Far to the north of Tikal, the jungles of the vast Mirador-Río Azul National Park hold what may be Guatemala’s most historically significant site, the ruins of El Mirador. Arguably the oldest Mayan city in Petén, El Mirador lies between Tikal to the south and Calakmul to the north, just seven kilometers from the Mexican border. The site is incredibly difficult to reach, even during the dry season, which helps explain why it is so well-preserved. The other half of this important national park, Río Azul is 25 kilometers to the east. Conservationists hope to incorporate the park and several smaller sites – Nakbé, El Tintal, and Wakná into the Mirador Basin National Park, but progress has been slow.
El Mirador was rediscovered in 1926, but archaeologists did not realize the importance of this gargantuan city until recently. As a result, this spectacular site is still relatively unknown, and its potential implications for tourism in Guatemala are enormous. Only a few thousand visitors reach the site each year, as to get here you’ll have to shell out a healthy chunk of change and be willing to walk for five days through the jungle. El Mirador reached the height of its power between 350 BC and 100 AD, almost an entire millennium before Tikal, giving credence to the theory that Mayan civilization as a whole originated here.
As early as 1000 BC, subsistence farmers were producing crops in El Mirador’s fertile bajo mud. For the next millennium, El Mirador grew rapidly due to trade in jade and obsidian with civilizations throughout Mesoamerica. By the time of Christ, the ruling K’an dynasty controlled an unfathomably large empire. At its peak, the city was held over 100,000 people and showed previously unbelievable levels of sophistication in agriculture, mathematics, and astronomy. Around 150 AD, however, the efforts of temple-building and unsustainable agriculture dried out El Mirador’s swamps, and the kingdom began to collapse at a deleterious clip. By the 2nd century, this unparalleled civilization was no more.
See the Sights – The Ruins
Today, El Mirador is the largest cluster of buildings in the Mayan world, though most are covered in a tangle of roots and vines – some imagination is required. Located on a group of limestone hills spanning16 km2, El Mirador centers around the pyramid complexes of La Danta (The Tapir) and El Tigre (The Tiger) on either side of the Central Acropolis. These triadic (meaning one large pyramid flanked by two smaller ones) temples are separated by over a kilometer and face each other in a pattern that repeats itself throughout many of Petén’s other Pre-Classic sites. The massive base of El Tigre is adorned with engraved jaguar masks and is technically larger than its neighbor. However, the 72-meter tall La Danta Complex dwarfs El Tigre in height by a whopping 15 meters, making it the tallest structure in the Mayan World and a contender for the world’s largest pyramid. It is located in the East Group, and from the top you can glimpse structures at Nakbé and Calakmul.
South of the Central Acropolis, where ritual sacrifices were performed, you’ll find another triadic temple called the Monos Complex, a 42-meter tall pyramid named for the howler monkeys that inhabit the surrounding forest. Just south of El Tigre is Structure 34, a medium-sized structure that may be the oldest Mayan pyramid ever discovered. Along the northern boundary of the site are the León Pyramid and Cascabel Complex. Restorations at El Mirador are led by UCLA’s Dr. Richard Hansen, who is spearheading the ambitious Mirador Basin National Park project. Hansen’s most important discovery may have been an engraved entablature depicting the Popol Vuh scene where the hero twins Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué visit the Xibalbá underworld to retrieve the decapitated head of their murdered father. This frieze, as the carving is known, demonstrates the importance of El Mirador in defining the early beliefs of the Maya Civilization.
El Mirador Basin Project
The ruins of El Mirador are undoubtedly one of the most important historical finds ever made, but plans for how the ruins will be protected are unclear. Dr. Richard Hansen, the lead archaeologist at the site, has proposed the creation of the Mirador Basin National Park. The heavily protected triangular area would stretch from the Mexican border to El Zotz and encompass 2,100 km2 of important Mayan ruins and tropical forest. The park would be three times the size of Tikal but operate in a similar fashion.
Visitors should first understand that a visit to El Mirador is not easy and probably should not be attempted during rainy season. Tour operators won’t hesitate to book a tour from June to November, but then again they won’t be the ones trekking through 60 kilometers of waist-deep mud and dealing with incessant mosquitoes. That being said, if you are physically fit and can deal with 100ºF temperatures and 85 percent humidity, El Mirador is worth it. For the easiest possible trek, try to visit from January to April. The road from Flores heads 90 kilometers before reaching the end of the line at the tiny village of Carmelita, which serves as the jumping-off point for the five-day round-trip trek to El Mirador. Carmelita is little more than a scattering of houses, comedores and basic tiendas on the cusp of a vast jungle.
Getting Here, Around, and Away
It is necessary to book a tour for visits to El Mirador, but unfortunately this is more complicated than it should be. Most trekkers arrange a tour in Flores, but particular care must be taken because guides can be sub-par. You can save a little money by traveling to Carmelita and dealing directly with the Comité de Turismo there. In fact, this may be preferable, as the Carmelita tourism committee occasionally causes problems for visitors who do not go through them. You will most likely have to pay for your trek (around $350 per person) up front. Make sure you book in advance and double-check your food – some visitors have noted that food stores run low by the trip’s end.
For the five-day trek, hikers spend the first night at El Tintal before continuing on to El Mirador the next day. Two nights are spent exploring the ruins before returning to Carmelita. Seven-day treks give you a little more time at the ruins and add stops at Nakbé and Wakna (see the travel guide for more information on these two sites). Your supplies will be carried by mules, who are much more capable of carrying heavy loads in the deep mud. It is also possible to reach El Mirador from Uaxactún by booking a six-day trek with El Chiclero. These tours are more expensive, however, costing around $125 per person per day. Finally, if you’ve got the money to spare, Mirador Park can arrange helicopter trips to the site – this is how Mel Gibson, who has visited twice, chooses to arrive.
Information and Services
A successful trip to El Mirador requires a decent amount of planning, but potential visitors should not be discouraged by minor setbacks – this is truly a once in a lifetime experience. For more information to help plan your trip, the websites www.miradorbasin.com and www.miradorpark.com are useful, as are more informal blogs like www.elmiradorhike.blogspot.com and www.mayaruinsonly.com. The Guatemalan government plans to augment the facilities at El Mirador by construction basic latrines, a kitchen, and tent platforms for camping. This seemingly small task, however, is proving difficult for the current administration.