The light filtered through the jungle canopy, struggling to penetrate the jungle floor. I stared at my feet as I continued to walk through the jungle, concentrating on not slipping on the thick, sloppy mud, or the moss covered rocks. I could no longer distinguish my shoes from the grey mud and decaying debris on the jungle floor. It was day two of the jungle trek, and we (myself, my boyfriend Michael, two French girls and the local guide, Abel) had been trekking for a solid 8 hours. Usually I enjoyed hiking and trekking, but not today. I was tired, wet, hungry and covered head to toe in mosquito bites. The guide was a slave driver and powered ahead like a machine, leaving the rest of us behind struggling in the mud, trying to avoid spider webs, tree spikes, mosquitos and wasp hives. Occasionally he turned his head to check we were still there, but very rarely did he stop for a break, and when we did eventually stop the mosquitos refused to let us rest for long.
The first day we arrived early in the small jungle town, Carmelita. From here it was a solid 6 hours trek (25km), which was followed by a 28km trek the very next day. Some of the route followed an old Mayan path, which linked the ancient Mayan city of Tikal to El Mirador. This path was once a white paved and maintained road, now only the odd white stone protruded from the thick grey mud.
A couple of blue butterflies the size of small birds darted in and out of the huge green fan-shaped jungle leaves. Michael followed them, trying to capture the perfect photo. I spotted a few turtles swimming in the brown, muddy water, as I watched them happily swimming, I noticed a few raindrops hit the puddles. “More rain? Already? I guess it is the wet season”, I thought to myself. In the distance I spotted a sign. “Yes, we made it! We are here!” I yelled. The feeling of happiness and excitement engulfed me as we approached the sign. I could just about make out the letters, ‘MIRADOR’. My happiness however was only short-lived when Abel announced that it would be another hour until we reach camp. I wanted cried. My feet were throbbing, my skin was tingling from all the bites and several applications of DEET and my stomach was grumbling. Why on Earth did I sign up for this punishment?
I recalled telling my Dad when I was a kid that I wanted to be a world explorer. I used to watch action adventure movies such as Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider with admiration – the truth is I envied the fictional characters, I wanted be the next Lara Croft or Indiana. The appeal was the excitement of discovering hidden treasures, lost worlds, secret civilizations, and exploring countries and places most people had never even heard of. I fantasied about trekking through the jungles of Indonesia, stumbling across lost treasures in the Amazonas, and immersing myself in different cultures and environments. So when my Spanish teacher in Guatemala told me about a recently discovered, partial excavated Mayan city, located deep in the inhabited jungle of Northern Guatemala, I couldn’t resist the temptation to fulfill a childhood dream. It wasn’t long before I was in the small jungle town of Flores, organizing an expedition into the jungle. Now however, I realized that the glamour of being a world explorer was somewhat of an illusion.
Eventually we arrived at camp, had a quick ‘wet-wipe bath’, ate some eggs, beans and tortillas and headed to bed. Exhausted but excited to explore the lost city in the morning.
No one really knows what happened to the Mayans, why the once strong civilization abandoned their biggest cities. Different historians and archeologists have their own theories, but no one knows for sure. El Mirador is thought to have been one of the biggest cities in the Mayan world, and includes the biggest pyramid, La Danta. Once a big mighty city, now reclaimed by nature, and engulfed by the jungle.
We woke early ready to make our way to climb to the top of La Danta. As we approached the pyramid I noticed a few spider monkeys swinging gracefully through the trees, throwing branches at each other, and occasionally at us. The pyramid was a dirty, moss covered ruin. Some trees refused to surrender their home, and remained growing on the partially excavated Mayan rubble – natures last effort at reclaiming the giant Mayan building. There was little evidence that other tourists had been to the site. Only a few basic, rotting and moss covered steps and signposts were placed around the site. A few tarps and covers had also been installed to protect the excavated ruins from the rain. I felt excited and privileged to be one of the few to witness the reveling of the lost world, though part of me felt like our presence alone was breaking some unknown rule.
Once I climbed the pyramid, I looked out at the horizon. From every direction stretched miles and miles of green, jungle canopy. I really am in the middle of nowhere. The closest village was about 60km away, and the closet pub even further. In the distance I could hear the cries of Howler Monkeys, strong, fierce, and angry. I tried to image the Mayan world – no jungle, just red pyramids, busy plazas and people dressed in animal hides and feathers. I couldn’t picture it; the presence of the jungle was too strong and established. A civilization lost, consumed by the jungle.
After climbing La Danta we visited several other sites, the pyramid of the tiger, the pyramid of the monkey, the pyramid of the jaguar, and the most impressive site for me, exploring a site currently being excavated. As I stepped under the tarp, I stepped foot into the world of the archeologist, taking the opportunity to be one of the first people to feast my eyes on some ancient Mayan Carvings which had been hidden from the world for hundreds of years. As I stared at the carvings of Mayan Gods, rivers, and birds I noticed how much more impressive artifacts are when partially excavated, and still emerging from the dirt and rubble, compared to looking at them from behind glass in some museum miles from it’s original home. I listened attentively as Abel told us some theories and stories from the Mayan world.
After an exciting day exploring the lost world we headed back to camp. I started to dread the long trek back to Carmelita. Trekking in the jungle during the wet season was a challenge. Not only did the sudden down pours drench our clothes, it washed the DEET repellant from our skin, and made the ground swampy. Often we trekked for hours through knee-high mud puddles and swampy, mosquito breeding grounds. When the rain did stop the mosquitos returned in the hundreds. My body became an ‘all you can eat’ buffet, no part was safe, and I received bites on my nose, eyes, neck, even my feet.
Maybe one-day humanity will completely claim the land back from the jungle, and excavate the entire site. Create museums where there are now trees, and souvenir shops where monkey now swing. Instead of a two-day trek to the site it will be an hour bus trip, and instead of only a few hundred tourists per year, there will be a few hundred tourists visiting per day. I hope that’s not the case! The long, painful, demanding hike, the hidden beauty, the lack of development, the lack of tourism, and entering the unknown is what makes El Mirador so unique, so special and so precious. A hidden treasure shared only with those that endeavor the pain and anguish to get there.