I hadn’t heard of anybody ever cycling to El Mirador, the largest grouping of Mayan ruins in the world. The steamy, remote northern Guatemalan jungle near the Mexican border is their home. Was it possible. Was the trail passable with a bicycle or was it just too difficult.
I asked around the town of Flores for information about cycling to El Mirador. Some people said it was impossible. Others said it was only possible with a guide and a support crew of cooks and horses. The local travel experts and knowledgeable tour guides left me frustrated with their inconsistent information. I did find one guide who said that he had cycled to El Mirador and that it was not only possible but now was the best time of year because the trail was dry and easy to ride. He had just returned from El Mirador. And so it was that Spontaneous, Sky and I decided to take our fully loaded touring bicycles to El Mirador. Possibly not the best idea. As it turns out, not all of us made it.
The stars and the moons seemed to be in alignment. March is the best month to be in the remote northern jungle of Guatemala. It is the driest part of the dry season, all the mud is baked rock hard and the tourist numbers were starting to decrease. Although it is hot, it is manageable. Time to explore the remote ruins of El Mirador.
I had several chance meetings with tour guides and other vagabonds in Flores who told me about El Mirador. Not only was it possible to hike the trail without a guide, but it was also possible to cycle to El Mirador, or so I was told. With the trail in such good condition I was faced with the choice, hike to El Mirador or cycle to El Mirador. I took the easy option. “Let’s cycle to El Mirador“, I told Spontaneous and Sky. Turns out it wasn’t the easy option.
Hitting the road
It was rather late when we set off from Flores. The daytime temperature was already hitting the extreme level. It wasn’t long before we made it to the small town of San Andrés for lunch. From here on it would be another 60km or so of dirt roads to the town of Carmelita. There were many small villages along the road as we cycled north. All had a small store to buy snacks and water which saved us from carrying excessively heavy loads of water. Camp for the first night was a small flat area by the side of the road. Howler Monkeys in the distance tried their best to keep us awake.
The easy dirt road continued for another couple of hours to the town of Carmelita. It was hard to find any services. We were told to walk into somebodies house to get lunch. When we walked in we were greeted by a lady who reluctantly cooked us a meal. The small town also had a distinct lack of food supplies. I needed some food to get me through the next couple of days cycling to El Mirador. The best I could do was a bag of rice and some less than enticing crackers. Mental note to future hikers or cyclists, don’t plan on resupplying in Carmelita. Water, beer, cola and not much else.
A lady approached me while we were sitting eating. She was from the local guides co-op. I was advised that there would be no water on the trail to El Mirador. She further added that I needed a guide. And it was dangerous. And on and on. I knew there was water at the first campsite, a place called El Tintal. She did her best to spread fear into the money carrying gringos so she could extract as much of it from us as possible.
Despite not believing her information about lack of water I relayed the message to Spontaneous and Sky. Just in case we stocked up on a little more water. I would hate this to be the one time I am wrong and dehydration kicks in. Earlier I had been told by another local that an American died from dehydration on the trail only weeks earlier. Not sure if was true or not but I didn’t want to push my luck.
Onward to El Mirador
We set off on the hiking trail to El Mirador mid afternoon. It was crazy hot. It wasn’t long before I found myself waiting a long time for Sky and Spontaneous. I would cycle 1 kilometer then wait 15-30 minutes for them to catch up. At this rate we would take a week to cycle to El Mirador. After 3 kilometers they realised that they would not be able to make it. The trail was just not enjoyable. They turned around to head back to Carmelita. I was going solo from now on. I will meet them further along in our journey again, for sure.
I made good time for the rest of the afternoon. It was getting late in the afternoon when I arrived at the first grouping of ruins, called El Tintal. Not much restoration work had been done. In fact it could be easy to dismiss this area as having any significance. Just a couple of dirt mounds that could easily pass as natural hills.
I climbed the tallest pyramid as the sun was getting low in the sky. It was rather steep near the top. I was alone. Just me and the vast Guatemalan jungle as far as I could see in every direction. I knew that El Mirador was about 20km north as the crow flies. I could see mounds in the distance, was that El Mirador, I did not know.
Camping at El Tintal Campsite
A short time later I found myself in a rather busy campground. Guides and camp staff outnumbered the gringo tourists. The friendly camp staff didn’t allow me to go any further at night. They told be about all the dangerous animals, mainly snakes. I’m a snake lover so I was tempted to keep going.
Oh, and remember the comments about there being no water at the first campsite? I passed a pond full of water that had a layer of green scum on top of it, underneath the water looked good and very drinkable with a filter or boiling. There was also a water cache and the large water tanks at the campsite were available for me to fill up. I declined their offer of water as I was carrying way to much still.
Cycling to El Mirador
I was up to the sounds of pots being mashed together and headlamps wandering around the campsite. It was just after 4am. By 5am I was eating my breakfast under the light of my headlamp. I wanted to make as many miles as possible in the cool morning.
The trail started easy enough. I was able to cycle a fair bit with occasional sections of blown down trees and hard packed dirt complete with ankle breaking hoof holes from when the horses traversed the trail in deep mud. From time to time monkeys would call to me from above, at other times they seemed annoyed with my presence and it appeared they were trying to break branches to throw down on me. It was almost comical to observe.
What animal was that
When I set off cycling from camp there were 3 guides that set off at the same time. We leap frogged each other all day. On easy riding sections I would blast past them, on steep uphill sections of which there were only a couple, they would pass me. I stopped on one section of trail to the sound of something very large crashing through the thick undergrowth. I caught sight of a very large animals tail, dark black in colour. It wasn’t long before the animal disappeared into the jungle.
The three guides turned up and I asked them what they thought it might have been. They all agreed that it was a Javelina, a large pig like animal. I disagreed with their thoughts as I saw a large black tail attached to a black shape. These pig like creatures don’t have tails, or at least long tails like I saw. It wasn’t a Jaguar which inhabit these jungles as the tail wasn’t spotted. Was it a panther, the black version of a Jaguar? Do they actually exist in this part of the world? I’m not sure what I saw but it was large and loud.
Late morning it started to rain. A big rainstorm was my biggest fear on this journey. If the hard baked soil turned to mud I would be stranded with my bicycle unable to make any forward progress. Prior to starting this journey into the jungle I checked the weather forecast. Only occasional rain showers, it said. Luckily the rain was enough to cool me down and didn’t stop my forward progress too much. When the sun came out a short time later I was cycling through a sauna.
It was just before lunch when I stopped at the first of the El Mirador ruins. There wasn’t too much to see but it was a great excuse to get off the bicycle and wander around. The weather threatened more rain so I jumped back on the bicycle. I was only about 2km from a campsite at El Mirador but the going was quite slow. A couple of hills that required some grunting as I pushed up the steep hills.
My first introduction to the campground was some dude on a four wheeler doing some circle work in the middle of the campground. Very professional. I wasn’t going to like this place, I thought. It didn’t take me long to set up my tent and cook up some lunch. My spirits were lifted when one of the camp managers approached me with a healthy vegetable soup that their tourist group hadn’t eaten. My faith was restored.
Hiking El Mirador
It was around 2pm when I finished lunch. There was still 4 hours of sunlight to explore the mythical ruins of El Mirador. Alone I set off. The site is expansive covering several kilometers. I decided to hike to the furthest section of trails then slowly explore and walk back to camp. If I didn’t cover everything by sunset I would cover the rest the following day.
First stop was the largest known pyramid in the Mayan world. At 72m high the structure is known as La Danta. I climbed the steep pyramid on a combination of wooden walkways and old staircases. The whole area was very much a worksite. I think the work is concentrating on learning of the archeology of the place at the expense of restoring the place to its original glory for the purpose of tourism. It had a very ‘Indiana Jones’ type feel to it.
From the top of the pyramid I could see Mexico, only about 7km to the north. Howler Monkeys called to each other and Spider Monkeys played in the trees. It was a special feeling to be here alone to experience this place. I can only imagine what this place might look like in 20-30 years time when the place might be restored and have hotels and all sorts of facilities. Come visit now before that happens.
It was getting close to sunset when I climbed the last of the pyramids near camp, Tigre. On route I passed countless excavations. The black plastic manufacturers were doing great business in this part of the world. I guess I had little expectation of this trip. If I had expectations of seeing perfectly restored ruins like some of the well known places like Tikal, Palenque or Chichen Itza then I would have been disappointed. For me it was very much the opposite. I was buzzing on a natural high from seeing the place.
I arrived back to camp about 30 minutes before sunset. Just as several of the tour groups were on their way up to climb one of the pyramids for sunset. I just made it to my tent as the heavens opened up. My tent was parked under a huge black plastic tarp so I sat outside with the mosquitoes to keep me company. I noticed I had several ticks on me sucking my blood. Not happy. I was told they are not carrying as many diseases as some of their more dangerous counterparts.
The rain continued on and off for a fair portion of the night. The sound of rain hitting the plastic tarp had a soothing sound that knocked me out.
Again I was up early and cycling before the sun had risen. It wasn’t long before I overtook a hiking group, then their horses and a couple of guides. It was a quick ride back to camp one at El Tintal. I stayed just long enough to chat with the friendly camp hosts and fill up some filtered water to drink. Minutes later a heavy rain shower hit.
And then it rained
The rain had the horrible problem of turning some sections of trail to a sticky mud that did it’s best to clog up the wheels making any form of forward motion impossible. The mud would lock the front wheel, then the mud would lodge under the rear mudguard and the rear wheel would lock. I cleared things out several times before realising the best option was to just find some shade and wait for the sun and wind to do it’s job and dry the mud.
I sat in the shade of a lovely section of jungle for almost 2 hours, reading and hydrating. Sometimes going slowly actually means going faster. In order to move faster, sometimes I need to stop and move slower.
With two hours of daylight left I jumped back on the bicycle and made great forward progress. I made the decision to catch the bus back to the town of Flores. I needed a rest, but more importantly I needed to check the weather forecast. If the rainstorms were going to continue then the roads I hoped to cycle might become mud and impassable.
I’m not finished with exploring the remote jungle roads in Guatemala, there are many more Mayan ruins to discover. Stay tuned as I try and make it to other remote ruins. This is only part of my journey as Icycle from Alaska to Argentina.