After a rough four-and-a-half-hour bumpy bus ride, we eventually arrive in Carmelita. We are at the end of the road! And this is just the beginning of our trek to El Mirador, the cradle of the Maya civilization. Ahead of us lies the last pristine subtropical rainforest of Central America that we will have to conquer for the next five days during a challenging 110-kilometre jungle hike…
Indeed, from the first few metres out of Carmelita, it seems that it will be a real challenge: my feet are completely stuck in a thick and sticky grey clay. I clumsily use my hiking poles to keep my balance, and avoid hugging a tree with hundreds of sturdy nasty spines all along its trunk! I look around, and cannot repress a smile, noticing the struggle of the other five hikers coming along for the adventure: two other adventurous trekkers from Belgium, a guide, a cook, and an arriero (or mule care-taker) with his three mules carrying most of the load. For the first day, clay, mud, and mosquitoes are our biggest challenges, as well as the rain that keeps worsening the trail. The tenacious clay prevents us from hiking at a decent pace as the path is perforated by hoof prints caused by the mules bringing supplies to the remote camps. We are progressing slowly as with each stride, we sink ankle-deep into the sticky water filled cavities, and have to pull hard on our muscles to extract our feet to take the next step.
Hundreds of mosquitos swarm around us despite the repellents as we continue our walk. I am congratulating myself for wearing long pants and a hat with a mosquito gauze to protect my face and neck, as I see more than a dozen mosquito bites swelling the face of my bareheaded teammate.
We are surprised by the dense network of Maya cities scattered along the trail: La Florida, El Tintal, La Muerta to name the few that will host us during our lunches, night camps or water refills of brownish rainwater merely filtered by a piece of fabric over a large plastic barrel.
Spending the night in the hardly excavated ruins of El Tintal divides the hike to El Mirador in a 22-kilometre section and a 26-kilometre one. Despite the longer distance, the second day is easier as it is slightly less humid, hence less mosquito-infested and easier to walk. As the trail gains a bit of elevation to reach the top of a limestone bedrock, the vegetation is less dense: trees are not as high as their roots cannot go very deep. The limestone was used by the Mayas to build wide causeways creating one of the first highway systems in the world that we are now following.
The reward is worth all the efforts and mosquito bites! By the end of the second day of the expedition, we are watching the sunset from El Tigre, the second highest pyramid of El Mirador. Treetops below us sway wildly as groups of spider monkeys jump from branch to branch. Mist rises as the sun sets behind the endless forest. The blue smoke rising from our camp announces a hearty dinner most likely composed of frijoles (paste of black beans), rice, tortillas and meat will soon be ready. An orchestra of crickets starts as we climb down the temple in the dusk.
At night I lay awake, listening to the sounds of the jungle. Our guide has just warned us for the dangers in the darkness: spiders (which like the shelter of a shoe left by a tent…) and especially tarantulas and snakes… Going to the dry toilet seems to be an adventure too: dozens of little dots light up from the grass in the beam of my headlamp: spiders! Pretty big spiders!
On day three, we explore the massive site of El Mirador. Most temples and houses are completely covered in trees and moss while some are being excavated. The former capital is gigantic and we walk another 20 kilometres that day to explore a portion of it! We are taking in an extraordinary sunset from La Danta, the largest and highest pyramid of El Mirador, the mysterious and lost city that we have to ourselves.
Hiking back the same way, but this time in the sun, gives us time to reflect on this discovery. We are contemplating how once hundreds of thousands of Maya people lived here about 2,000 years ago and set the base for a whole civilization that flourished for more than a thousand years.
This adventurous and challenging jungle trek through the vulnerable Mirador Basin, the last pristine subtropical rainforest of Central America, leaves us breathless by its remoteness, beauty, and amazingly rich history which still holds many mysteries to be unravelled by future generations of scholars.
Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen (text & photos)
- 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 Maya, 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!
- 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 (short tutorial)!
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This article was published in the Beyond Boundaries e-magazine by Xtreme Adventure: