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The accommodation at El Mirador, in northern Guatemala, comprises a scattering of archaeologists’ tents. The thread count on the sheets is essentially zero as it’s too hot to need them. By the time you do drop off, you will be promptly roused by the rasping growls — soon exploding into synchronised screams of raw fury — of the howler monkey. The rainforest shower is, quite literally, a five-gallon bucket filled with rainforest water. The food, repeatedly, is eggs and frijoles and platanos, washed down with powdered horchata and eaten under a dim bulb running off a draining solar charge. Guatemala produces phenomenal coffee, but yours will be freeze-dried crystals. A poster warns of snakes such as the dreaded barba amarilla (or fer-de-lance). Just reaching this hardship post requires a gruelling multiday trek on a scorching, bug-infested jungle track. Glamping this is not.
In exchange for these temporary privations, however, the visitor is rewarded with an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime privilege: private access to the pre-eminent city of the pre-Columbian, Late Preclassic Mayan world — El Mirador. Once home to at least 100,000 souls, El Mirador was built more than 2,000 years ago, and is a site of staggering richness — though only 20 per cent of it has been excavated so far.
There is a pyramid (La Danta, or Tapir), which is among the world’s largest by volume, bigger than any in Egypt. There is a stunning, recently discovered stucco frieze in the Tecolote (owl) complex, full of aquatic splendour: cormorants, waves, the rain god Chaac. And there is a network of causeways called sacbeob — huge boulevards of crushed limestone and stucco that connected the ancient centres.
And there is something else — one of the rarest treasures in the modern world. A few years ago, at the Coba site on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, I had only just begun exploring when a flotilla of tour buses arrived, probably disgorged by a cruise ship in Cancún. Suddenly, the pyramid was overrun by a loud, marauding army of selfie-taking tourists. I felt about as much connection to the ancient Mayan world as I would in Las Vegas. At El Mirador, one could ascend alone at sunset to the summit of La Danta, above the high jungle canopy, to take in a staggering, 360-degree panorama of rainforest unbroken, either visually or sonically, by evidence of modernity. As toucans called, and white butterflies danced above the tree line, I could scan the horizon — green all the way to Mexico and Belize — for the small swellings that indicated other jungle-covered Mayan sites and ponder, in this ancient stillness, the majesty of the Serpent Kingdom.
My road to Mirador had taken shape in the grip of a New York winter. Socked in by snow and consumed by a Melvillean grimness-about-the-mouth, I began talking about mountain biking with Matt Hartell, director of Old Town Outfitters, an adventure travel company based in Antigua, Guatemala. My imagination soared as he ran through his favourite routes — breathtaking climbs up sonorously rumbling volcanoes, brisk daytrips to coffee farms, tricky descents through quetzal-inhabited cloud forests. Offhand, he said, “there is another ride I once did. El Mirador.” I confessed ignorance.
Hartell, a North Carolinian who has been in Guatemala since 1996 (long enough to go by “Mateo”), described a “lost” Mayan city; people in the local communities, as well as archaeologists, were trying to draw more visitors to help fund its excavation and preservation. It was generally undertaken as a five-day hike, but he had once biked it in under three (there is also an expensive, and rather soulless, helicopter option). Still, this would be something of a trial run. Instead of a support vehicle, there would be a pair of mules. If the rains stopped, and the trail was not too damaged, we would have our window. Riding on the very roads walked by the Maya in 200BC? I was in.
Not long after, a pickup truck containing our party of four (a few American expats joined on) was pulling out of predawn Antigua, the lovely cobblestoned, volcano-shrouded town in the country’s central highlands. We passed through the chaotic traffic of the capital, Guatemala City, then dropped to the hot, desert-like plateaux of El Progreso, the country’s least-inhabited department, where convoys of trucks clogged the two-lane highway. We soon learnt that a single lane of Guatemalan highway is, in practice, subdivided into three: one for driving, one for drifting out to see if it is possible to pass, and one a vague edge for slower-moving tuk-tuks and motor scooters.
This is only one of the quirks of a Guatemalan road trip. There are the countless auto-hoteles, hot-sheet affairs meant for short-term assignations in a deeply Catholic country. There is the curious way that gas station attendants energetically rock the vehicle as they fill it, in the conviction this “frees up” spare capacity in the vehicle’s tank. Buying water at one gas station, a man sidled up to me, brandishing a pistol-grip shotgun and a bandolier of shells, intently staring. When I asked where to pay, he pointed to himself.
One sees those guns regularly, stark totems of the violence that lies beneath the surface of this country that is so staggeringly beautiful, so accommodating to the visitor, yet so troubled (the World Bank estimated in 2011 that 53.7 per cent of the population lived in poverty). “If it weren’t for the landscape,” the Guatemalan novelist Rodrigo Rey Rosa once observed, “Guatemala would really be hell”.
Weary and road-dusted having spent the final two hours on gravel, we arrived at Carmelita, the jumping-off point for El Mirador expeditions, amid the Reserva de la Biosfera Maya, a huge conservation area. A small village of former chicleros (gum tappers), Carmelita now relies more on guiding visitors to El Mirador and arranging mules and supplies. When I asked our guide Juan Carlos Marín how many people, “more or less”, visited El Mirador last year, his answer was swift and precise: “3,314”, of whom half were Guatemalan. The nearby Tikal site, by contrast, receives visitors by the hundreds of thousands.
Highlights of the village include precisely one source of refrigerated beer and an ancient pool table, sitting outside under a canopy. We soon had a game of billiards going, to the accompaniment of copious insects, a small bottle of Quezalteca aguardiente, and roughly one-third of the village’s men as a boisterous audience.
The next morning, we mounted bikes and entered the jungle, our supply-laden mules having already begun the trek. By late morning it was unremittingly hot and I gulped at the water tube coming from my backpack. The track, as it wound through deep jungle, would flit between flat, smooth stretches and occasional short rises studded with roots and rocks.
Most challenging were the bajos, the low-lying areas, which turned swampy during the rainy seasons and probably sustained the ancient Mayan communities. Churned up by mules when it rains, they dry into roughly dimpled patches, which meant I had to heave myself off the bike to walk. Unfortunately, bajos were usually found in patches of open forest, so the pushing was done in full, blazing sunlight.
At one rest stop, I picked a chiltepe pepper off a branch, and found the numbing burn a welcome distraction. Later, wracked by heat exhaustion, I stopped at the foot of a hill and simply lay on the trail. Overhead, a howler monkey, perturbed by my presence, began raining down leaves and twigs. I stood (or reclined upon) my ground, if only because I was too dazed to do otherwise.
Finally, nearly nine hours after pushing off, we arrived at El Mirador and camped for the night, using some spare tents in the quasi-permanent archaeological settlement (researchers generally come in summer and were not yet in residence). The ruins were discovered in 1926 and mapped in 1962 but have only recently received more widespread attention, largely thanks to the work of American archeologist Richard Hansen. He began a conservation and research programme in 2003 that has drawn academics from more than 50 universities and institutions worldwide.
Exploring the site the next morning, clambering up the stubby limestone of La Danta, or peering into an excavated well, the question hung in the still, sweltering air: why had this sprawling city, so formidable in its day, essentially vanished around AD150? The leading theory, in an echo of today’s ecological mismanagement, seems to be that resources — either water or arable land — were overused (though, as Charles Mann points out in his book 1491, sites in the northern Yucatán blessed with far fewer resources seemed to endure through similarly fallow periods).
The next day, we faced a decision: press on to an even more remote site, Wakna, riding a big loop back to Carmelita; or rejoin the sacbeob and return to the neighbouring site of El Tintal, which we had passed but seen only briefly. The guides at El Mirador warned that the rarely travelled path to Wakna was in poor shape; a German visitor had been taken that way and by trip’s end was advising they never take anyone again. We opted for Tintal. There, like something from an Antonioni film, we encountered a ramshackle group of shamans who had been conducting various ceremonies. A dreadlocked Canadian, who had embraced shamanism after suffering a heart attack while playing hockey — he had died and “come back” — told us he had been inexplicably drawn to the region by the “energy” of Lady K’abel, a Holy Snake Lord of the Maya, whose body had been excavated (thus disturbing her energy) by archaeologists a few years before.
Another half-day’s riding returned us to what now felt like the lush amenities of Carmelita. On the long drive back to Antigua, we stopped for the night in Rio Dulce. At the Tortugal Hotel, where docks bustled with US and British yachts seeking shelter from hurricane season, we encountered a retired archaeologist named Richard Bronson.
With a khaki shirt and a bandanna tied around his neck, the rugged, lantern-jawed Bronson was every bit the former adventurer, regaling us with tales of his participation in the Land Rover Camel Trophy, meeting Muammer Gaddafi on a dig in Libya and racing bikes as a boy in Italy.
He brightened at the mention of our expedition, and told us how once, a few decades ago, on a dig in northern Guatemala, he met a fevered Mexican campesino asking for malarial pills, who then told him about an undiscovered Mayan site buried in vegetation. A long walk led them to what would become known as Aguada Cancuén. Bronson, for his troubles, got the discovery, and hepatitis A. The site was briefly explored, noted, and, like so many others, quietly slipped back under the jungle.
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Photographs: Al Argueta/Alamy; Brian Zimmer; Age Fotostock/Alamy