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...)
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.
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...
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.
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.
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...)
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.
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!
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!
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
Our fantastic group, Juan Carlos, Joel, Jeroen, Lars, Maria and myself.
The Danta pyramid
More pictures in the gallery section here.