El Mirador: The Long Post About Where I Went, How I Got There, and What I Did

Any time I disappear on an multi-day excursion into nature I never know how to begin to write about it when I get back. Do I start with the facts: where did I go, how did I get there, what did I do? Or do I start with the deep revelations that inevitably happen when I have ample time to think about life? Or do I start with the tips for other travelers post: the do’s, don’t’s, and just-so-you-know’s of such an excursion?

Already breaking it down into those three questions outlines the three blog posts that have to be written about my El Mirador experience (although whether the second will be posted is yet to be decided). So I’ll start with the facts post. I apologize in advance: this is going to be a long one.

Where did I go?

El Mirador is one of the oldest and largest Mayan sites. In its heyday it was the capital city, home to more than 200,000 people but in charge of a million. It preceded many of the more well-known Mayan sites like Tikal and Palenque. It was abandoned nearly 2,000 years ago, and since then nature has taken over. Most of El Mirador is still hidden underneath a dense jungle that turned its stone buildings into vegetated hills.

There are two ways to reach Mirador: by helicopter or by walking. The nearest town is Carmelita, which is 40 km away. The five-day hike goes as follows: Day 1, 17 km, camp at El Tintal; Day 2, 23 km, camp at Mirador; Day 3, explore Mirador, camp at Mirador; Day 4, 23 km back the same route as Day 2, camp at El Tintal again; Day 5, same 17 km hike back to Carmelita, then a 4-hour bus back to Flores. Round trip it’s 80 km of fairly level but intensely jungle trekking.

Or as Chip Brown from Smithsonian Magazine describes it: “… two or three days to get from the end of the road at Carmelita to El Mirador: long hours of punishing heat and drenching rain, of mud and mosquitoes, and the possibility that the jungle novice […] might step on a lethal fer-de-lance or do some witless city thing to provoke a jaguar or arouse the ire of the army ants inhabiting the last great swath of subtropical rain forest in Mesoamerica.” Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

How did I get there?

Mirador was first brought to my attention in a short article I read unknown months ago in an unknown publication (I seem to have forgotten those details). The author described a challenging trek through the wild jungle to Mayan ruins that were not seen by many tourist eyes. Given my penchant for the jungle and ruins – the Amazon, Angkor Wat, and Bagan all rank among my favorite experiences of last year – this sounded right up my alley. So even though the details of the publication may have escaped me, I never forgot this mystical place called El Mirador.

Fast forward to Bacalar and the realization that Flores was geographically on the way to Palenque. I had grown weary of the tourist trail already so the idea of removing myself from it for a few days to be in quiet nature sounded perfect. The athletic activity was also a draw; a few days lounging on a dock were lovely but I was yearning for some movement. The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when Cassidy decided to come with me. Without her I was facing doing the hike alone, which would have been awfully boring, or with a random group that could have been personality or pace mismatches. Cassidy and I already knew we got along, although five days was quite the test of that and we were lucky to have passed, but what we didn’t know and were happy to discover was that we walk at exactly the same pace: fast and non-stop.

Booking El Mirador was a bit of a leap of faith. We’d done some online research but it was hard to find any definitive agency to book through, so we had two options: go with the Hostel Los Amigos, or with the travel agent who had jumped on our bus on the way into town. Long story short, that will be discussed in a separate post, we ended up going with Luis the agent. Something felt less commercial about it, and we trusted that he was looking out for us. We made a couple of changes to the usual tour by opting to bring our own food – something they suggested (required) for Cassidy since she’s vegan – and hiring an English guide, which is an extra expense that I would recommend to anyone who isn’t fluent in Spanish and who cares to know anything about Mirador. Having secured the logistics, all that was left to do was spend longer than most people probably would in the grocery store deciding what we would eat for the next five days.

If you had told me I would do a five day intense hike on a vegan diet I would have said you were sorely mistaken. But that’s just what I did and let me tell you, I felt great. Maybe there is something to this Veganism thing… Here’s what a vegan eats on a hiking trip: cereal bars and apples or canned peaches for breakfast; peanut butter and banana sandwiches for lunch; nuts and Oreo’s for snacks; tortillas with black or refried beans, avocado, carrots, and cucumbers for dinner; and lots and lots of hot cocoa. Pretty tasty stuff. The added bonus of bringing our own food was that we were able to eat whenever we wanted, unlike the other groups who had to wait until they got to camp at 3:00 pm the first day to have lunch. I would have been seriously hangry by then.

What did I do?

Monday morning, 5:00 am. Time to go. With such an early departure I hoped to sleep on the four-hour bus ride to Carmelita. I think I managed some semi-conscious state, a miracle only possible by sheer exhaustion; the bus felt like all the components of the Epcot Test Track ride were happening at once. It wasn’t just bumpy, we were tossed side to side as well as up and down. Any time I opened my eyes the interior had a new crowd: first I was alone in the seat, then it was packed like sardines with people standing in the aisles, then I had a family of three in the seat with me including a breastfeeding baby. Any hopes of beginning this daunting trek well-rested went out the vibrating window. When we arrived in Carmelita we lingered long enough to have breakfast and load the horse (a sad reality of the trek, the horses all looked quite worn); by 10:30 off we went with our two guides, one Spanish speaker from Carmelita and one English interpreter who had only done the trek two times before.

The first day was all about one thing: mud. A recent rainfall had turned the path into a veritable mud pit that tried to steal our shoes right off of our feet and, when unsuccessful, latched on to create a second heavy sole of earth. Thankfully it dried up about halfway, and despite the slow start we still made it to camp in 4.5 hours. 17 km down.

Here’s how camp generally worked: arrive in the afternoon exhausted, make warm beverage (tea from leaves or cocoa), play Rummy Infinity – El Mirador Tournament of Maya Champions (aka the Rummy 500 game we kept up the whole trip; final scores: 3190 to 3755), make dinner, join with other group for Cambio card game (there was another trio doing the trek at the same time as us who we never hiked with but always saw at the campsites), go to bed.

Night one I experienced what I think of as my first most terrifying, near-death jungle experience. I woke up in the middle of the night, unhappily having drank too much leaf tea and needing to creep out of my tent into the total darkness that only exists in the most remote places. Maybe 10 minutes after returning to my tent I heard padded footsteps and a low growl. My mind had one thought: jaguar. I froze, played dead inside my tent, as if that would help protect me from an animal that hunts by smell. I have no idea how much time passed with my heart racing and my body petrified until I saw a headlamp walking confidently towards the bathroom. I figured it was gone then, and somehow fell asleep. The next morning I asked Leon if there were jaguars there, to which he replied, “Yes, I saw one here a few months ago. There’s one big one and one small one here.” Holy. Shit.

The second day was all about animals. We were proper in the jungle now. In the first 15 minutes I became one of the luckiest people in the jungle: I saw an ocelot. It was on the path about 30 yards in front of us for just a quick second before disappearing into the trees, but I remember it like it was a picture I’d seen a thousand times. Ocelots are not big for wild cats but they definitely look wild. It reminded me of the (frozen) bobcat I’d seen this summer in Vermont. We also saw sereke, cojolita, and some playful or evil spider monkeys who tried to shake water off of the treetops onto us. Before the end of the trail we stopped at La Muerta, a crypt ruin, and the site of my second most terrifying, near-death jungle experience.

“Go in to the left, there are bats,” Leon told me. Bats, no big deal, I can go see some bats. When I made it into the dark crypt my headlamp lit up one giant black scorpion spider on the wall to my left. My minor arachnophobia made me pause, but I took a breath and went in. It’s not like it was next to me. To my right I saw a bat. Then underneath it I saw a group of bugs that looked like the ones in the Mummy that crawl under your skin and eat you alive. I let out a small shriek, but sadly that was not the worst part of this exploration. When I turned back around my light illuminated the rest of the crypt, and I saw the real terror: many more huge black scorpion spiders dotted the walls, including one that was moving right next to my head. That was it, time to get the hell out of there. I crawled out as fast as possible, breaking into a run once I was in the open air and a spastic dance to mentally shake them off of me. Leon laughed at me and said he had to see what it was that scared me so much, so he grabbed his flashlight and went in. When he came back out he again said the least reassuring thing possible, “That is the only spider in the jungle that scares me. If that bites you, you don’t come out alive.”

After 5 hours and 10 minutes of walking 23 km, we arrived at Mirador. We started big: sunset at the top of La Danta, the largest pyramid in the world. La Danta was the perfect introduction to El Mirador. Standing in front of it today it’s hard to image what it looked like when it was built; it looks like a tree-covered hill. But as we started to climb I saw some stepped areas that were covered by tarps, a hint of the excavation process and of what was ahead. At the tops of these pyramids the Mayans built temples in threes – one large one in center and two smaller ones flanking it – to symbolize maize, beans, and squash, the three main agricultural crops. At La Danta the three pyramids are still mostly covered, but at El Tigre one is visible, and it is a beautiful glimpse into what it looked like so many years ago.

We climbed to the top of the tallest pyramid on La Danta, marveling at the way nature had grown over and around it. When we reached the summit I couldn’t hold it in: wow. Just wow. The view stretched out before us for miles, and it was all jungle trees. In the near distance we could see the top of El Tigre, the other large pyramid in El Mirador, which is just a mountain of flora, and in the far distance we could see the pyramid at El Tintal where we had been the day before, another mountain of flora. It seemed impossible that we had walked so far in that one day. We sat at the top and watched the day come to a close. We high fived. We made it, and it was everything I hoped it would be.

The next day started early with sunrise on top of La Danta. I was happy to have done the walk in light the night before; now I knew what we were in for. Unfortunately the sky did not cooperate for sunrise like it had for sunset; it was a wall of clouds. The howler monkeys at least added an interesting soundtrack to the non-scene. All morning we wandered the hidden city with our guides, who told us the uses of structures and meanings behind carvings to the best of their ability. Cassidy and I, both being Art History majors, tested our guides’ knowledge by asking tons of questions about everything. Personally it was a joy to have another person with me who was just as interested to find out if this government building was on a civic plaza.

Mirador is fascinating but takes a lot of imagination. My mind had a hard time grasping what it looked like when it was a city of stone buildings in a cleared landscape. Parts of structures were covered by translucent temporary roofs as they underwent restoration. A carving was redone next to a blank area that had yet to be worked on, and I found it hard to understand how whoever did it could possibly know what it looked like before. But this is all part of the appeal of Mirador, seeing it at such a juncture between past and present, nature and mankind, wild and tamed.

We closed out Mirador with another gorgeous sunset. We still had two days and 40 km to go, but that didn’t matter yet. All that mattered at that moment was that view, that magical place, that feeling of being one of the lucky few who had made it out to this ancient, important site, that feeling of being a small part of this wonderful world.

I try to remember that moment when I think about El Mirador, and not the last two days. Day four we basically ran the 23 km in 4:40. The mosquitoes were out in full force, we were grossly covered with four days of sweat, our guides tried to get us to walk all the way back to Carmelita in one day (we shut that down real fast), our tents were not set up when they were supposed to be despite our leaving early to get a good spot, our tortillas disappeared, and our normally quiet night time was crowded with a bunch of new groups. Day five we ignored our exhaustion and walked the 17 km nonstop in 4 hours. How we picked up the pace the last two days I’ll never understand. Maybe it was the prospect of being out of that damn jungle and into a shower. When the road of Carmelita was in site we broke out into a run to greet it. It was a trying last two days, but El Mirador must be earned. It wouldn’t be a real jungle trek without some hard times, right?

After the agonizingly long and hot bus ride back to Flores, two back to back showers, ample anti-itch cream, and a pot of chai tea in Los Amigos’s garden, I thought back to where I had just been. The hike itself wasn’t too challenging, but the jungle is a tough place to be for so long. I was glad to be out of it but more so glad to have done it. El Mirador is impossible to rank with the other popular Mayan sites, and maybe that is the allure of it. It stands alone in its wonder.

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