Exploring the cradle of the Maya civilization, El Mirador, Guatemala

From the top of the 77-metre high massive pyramid of La Danta, the huge city sprawls at my feet. From the grand plaza on which La Danta stands, a broad street paved with white stones leads to the Great Acropolis, the seat of power with the red pyramidal residences of the elites separated by vast courtyards. Right in front of me, two kilometres to the East stands the bright red pyramid of El Tigre rising 55 metres above the administrative centre of the city. To its South, a wide causeway stretches south-south west passing the suburb town of La Muerta to the secondary city of El Tintal in a quasi-straight line, while another 20-to-40-metre wide avenue leads to the town of Nakbe to the South East. The vast city is surrounded by trees: the subtropical humid forest seems to never end spreading in every direction with just a few clearings where I can guess the presence of water reservoirs, fields of corn, beans, squash, cocoa, gourds, and others. I am in El Mirador, the cradle of the Maya civilization at its paramount during the late Pre-Classic period, between 300 B.C. and 150 A.D.

Or at least, this is how I imagine the city based on the archaeological researches that have been conducted here for the past 30 years. Today, contemplating the ancient city from the top of its tallest edifice, all I see are trees. The once red pyramids, the sacred colour of the Mayas, are now covered in vegetation, and it is easy to understand why they were mistaken for volcanoes when flown over in the 1930’s.

Getting down the steep pyramid built on three gigantic platforms, I am exploring the rest of the ancient Maya capital. According to the archaeologist Dr. Richard Hansen, the director of the Mirador Basin Project, La Danta is the biggest structure in the world in terms of volume. It would have required 15 million man-days of labour or 8000 men working day and night for 30 years to shape these estimated 2.8 million cubic metres of temple structure we are descending. It has started to be excavated by archaeologists who work onsite during the rainy season, as a team of 400 people requires sufficient water resources. The only signs of excavations in this rather dry month of December are tarps protecting the ruins from humidity and rain. Looking underneath one of them, I can clearly see the stone foundations. These excellent building techniques and the quality of materials used explain why a city dating back to 800 B.C. is still standing.

A tarantula crawls out of its hole as a reminder of the wilderness of the place. A bit further, some imposing masks can be guessed on a pyramid on which wild peacocks roam and a few trees grow. These trees have the double function of stabilizing the building and providing some shade to minimize the wearing effects of the sun. A higher-end system designed with aerospace engineers protects the original frieze on the massive compound of the Great Acropolis and the Jaguar Paw Temple: a polycarbonate roof. It is amazing to admire the state of conservation of this art dating back to 300 B.C. and relating the Maya mythology. Some red and black paint lines are even still visible.

I am hiking through the jungle with the roaring howler monkeys and agile spider monkeys swinging in the trees above my head while a big blue butterfly crosses the trail to land on a trunk where dozens of orchids hang from. I notice the variations in the terrain: the Mayas were modelling it as they pleased to shape the city which had been carefully planned and engineered, levelling it off, and digging moats for water and defence purposes… It is hard to imagine that an estimated 200,000 people may have populated the city, while a total of about one million people may have lived in the greater El Mirador which is bigger than today’s downtown Los Angeles!

El Mirador represents the birthplace of the Maya empire. It reached a level of economic, political, military, and ideological power that allowed the city to control a vast population and set the bases for the Maya civilization that flourished for more than a thousand years. Abandoned in 150 A.D. for reasons that are still unknown, the fall of El Mirador corresponds to the rise of the city of Tikal that lies less than 100 kilometres south east. One of the top 3 favourite Maya ruins amongst visitors, the mostly excavated Tikal looks small-scaled compared to El Mirador: the main complex of Tikal which is about 1,000 years more recent fits in the pyramid of La Danta only!

From La Danta, the top of the Maya world, I am taking in the sunset on the vast forest before the two-day hike that will take me back to the closest village of Carmelita. Despite appearances, it is at stake: loggers, looters, narcotraffickers, and cattle ranchers deforest, threatening the whole ecosystem and these ancient cities that are priceless to understand one of the greatest civilization of the Western hemisphere.

Marcella & Claire

Travel tips:

  • For our complete El Mirador trilogy, refer to the 5-day jungle trek leading to El Mirador and the article about conserving the last patch of rainforest in Guatemala.
  • In preparation of your trip to one of the stunning Maya sites you might want to read this practical and interesting guide by Christian Schoen.
  • Volunteering opportunities are offered through the FARES (The Foundation for Anthropological Research and Environmental Studies) eNews. If you are interested in getting involved, you can sign up to receive updates on their Stay Informed page, and list that you are interested in volunteering.
  • To set up your expedition to El Mirador, we strongly recommend the services of La Comision de Turismo Cooperativa Carmelita. The guides are all authorized guides, knowledgeable about the history of the Mayas, fauna and flora. Most of them are Spanish-speakers only, but you can request an English-speaking guide. In Flores, many agencies propose this expedition, and we believe spending your money with the community of Carmelita makes more sense. On top of that, they really differentiate themselves thanks to the variety of food and its quality compared to the other groups we have seen – for 5 days, it is greatly appreciable!
  • The Preclassic and Classic period artefacts as well as several dozens of stucco heads with original paint discovered from sites in the Mirador Basin can be seen in The Guatemalan National Museum of Archeology and Ethnology in Guatemala City. If artefacts are not currently exhibited, take an appointment by writing to Daniel Aquino (director@munae.gob.gt), MUNAE’s director.
  • As a reference, Tikal hosts 300,000 visitors yearly and El Mirador 2,500.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!!

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Guatemala, El Mirador PIN Indiana Jones


This article was published in the Beyond Boundaries e-magazine by Xtreme Adventure:

El Mirador - The cradle of the Maya civilization - Beyond Boundaries magazine.JPG

16 thoughts on “Exploring the cradle of the Maya civilization, El Mirador, Guatemala

    • Hi Aline, yes it is safe and there are no local tensions, but do take a guide as there are many trails and it would be easy to get lost alone. On top of that, there may be snakes or tarantulas that guides know how to deal with! Check our travel tips for good guides.
      Hiking in the dry season is best (now). In the rainy season (summer) though, you will see the archeologists. So it depends on your interest.
      Hope this helps, and thanks for checking us out!

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  2. Excellent post. We took Heli trip to El Mirador for the day in April 2017. Fascinating area, even after visiting Lamanai, Cahel Pech, and Tikal. Dr Hansen and team doing remarkable work! An amazing site!

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