Exploring El Mirador, Guatemala’s mysterious Mayan ruin

Visiting the lost city of Guatemala’s El Mirador takes time, planning and money, but the payoff for those who make the trek is sublime – a chance to see one of the most impressive gems of Maya culture.

The unparalleled vistas nestled deep in the Petén jungle in Guatemala provide a glimpse back in time.

A side view of the La Danta pyramid showcases the stones used to erect the 230-foot tall pyramid at the El Mirador site in Guatemala © David Ducoin/ Getty Images La Danta (the tapir) measures 230-feet tall, making it the largest known pyramid in the Maya world © David Ducoin/ Getty Images

Above the canopy

‘Next time,’ I tell myself, as the helicopter lifts off, hovers for a second just feet above the ground before the rotors whine and the bird goes skyward, ‘I’ll do the hike.’ A week-long hike through pristine jungle, stopping at ruins few people – even those who love ruins – will ever get to see.

The Maya themselves must have journeyed that way, traveling along a spiderweb of raised roadways they built called scabe, that have now, like so many of the ruins, been swallowed up by the jungle over time. Going by helicopter, as cool as it is, seems a bit like cheating.

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But as we pull above the tree line, the sight of Lake Petén Itzá makes me glad I chose this option. The color of the water is turquoise mixed with greens that turn almost yellow near the shallow shore. It’s almost an hour of flying from the Aeropuerto Internacional Mundo Maya in Flores to the ruin, so I settle back and watch the fields thin, the farms disappear and then it’s just jungle.

No roads.

No fields.

No farms.

Just endless, beautiful jungle as far as I can see.

The tip of La Danta, a Mayan pyramid located in Guatemala, sticks out above the tree line in the El Peten Jungle © Ray Bartlett / Lonely Planet Taking a helicopter to El Mirador provides a breathtaking vantage point from which to spot the Mayan ruin © Ray Bartlett / Lonely Planet

Finding El Mirador

Then something in the distance. A bump on the horizon that gets bigger and bigger as we near. I open the window and get the camera ready. The pilot nods. Yes, he points. That’s it: El Mirador.

It’s the largest known pyramid in the Maya world, by some calculations, and nearly the size of the pyramids in Egypt. At its apex, the once vast civilization spread over nearly 10 miles, rivaled only by the equally vast and equally abandoned ‘sister’ across Mexico’s border – Calakmul. With no real water source and few natural resources, scientists are still unsure how the civilization at El Mirador thrived.

Currently, there’s no excavated ruin more remote, more forgotten, more truly lost than this one. Found only by chicle (rubber) harvesters, who would wander through vast swaths of forest in search of trees to tap for their natural rubber sap, El Mirador lay forgotten by archaeologists until 1926. Yet it wasn’t until 2003 that researchers really began to work at the ruin, which sits just four miles south of the Mexican border. Even now, only a tiny fraction of the structures have been excavated.

The chopper banks sharply and we touch down in a grassy clearing that from above seemed no bigger than a bathmat. As the blades wind down, we exit and the first thing that I hear is…nothing at all.

No cars in the distance. No honks. No engines. Just forest sounds – cicadas buzzing, wind through leaves, the far off ‘thunking’ of an oscillated turkey.

This frieze depicts one of the two brothers who defeated the gods of the Mayan underworld, Xibalba © Ray Bartlett / Lonely Planet Much of El Mirador remains a mystery to researchers © Ray Bartlett / Lonely Planet

I have just four hours in the ruin, so my guide gives me a quick explanation and then we’re off, trudging through muddy forest paths for nearly a mile to reach La Danta (the tapir), the towering 230-foot pyramid I’d seen from the air.

The guide points out the newly excavated sections – a beautifully intricate stucco frieze, dating back to 300 BC, depicting a pair of brothers, Hunahpú and Ixbalnqué (the ‘Hero Twins’) who, according to the Maya creation myth, defeated the lords of Xibalba – the underworld. On either side are shallow ‘swimming pools’ that researchers believe were used to represent the water the twins swam through.

There’s something disconcerting about seeing such elaborate artwork and decoration in a place still covered with roots, vines and rubble. Perhaps it’s a cautionary reminder, and through the study of history, we can predict the future. Maybe this will be us someday.

The shade of the forest canopy keeps us somewhat cool, but after 15 minutes, I’m drenched in sweat. The guide points out breadnut trees, a staple grain used not just by ancient Maya, but by rural villages even today. I see bird after incredible bird.

There’s a sharp incline, and nearby, I see the criss-cross patterns cut into some centuries-old chicle trees. El Mirador’s majestic pyramid La Dantais before us.

A close of view of La Danta shows trees growing through the stone structure © Ray Bartlett / Lonely Planet El Mirador can be reached by helicopter or a seven-day hike through the Petén jungle © Ray Bartlett / Lonely Planet

The ascent

Unlike the pyramids at Giza, which rise out of the sand from base to tip unbroken, El Mirador’s pyramids are constructed in sections.

First I climb up onto a fairly wide base, still totally covered in jungle. Were it not for the guide I’d have never known it was man-made. From there, it’s up to a mid-section. This has a real ‘pyramid’ feel to it, though it’s still largely untouched.

Finally, panting, sweating, but excited, I see the last section – excavated enough that you can see the individual stones – appearing through the trees.

Wooden steps lead up to El Mirador's pyramids © Ray Bartlett / Lonely Planet The thick jungle canopy provides a bit of relief from the sun during the hike to El Mirador’s pyramids © Ray Bartlett / Lonely Planet

Like many ruins in Guatemala, this one has wooden stairs leading up the side, reducing the chance for human foot traffic to destroy the stones. By the halfway point, I’m above the tree line, able to see glimpses of the vastness of the jungle below. A few minutes more and I’ve reached the top – a windy, sun-scorched apex with a 360 degree view. The land is pristine, still belonging to the jaguar, ocelot, the tapir, the bandicoot and the oscillated turkey.

Somewhere to the north, Calakmul is visible on clear days with a telescope or a good pair of binoculars. The guide points out other bumps in the landscape. Those too are ruins. I wonder what it would have been like to be here centuries ago and see the region filled with thriving towns and cities, hundreds of thousands of people.

I eat my lunch quietly, humbled to be here. I’m feeling the same awe I get when I stare up at a dark night sky and see the infinite sweep of the stars.

With all the photos and the heat, it’s taken longer than we thought to get this far and already the sky is getting cloudy. Our guide says we’ll need to head back, but I don’t want to go.

Next time, I tell myself, I’ll come and hike. Take a week here. Four hours just isn’t enough time.

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