6 Months in Central America



El Mirador: Deep Revelations from the Jungle

Imagine walking through dense jungle for five days straight. No music and one person to talk to, but even the best conversationalist would need a break. Imagine then how much time you have to think. Your feet automatically follow the left right rhythm as your mind begins to wander. Beyond just what you’re doing and where you are, but to life in general.

I had many realizations in the jungle. I wrote down some of them at camp the fourth night, that day being the most laden with big thoughts. I was unprepared for how far away my mind went. Here I was, in the Guatemalan jungle, doing a trek that had been a major hope of mine since I set out on this Central America adventure, and my mind was thousands of miles away. I think that’s why those thoughts affected me so much; it took being in the thick of this journey to recognize what I wanted most.

The answer surprised me. I wanted a city, cold weather, my own apartment, a local coffee shop, people who were around more than just a couple of days, a change of wardrobe. I wanted a settled life. I wanted Vienna.

I’ve been toying with the idea of moving to Vienna for a long time. I thought I would end my RTW trip there last spring but we all know that didn’t happen. When I left for Central America I thought I would go to Vienna this spring, a year late. But in the jungle I thought I didn’t want to wait anymore. That my time in Central America was delaying the real last frontier of my wandering existence, which was moving to Europe.

The larger point of all of this was the feeling that I was done with traveling for now. I had to leave again to realize this, but I felt like I was ready to stay put for a while. Have a more settled life. I wanted to be that person who had taken a break from the so-called “real world” to travel, and had come back and begun a successful career. This was accompanied by a thought that was not unlike the one that sent me home in April: stopping now isn’t stopping forever. In a few years I can do another couple of weeks or months somewhere else. I also don’t feel the need to do another year of traveling. I can happily say I’ve done that. Now traveling can be something to look forward to in between more stability.

I accidentally gave myself a mental timeline. I had these thoughts about when I would return to the US to get myself ready to go to Europe. When I got back to Flores I actually started looking up flights. But then I pressed pause. I had been in the jungle, sweating my ass off, walking 80 km, getting eaten alive – I needed to see how I felt when I got to the towns I was looking forward to most, San Cristobal de las Casas and Antigua. Who knows what sort of revelations I could have there?

Writing this from San Cristobal, one of my favorite places thus far, I can tell you that these thoughts have already faded. In fact all my thoughts about what’s next have become less consistent.

Because for the first time in my life, I feel like I really have all the options in the world. It’s confusing, it’s exciting, and I have no idea where I’ll end up.

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.

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.