By Tim Brewer
The view was unbelievable. Untouched rainforest reached the horizon in all directions.
Families of spider monkeys swung merrily through the treetops below us, while dozens of psychedelic birds soared around us.
The toucans, our most abundant feathered friends, looked like flying bananas with their yellow and green beaks and breasts catching my eyes while their black bodies were lost in the shadows.
As the day came to a close, the blaze orange sunset reflected off the wispy clouds and lit up half the sky.
Steep Hills in the Forest
The only evidence of humanity was the steep hills protruding from the forest, which, like the one we stood atop, were actually ancient Mayan pyramids completely buried by the jungle. Perched atop the 180-foot tall Tigre Pyramid, in the ancient ruins of El Mirador, we towered above even the tallest trees. The appropriately named El Mirador (“The Lookout”) lies in the remote northern reaches of Guatemala.
We had hiked through over 20 miles of uninterrupted jungle over the last two days to reach the city and this view was a fitting reward. Covering 10 sq. miles, El Mirador is as large as the famous Mayan city of Tikal and has the greatest concentration of civic and religious buildings in the Mayan world.
The Danta Pyramid: The Mayan’s Tallest
The Danta Pyramid, rising 230 feet, is the tallest structure the Maya ever built, and both it and the slightly smaller Tigre Pyramid dwarf even the largest structures at Tikal. The city thrived as a trading center from about 200 BC to 150 AD.
With a population as high as 80,000 it was one of the first large cities in North America and archaeologists have uncovered evidence of a civilization so advanced that many long-held beliefs about the Maya have been shattered.
While archaeologists and historians regard El Mirador as one of the most important and mysterious Mayan cities, the truth is, since it lies forlornly under the jungle, it is really only of minor interest to the average person. I came here to experience the rainforest and buried or not, the city was only secondary. Rainforest dominates the vast state of Petén which covers the northern third of Guatemala.
The Maya Biosphere Reserve
While home to less than 2% of the country’s population, the landless poor who migrate here each year have increased development pressure. In response, the government created the 6,200-sq.-mile Maya Biosphere Reserve.
It lies at the heart of the largest and least disturbed rainforest preserve in Central America. The trek began in Carmelita, a small village of thatched-roof houses with more chickens and pigs roaming the streets than people.
A Guide on Horseback
Luis Morales, our guide and best friend for the next week, had lived there for nearly 50 years, long before a road reached the village. He rode a horse into the jungle, but despite being in his 60s, he could have walked the whole way right along with my friend Mike and me.
This wasn’t an arduous journey: there was a not-to-overgrown trail to follow, the land was mostly flat, and we had a packhorse hauling our supplies. But it wasn’t a relaxing stroll either.
The temperature was in the upper 80s and the humidity was at least as high. The rain, coming in short, heavy bursts, was a refreshing antidote to the heat, but it also muddied the trail making walking difficult at times. Over the course of the trip, I was bitten, stung, cut, and poked by all kinds of plants and insects.
Vicious Ticks in the Jungle
The mosquitoes surprisingly weren’t too annoying; the ticks on the other hand were vicious and aggressive — red blotches covered my ankles for nearly three weeks (don’t forget to reapply bug spray after you take off your boots!).
The important thing was that no one was struck by a snake, spider, or scorpion, though we encountered plenty of each. At all times, the forest rang with an enchanting clamor. The constant murmur of birds, insects, and frogs was often punctuated by gaggles of screaming parrots gorging themselves in an all-out feeding frenzy and the aptly named howler monkeys whose deep, chilling roar travels for miles.
On our last night, the roars of a nearby puma jolted us awake at 3:30 AM.
Though ever-present to the ears, most animals remain shrouded from view by the forest’s thick vegetation. Birds, less timid than most animals, were fairly abundant and the many vivid species we saw would have vastly expanded most bird-watchers life lists.
Spider monkeys, the masters of the treetops, were also fairly common, and we spent long periods watching each other.
Millipedes and lizards frequently crossed our paths; the latter often scurried away standing erect on their hind legs. The only non-simian mammals we saw were a coati (imagine a mix between a raccoon and a monkey) and a fox, though we came closer than most to encountering the rare jaguar when we followed a set of fresh prints along the trail one morning.
Insects, unlike the other animals, were always in visual range. Most, excluding the bloodsuckers, were as fascinating as they were abundant.
Columns of leaf-cutter ants marched single-file across the trail carrying triangular pieces of leaves (as compost to grow the fungus they eat) larger and heavier than they were. Spherical termite nests, often two feet in diameter, hung in trees. We also shared the trail with contorted beetles, brilliantly colored butterflies and six-inch-long grasshoppers.
The flora is as interesting, if not more so than the fauna. Scattered throughout the forest were 150-foot ceiba trees (sacred to the Maya) and mahogany trees (sacred to cabinetmakers) covered with orchids and other epiphytes that grow on them sans roots. The matapalo, literally “tree killer”, starts out as a vine, but eventually engulfs and kills its host tree and stands on its own.
Gringo’s Nose Tree
Luis often quizzed us on the trees and other plants he had previously pointed out to us. His favorite was the Gringo’s nose tree, which has a red, peeling bark. We spent the first night in an itinerant camp along a small muddy river. The heat and humidity made swimming irresistible and we jumped in the moment we arrived.
Luis assured us it was safe because the crocodiles were “poco” — only about two meters long. The water indeed proved refreshing, but we withdrew after just five minutes when something that felt quite large brushed against my leg.
After our long journey, exploring the ancient city on the third day was a welcomed break. It was a chance to rest, rehydrate, and tend to the blisters on our feet. In the morning we set out for the immense Danta Pyramid and later we also climbed the 138-foot Monos Pyramid.
El Mirador: Buried by Jungle
The buildings, reservoirs, and walls of El Mirador, though buried by the jungle, rose out of largely level ground; as we walked through the forest, we could vaguely imagine how the city had once been. Because there was little to see of the city itself, just a small, exposed section of wall on the Danta Pyramid and a few severely eroded Mayan stelae, we spent a lot of time atop the pyramids watching the monkeys and birds and enjoying the cool winds.
That night we took in another sunset from atop the Tigre Pyramid and again stood in awe of the Mayan achievement below us and the grandeur of the forest around us. As perfect as the moment was, we couldn’t forget that we had another strenuous slog ahead of us — and we couldn’t wait to get going.
The state of Petén covers the northern third of the country and remains relatively isolated from and less developed than the rest of the country. Carmelita is 50 miles north of Flores, the capital city, which itself is 345 miles from Guatemala City and 140 miles from Belize City. This tiny island-city with cobblestone streets and a beautiful central plaza is a very pleasant stop and the best base for exploring the region.
The trek to El Mirador is best attempted from January to August. It is just too wet the rest of the year. It is always hot. If the typical Guatemalan bus is too adventurous for you (some people find the livestock unnerving), you can also get direct first class tourist buses from Guatemala City, Belize City, or Chetumal, Mexico. They cost significantly more than regular public buses and you’ll miss out on a unique cultural experience, but you’ll also be comfortable and save a lot of time. There are also regular flights to Flores from Guatemala City, Belize City, and Cancun and Chetumal in Mexico.
The trip to El Mirador can be arranged in Flores with the community-run Ecomaya (Calle 30 de Junio; tel: 502-9-261363, English is spoken) who, with the help of Conservation International, promote eco-tourism in the region as a way to protect the forest. To ensure maximum benefits for local people they use only local guides. In the US, you can call Ecomaya International at Conservation International (202-429-5660) for information.
Guatemala’s bloody thirty-six-year civil war is now over, but violent crime is on the rise and many tourists have been killed in recent years. There is a small, but real, chance of armed robbery, occasionally leading to rape, on the region’s highways.
Bandits primarily target tour buses between Flores and Tikal and the Belizean border. Avoid traveling after dark, but even this is no guarantee of safety.
Even if you could somehow find the way to El Mirador on your own, you still need a guide as the area is home to drug dealers and illegal loggers who would not be very understanding if you accidentally wandered into their operations.