Wednesday, January 18, 2012

El Mirador

While most tourists interested in seeing Mayan ruins who come to Flores visit Tikal, a well-known and mostly excavated Mayan city, we were in search of something a little more off the beaten path. We had read about the hike to Mirador and also been told by some Guatemalans that it was well worth the experience.

We arrived in Flores on an overnight bus from Guatemala City at about 4 AM. We were very tired and a little disoriented, but we knew Flores was an island connected by a causeway to Santa Elena. So when the bus stopped and we were told to get on a shuttle to the island, it seemed natural. On the shuttle, there was a man selling rides and guides to Tikal as the shuttle took us to the hotel we planned to stay at. When we told him we were thinking Mirador instead, he tried to sell us a trip for $450 a person, which we declined as that was way out of our budget. (We later discovered that this "operator" was a scammer who had ripped off some others, and last year had spent time in jail for selling overpriced plane tickets.)

We checked into our hotel and slept for a few hours. Later that day, we wandered about the island, which is quite small, maybe only half a kilometer in diameter, ate some food, and checked in on a few travel agencies for prices to Mirador. Basically, the agencies work together to put together groups, and the bigger the group, the less you have to pay per person. The difficulty is that most people who do this trip are travelling alone or in pairs, so the agents often take advantage of less-savvy and weary travellers and charge them a 1 or 2 person rate, though they end up in groups of 6, 8 or more! And once you've parted with money in Guatemala, it is unlikely you will get your fair share back. The 5-day hike would include food and water, tents, and a guide to the Mirador. We told the agent that we could wait for a large group, since we had a budget to keep and nothing but time. He told us to come back tomorrow to see if more people were interested. In the meantime, it was the festival week on the island, so we enjoyed the sunlight by the lake, the parades that would come by with music in the afternoon, and lots of tasty street food and fresh fruits. I particularly enjoy here the young mango with lime juice, salt, and chili! We also met a friendly Salvadorian man, who used to live in Inglewood but was deported from the US for drunk driving, who know works at a hotel/tour operator here in Flores, who gave us lots of suggestions and tips for the Mirador and also some good questions to ask the agency before we left.

The next afternoon, we returned to the agent who told us there was a group of 4 (including us) but he could give us a "special price", but we told him we had a budget and couldn't afford to spend more than $250 a person, their 6 person or more price (which is still DOUBLE our budget), and not surprisingly, he took it. So the next day, we were off.

We met at the agency for breakfast of eggs, beans, and toast and met our fellow travellers. It turnes out there were 8 people after all (so luckily, we didnt over pay after all!) and it was quite an eclectic group. There was a couple where he was from France and she was from the Czech Republic (late 20s, they met working on a farm in Denmark), a 28 y/o Canadian girl, a 25 y/o Mexican guy, a 43 y/o Dutchman, a 43 y/o Korean man, and us. While we were eating, our "shuttle" arrived - which was actually a pickup truck. The agents loaded all the food and tents into the truck, then 4 people got into the truck and 4 of us had to sit in the bed, on top of the supplies! Matt and I took first round with Ranier, the Dutchman, and Eduardo, the Mexican. Of course, the paved road ended after about half an hour of driving, so the ride was quite bumpy! (After an hour we switched and sat inside the truck.). We arrived in Carmelita, a little town in the jungle of Petén, where the hike would commence. While the food and equipment was loaded onto the mules, our guide, Abel, showed us a map of where we would walk and tried to sell us the idea of adding an extra day to the hike to see three extra sites. While the idea sounded great, the price did not, and most people had already paid too much for the five days, so we stuck with our original plan. We also learned that if we had organized the trip directly with the cooperative of guides in Carmelita, we could have paid even less.

If you ever do plan on doing this trip, which I recommend, contact the Carmelita Cooperative at or .

We began walking just before noon and walked 27 kilometers to El Tintal, another Mayan City. We made excellent time and arrived in 5.5 hours. The path through the jungle is still pretty wild. A clear path has been cut, so its not as if we were cutting down branches with machetes (though our guide, the muleteer, and our security guide all carried pretty serious machetes) however, the path is dirt with rocks and many tree roots, so we did have to navigate our footing carefully. It had also rained a few days before, so some part of the path were quite muddy and Matt's shoe got sucked off his foot twice! In some places where the path was too wet, the guide would take us on an alternate path, which was less of a path and more a slight clearing in the trees. Overall, the jungle is quite flat, but there are some inclinces - which are not mountains but actually more ruins that the jungle has completely grown over! We mostly talked and told stories, played some word games, as we walked and had fun.

At Tintal, we climbed the Tiger Temple Pyramid to watch the sunset and looked out and saw nothing but jungle as far as the eye could see in all directions. The jungle is mostly flat, but as we looked out, we could see small and large hills, which our guide explained were more Mayan Ruins. He even pointed out the Mirador way out in the distance. It was crazy to think that where we were standing had once been in the center of a non-jungle city and that we were looking out at other cities, but that in the course of 2000 years, the jungle had completely grown over everything these people built. Even stranger, some archaeologists believe one reason the Mayan cities were abandoned was related to depletion of natural resources, such as deforestation and loss of trees, which were cut down to make the mortar for the stone structures and cleared to make causeways, which were like highways, that connected the cities. So an area that was deforested to the point of driving out a civilization grew back over all the buildings (yes, over 2000 years) and today, Guatemala is again facing a national crisis of deforestation.

We were all pretty tired and went to bed rather early. We awoke at 6 am and left Tintal by 7:40 headed to El Mirador. I believe the second day is always the worst in hiking becuase on the first day we were all so full of energy and moved very quickly but used many muscles that hadn't been used for a while (our last hike was Pacaya in Antigua), but also not to that extent. We were all very tired and our feet ached. Nonetheless, we made the 26 challenging kilometers to Mirador in 8 hours, including a half hour morning break to rest and eat some oranges, a little over a half hour for lunch (mayonnaise and cheese sandwhiches - a Guatemalan favorite, not so much our favorite), and a few other water and rest stops. We saw some Spider Monkeys playing in the trees above us and some deer. We also ate some fruit, Zapotes, that our guide found and he pulled some very fragrant "pimiento" leaves to make tea. We intended to climb the Tiger Temple at Mirador to watch the sunset again, but it began to rain.

The camp at Mirador is pretty standard campsite - there are concrete foundations to place tents on that are covered by palapas to protect from rain. There is a fire pit with wooden table for meals and the bathrooms are dry outhouses with wooden boxes for seats that get pretty smelly. That night, we stayed up a little later, playing cards and talking. I was pretty amazed that just about everyone besides us smoked - the 6 other hikers were smokers, the muleteer and security guard too. I was amazed at how the Frenchman would smoke while hiking! He had brought 5 packs of cigarettes for 5 daysof hiking.

The third day we woke up at 5:30 am to watch the sunrise from the Tiger Temple. It was still rather cloudy, though the rain had stopped, so while it was not the most magnificent sunrise, what was more fascinating was listening to the sounds of the jungle waking up. We heard the deep growls of howler monkeys, the calls of toucans, parrots, and many other birds, and saw the trees shake as all these animals moved about. We spotted some toucans on far tree as we drank the tea made from the leaves picked the day before. After we returned to camp for breakfast, we spent the day exploring the ruins. They are still in the process of excavating many of the sites, so it was interesting to see how trees and plants had taken root and grown out of once great buildings. We visited the Danta Pyramid complex, which is the biggest pyramid built by the mayans (the biggest complex at Tikal could fit entirely inside the Danta, which is just one temple in the great city), and the largest by volume in Central America. The Mirador was built in the Mayan preclassic period (1000 BC-0), so every temple/building/pyramid was built with two smaller pyramids/edifices in front in a triad that archaeologiats believe mirror a star constellation. We also saw a pool/water resorvoir that had amazing plaster designs on the sides of the plumed serpent god that is still being excavated and a temple with the jaguar mask. The city reached its height of glory around 300 BC and was abandoned around 100 AC. Like most ancient cities, it was repopulated about 500 years later, when a nomadic group settled upon the old foundation and used stones from the pyramids to build new houses. Former temples were privatized and made into homes. After lunch, we visited the observatory, which was a pyramid that had a dip in the top which was aligned with three corresponding pyramids such that at noon on the equinoxes and solstices, the sun would shine in a straight line from the peak of the corresponding pyramid through the dip in the observatory. Around the ruins, we saw more spider monkeys and also the howlers; parrots and toucans, hummingbirds, dragonflies, giant red ants, and every other type of insect you can imagine. Matt saw a tarantula!

That evening, it rained again, and we all enjoyed a relaxing afternoon. Our guide boiled some water over the fire and mixed it with cool water and salt to make a foot bath, which was nice and relaxing as we prepared to head back.

The fourth day, we awoke at 6 and left by 7:50 to return to Tintal. Since we had used about half the supplies, there mules now free of equipment that we could ride, so we all took turns riding an hour or two while others walked. While it was nice to rest our feet some more, I think the pain in my sit bones from riding the mule is far worse than anyother muscle ache I have from the trip! It rained on and off through the day, but the canopy of trees blocked most of the water from coming down on us directly. The cool air was refreshing but our shoes and pants got very muddy - I had mud up to my knees! I chose to wear long pants, thankfully, but others had worn shorts and they were filthy! At camp, we had water to wash our hands and face, but there were certainly no showers and a lot of the mud did not come off! On the trail, we saw more deer, the guide pointed out some Jaguar droppings (though unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, we didn't have a Jaguar sighting). We also saw the tail end of a Tepesquintla. As it was our last night, we sat talking and playing cards much of the evening. Our guides were really nice and they took part in the fun. The muleteer was also a funny guy, though it was sometimes difficult to understand him as he mumbled, and of course, in spanish. He was almost like a character out of a movie, because it seemed that everyday he would button up one less button of his shirt and by the last day was walking around with it completely undone! Our security, Carlos, seemed to not have shaven or cut his hair for many years, so I think we saw what Matt will look like by the end of our trip!

The fifth day, our food was basically exhausted, so breakfast was light and we had no lunch save a snack of oranges. We walked all the way back to Carmelita and were all so thrilled when we finally stepped out of the jungle onto the dirt road at the edge of town. We were tired, we were stinky, we were hungry, but we were happy! Before returning to the office, we stopped at a tienda and got some snacks and cold beverages. We had the same luxury transportation home - yes, half of us outside on the bed of a truck, but this time, it continued to rain on and off for the three hour ride home. We got back to Flores around 6 pm and agreed to meet for dinner in 2 hours. We all went our own way, to various hotels and hostels, and of course - SHOWERED! It felt so good to get five days of mud, sweat, humidity, stickiness, bugs, dirt, food, etc etc all washed off in a hot (well, warm) shower! Amd putting on fresh, clean clothes... Ahhhhhhh... By 8 pm we were starving, so we went to a restaurant on the lake front and toasted to our amazing adventure. We were very lucky that our group got along so well and that we came back as friends.

Yesterday, we went over to Santa Elena with Sarah, the Canadienne, for breakfast and bought some fresh fruit and veggies at the market. It was quite hot, so Matt and I headed out to the lake for a swim. After the first dive in, we cleaned our very muddy shoes in the water and laid out on the dock enjoying our fruit. We had just jumped in to swim for the second time, when it started to rain! We returned to our room to dry off and relaxed in the rooftop (covered) hammocks for the rest of the afternoon. We met Sarah again for dinner and found Ranier, the Dutchman, along the way, so we enjoyed a last meal together. Today, Sarah has headed to Belize and Ranier to Palenque, Mexico. Tomorrow, we will likely head to Copan, Honduras for more ruins and a few days later to El Salvador. Today, the plan is: relax!

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