El Mirador – Pyramids hidden in the Jungle – Guatemala Adventure

The highest Maya pyramids and the largest Maya city ever detected, El Mirador in Guatemala is not only a site full of superlatives. It is the most adventurous travel destination for people interested in the ancient culture of the Maya.

El Mirador – A Real  Treasure Hidden in the Rain Forest

No streets, just mule trails across the jungle lead to this astonishing place. For centuries hidden in the sub-tropical forest of the Petén in Guatemala, only jaguars and monkeys were aware of the existence of the stony mountains between the trees.

The Maya Site of El Mirador in Guatemala - Standing on the El Tigre pyramid looking over the jungle  to La Danta during the sunrise.
The Maya Site of El Mirador in Guatemala – Standing on the El Tigre pyramid looking over the jungle to La Danta during the sunrise.

Mountains that were pyramids before the nature took place. Pyramids build by humans 2000 years before, to worship some long forgotten gods. The few chicleros who visited this place on their rumble through the jungle called it “El Mirador” – what means “Viewpoint” – because the ruins of these buildings exceed the surrounding forest by a big extend.

El Mirador - In front of the Top of La Danta - the photo was taken from the second last level of the hughe pyramid
El Mirador – In front of the Top of La Danta – the photo was taken from the second last level of the hughe pyramid

One of the biggest pyramids in the world

El Mirador was a very huge city. Bigger than any other of the surrounding Maya cities, bigger than Tikal, Yaxchilán or Palenque. The city center covered an area of 28 square kilometres with more than 1000 buildings.

And it is an old city. It might have been founded before 600 BC during the pre-classical period of the Maya civilization and could have been inhabited by more than 200.000 people during its hightime, controlling a surrounding area with more than a million of people. Like all cities of the region, it was finally abandoned around 900 AC. 1500 years of a lost civilization.

The heyday of El Mirador fell in the time between 300 BC and 100 AD. In this period, referenced as late Pre-Classic, the big monuments were constructed. Around 100 AD the so-called “hiatus” occured. Construction work ended and the city became depopulated. During the classical period the place was settled again, but just to a small extend.

Structures in El Mirador - Guatemala - Jungle Adventure
Structures in El Mirador – Guatemala – Jungle Adventure

The three main pyramids are called El Tigre, Los Monos and La Danta. All three have been build with  several levels. Each of them has a group of three temple pyramids on top.

These triadic patterns are thought to empathize one the mystic concepts of the Maya. The hearth in a Maya house was build using three stones as a three-point construction with the fire in the middle. The same structure can be seen in the constellation of the Orion. The stars Rigel, Alnitak and Saiph form a triangle surrounding a nebula just below Orion’s belt that in modern astronomy is called N42. Today’s spiritual leaders of the Maya denote this astronomical constellation as the “celestil hearth”.

The height of El Tigre is 55 m, La Danta is 70 m, and Los Monos 48 m. Due to a volume of  2,800,000 cubic meters La Danta is one of the biggest pyramids in the world. Richard Hanson, who is leading the excavations of El Mirador since 2003, estimates that 15 million man-days of work were required to compelete this structure.

El Mirador - Archaeologists at Work - Guatemala Adventure
El Mirador – Archaeologists at Work – Guatemala Adventure

The Trip to El Mirador – Hiking Adventure in the Jungle of Guatemala

To get there, you have to walk. Sometimes it is possible to ride on mules. But walking is faster and allows you to watch the nature more closely. It is a 5-day trip to El Mirador and back.

Before you start the trip ask yourself the following question: Am I fit enough to walk 100 km in a tropical environment? If your answer is yes, then go on.

Day 1

The first day will begin with a drive to Carmelita, 60 km north of the Lago Petén. This is the last village, that can be reached by car. In Carmelita the walk will begin.

Anna and the Frog
Anna and the Frog

A guide and a mula  will accompany you.  The mules are required to transport the food, water and additional luggage. This first day will end in El Tintal.

El Tintal is another Maya site of the Pre-Classic with big monuments, but less important than El Mirador. The restauration work at this place is not as intensive as in El Mirador. Originally El Tintal was the second largest Maya city in the region, after El Mirador.

El Mirador - Sleeping Maya Princess - Guatemala Jungle Adventure
El Mirador – Sleeping Maya Princess – Guatemala Jungle Adventure

Day 2

After a wonderful night with camp fire, mosquitos and strange jungle sounds you will continue the walk and reach El Mirador on the second evening.

Day 3

After a second night, get up early before the sunrise and climb up to El Tigre. You will have a perfect view around and see the sun come up at the horizon, coloring the jungle with  a fantastic light. This third day is for looking, exploring and watching.  Go to see La Danta, Los Monos, El Tigre. If you are lucky, you can watch and talk with archaeologists.

El Mirador Hike - The Guide - Examining a beehive
El Mirador Hike – The Guide – Examining a beehive

Day 4 and 5

On the fourth morning you will leave El Mirador and after another night in the jungle you will be back in Carmelita.

Some advice for safety and health

Good shoes:  If you are not used, don’t try to walk this distance with rubber boots, as the locals do. I was there during the rain period and found that the trail was in a good condition for regular walking boots.

El Mirador - The Mula
El Mirador – The Mula

Clothes: Use trousers, not shorts. There are snakes, tarantulas and scorpions waiting for you. Yes, just for you!

Hygiene: Water is limited. Don’t expect to have a possibility to shower. Tooth brushing should be possible. A shower with fresh water is impossible. After 3 days you will smell like a buffalo, what makes you less attractive for the mosquitos.

Green Frog On Ancient Maya Ceramics - Red Eyes - El Mirador - Guatemala
Green Frog On Ancient Maya Ceramics – Red Eyes – El Mirador – Guatemala

Insect repellent: Have enough with you ! Expect heavy attacks ! In San José, north of the Lago Petén, is an organization, that produces traditional Maya medicine. They sell a lotion against mosquitoes made from the extracts of plants. The benefit is, that this is not washed down when you sweat.  I had it with me and used it during the five days. On the third day after using this, the mosquitos stopped to attack me.

Climbing up to El Tigre - El Mirador - Amazing Temples and Pyramids
Climbing up to El Tigre – El Mirador – Amazing Temples and Pyramids

Light is attractive: It’s not bad to have a flash light with you, but don’t use it when you eat in the night at the camp fire.  You might be anxious that some animals fall in you soup, tea or coffee.  Don’t care, you cannot change it. But if you try to light your dish to examine the content, you will attract complete armies of insects of all sizes. Their only desire is to jump in your vegetarian spaghetti bolognese. So it’s better you eat in the darkness and allow the insects to jump in the soup of your friends.

How to get to El Mirador

Don’t try to do this trip on your own! It’s dangerous. Ask one of the tourist offices in Flores. They organize guided tours including the mules for the luggage.

Have fun !

Recommended Reading

A wonderful article about the trip to El Mirador by Claire and Marcella can be found at  “Best regards from far” : A 5-day jungle expedition to discover the ancient Maya capital of El Mirador, Guatemala

A second post on this amazing website describes the historical aspects of El Mirador: Exploring the cradle of the Maya civilization, El Mirador, Guatemala

The Mirador Basin Project is a multi-disciplinary research program covering the arcaeological and natural resources of the area.

Check my book or eBook at Amazon:

A Traveler’s Guide to the Maya Sites on the Yucatán peninsula, in México and Guatemala

>>> Read more about the Maya sites in Petén / Guatemala

Christian Schoen

Christian Schoen is a globetrotter, travel writer and author of the very successful travel guide "The Maya Sites - Hidden Treasures of the Rain Forest". He loves to visit temples, pyramids and any kind of ancient ruins. The SLR in his hand, he can be met on adventurous hiking tours in tropical jungle landscapes - sometimes - or just somewhere in his neighbourhood, the Black Forest Mountains in Germany.

4 Responses

  1. Very cool information you’ve compiled here on ancient Mayan pyramids Christian. I wanted to drop by and check out your site it looked very interesting and proved to be.

    I can’t imagine having to deal with the mosquitoes in that place, I get eaten alive just here in town, I shudder to think what they’d do to me if I went there. Although it would be fascinating to visit and check out the culture and ruins.

    Have you been to El Mirador yourself? If so I bet it was an awesome experience, I bet the locals have some amazing stories to tell. Thanks for an interesting read!

    Best Regards,
    Robert Tuttle

  2. Hi Robert,

    thanks for visiting my site and your nice comment. Yes, I was there in El Mirador in 2008. Mosquitos everywhere :-) but not only.

    If somebody is interested in insects he might find the jungle of Guatemala an amazing place. Or any other jungle. I never saw so many different and sometimes really huge insects as there.

    Not only that bugs get bigger than in the northern countries. Awesome are the big butterflies everywhere. Sometimes of the size of my hand, with wonderful colors.

    Best regards,

  3. salvamento says:

    Hey, cool I found your site, I was reminiscing about my first trip to El mirador and decided to google it. I was first there in 1994 hiking alone with some chicleros out of Carmelita. I packed a hi8 video camera and had a total blast. I ate cuzuco soup, culebra and jaguar meat. I ended up getting malaria up there but don’t regret the trip at all¡ I still remember video taping myself climbing up to the top of el mirador. And to think that now..people are probably vlogging from there. But ha¡ I was the first¡ 23 years ago!

    • That’s great – in 1994 this must have been an even bigger adventure than it is today. But it is still not easy to get there. Do you still have the video tapes?

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