Saturday, March 21, 2009

El Mirador

With our thirst for ancient Mayan sites whetted by Tikal and on the recommendation of our friend Lilia, we decided last week to do the El Mirador trek. This was no small undertaking, and we deliberated for a few days whether we could manage it. The site is 60km away from even the northernmost remote village in Peten, Carmelita, which is itself a 3 hour trip away from Flores by dirt road. Here the 5-day, 120km (75 mile) round-trip starts on foot to what was the largest city the Maya ever built.

While Tikal is the jewel in the crown of Guatemala's Mayan tourist attractions today, El Mirador was in its day the jewel in the crown of the Maya civilisation itself. The scale is incredible. While Tikal's Grand Plaza, itself impressive in scale, measures around 100m along its length from Temple I to Temple II, El Mirador's two biggest structures - El Tigre and the gargantuan La Danta - are a full 2km apart. What a Grand Plaza that must have been! El Mirador flourished long before Tikal's heyday, and was certainly the dominant centre of power in the Peten area.

We started out from Carmelita with a group of mules, who we were pleased to see were healthy-looking and clearly well looked after. As there's no water source along the way or at El Mirador itself, we had to take around 50 gallons of water with us. Obviously there's no way we could carry that!

Carmelita is in the northern Peten area, south of what's known as the "agricultural frontier". A lot of the Peten jungle is now fully protected, including some primary rainforest areas, but as recently as 1960 the jungle extended down to Flores, about 50km to the south of the current agricultural frontier. As we drove north towards the start of the trek, it was sad to see so much deforestation. The cause, as usual, is cattle farming. Since 1960, 25% of Central America's rainforest has been destroyed for cattle grazing.

Above, our group: Rachel and me on the far left; Nancy and Ben (Canada); Jose and Kim (United States); Tibo (France); Liz (Australia) and Ricardo (Portugal). Quite an international group! Below is our guide Raul, the most fantastic guide we could've hoped for. He really made the trip.

So we set out on the trail, unexpectedly marked with this start line-like gateway. The first day was 6 hours, with a break for lunch.

The jungle is, of course, full of interesting flora and fauna. The trail is pretty good going in the dry season, and starts off along the "Chiclero's Corridor". This trail was cut by the Chicleros, the collectors of gum from the Chico Zapote tree used to make chewing gum. They are still in use today and running into a Chiclero is one of the luckiest things that can happen to you; they'll gladly provide you with food and a mule to ride in return for conversation!

This is a Chico Zapote tree. You can see the old cuts made to collect the gum. The fruit is pretty good, too.

This is another jungle gem: a strangler fig. It grows up from the ground around other trees and gradually wraps around them. Eventually it completely strangles the tree and all you can see is the fig.

The jungle is full of beautiful orchids. Our guide, Raul, is a big fan. When we realised his bag had been left behind in Carmelita, he assured us that he, like an orchid, only needs moisture to survive!

We were pretty pleased to reach the first camp, at another Mayan ruin, El Tintal. We were there in plenty of time to climb one of the pyramids and watch the sunset. It really was incredible to look out over the jungle canopy to the horizon. There isn't a hint of civilisation.

Day 2 was a longer walk, but we got to El Mirador after 10 hours. We were obviously elated to reach the final goal after covering 60km of jungle.

The view from the top of the El Tigre pyramid was even more breathtaking than anything we'd seen before. The 2000-year-old structure reaches 70m and is the second-tallest building ever built in the Mayan world. Only the partner pyramid, La Danta, which faces from 2km away, is taller.

The next day we explored the El Mirador site with our guide. Archaeologists are working there now, excavating and partially reconstructing the site. We were extremely lucky to be able to get a glimpse of a relief that's only recently been discovered on an ancient aqueduct, and to sneek a peek inside one of the temples where an incredible mask has also been found. None of this is generally open to the public yet, or published in journals. We were really priveledged to see it.

The fourth day we returned back the way we'd come to El Tintal, where we'd spent the first night. In the last hour, we got caught in a torrential downpour that soaked us all.

This did nothing to dampen our spirits though; we were so pleased to reach the camp and enjoy Raul's cooking! We did our best to dry the shoes and socks around the two fires that Jose and Raul got going. Perfect time to break out the Jonny Walker I'd been saving until we really needed it...

A truly unforgettable experience, and possibly the best thing we've done so far.


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