El Mirador: The Do’s, Don’t’s, and Just-So-You-Know’s

The process of booking and preparing for El Mirador reminded me a lot of the Salt Flats and the Amazon: it was possible to find some information online but it was typically unreliable, old, or inconclusive, so it came down to a gut feeling and a leap of faith. So I decided that I would write a post breaking down the process for anyone who might be interested in doing this trek.

Tip One: Booking the Trek

There are two ways to do this: 1) through an agent in Flores; or 2) go to Carmelita and find a guide once you get there. Option 2 felt a little riskier to us – there was no guarantee of finding anyone, let alone an English speaker, or that we would be able to leave the same day we arrived in Carmelita – although we did see it work out for a duo we met at El Tintal. We went with option 1, booking through an agent in Flores.

There are a handful of agencies around Flores that advertise Mirador treks, but most of them seem pretty untrustworthy. We heard some bad stories about places that offer it for less money but don’t bring enough food or try to bring you back on the fourth day instead of the full five that you paid for, and when you try to go back to complain they’re conveniently closed that day. You get what you pay for.

The 5-day trek will most likely cost US$250. Some places will tell you this includes an English guide, but just how much English they actually speak is a gamble. It could be zero. We found that a fluent English-speaking guide cost an additional US$50.

We debated booking through two agencies. The first was Hostel Los Amigos, which is probably the most reliable option in town since the hostel has to take responsibility for you and knows you could easily complain about them to other guests or TripAdvisor (everyone seems to be very concerned about TripAdvisor in Flores). It would have been US$250 for a guide who “sure probably speaks some English” – translation: Spanish only – and when we asked about cooking vegan for Cassidy they said that “should be fine.” We were skeptical about that response.

The second was our buddy Luis from Tayazal Travel Agency, who had boarded our bus on arrival from Belize to talk to us about booking tours. We heard from a group that went with him that they had a great experience on his Tikal tour, so they were going to book their onward buses through him. Positive reviews from friends. When we talked to Luis he broke down how it usually works and told us about the only guy in town he trusts to run this tour. Then I got to talk to that guy on the phone about more details. It was also US$250 but the English guide (guaranteed English) would cost an extra US$50. When I mentioned Cassidy’s veganism he said he had tried to cook for a vegan once before but it was too tough, so we should bring our own food and he’d knock off US$40. We trusted that Luis was looking out for us and something made us trust this guy on the phone too, especially since he gave us an actual outline of what we would be doing and he knew what veganism was (most of the time vegans get mistaken for vegetarians, or just people who don’t eat beef, as Luis proved when he told us to buy some canned tuna), so for US$260 we booked an English 5-day trek.

Tip Two: English Guide, Yes or No?

The extra US$50 to book an English guide was a big budget debate. I’ve been able to understand a surprising amount of Spanish in the past, but who knew if it was enough to really know what we were seeing when we got to Mirador, and ultimately the point of this trek was to know more about Mirador. So we decided to spring for it.

If you’re not pretty much fluent in Spanish and care to learn about Mirador then paying for an English guide is totally worth it. Since most of it is still shrouded in jungle we had lots of questions, and if we had not had an interpreter with us then we wouldn’t have gotten any answers to them. I did try to listen to our Spanish-speaking guide to see what I could understand if we hadn’t gone with the interpreter, and it was not much at all.

Tip Three: The Luck of the Draw

Having said that, your guides are totally luck of the draw. We found out when we returned that we were supposed to have a different guy, an actual English-speaking guide instead of a Spanish speaker from Carmelita and an interpreter, but he did not wake up that morning so they were forced to pull together a last-minute solution or tell us we had to wait two days to go. This is just what happens sometimes with Mirador; everyone is still figuring out how to run this tour.

We saw a variety of guides at El Tintal when we overlapped with different groups. There was one very eccentric guy who was fluent in English and had more knowledge on the Maya than we had gotten, but he seemed kind of disheveled and was a total stoner. Then there was one who didn’t seem to communicate much with his group at all, since they were asking our guy where things were at the camp. There was a girl who was promised English but got Spanish only. It’s a toss-up, so it’s best to embark on the trek with pretty low expectations, and hopefully you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The other luck of the draw would be your group. The people you do the trek with will be your companions 24/7. If you sign up to go with people you don’t know, be prepared in case you get the novice hiker who decided a long jungle trek was a good way to try out this thing called hiking and camping. If you don’t have people who hike at the same pace as you it can take a couple of hours longer, and as an added bonus it takes the mosquitoes 0.25 seconds to find you once you stop moving.

Tip Four: Bringing Your Own Food

As we found out, it is possible to bring your own food. And if you are vegan, this is basically a requirement. There are three reasons this was actually a great option, and one it was a terrible option.

First good reason: Cost. They took US$40 each off for the food. Based on everyone’s advice, we would have bought snacks to supplement the included food anyway. So in the end the amount we spent on our meals and the snacks was actually less than US$40 each, and what we got lasted me beyond just the trek.

Second good reason: What we ate. Bringing our own food allowed us to control what we ate on the trek, so we could make sure it was healthy and balanced nutrition. On our way back through El Tintal the fourth day we saw another group’s lunch: a sandwich, made up of two slices of white bread, one slice of packaged ham, one slice of packaged cheese, a tomato slice, some onion, mayonnaise, and ketchup. At that moment I thanked Cassidy for being vegan. Dinner and breakfast did look better, but I was much happier with how we had eaten.

Third good reason: When we ate. That sandwich we saw being made was around 3:30 pm on the first day. If they followed the same morning schedule as we had, they would have had breakfast around 9 am and started walking around 10. Meaning they hiked 17 km in 5.5 hours with no lunch. Our first day we ate our sandwiches at a break around 12:30, which kept our energy and spirits up. We had complete control over whether we had breakfast on top of La Danta for sunrise instead of back at camp an hour later or dinner when we were actually hungry instead of when it started to get dark.

One bad reason: Camp dynamics. We didn’t realize what not having meals prepared at the camp would mean. The guides are used to showing up at a camp and setting up the tents while the cook (usually a woman) prepares the meals. At first we thought our guides were just awkward about camp time because we didn’t need their help cooking our food. Then we got back to El Tintal and realized that they were actually bitter because they had had to make their own food the whole time. That last day at El Tintal a woman from another group cooked their meals. And when we discovered our last tortillas were gone (apparently “the mules at them”) it was that same woman who gave us freshly made corn tortillas. Whether they were properly warned or not we’re not sure, but the gender dynamics that were revealed in that last day were off-putting, to say the least. This also explained why they tried to tell us they didn’t bring enough food and had to go home a day earlier (a lie, they just didn’t want to cook their noodles).

Tip Five: What to Pack

You will carry your own personal belongings: a change of clothes, toiletries, a hat, rain jacket, bug spray, and I brought a spork and Leatherman (which were life savers when our under-prepared guides didn’t have many cooking utensils at the Mirador site). But it’s possible to bring a bag to put with the things the mule carries, which is where I put my towel, sandals (which I only wore once and just got very muddy), and book. So if you have some heavier things you can offload them on the mule. We met someone who brought rain boots for the mud the first day and then let the mule carry them the rest of the time.

Bring cards, a book, and some way to play music. There is a lot of downtime at the camp, so we played hours of cards and made some significant progress in our books. The music is for the bus ride. It’s a long ride and the extreme bumpiness make it even impossible to read. And trust me, you’ll want to save some battery for the ride back.

Tip Six: What to Expect on the Trek

Everyone tells you how long you’re going to hike in hours. I think this is bullshit. People hike at such different paces – what they told us would take 8 hours took us 5. So here’s what is actually helpful: Day 1 and Day 5 are 17 km, Day 2 and Day 4 are 23 km, making the whole thing 40 km each way. It’s mostly level, but the last day we were surprised at the number of hills we didn’t remember hiking on the first day. The first day is also incredibly muddy for the first two hours, but it will get better. And Day 1 looks like generic woods from around the world, but Day 2 it gets much more jungley.

Otherwise prepare yourself mentally for the fact that this is just a walk in the woods. We didn’t get the survival skills and flora lessons that I’ve gotten on other experiences, but that’s not what this trek is about. This is about the destination, and the long walk to get there is how you earn and discover it. Having said that, it’s also a walk in the jungle, so insects, natural obstacles, and monkeys will torment you along the way.

Tip Seven: The Ride Home

No matter how tired, hot, sweaty, disgusting, or over it you may feel on the walk the last day, the bus ride back is the worst part. You’ve completed the jungle trek, you’ve made it back to town, and now you can sit for four hours and get transported back to civilization. It doesn’t sound that bad, right? Wrong. The bus is a sauna, the people and their stuff pile in on top of each other, and it stops at random points for unknown lengths of time. It is a test of patience. And every minute it’s waiting for people to get their cold Coca Colas from the vendor on the side of the road is another minute you’re not getting in the shower. For your own sanity, save some battery on your iPod and try to zone out. You will make it home sooner or later.

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