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Jungle Trek to El Mirador

(English version)

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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 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



More pictures in the gallery section here.

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

Copán Ruinas

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After spending then a week in the wonderful and quiet environment of the lake Attitlán, I was happy and relaxed but was really looking forward to come back to civilisation. I had seen most of the places and things I wanted to see in Guatemala and time had now come to carry on down south, to Honduras.

During my travels in Mexico and in Belize, I had had several opportunities to go scuba diving but the high prices for the certifications had discouraged me slightly. Besides everyone was saying that Honduras and the Bay Islands are one of the best places in the world to dive (thanks to the coral reef) and probably one of the cheapest as well. So it is with this intention that I was leaving lake Atitlán and the very nice people I had met there, to head off straight to the Caribbean coast of Honduras, to resume my scuba diving practice that I had stopped 14 years ago.

Unfortunately even though it looks quite close on the map, I had to go back and stay in Antigua for a few nights (and recover from a food poisoning I had experienced when leaving Atitlán) then make a stop in Copán Ruinas in Honduras near the border, before eventually reaching Utila, one of the Bay Islands in Honduras.

But whilst the bus journeys are most of the time long and boring, they are also a fantastic opportunity to meet people. In Antigua, I could meet again a couple of friends I had met in Mexico a month and a half earlier (by the way Maël and Suna, we didn't even take a picture together!), which is always fun and nice, and in the bus journey to Copán, I would meet my companions for the next week to go (same thing, Thomas, Patty, Roscio and Chris, who forgot to take the group picture !? ;) )

And as I had to stop for the night in Copán, I took the opportunity to visit its famous Maya ruins, which are not the biggest ones ever, but the ones with the most preserved carvings, which actually look quite impressive. When looking at the pictures below, you also need to realise that all these statues and stelae were full of colours, which over the time faded away...

Another field to play the famous "Juego de pelota" (Ball game)

Another field to play the famous "Juego de pelota" (Ball game)

Chris, I'm sure you are trying to say something very important here... Roscio seems captivated as well... <img class='img' src='https://tp.daa.ms/img/emoticons/icon_smile.gif' width='15' height='15' alt=':)' title='' />

Chris, I'm sure you are trying to say something very important here... Roscio seems captivated as well... :)

Three macaws posing for posterity near the ruins...

Three macaws posing for posterity near the ruins...

Posted by manolo84 09:48 Archived in Honduras Tagged ruins pyramids mayas Comments (0)


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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.

A toucan, shame it wasn't closer...
A nice little creature which I almost stepped on...

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

Chichén Itzá

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Although not my favourite maya site I have visited so far, I couldn't not talk about Chichén Itzá and show you some pictures. Compared to other sites I have already talked about before, this one looks a bit like Disneyland... a LOT of tourists, especially waves of people from the U.S coming from nearby Cancún and exclaiming every 30 seconds "wooaa that's so nice" (even in front of the toilet sign). I'm exagerating a little but not too much...
Anyway the site is huge and the buildings have been remarquably well restaured, although you cannot climb anymore on the pyramids and various stairs in order to preserve the buildings intacts. That's why I am comparing this to Disneyland, it's nice, huge but lots of people everywhere and you cannot go anywhere off the beaten track nor climb the structures. Besides what I liked about Palenque was the fact that their ruins were in the middle of the jungle. Here all the trees have been cut to facilitate the access to the public.

I didn't have much time to visit as I made just a short stop on my way from Merida to Tulum, but I was lucky as it suddenly started to rain, making the hordes of tourists to disappear under some shelters and trees, leaving the whole place for me and my camera... :)

For a bit of history, Chichén Itzá was a major economic power in the northern Maya lowlands during its apogee (roughly 600 AD). Participating in the water-borne circum-peninsular trade route through its port site of Isla Cerritos on the north coast, Chichén Itzá was able to obtain locally unavailable resources from distant areas such as obsidian from central Mexico and gold from southern Central America.

Between AD 900 and 1050 Chichen Itza expanded to become a powerful regional capital controlling north and central Yucatán but started to decline around 1250. While Chichén Itzá "collapsed" or fell (meaning elite activities ceased) it may not have been abandoned. When the Spanish arrived, they found a thriving local population, although it is not clear from Spanish sources if Maya were living in Chichen Itza or nearby. The relatively high density of population in the region was one of the factors behind the conquistadors' decision to locate a capital there. According to post-Conquest sources, both Spanish and Maya, the Cenote Sagrado, next to which Chitzén Itzá was built, remained a place of pilgrimage.

The sacred cenote
This is where mayas were playing the "ball game" which included sacrificing/beheading the losers. You can see on the right and at the bottom the structures where the kings and other nobles were standing, overlooking the field.

Posted by manolo84 11:02 Archived in Mexico Tagged ruins pyramids mayas Comments (0)

On my way to Puebla

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As I said before, after spending a bit of time in Mexico City, time had come to start going south and my first stop was Puebla, a old spanish colonial city located about 2 hours drive south of Mexico City.

The best way to travel through Mexico is by bus (there are no trains or very few I have been told) and the bus network is apparently very good. A one-way ticket to Puebla costs about 140 pesos for a 2 hours journey (about 7£) in a fist class bus, which involves a large bus with air conditioned, movies on board, ticket for your backpack wich goes in the bus (for more security), security checks to make sure no one is carrying any weapons, and someone takes a photo of all the passengers before the journey (not sure why to be honest..). For longer journeys, toilets are also available in the bus. Ok, you will tell me "hey that's not really travelling like Indiana Jones!", but for that price, well Indiana Jones will wait. I'm sure there will be plenty of occasions later on when I will regret not having toilets onboard so for this time it's ok... :)

Puebla is quite small compared to Mexico City (well every city is small compared to Mexico City...). From Wikipedia, the city was founded in 1531 in an area called Cuetlaxcoapan, which means "where serpents change their skin", in between of two of the main indigenous settlements at the time, Tlaxcala and Cholula. This valley was not populated in the 16th century as in the pre-Hispanic period. Due to its history and architectural styles ranging from Renaissance to Mexican Baroque, the city was named a World Heritage Site in 1987. The city is also famous for mole poblano, chiles en nogada and Talavera pottery. The cathedral is worth having a look, as well as all the little streets with houses from every colours.


30 min away from Puebla is Cholula, another city which hosts the largest uncovered pyramid in the world, also known as Tlachihualtepetl (Nahuatl for "artificial mountain"), which is a huge complex. It is the largest archaeological site of a pyramid (temple) in the New World. The pyramid stands 55 metres above the surrounding plain and in its final form it measured 400 by 400 metres. The pyramid is a temple that has traditionally been viewed as having been dedicated to the god Quetzalcoatl and apparently the architectural style of the building was closely linked to Teotihuacan.


Posted by manolo84 17:10 Archived in Mexico Tagged ruins pyramids mayas Comments (3)

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