For most travellers, Flores and the ruins of Tikal mark the final destination for a foray into northern Guatemala. On this trip, they’re just the jumping-off point.
Up until the early 20th Century, El Mirador was a secret known only to nature. For a good millennium, El Petén’s jaguars, monkeys, butterflies, snakes and scarlet macaws had the run on what had once been the Western Hemisphere’s largest settlement. A chance fly over in 1926 changed that, if only technically: such is the region’s inaccessibility that it took another 52 years for archaeologists to unearth El Mirador’s mysteries. Even today, only 10% of the place is estimated to have been excavated.
El Mirador is more than just an opportunity to appreciate Mayan temples minus the crowds that typically swarm the better known sites of Chichen Itza, Palenque and Teotihuacan. It’s an adventure in itself. With no roads in, reaching the site is a matter of chartering a chopper (spectacular, but not very intrepid) or traipsing in by foot with local guides and a team of mules (very much Intrepid). And that’s what we’ve built. A brand new expedition – on foot – to El Mirador.
The trip itself
For anyone who’s ever dreamed of being Indiana Jones (and doesn’t happen to be Harrison Ford), this trip’s probably your best chance. For five straight days you’ll be bush-bashing a trail through thick swathes of tropical jungle, pitching camp in forest clearings and exploring pre-Columbian temples, labyrinths, pyramids and tombs that were presided over by a ruler known as Reino Khan – the divine Serpent King.
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The history of El Mirador
Just like any forgotten city worth its salt, much of El Mirador’s tale is still cloaked in mystery. The glyphs and images that adorn the walls of the temples and astronomical complexes have yet to be decoded, and what exactly prompted the city’s desertion is still a subject of conjecture (most believe it was a degradation of fertile soil caused by widespread deforestation). What isn’t beyond dispute, even at this early stage of investigation, is the level of sophistication attained by the civilisation. At its zenith, El Mirador is believed to have been a society of some 250,000 people, a relative megalopolis; a concrete jungle in a jungle. Giant causeways for transporting construction materials between cities were ploughed – the world’s first freeways – calendars were developed and architecture was built according to precise astronomical alignments. Most impressive, however, is the sheer scale of El Mirador. If you take into account the foundations of La Danta pyramid, it’s the world’s largest. More impressive still is that the whole thing was built using neither metal tools or even the wheel.
Of the seven countries that make up modern day Central America, it’s Guatemala where indigenous culture is the most prevalent. 41% of the country’s population is considered of full Amerindian ancestry, the highest in fact in all Latin America bar Bolivia and Peru. For the traveller, evidence of this heritage is ubiquitous. It’s in the brightly coloured traditional garb worn by the women; the diversity of languages heard other than Spanish; the hard to spell (and even harder to pronounce) names of cities and the distinct style of jewellery and handicraft sold in market stalls. To make sure travellers on our El Mirador expedition come away with a full appreciation of not only the country’s ancient history but also an awareness of how this history pervades contemporary Guatemala, the first week of the trip includes time spent in other places of interest: the colonial-era capital, Antigua; the vibrant highland market town of Chichicastenango; the peaceful villages dotted around beautiful Lake Atitilan and scenic, riverside Rio Dulce. If it’s an adventure into the heart and history of Guatemala you’re after, this is the trip that’ll take you there.