From time to time, we love sharing dispatches from on-location, so you have more than a trip report; you have perspective. This dispatch shares the raw emotion of my colleague, Tatiana, during her five-day trek to the lost ruins of El Mirador.
There is a place full of contrasts, where nature can blow you away, where on one day, you find yourself surrounded by dry lava and eating pizza that is cooked in the hot lava rocks; another day, screaming of thrill rafting in Lanquin and on another day, hiking in the jungle, in a Mayan City, older than Machu Picchu. Where is this gem, you may ask? Well, let me share a secret with you. It is Guatemala.
My travels began in Antigua with a walk along its cobblestone streets, surrounded by the presence of the volcanoes, some still active. You not only see them but also hear them. After a few hours of climbing up the Pacaya Volcano, I was at the highest point allowed to climb. This was the start of my training for what would be one of my wildest adventures so far.
It was then off to the lush cloud forest, and into the rainforest where I spent five days hiking 110 KM (about 62 miles) to El Mirador, the largest Mayan pyramid built between 1000 BA – 250 AD. Let me give you some perspective on my previous hikes to other ancient ruins. I trekked the entire 42 KM Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, built in the 15th century. I completed the 44 KM hike (a similar distance as Machu Picchu) to Ciudad Perdida in Colombia, a lost city constructed in 800 AD. The trek to El Mirador, the oldest of the three ruins, was going to be the longest hike I ever completed.
The night before commencing the trek, my emotions were running high, from excitement to fear. This was double the distance of my previous hikes. Yes, (not bragging), I did summit Kilimanjaro, where I hiked for about the same length, but it was uphill and at a much higher altitude. However, the weather in the rainforest is a challenge. Humidity was more than 100%. There was not a day I didn’t feel wet and sweaty. It didn’t matter how many liters of water I drank; my body still craved more. On the first day of the trek, I was up early and very energetic. We were transferred on a dirt road from Peten to Carmelitas, a small town and our last contact with civilization. This was it! There was no turning back. I was going to do it. We left the small town, passing the school, and I still remember the kids practicing the alphabet, unaware of my adventure ahead.
Our guide told us that the first day would be the most challenging. It was not because of the amount of hiking but more so our bodies adjusting to the humidity. I was so happy to be close to nature. This was my calling. We shared the trail with an occasional mule or two, carrying our stuff and the food for our camps. It was early in the morning, so the pace was good, and we made some stops in the shade away from the sun and the mosquitos. I must admit that I only had a few mosquito bites during the entire expedition. We were given snacks (a sandwich, cookies, an apple, and juice) for the road to eat at our discretion. We needed those extra carbs. We arrived at our first camp in the afternoon tired no, not tired, exhausted, hot, wet, and sweaty. However, when the guide asked us who wanted to watch the sunset on top of Henequen, a small Mayan pyramid close to the camp, we all jumped at the opportunity without thinking twice. There we were, on top of the pyramid, as the sun slowly slid behind the forest. We didn’t see a single trace of civilization, we were surrounded by nature. We heard the calls of the howler monkeys and watched a myriad of birds searching for a place to rest for the night. Nature has been calling me, and I was there now. We sat in silence and awe because, in moments like this, there are no words, just emotions, just feelings.
Once darkness arrived, we returned to camp and devoured our food before turning in for the night. We slept in tents similar to the ones I had when I climbed Kilimanjaro. There was no need for blankets; the breezy night was perfect for our first night. I closed my eyes, exhausted but happy.
The following day, we were awakened from a deep sleep by the howler monkeys. It sounded as if they were right there on top of us. What a great way to wake up and remind your body and mind that you are in the middle of the jungle. We were ready again for (in my opinion) the hardest day when we would arrive at El Mirador. The actual hike is approximately 25 KM, but since we made a few detours to visit other smaller Mayan structures, we ended up hiking a bit more. We started very early in the morning, with the first light, so we could hike as much as we could before the noon sun reached its highest point, making our pace slower. When I got tired, I could hear the voice of my Kilimanjaro guide telling me “let’s try 20 more steps. Good. Now let’s do 20 more” and so on. This was the self-motivation I needed. When we arrived, we couldn’t pass up the chance to climb the pyramids to see the sunset. This was one of the most magical moments in my life. The day was perfect. We forgot about our fatigue, and we forgot about the heat. Seeing the pyramid in front of us was a present from nature. To see this pyramid that can only be reached on foot or by helicopter was our reward. Watching the sunset on top of it was food for our souls. I wanted this moment to stay in my mind forever. We took many videos and pictures, but I wanted to preserve every detail as much as possible. This is when poets and writers are inspired to create beautiful writings and where painters produce masterpieces for humanity. This is where I felt in my element. This is where I belong. Nature was welcoming me, cuddling me, comforting me, and speaking to me. I heard its words whispering with the wind, telling me what I needed to hear. Here again, just us, me, and the vast jungle. We were very fortunate to be able to return the next day to see the sun rise, giving you hope in life, giving you the jolt, you need to continue, waking your spirit up, and opening your heart to this moment. This is the moment when you understand. This is the reason I was doing this, and it was all worth it.
The third day was magical, with two more visits to El Mirador. There is so much to see that your eyes cannot entirely comprehend. This was a huge city; many of the pyramids are still covered with nature, and unfortunately, it is so expensive to dig them out so they may remain sheltered by trees and plants, hidden from the world for a long time. It reminded me a little bit of Angkor Wat, where the trees have taken over the ruins. We walked through this once very busy, developed, and prominent Maya City, with its many levels, where priests and the nobles would socialize. We saw a few areas where archaeologists were at work, exposing the carvings. We even saw from the distant Richard Hansen, an American archaeologist and professor who has devoted his life to this project. It is so vast that I don’t think I will ever see the whole city uncovered in my lifetime.
And so, we said goodbye to El Mirador and started our return to civilization. We had two days of hiking ahead of us. We took the same way back, as there is no other way to do it unless you take a helicopter from El Mirador. We hiked and hiked. At every step of the last two days, we were still digesting what we had witnessed and what we had felt being in the midst of this ancient Mayan complex. I replayed all the memories in my mind to make sure that I didn’t forget them. Nature has done it again. It blew me away. Although I said goodbye to the ruins and the forest, I vowed to return.
Enjoy this week’s video!