bus was continuing after Tumbes until Piura, which was a better spot to hop on other buses. So I went back to my bus and left at Piura (without paying extra which was nice). The whole journey Guayaquil to Piura was quite long as in total from Guayaquil it took us 12 hours, arriving in Piura around 7pm.

With a bit of hindsight, I think the best is to take a bus directly to Huaquillas (like Panamericana) and find the CIFA bus station to hop on the same bus I took from Guayaquil. We were in Huaquillas around 11am-12pm so make sure you arrive early and you will save a few hours and probably a few dollars as well.

  • Piura to Chimbote: 10 hours - 35 soles

Then from Piura I took a taxi (5 soles) to the Chichay Suyo agency (as I was told they were the only ones going to Huaraz) and but found out that actually there weren't any direct bus to Huaraz and that instead I had to go to Chimbote (which is located after Trujillo) for 35 soles (10 hours). The bus wasn't the best (no space for legs, a bit smelly and making stops all the time) but I think you can take Itzza buses which are more comfortable for about the same price. We then left Piura at 10.30pm and arrived next morning at 7.30am.

  • Chimbote to Huaraz: 5 hours - 20 soles

The Chimbote bus terminal is quite big (a bit like Guayaquil) so it's easy to find a bus to your next destination. As soon as I arrived, I started to look for bus departing soon to Huaraz (I was thinking that I might as well get over with the whole journey as quickly as I could) and managed to find one with Alas Peruanas leaving immediately (for 20 soles)! So no time for coffee or breakfast unfortunately and we were on our way to Huaraz, where I would arrive 5 hours later, at 1pm.

So to sum up this was quite a long journey but the bus times worked perfectly as I only had to wait 1 hour in Guayaquil and 3 hours in Piura. The total bus time was then 35 hours for a price of about 43 US$. I think I saved a lot doing things that way rather than taking an expensive Ormeño bus (which are going daily from Quito to Trujillo for about 80US$). I was going to Huaraz but if you go to Lima, you can find bus services to the capital in both Piura and Chimbote as well so not really an issue there.

The only thing you need to be aware now when planning to cross the border, is that both the Lonely Planet and Rough Guides are wrong as you do not need to go to Peru to get your passport stamped, it all happens in one place now (as mentioned above).

View of a Peruvian canyon from my bus window

View of a Peruvian canyon from my bus window

Posted by manolo84 09:40 Archived in Ecuador Tagged buses english immigration Comments (0)

Quito y Mitad del Mundo

Quito and the Middle of the World


View Around The World on manolo84's travel map.

My post about Ecuador will not be long as I only had enough time to visit Quito and its surroundings.

There are quite a few things to do in Ecuador, for the adventurous trekkers who wish to climb the Cotopaxi volcano (5,897 m), or the wildlife lovers who want to explore the Galapagos islands for example. The Amazonian basin is also quite popular with boats going to Iquitos in Peru, and other towns and places which are popular among the Ecuadorian and foreigner tourists.

A trip to the Galapagos is indeed very expensive (at least 1500 US$) for a one week trip on a boat (+ the flights) so I will probably come back during another journey, when my budget will be more consequent, as all the people I met and who went there definitely had a great experience.

So my primarily aim this time was to reach Peru (Huaraz) as quickly as I could, and therefore I only took the time to take a few shots in the capital and also took the opportunity to visit the city called Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) where the Equator line is passing through. Nothing amazing nor extraordinary but something to cross off my checklist! ;)

Woman of the Apocalypse, by night

Woman of the Apocalypse, by night


The Cathedral of Quito, by night

The Cathedral of Quito, by night


The Cathedral of Quito

The Cathedral of Quito


Couple praying inside the cathedral

Couple praying inside the cathedral


large_Ecuador__5_.jpg
Mitad del Mundo

Mitad del Mundo


500m further, the real GPS-calculated line of the equator. One foot in each hemisphere then! <img class='img' src='https://tp.daa.ms/img/emoticons/icon_smile.gif' width='15' height='15' alt=':)' title='' />

500m further, the real GPS-calculated line of the equator. One foot in each hemisphere then! :)


large_Ecuador__8_.jpg

Posted by manolo84 16:53 Archived in Ecuador Tagged cities english Comments (0)

Short stop in Colombia


View Around The World on manolo84's travel map.

Colombia is definitely a nice country, one where you could get stuck in a few months or even years. There is just too much to see, from the burning Caribbean coast, to the cold mountainous Andes where Bogota is, via the Coffee region or again the huge Amazonian basin. And that is just a quick overview really. So you can understand my frustration when I realised how big South America was and that I wouldn't be able to see everything in Colombia given the amount of time I had, roughly 3 weeks....

  • Cartagena

From the moment we set foot on land, after having sailed from several days from Panama, we got welcomed by the buzzing life and burning sun of Cartagena. Trying to walk around the old city in the afternoon was virtually impossible, you would end up sweating buckets just after a few minutes... So I didn't do a lot of things there, but mainly exploring the city sights which included the old spanish forts, a covent overlooking the whole city, a bath in the mud-volcano nearby (more a tourist trap really), enjoying the night life with my sailing companions and a few days recovering from a bad cold I had caught from the air-conditioning of the hostel I was staying at.

large_Cartagena__3_.jpg
large_Cartagena__10_.jpg
large_Cartagena__104_.jpg

  • Santa Marta

Same coast, and same story concerning the weather: suffocating... Santa Marta has not much to offer itself but its location makes it a really good starting point for the nice beaches around, for the Lost City trek (which I didn't do) or for the Tayrona national park nearby.

Aidan impassive when a thunderstorm suddenly appeared

Aidan impassive when a thunderstorm suddenly appeared

  • Tayrona National Park

Tayrona National Park is located on the east side of Santa Marta, and is a wonderland to watch wildlife (mainly birds), enjoy some of the best beaches of the country, even though swimming in some of them is not allowed, due to the very rough seas and under currents. There is no road access there, at least not direct so the way to access these beaches and the few managed camps is to trek for a few hours and rent a hammock or tent (or bring your own) and then relax for a few days with the sound of the waves in the background... When we were there, beginning of the low-season, it was not too much packed. However I can imagine the same camp with hundreds of tents around and I think the place will lose a bit of its charm. Anyway, this was the perfect place to relax after our boat journey, but 2 or 3 days were sufficient as it is easy to get bored after a while...

Just before leaving though, we decided to go for a little "walk" inside the park to an old Indian village. A path made of loose rocks takes you to their ancient ruins. It was designed thus by the Tayrona Indians of old, as a warning sign of outsiders approaching their habitat. The trek to the ruins takes a couple of hours and is pretty arduous as you have to crawl your way through hand-carved tunnels and negotiate huge boulders, the whole thing whilst the sun burns every inch of your skin...

large_Tayrona_Park__3_.jpg
large_Tayrona_Park__9_.jpg
Monkeys into the wild...

Monkeys into the wild...


large_Tayrona_park__Aidan___5_.jpg

  • Bogotá

I could not have ended this Colombian tour without paying a visit to the capital and therefore after 2 weeks spent along the Caribbean coast, I decided to reach the high and cold Bogotá and take the opportunity to meet again with my friend Lars with whom I had done the El Mirador trek, back in Guatemala a few months ago. As every capital city, Bogotá is big, noisy, some areas are a bit dangerous but it doesn't stop this lively city to offer to the tourists many things, whether you want to visit the museums, the different parks, do some sightseeing, enjoy the night life or explore the neighbouring villages like Zipaquira and its salt cathedral, Guatavita and its quiet atmosphere near the lake...

large_Bogota_Roland___7_.jpg
large_Zipaquira__4_.jpg
The Salt Cathedral in Zipaquira

The Salt Cathedral in Zipaquira


Find the mistake... <img class='img' src='https://tp.daa.ms/img/emoticons/icon_smile.gif' width='15' height='15' alt=':)' title='' />

Find the mistake... :)


Lars and Johanna in Guatavita

Lars and Johanna in Guatavita


The Lourdes church in Bogotá

The Lourdes church in Bogotá

Posted by manolo84 16:03 Archived in Colombia Tagged beaches cathedrals cities nature forts english treks Comments (0)

Sailing to Colombia

via the San Blas islands....


View Around The World on manolo84's travel map.

As I mentioned previously in my last post, I did not want to fly over to Colombia so the only other option (other than taking a machete, making my way through the Darién Gap and taking the risk of being kidnapped by the FARCs) was to take a boat and sail to Cartagena. The prices are quite steep (between 500 and 550 US$) but so are the flights between Panama and Colombia and besides you get to visit some of the most gorgeous islands in the world, the San Blas islands.

[It is possible to find a similar journey for a cheaper price (350 US$) but this is by speedboat where you go through the islands and by doing this way, you are being dropped straight at the Colombian's border and not in Cartagena.]

So in Portobelo (Panama), we got introduced to Ariel and her crew Hannah and Max who were going to be responsible for us for the whole trip (6 days). Ariel owns the boat but for this trip she had also hired a captain who has sailed on all the seas of the globe, Chris, a South African national.

So in the morning of the 5th of September, the 4 crew members and us the 8 passengers raised the anchor and started to sail aboard a nice sailing boat called One World. More information about the boat and crew can be found here.

During the first day we were supposed to refill in gas in one bay nearby but unfortunately due to technical issues of the gas station, we had to stop for the night there instead of sailing overnight to the islands. Anyway not a problem as the next morning we were leaving the bay at 6am and a few hours later, we would reach the first islands and had a first gasp on this piece of heaven.

The first days were therefore dedicated to do some snorkelling in the reef around the islands,fishing, making a campfires, sailing to different places and swimming around the boat when we could. In the last two days, we started our journey from the islands to Cartagena and arrived in the morning of the 10th September, in the Cartagena canal, with a view on all the skyscrapers of the new part of Cartagena.

The whole journey was just fantastic, the crew was very friendly and professional, and our whole group was a good mix of European culture with the British, Irish, Italian, Swiss and French countries being represented, all getting well along with each other! :)

And if I had to choose a highlight of this journey, this would probably be when we stopped in the middle of nowhere to swim around the boat. At that time we were right in the middle between Panama and Cartagena with no coast in sight. We were swimming in the most blue water I have ever seen, with 2000 meters under our feet.... A truly amazing experience.

And here are a few pictures taken from this trip:

Our sailing boat by night

Our sailing boat by night


First catch (and last) the first day!

First catch (and last) the first day!


Jumping off the boat

Jumping off the boat


Sunset

Sunset


Our campfire

Our campfire


One of the San Blas islands

One of the San Blas islands


More islands

More islands


Captain Chris

Captain Chris


A compass, apparently I have been told it can be useful on a boat...

A compass, apparently I have been told it can be useful on a boat...


Our companion for a part of the crossing, quite tired

Our companion for a part of the crossing, quite tired


People chilling out

People chilling out


Another sunset...

Another sunset...


The first fort of Cartagena, when entering the bay

The first fort of Cartagena, when entering the bay


The skyscrapers of Cartagena

The skyscrapers of Cartagena


A cargo ship exiting the bay

A cargo ship exiting the bay


A statue in the middle of the bay, not sure what is represents...

A statue in the middle of the bay, not sure what is represents...


Our fantastic group (From left to right, top to bottom: Max, Rory, Aidan, Archie, Pablo, Fabian, second row: Chris, Ben, Hannah, Ariel, Stephanie and myself)

Our fantastic group (From left to right, top to bottom: Max, Rory, Aidan, Archie, Pablo, Fabian, second row: Chris, Ben, Hannah, Ariel, Stephanie and myself)

Posted by manolo84 21:47 Archived in Panama Tagged boats snorkelling english Comments (4)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 6) Page [1] 2 » Next