A Travellerspoint blog

Guatemala

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)

Lago de Atitlán


View Around The World on manolo84's travel map.

The next step of my travels took me to the Lake Atitlán, one of the most beautiful lake in the world, according to Aldous Huxley. I had several purposes for going there, the first of course was to admire the lake and its wonderful scenery (the lake, located at an altitude of 1500m, is surrounded by 4 volcanoes which give a surreal atmosphere to the lake), to relax and spend a week in a quiet place to try to do a bit of yoga, and also to take a week of spanish classes.

Guatemala is one of the cheapest places to learn Spanish (20h = 80$ with an individual teacher) and Santa Cruz de la Laguna, around the Lake Atitlán seemed to be the perfect location. Besides I had the opportunity to stay the entire week with a local Maya family, living and eating with them every day.

The whole experience was indeed really interesting, the family I stayed with was really nice and I now feel that my spanish has improved a lot, which is definitely going to help me for the next months when I will be travelling in the rest of Central and South America.

There is not much else to say as it a very quiet week so I will just let you admire the different photos I have taken that week, including a bonus video, lucky you! :)

large_Santa_Cruz__13_.jpg

large_Santa_Cruz__18_.jpg
The morning were dedicated to study spanish, with an healthy breakfast and amazing view

large_Santa_Cruz__33_.jpg
large_Santa_Cruz__39_.jpg
large_Santa_Cruz__44_.jpg
large_Santa_Cruz__51_.jpg
large_Santa_Cruz__55_.jpg

large_Santa_Cruz__61_.jpg
A little puppy which crossed my road one morning as I was hiking around the lake

large_Santa_Cruz__69_.jpg
large_Santa_Cruz__77_.jpg

large_Santa_Cruz__115_.jpg
Making tortillas with the family I was staying with

large_Santa_Cruz__126_.jpg
A part of the family which offered me shelter that week

large_Santa_Cruz__129_.jpg

Posted by manolo84 16:25 Archived in Guatemala Tagged lakes nature volcanoes Comments (3)

Antigua


View Around The World on manolo84's travel map.

Après avoir passé donc 2 jours in Semuc Champey, ce qui était suffisant je pense, je décidai de continuer ma route vers le sud en direction d'Antigua, l'ancienne capitale historique du Guatemala, avant que de nombreux tremblements de terre ne décident les autorités à changer la capitale pour ce qui est maintenant Guatemala City (que je ne fis que traverser).

Antigua est apparemment très prisée des touristes, pour son architecture coloniale de style baroque et de Renaissance espagnole ainsi que pour ses ruines causées donc par les deux tremblements de terre de 1773. Pour se repérer dans la ville, c'est simple, les rues sont à angles droits et à chaque fois que vous demandez la direction pour telle ou telle endroit, les habitants se réfèrent au blocs de rues plutôt qu'à leur nom: "là vous continuez pendant deux blocs tout droit puis un bloc à gauche et vous y êtes"... Ce qui est aussi vrai pour la plupart des villes coloniales espagnoles (au Mexique aussi) construites après donc les années 1500.

Beaucoup de touristes viennent aussi à Antigua pour son atmosphère très "relax", ses nombreuses auberges de jeunesse, sa vie nocturne avec bars et clubs, ainsi que les nombreuses écoles qui proposent des cours d'espagnol à un bon prix. La ville a conservé aussi son influence Maya et on peut y trouver des magasins d'arts Maya à tous les coins de rue ou presque.

Antigua__6_.jpg

Antigua__25_.jpg

Antigua__26_.jpg

Personnellement, j'ai bien aimé la ville mais la présence de nombreux "gringos" (comprendre: anglophones ne parlant pas un mot d'espagnol et ne désirant pas faire d'efforts) fait perdre un peu de charme à la ville je trouve (encore plus que San Cristobal au Mexique) donc je n'ai pas souhaité trop m'y attarder, mais juste le temps de flâner un peu dans les rues et les marchés, prendre quelques photos, boire quelques coups avec des amis rencontrés en auberge de jeunesse et aussi en profiter pour grimper un des volcans qui entoure la ville.

Antigua__20_.jpg

Antigua__11_.jpg

Antigua__9_.jpg
Les Gens d'R à Antigua... :)

Antigua__3_.jpg

Antigua__44_.jpg
Dégustation de café Guatémaltèque

Antigua__46_.jpg
Une machine à café authentique

En effet, la ville est entourée de 3 grands volcans (ce qui rend les tremblements de terres logiques car c'est une zone sismique assez active). Le plus imposant, au sud de la ville, est le Volcán de Agua (Volcan d'Eau), dont le sommet est à 3766 mètres de haut. Quand les espagnols arrivèrent pour la première fois, les habitants de l'endroit (les Mayas Kakchikel), l'appelaient Hunapú (et certains l'appellent encore ainsi). Cependant, il devint connu comme Volcán de Agua après que de la lave provenant de du volcan enterra le deuxième site de la capitale, ce qui décida les autorités espagnoles de déplacer la capitale là où se trouve maintenant Antigua. Le site original fait maintenant place à un petit village appelé San Migual Escobar.

large_Antigua__54_.jpg

A l'ouest de la ville se trouve une autre paire de volcans, l'Acatenango, qui entra en éruption pour la dernière fois en 1972 (3976 mètres) et le Volcán de Fuego (à 3763 mètres de haut). "Fuego" est connu pour être quasi-constamment actif à un bas niveau. Des jets de vapeur et des gaz sont rejetés chaque jour, et la dernière grande éruption date de Septembre 2012.

Mais le volcan que je décidais de grimper (via un tour organisé) est le volcan Pacaya, volcan aussi toujours actif. Il entra en éruption il y a approximativement 23 000 années et entra en éruption au moins 23 fois depuis l'invasion espagnole au Guatemala. Le sommet se trouve à 2552 mètres et après s'être "endormi" pendant plus d'un siècle, il décida de se réveiller brutalement en 1965 et de fréquentes éruptions se produisent constamment depuis. La dernière grande éruption se produisit en Mai 2010, causant des pluies de cendres sur Guatemala City, Antigua et Escuintla. Personnellement je pensais que nous pourrions voir de la lave active mais cela en fait dépend vraiment des jours et le jour où nous y sommes allés, nous pouvions voir de la fumée s’échapper du volcan mais malheureusement point de lave...

Cependant notre guide avait apporté des marshmallows et nous avons pu les "rôtir" au sommet, car des poches d'air brulant s’échappent du volcan constamment. Bon, les marshmallows rôtis par un volcan, c'est pas très bon, mais c'est quand même assez cool... ;)
D'ailleurs j'avais profité de la randonnée pour prendre une petite vidéo et vous montrer en direct la vue à laquelle j'ai pu assister:

Pacaya_Volcano__2_.jpg
Notre petit groupe de randonnée

large_Pacaya_Volcano__12_.jpg
Vue panoramique des autres volcans, depuis le Pacaya

Pacaya_Volcano__15_1_.jpg
Erik, Lieke et moi-même, mes companions Antiguans

Pacaya_Volcano__37_.jpg
Un des trous sur le volcan desquels sorte constamment de la fumée

Pacaya_Volcano__38_.jpg
Un paysage lunaire....

Pacaya_Volcano__41_.jpg
Nos marshmallows rôtis!

large_Pacaya_Volcano__43_.jpg

Pacaya_Volcano__49_.jpg
Un chien, en haut d'un volcan... rien de plus normal...

Posted by manolo84 21:43 Archived in Guatemala Tagged cities volcanoes french Comments (2)

Semuc Champey


View Around The World on manolo84's travel map.

Next on the list of the places to visit in Guatemala was Antigua (I had no particular interest in visiting Guatemala city) but in Flores everybody was talking about a place called Semuc Champey which apparently was wonderful. As this stop was on my way to Antigua, I told myself "why not?" and hopped on a bus (8 hours journey) to Lanquin, a small Maya town where Semuc Champey is.

Semuc_Champey__1_.jpg
The river and the ferry our bus had to taken to cross over

Semuc Champey actually consists of a natural 300m limestone bridge, under which passes the Cahabón River. Atop the bridge is a series of stepped, turquoise pools, a popular swimming attraction according to the different reviews I got.

And indeed, there is definitely an "air de paradis" there:

Semuc_Champey__60_.jpg

Semuc_Champey__80_.jpg

Semuc_Champey__89_.jpg

Semuc_Champey__93_.jpg

Semuc_Champey__105_.jpg

The view from the window of my hostel...

The view from the window of my hostel...

Lanquin__13__small.jpg

Semuc_Champey__7_.jpg
A good way to clean your tuktuk...

Semuc_Champey__26_.jpg
Me jumping of a swing directly in the river. A very academic jump... :)

Semuc_Champey__102_.jpg
A bit squeezed no?

Semuc_Champey__98_.jpg

Posted by manolo84 23:11 Archived in Guatemala Tagged rivers nature Comments (0)

Tikal


View Around The World on manolo84's travel map.

After Belize, the next logical destination was therefore Guatemala and following my guidebook, I passed the border to end up in a small village called El Remate. This village has nothing really to offer except a quiet environment and astonishing views of the lake of Petén. But it is also located close to Tikal, probably one of the most famous Mayan cities in Central America.

So the next morning after dropping my backpack in El Remate, I decided to book a tour departing at 3.30am to see the sunrise from one of the main temples in Tikal. Tikal has not been fully restored and cleared yet (only 20% we were told by our guide) but it is definitely the most impressive site I have seen so far... Unfortunately that day, the clouds invited themselves and I could not see the magnificent sunrise in all its glory as we were promised. However I could witness the whole forest and its wildlife waking up (monkeys especially) and this is still worth the extra money paid to enter the park at 4am before the official opening at 6am.

One could easily spend a day or two going around each ruin, each pyramid and besides you do not get disturbed by the cohorts of tourists like in Chichén Itzá for example. There are other people in the park but it is so vast that you can easily stroll around by yourself and feel like you are the only one in the place.

In the middle of the video, I suddenly stopped (2'13'') and tried to focus the camera on a massive spider next to me, unfortunately I couldn't but I didn't talk so some people could wonder what the hell am I doing at that moment... :)

Ok, the monkeys are definitely hard to see in this video but I promise you some better footage in the next posts.

large_Tikal_ruins__14_.jpg
large_Tikal_ruins__48_.jpg
large_Tikal_ruins__56_.jpg
large_Tikal_ruins__61_.jpg
large_Tikal_ruins__74_.jpg
large_Tikal_ruins__50_.jpg
A toucan, shame it wasn't closer...
large_Tikal_ruins__33__small.jpg
A nice little creature which I almost stepped on...

Posted by manolo84 11:56 Archived in Guatemala Tagged ruins pyramids mayas Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 5) Page [1]