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El Mirador



Far below, the forest is unbroken in every direction. Ancient, ruined cities are silhouetted on the horizon. To the north lies the border with Mexico, to the south stretches Guatemala. To the east, an immense temple breaks through the foliage. Meanwhile, the sunset in the west soaks up the tree-tops with dream-like hues of orange, red and pink.


El Mirador, a largely unrestored and ruined Mayan city in the Petén forest of Guatemala, features some of the pre-Hispanic world’s largest ancient structures. More than 2,000 years old, El Mirador contains architectural feats like El Tigre, a magnificent pyramid with a 16,000 square metre base. The pyramid and its enormous scale proves just how advanced early Mayan civilisation was. While archaeologists strive to uncover El Mirador’s hidden secrets, their task is not easy. Over 60 kilometers of nearly impenetrable jungle separates the site from the nearest human habitation.


An expedition to El Mirador, undertaken with the support of an experienced guide, can be arranged from the town of Flores—the most convenient jumping off point for excursions in the Petén. The journey lasts a minimum of five days and is accomplished with the aid of mules. It involves two nights camping in the forest and one night at the archaeological site. The hiking is arduous, through thick, dry and sometimes tick-infested forest. En-route sights include workers’ encampments, Mayan burial grounds and lesser known ruins like El Tinto.


The walk itself is quite enjoyable. A good guide will inform you about the Petén’s flora. “Pimento,” for example, is a wild herb, typically brewed as a tea. Its effect is strangely hypnotic and the perfect conclusion to a long day’s hike, ensuring your aches subside into a pleasant drowsiness. Other locally utilised flora includes a prolific tree used as a blood coagulant and a sweet-smelling tree resin—copal, a Mayan ceremonial incense. You will also see fauna in the forest including howler monkeys, toucans, spider monkeys, untold insects and tarantulas. Rarer beasts include jaguars, snakes and pumas.


The view from El Tigre’s summit is the highlight of a trip to El Mirador. Where the stars appear wondrously close, one imagines how the Maya had designed their pyramids for astronomical observation. Along with mathematics and time-keeping, astronomy was their forte. But in the Mayan world, science was indistinguishable from religion. As much as astronomical observatories, the pyramids were temples. Upon El Tigre, the city stretched below, priests would perform devotional rites of blood-letting and sacrifice.


Like so many other Mayan cities, El Mirador has been reclaimed by the jungle. Its most ancient structures are now hillocks, mounds and plateaux, overgrown with vegetation. There is a certain poetic symmetry in this. For the Maya, aside from accomplished scientists, were great philosophers of nature. The sun, rain and wind were worshipped as gods and it seems that their fate—both the prodigious rise and mysterious fall of the Maya—is somehow intertwined with the earth and its forces. The pyramids have fulfilled their destinies. They now resemble the mountains they were intended to symbolise.

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