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eirekay El Mirador Basin Preserve - A travel report by Eire
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El Mirador Basin Preserve,  Guatemala - flag Guatemala -  Petén
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eirekay's travel reports

Sunrise on the World's Largest Pyramid

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Page: 1 2
Located in a dense rain forest and accessible only on foot, El Mirador's La Danta pyramid is just one of many wonders, both natural and man made, that are encountered on this 132km six day trek. My Goal: Sunrise or Sunset on a Pyramid each and every day!

Steam rises off the jungle while we gaze from one pyramid to another.
Steam rises off the jungle while we gaze from one pyramid to another.
Between 2,300 and 3,000 years old, the cities of the El Mirador Basin are the oldest ruins in the Mayan world. These are not small villages but cities that flourished with populations of 30,000 to El Mirador itself at 100,000. The El Mirador Ruta takes in 5 of these on a loop comprised of original Mayan causeways and trails cut through the rain forest by Chicaleros, collectors of gum sap (chickle).

We arrived at the trail head, the village of Carmelita at 7am for breakfast at Brenda's, a dirt floor one room restaurant with chickens scrambling under foot that could best be described as primitive. Brenda's is Carmelita's hot spot! Our four mules were loaded with 5 gal of water per day (for all 5 of us to share), food and the very restricted list of clothing we were allowed. We alternated between two pairs of shorts and two shirts over the six days. Off to El Tintal, some 24km away, along a snaky (as in Coral and King) trail. The forest is too dense to see much but you can hear animals rustling close by. "Nothing to worry about," assures our guide, "unless they are moving with you." Great! We concentrate on the 5 feet ahead of us ~ the trail is a snarl of roots, rocks and ruts. In places you can make out the original Mayan roadway. Slowly the remains of unexcavated ruins appear right and left, most adorned with looter's holes. We mount a hill that is clearly a structure long buried - the great plaza of Tintal. The campground is a thatched open air kitchen and some plastic tarps on sticks. As we take off our day packs, it begins to rain and after 5 hours of hiking, we dance and whirl in the huge drops. The camp comes to life as the vigilantes - guards for the ruins - rush to collect rain water. There are no water sources on the trail, save one very poor spring on day 4, so this is their only source. We climb Henequin pyramid and watch the steam literally rise from the forest as the sun sets. LaDanta and ElTigre pyramids can be seen in the distance. Tomorrow's quest!

Favourite spots:
2,900 years old, one of the Hero Twins swims to the Underworld in the Mayan story of creation.
2,900 years old, one of the Hero Twins swims to the Underworld in the Mayan story of creation.
Day 2, we have a routine: up at 5:30, hiking by 7, make camp by 1. Today's trek is 28km to the large City of El Mirador. Small ruins and chicalero camps line the trail until we come across LaMuerta at noon. Newer (700AD), the two temples are excavated but not restored. I crawl into one of the looters holes singing to scare away snakes. I came with bribes of whiskey but the guards are nowhere to be seen and no one stops me. I feel like Indiana Jones. We hike on to camp and after an hours rest, I climb Los Monos for sunset, amazed by the size of the city. I count 5 pyramids and loads more structures, all waiting to be excavated.

Day 3 we don't break camp. Instead we are exploring El Mirador! La Garre Jaguar, a partially restored temple with fine stucco masks is followed by my reservoir swimmer, the inspiration for this trip. This stucco fresco tells the story of Mayan creation. Next ElTigre, 55m tall, Leon complex and sunset on LaDanta 73m tall, the world's largest pyramid by volume.

What's really great:
Top of LaDanta from the 3rd platform. Look closely - the speck on the top is my son!
Top of LaDanta from the 3rd platform. Look closely - the speck on the top is my son!
Day 4, I rise at 4am for sunrise on ElTigre. Head lamp in place, I walk to the sound of vampire bats whirling overhead. The lone sign for ElTigre comes into view. I'm in the right place! I walk on...and on...I'm lost. After 20 minutes I realize that I am on the causeway to LaDanta, a 5km round trip from camp. I decide to go for it - after all, it has better stairs! By 5am I am on top of the World's largest pyramid to watch the pink hued sunrise!

7am and we are off to Nakbe. Today we will walk 28km and I am starting to feel it. My blisters have blisters. Nakbe is smaller but offers several pyramids and a real cenote - an underground cavern dug for water collection. In the open kitchen we find a baby coatimundi foraging. After exploring, we hike the final 6km to camp near a small spring. I collapse into a hammock. Mariano, our jungle guide, wields the machete and creates a 3 sided, plastic wrapped enclosure. Next he suspends a water bucket with a spigot. I could cry - it is a SHOWER!

Sunrise atop ElTintal's Henequin pyramid.
Sunrise atop ElTintal's Henequin pyramid.
Day 5 we opt for the less challenging trek back to ElTintal, 28km away, on a little used trail. Mariano is putting the machete to good use for what seems like hours on end as we trug through "bajos", barren brackish lowland swamps that have dried out during the dry season. August through April, these are filled with water but in June they are deeply rutted, hard packed, and fully exposed to the sun. After 6 hours we reach ElTintal and it feels welcoming to be some place I have seen before. I can climb Henequin for my last sunset!

Day 6 harkens the return to Carmelita and civilization. I wake for my last sunrise on a pyramid then we pack up camp. I have accomplished my goal of a sunrise or sunset each day. As much I welcome the idea of a bath and a real bed, I will miss the feeling of being a part of a living, breathing jungle. The howler monkeys are, well, howling and seem to follow us along the trail, almost the whole 24km until we reach Andrea's Tienda and a cold beer.

Our Muleteer unpacks camp at the base of an unexcavated Mayan structure.
Our Muleteer unpacks camp at the base of an unexcavated Mayan structure.
The camps are primitive at best. There is no running water so rain water is collected whenever possible. All camp sites in ruins have the common open air kitchen with a wood burning stove, usually covered in plastic tarp but sometimes thatched (ElTinal and Nakbe) and a Sanitorio, toilet, which consists of 6 sticks posted in the ground and covered with sheet plastic. Inside is a wood bench with a toilet seat and a bucket of lime with a scoop. The vigilantes at Nakbe had a charming sense of humor - that Sanitario had a sheer blue lace door. I took pictures!

If it rains, you sleep in a hammock. If not, you get a tent. Either one was perfectly fine by me - after long hours hiking, sleep comes easy. We traveled in June and laid on our sleeping bags rather sleeping in them. A note about climate - its 36c with 90% humidity. It's hot even at night.

The point here is that if you are not accustomed to roughing it, this is not the trek for you. I'm an outdoor girl and I almost lost it on Day 4

A baby coatimundi we discovered foraging through the kitchen at Nakbe.
A baby coatimundi we discovered foraging through the kitchen at Nakbe.
Taken literally, there is plenty of nightlife to be had. Fireflies flit about the rain forest casting off a strange yellow light. Coatimundis, members of the Raccoon family, forage through the open kitchens. Howler monkeys sing you to sleep and then, at the crack of dawn, wake you up. Parrots and toucans caw. Turkeys tree themselves at night to avoid predators and can be heard in the branches overhead. Snakes abound. And then there are the mosquitoes and ticks. Lots of them. We came up with new words:

Tickalicous - being so tasty to ticks that striping off socks is accompanied by a tick inspection. Bring a small squeeze bottle of rubbing alcohol.

Permadeet - the point you reach after 4 days of Deet application in which you either have so much accumulated repellent that nothing dare bite you or you simply smell so bad that nothing cares to.

My spider monkey companion!
My spider monkey companion!
My favorite hangout was atop something - anything actually. From here you can gaze out on what was once the Mayan world. The Mayans would have been able to see 10 or so cities in the distance. Even better, most structures put you eye level with the forest canopy. Case in point: on Day 5, in the late afternoon, I climb up Henequin followed by a family of curious spider monkeys. Parking myself on the stairs halfway up, I pull out the camera and try to focus on the moving primates. Suddenly it strikes me – I have plenty of pictures of monkeys. I could just sit here and enjoy this. I make kissing noises and more monkeys come out. Three red collared toucans fly overhead. A flock of green parrots lands in a tree. I can hear howlers in the distance. I sit like this for an hour, just grinning and having monkey conversations. I head the rest of the way up to capture sunset. One of my monkeys swings on over to a neighboring tree just below the pyramid summit as if to keep me company. Too cool!

Brenda's Restaurant.  She also runs the best Hostel in Carmelita. I saw a room - Take the bus out.
Brenda's Restaurant. She also runs the best Hostel in Carmelita. I saw a room - Take the bus out.
I am told that Brenda's is the finest restaurant in Carmelita. You can't really call it a "hole in the wall" or a "dive". It doesn't meet those standards. It is a hut with a dirt floor. As we sit down, a puppy chases a chicken through the dining area and in to the courtyard. The "stove" is a platform with a wood burning grill built of adobe and a griddle. This is where we developed THE RULES:

Rule #1: "Get over it." Doesn't matter what "It" is, there is probably little to nothing you can do about "It" so move on.

Rule #2: "It's all good." No matter what happens, every cloud has a silver lining.

Put to use, it works like this: Brenda's has a dirt floor and no possible refrigeration or sanitation. Rule #1, Get over it. This is where we are eating breakfast.

There are chickens running between our feet. Hey! The eggs are fresh! Rule #2, It's all good!

These rules were applied liberally throughout the trek.

Other recommendations:
Looking out a looter's hole. Looters have ransacked many of the structures for black market goods.
Looking out a looter's hole. Looters have ransacked many of the structures for black market goods.
Sometimes paying more is a good idea - this is one of those. The two of us (my son, 26) had two guides, a muleteer on a small horse and four mules. We carried 5 gal of water per day, and while rain water was welcome, it wasn't a necessity. We had large, well balanced meals, fresh fruit, lots of juice, and good gear. We never did without.

The only other hikers we met on the trail were a couple who went cheap, had one guide dragging one mule for all six days, and were reliant on rain water.

We arranged several months in advance with a guide we had used on another Mayan trek: MonkeyEco Tours. I have posted a tip on them.

Published on Tuesday August 17th, 2010

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Thu, Nov 25 2010 - 11:39 AM rating by bootlegga


Fri, Aug 20 2010 - 02:36 PM rating by pesu

I am sitting here deeply impressed... by your strength and spirit of adventure... and your ability to write terrific reports!!! Thanks for letting us go with you a little. :)

Wed, Aug 18 2010 - 06:11 PM rating by krisek

A truly great one, Eire. I did not venture this far into the jungle... But it seems I should have! Exceptionally good read! Many thanks.

Wed, Aug 18 2010 - 03:38 PM rating by mistybleu

Great report, so adventous. This seems like a wonderful place in the world

Wed, Aug 18 2010 - 09:41 AM rating by flygirl

What an amazing trip! Love the report - very inspiring and I hope to visit one day!

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