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Exploring Guatemala's El Mirador

Into the wild The ruins of the ancient Mayan metropolis lies deep in the jungles of the Central American country.
The Mirador Basin in Guatemala is littered with ruins, while the vast Maya Biosphere Reserve occupies part of it.
The Mirador Basin in Guatemala is littered with ruins, while the vast Maya Biosphere Reserve occupies part of it.

The ruins of the ancient Mayan metropolis lie deep in the jungles of Guatemala I had always thought of Mel Gibson as a tough guy - until I learnt that he flew in a helicopter to El Mirador. The ancient Mayan city, buried deep in northern Guatemala's Peten jungle, lies some 60km from the nearest road. For most, the journey to it involves a two-day difficult hike through dense rainforest: we are talking mud, mosquitoes and heat. Unless you are in a hurry, of course.

And Mel happens to be a friend of El Mirador's charismatic head archaeologist Richard Hansen. The two men bonded when Hansen worked as a consultant on the actor's Mayan epic, Apocalypto, and Mel, keen to visit Hansen on-site, chose the easier way to travel. I think he is mad: the abandoned city lies within the Mirador Basin, an area littered with ruins, while the vast Maya Biosphere Reserve occupies part of it. This is one of the most ecologically diverse regions in the world and home to a variety of mammals, reptiles and birds, including jaguar, puma, howler monkeys, the giant anteater, the deadly fer-de-lance snake, the hummingbird, and unique plants and trees. Why skip all of that for a blink-and-you'll-miss-it blur of green, jungle canopy from on high?

Still, I can understand the actor's fascination with the abandoned city. A superpower from 300BC to 150AD, El Mirador is about 1,000 years older than Tikal, the country's main Mayan attraction. It is more than twice its size and home to Danta, the world's largest pyramid which, soaring to a height of 72m, is also the tallest structure in the Mayan world. Architectural feats aside, the Mayans were expert mathematicians, astrologers, linguists, craftsmen and sculptors, although their achievements were offset by a warring streak and fondness for human sacrifice.

Most treks begin in the village of Carmelita, about a four-hour drive from Nitun, a cosy eco-lodge on the shores of Lake Peten Itza, where I have based myself. However, when I arrive here after my flight from Guatemala City, I learn that a team of park rangers are also heading to El Mirador. My guide Francisco suggests that we join them, which means taking a backtrack that bypasses Carmelita. Later, he tells me, we will join the main trail, at the Mayan site of Nakbe.

The first leg of the journey, a jeep ride through rolling hills and farmland, is perfectly pleasant, although it is hard to ignore the tracts of land littered with burnt tree stumps, evidence of slash-and-burn agriculture. This is one of the many threats facing the rainforest. Poachers, looters, illegal loggers and drug traffickers are others, and it is the job of the rangers to protect El Mirador and the surrounding jungle. Help is on its way though: plans, spearheaded by Richard Hansen and supported by local environmentalists and the government are afoot to transform El Mirador into an archaeological park, with a narrow-gauge train to carry visitors here. The idea is to offer an ecotourism alternative to the damaging practices, one that will involve and benefit local communities. While this is laudable, I am grateful for the opportunity to have El Mirador and the jungle largely to myself.

By mid-afternoon, after a few tortuous hours on a rough track, we reach Lechugal, where we leave the jeep and meet the mules. The beasts are loaded down with the supplies that will see us through the next five days: bottles of water, cereal, tins of beans, bags of rice, tortilla flour, biscuits, chocolate, rum and tents. We set off single file and the rangers, seasoned walkers, soon disappear into the forest. The trail here is on the flat and surprisingly dry, and takes us beyond the bajos or seasonal tree-covered swamps (though there is no water in the dry season) to the greener palm forest or huanales. It would be easy walking were it not for the 37-degree heat.

Still, there is plenty to absorb. All around us are chicle trees, the bark indented with telltale marks used to extract the latex that is used as the basis for chewing gum. The chico sapote, the tree's brown fruit, is the size of a large plum and tastes sweet. A short while later I get a fleeting glimpse of a boar as it leaps across our path, hear woodpeckers burrowing into trees and spot giant termites nests.

When we reach our camp in Nakbe under a luminous full moon, a good three hours after we had started out, I am euphoric rather than exhausted. After a wash (a bucket of water behind a rigged-up bit of plastic sheeting), a hearty meal of beans and rice, cooked over an open fire, and a swig of rum, I fall into the deepest sleep I have had in years - this despite a chorus of frogs and crickets. Early the next morning, I prowl around Nakbe. The first Mayan city to emerge in the Mirador basin, it predates even El Mirador. Despite extensive excavations, the temples here have been reburied to protect against looters and there is not much to see beyond pyramid-shaped mounds.

Rather than set off for El Mirador, Francisco decides to take me on a "day trip", an exhausting six-hour and a 20km hike to and from ruins at La Muralla, a site dating back between 600AD and 900AD and which archaeologists believe may once have been a Mayan dance theatre. The trail to it cuts through a tangle of twisty vines and gnarled branches laden with orchids and bromeliads. It is magical, but soon I am sweating profusely. When we reach La Muralla, I am too exhausted to inspect the ruins (which are, in any case, no more than a wall), and I collapse in the shade of a tree. A few reviving litres of water later, and I am ready to wolf down lunch: sardines, crackers and fudge. I wonder how I will ever make it back to the camp at Nakbe, but I do, surprisingly, well before sunset.

The next day's hike to El Mirador is a breeze in comparison, through the cool, green palm and ramon forest, or ramonale. Underfoot is the sakbe, a chalky white limestone causeway that goes all the way to El Mirador. It is the world's first superhighway system, built around 600BC to connect the ancient Mayan cities in the Mirador basin. Along the way, Arnoldo, one of the rangers, scoots up a ramon tree and with his machete hacks off leaves for the mules to eat, while I inspect the small orange ramon fruit. "It was the fruit of the Mayans," he says, explaining that the nut, when ground up and boiled, was once used to make tortilla flour.

It is in the "suburbs" of El Mirador, filled with the majestic trees of the forest canopy - mahogany, cedar, ceiba, rising 30 to 40m into the sky - that I spot my first snake, a harmless green thing, "non-toxica", but it still sends a shudder up my spine. That is nothing in comparison to the prehistoric roar of the tiny howler monkey that greets us as we enter the abandoned city - it is almost like a mouse with the vocal cord of a lion. "It's the most beautiful sound in the jungle," says my guide.

After settling into the camp and lunch - more beans and rice - I set off to explore, flitting along the causeways, from one jungle-engulfed ruin to the next. I try to decipher the Mayan glyphs on stone monuments known as stellae, admire a recently unearthed pair of stucco panels that depict scenes from the Popul Vuh, the Mayan creation story, and climb rather unsteadily to the top of the El Tigre pyramid. From here, I can just about make out Danta, El Mirador's crowning glory, believed to have been used for accession rituals and other religious ceremonies.

It ancient Mayan times it wasn't all sober ritual and bloody sacrifice though - the Mayans were practical people too, and great farmers who produced corn, squash, cotton and chocolate. Alas, the abuse of natural resources and mass deforestation are believed to have led to El Mirador's collapse - a lesson we can all heed. A long, pleasant walk through the rainforest and I finally reach the world's largest pyramid. As only part of it has been excavated, it is difficult to get a feel for its immense scale, but at sunset I climb the sturdy steps to the summit, gaze across the lush canopy and catch my breath: it is, indeed, a view fit for Mayan gods. travel@thenational.ae

Updated: August 1, 2009 04:00 AM