The pyramids of Tikal are the big draw on Guatemala's Maya Route. But deep in the jungle and off the beaten track lies an even greater adventure
I am standing in the centre of Tikal’s Great Plaza and the heat from its monumental temples is washing over me in waves. In its AD 600 heyday the plaza, with its weather-beaten pyramids, palaces, courtyards, tombs and altars, was the centre of life in the ancient Maya city. “It’s the Maya Times Square,” says my guide Noel, himself of Maya descent.
Deep in Guatemala’s northern Petén district, this particular Times Square is surrounded by 600 sq km of rainforest and populated by spider monkeys and toucans. At midday it is also crawling with two-legged visitors, all of us snaking along a temple-laden trail, en route to the Great Plaza and its star attraction, Temple One. This is the burial place of the great Maya ruler Hasaw Chan K’awil I, and instantly recognisable as the iconic pyramid on all the postcards.
“My ancestors built the temples to mimic the mountains they worshipped,” says Noel. “They believed these were sacred objects that connected the earth to the upper- and under-worlds.”
Today, the temples are the most obvious relic of an extraordinarily sophisticated culture that mastered astrology, mathematics and a written language as well as craftwork and masonry. But the Maya were also notoriously bloodthirsty: “They sacrificed humans to appease their gods and fought amongst themselves,” says Noel.
The ancient Maya world may have faded into jungle-clad obscurity a millennium ago, but its heritage lives on. Right now, before my eyes, a Maya ritual is unfolding: in the centre of the plaza, two shamans are piling sacred items. On go candles, cigars, sprigs of rosemary, resins of copal and myrrh, and rum (“To attract the spirits,” says Noel).
The shamans light the lot and circle it, murmuring prayers as it goes up in flames. “They are asking the spirits for health and good fortune,” says Noel, who assures me that this is an authentic ceremony for a local woman, and not just a display for tourists.
The ceremony is, like Tikal, appealingly accessible – the site’s an easy day trip from the lake-island of Flores. But as grand as Tikal is, it’s the chance to trek into the remoter reaches of the jungle and explore an even more primal and mysterious Maya city – one that few ever get to visit – that sets my pulse racing.
The source of my excitement is El Mirador, a Maya superpower that rose to prominence centuries before Tikal, and which – at over twice the size – dwarfs its more famous neighbour.
From 300BC to AD 150 El Mirador was home to up to 80,000 people, lorded over by the Danta pyramid, at 72m the tallest structure the Maya ever built, and – in volume – the world’s largest pyramid, full stop.That the ruins are accessible only by foot, horse or helicopter – they’re a 60km trek from the nearest road – makes them even more tantalising.
Even better, the site lies within the ruins-rich Mirador basin, which forms part of the vast Maya Biosphere Reserve. This is one of the most ecologically diverse regions in the world, home to jaguar, puma, giant anteaters and scarlet macaws, as well as hundreds of unique plants and trees.
I have opted for a tough two-day hike there, thinking it the perfect excuse to unleash my inner Lara Croft. But I am a little nervous about the conditions. Will my legs carry me through the rough jungle? Will I be doing battle with mosquitoes and mud? And what about the snakes? The deadly fer-de-lance and coral live here, along with 50 other serpentine species.
My guide Francisco takes one look at the city softie he’s been lumbered with, and decides a bit of toughening up is in order. Most trekkers access El Mirador via the village of Carmelita, but we will, he told me, be going in via a back trail used by park rangers, through the Maya site of Nakbé, with an extra day thrown in for 20km detour – gulp – to see La Muralla, a Maya site so off the radar that even he has never seen it.
“We’re going to have an adventure!” he roars as we speed off in his jeep on our first leg, a five-hour drive through rolling hills and farmland to the trailhead at Lechugal.
Before long I begin to notice tracts of land littered with burnt-out carcasses of trees – evidence of slash-and-burn-agriculture. It’s just one of the threats facing the rainforest: poachers, looters, illegal loggers and drug traffickers are others. Park rangers – six of whom will accompany us to El Mirador – protect the site and the surrounding jungle from what Francisco calls ‘dark forces’.
At Lechugal we find our mules waiting by a bog filled with salad-shaped lilies (“Lechugal means ‘lettuce’ in Spanish,” observed Francisco, aptly). The mules are loaded with supplies, including gallons of water, tins of beans, bags of rice, tortilla flour and tents.
The rangers are here too: young and shy, they hang back chattering among themselves in Spanish. One of them, Arnoldo, is carrying a machete: every day he will shimmy up a lofty ramon tree and hack away at its upper branches, severing leaves for the mules to feed on.
It is mid-afternoon before we set off, single file, and the rangers, seasoned walkers, soon disappear into the forest. The trail here is dry – it hasn’t rained for days – and the walking is on the flat, but it is steaming hot: a whopping 37°C.
On either side of the trail are the bajos, seasonal swamps tangled with saplings, lianas and scrub. Now, in the dry season, there’s no standing water; the feel is more savannah than swamp. Either way, the bajos soon peter out into the greener huanales (palm forest).
Francisco points out the tinto tree (named for its red bark), the chicle and the infamous che chen, with its toxic sap. “Scrape a branch of this across your face and you’ll end up in hospital,” he warns. Naturally I manage to scrape a twig across my wrist. It is the merest graze – but the burning and itching are intense.
Before long we spot some jaguar poo, with a lump of coarse hair on it. “It’s the hair of a boar,” declares Francisco excitedly, as just then a boar – not wishing to be dessert – skitters across the trail, an adrenalin-fuelled blur.
As we walk I listen to the sing-song call of the brown jay, hear the tap-tap-tap of woodpeckers burrowing into trees, and spy termites’ neststhat look like grenades. Francisco points out three furry balls curled up on the underside of a tree: bats, fast asleep.
As night falls a luminous full moon and a chorus of jungle sounds guides us to our camp at Nakbé. “Nakbé was the first Maya city to emerge in the Mirador Basin, and it flourished between 800 and 300BC,” says Francisco. But in the dark, there is little I can make out other than the wood fire coming from the makeshift kitchen.
After a shower – a rigged-up bit of plastic sheeting on a wooden frame, and a bucket of cold water – I sit and watch as Manuel, our cook, prepares fresh tortillas to go with rice and beans. I wolf down my meal in silence as the others chatter around me in Spanish. As the rum flows – and most welcome it is – the conversation soon turns to jaguars.
“I once saw a mother jaguar teaching her two babies to hunt near the top of the Danta pyramid,” says Patrocinio, who is a guard at El Mirador. Francisco, not to be outdone, pulls a real jaguar tooth from his pocket: “I saw two dead jaguars – one had attacked the other, and I took a tooth from both. One for me, and one for my son, as a good luck charm.” The tooth is a monster, curved like a dagger, smooth, yellowy-white.
After breakfast the next morning I wander around the site. Nakbé was eclipsed by El Mirador because the latter was in a more secure position, on the edge of an escarpment – vital in a civilisation riven by warfare. Despite extensive excavations, the temples here have been re-buried to protect them from the elements and looters, until more funds become available to archaeologists.
“A huge stucco Maya mask was found here,” says Francisco pointing at Structure 1, Nakbé’s tallest temple.
La Muralla, our little ‘excursion’, is a never-ending hike through bajos and palm forest. The trail is draped with gnarled branches sporting tree orchids and bromeliads, and Francisco hacks open one of the latter to give me a taste of the liquid within: fresh and clear, like faintly perfumed water.
But by the time we reach the ruins at La Muralla – a wall, basically – I am drenched in sweat again, and exhausted. I can barely register the remains of what may have once been a dance theatre of the Maya elite, dating back to between AD 600 and AD 900 (much younger than El Mirador and Nakbé) with a panel of stucco dancers still visible on the structure’s roof comb.
After lunch and a nap, Francisco patiently chivvies me back to Nakbé.
The next day, our final 13km trek to Mirador is more enjoyable. Underfoot are the remnants of a sakbe, a chalky limestone causeway that extends all the way to El Mirador. “It was the world’s first superhighway system, built around 600BC to connect the cities in the Mirador basin,” explains Francisco.
I part-walk, part-ride. The beast plods along, stopping to munch ramon leaves, ignoring the orange fruit littered around it. “The fruit of the Maya,” says ranger Arnoldo, as he explains how they used to boil and grind the bran-flavoured ramon nut to make tortillas.
As we’re examining the fruit I see my one and only snake. It is tiny, green and almost indistinguishable from the tree it is climbing up. I wheel the mule around for a closer look. “Non-toxica,” says Francesco: words I am happy to hear.
We are finally getting close to El Mirador, and the ramon forest gives way to the mightier trees of the high forest canopy. The tallest trees here, among them mahogany, cedar and ceiba – Guatemala’s hairy national tree, like an arboreal tarantula – rise 30-40m high.
Through these giants we approach the great abandoned city, when suddenly we are met by an unearthly, prehistoric roar. I stop in my tracks; Francisco chuckles: “Relax: it’s the most beautiful sound in the jungle.”
Unbelievably the call belongs to a tiny black howler monkey, peering at us balefully from the treetops. (El Mirador is full of them – the next morning I am awoken by a haunting simian dawn chorus.)
Our camp is a colony of empty tents and outhouses which, for six months of the year, is home to a 300-strong archeological team and their director, Richard Hansen. This is the HQ of the Mirador Basin Project, Hansen’s 30-year investigation of the region.
Sadly, I’ve missed Hansen by a day – he was here 24 hours earlier, unveiling a recently unearthed pair of stucco panels to the US press – but his influence is everywhere. Hansen is the driving force behind a controversial plan to turn El Mirador into a roadless wilderness preserve, with a narrow-gauge train to carry visitors here. He’s also a media-savvy, larger-than-life character who served as Mel Gibson’s Maya consultant on the 2006 film Apocalypto. And yes, Mad Max has been here: only he helicoptered in, the softie.
The following day, the rangers head out on a dawn patrol, and I flit along the causeways, from one jungle-engulfed ruin to the next. I try to decipher the Maya glyphs on the stelae; at Structure 34 I admire the stucco masks symbolising a Maya king, Great Fiery Jaguar Paw, that flank huge, white steps.
I carefully climb the crumbling steps up to the summit of El Tigre pyramid. It is vast: the entire central plaza of Tikal could fit into its base. From here I gaze across the horizon to the colossal Danta pyramid. “We believe Danta was used for accession rituals and special religious ceremonies,” explains Hansen, when I speak to him after the trip.
Such engineering feats were built on the proceeds of agriculture: the Maya were great farmers and thanks to the fertile swamp muck of the bajos, produced corn, squash, cotton, chocolate. “Sadly, greed, the abuse of natural resources and the massive deforestation needed to create their city wiped out the Maya in El Mirador,” says Hansen.
A 2km walk along the causeway, and I finally reach the site’s crowning glory. Up close La Danta reminds me of an elaborate wedding cake: several platforms topped by three pyramids, in the triadic style common to architecture in the Mirador Basin.
I climb the wooden steps to the summit and gaze across the lush jungle canopy. As the sun goes down – and it is quite something to have a Maya pyramid to yourself at sunset –
I spot a pair of toucans flitting about the treetops. A hawk soars overhead and the air turns cool. It is hard to believe that only a few days earlier I was in the middle of Tikal’s Grand Plaza, one of scores of visitors. Here, I’m alone but for the wildlife and the wind. I contemplate the pristine rainforest and its inhabitants, and hope that they, unlike the ancient Maya, do not disappear.
The author travelled with Audley Trave on a ten-night Highlights of Guatemala tailor-made itinerary.