The Lookout: El Mirador

The first snake I saw on this “snake-infested” trek was a False Coral Snake or maybe a Coral Snake or maybe a Milk Snake.  The only thing certain about this tiny, 1/2 diameter x 12″ long juvenile snake was it was a serpent (though I think it was a “plant”).

The night before, as I walked from the Guard’s Kitchen across the ancient plaza-now-football-field to my tent (located approximately at the “E” in Tigre on the map), my guide Adrian Centeno cautioned, “You should use your headlamp. Hay serpientes!”

I laughed. The moon was full. I like snakes but even if I didn’t, my contact is typically limited to their backsides as they slither from me as fast as they can contract and expand their cool skin. The next night, as I retraced my steps from kitchen to tent, I noticed headlamps focused on the ground three metres west of my tent. The guards beckoned, shouting, “Serpiente! Serpiente!”

(If you prefer to avoid all this, helicopters allow a quick one-day visit.

But I recommend the trek, even if you choose the 5-day excursion, Carmelita-Tintal-El Mirador-return.
       Hint #1: Remember the Scouting motto: Be prepared. At home I hike with my dog 8 km/day + my regular chores for an average of 12/km day + 30 minutes on our stationary bike.

And, in spite of a YouTube video “Warning: explicit language: this was a really hard trip” (posted by a group at least half my age), I found the trek LONG rather than HARD, e.g., 135 km including two 12-km days in El Mirador hiking and climbing pyramids and one 34-km day Nakbe to La Florida (9.5 total hours with 8 hours actual walking).
      Hint #2: The group in the video went early February, encountered rain (in the rainy season) and traversed logs to cross a few ponds. Three weeks later, after the rainy season, I trudged through a few sections of semi-dry muck. 

El Mirador, the largest Late Pre-Classic site in the Maya Lands (ca. 300 BC – AD 150), was re-discovered in 1926, and viewed from the air in 1934 by Charles Lindbergh. Though studied in 1937 by Sylvanus Morley, the site’s importance wasn’t appreciated until Ian Graham’s landmark understanding in 1962.

The most notable of El Mirador’s structures are three massive complexes, each with a triadic group of temples at the summit.  Los Monos (named for the Howler Monkey/48 meters/156 ft tall), El Tigre (55 metres/180 ft tall), and La Danta (72 metres/236 ft tall). La Danta is the tallest structure in the Maya World (topping Tikal’s Temple IV by two feet) and, with a total volume of 2,800,000 cubic meters, is one of the largest pyramids in the world. In fact, this pyramid coupled with its massive supporting platform (18,000 square metres) make La Danta complex one of the most massive ancient structures in the world.

The Ancient Maya were masters of urban planning, creating functional cities with central core structures aligned with each other to mark celestial phenomena.

At El Mirador you might feel a little like the early explainers (or perhaps Indiana Jones,“Snakes, why did it have to be snakes?”) as you wander through dense forest canopy, along the ancient white roads (sacbeob) to emerge thirty minutes later to…a tree covered hill. What? Where’s the pyramid? At El Mirador, only the summit temples and a few facades have been excavated, consolidated, and restored. Instead of the original magnificent stone steps to climb the pyramid most likely you’ll scramble uphill on jerryrigged steps (see pictures).

To better understand the Ancient Maya cities, many visitors to El Mirador include Tikal on their itinerary.

Tikal National Park, forty miles south, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been protected by the Guatemalan government since 1955. In Tikal’s heyday (AD 300-869), the site core boasted ceremonial platforms, palaces, residences of various sizes, sacbe, plazas, and towering pyramids with summit temples. Most of these structures have been restored. One can easily imagine sleeping on the benches in the residences or visualize the kings and queens of Tikal addressing their subjects from atop Structures I and II.

When I first climbed Temple IV in 1994, the only option was a scramble up a motley collection of loosely roped-together handmade ladders, steps cut into the pyramid, hand-hewn stone blocks dislodged from the structure, and exposed roots. Memorable and fun but potentially dangerous as climbers jostled with descenders. Today? Well-crafted staircases, for up and down.

Next up: Leaving El Mirador – 16km to Nakbe