Deep in the jungles of Guatemala lies a forgotten city, an ancient ruin. Though the people who once built its streets and temples are long gone, the broken stones still tell their story. Miles and miles of tree-covered pyramids and wild undergrowth make up the archaeological site of El Mirador. The city, once the capital of the Mayan civilization, had a population of around 200,000. It sits in the midst of a huge tract of land (over 2,475 square miles) stretching between northern Guatemala and Campeche, Mexico.
The area, christened El Mirador Basin, is home to the ruins of over 51 ancient cities and their interconnecting causeways. And the discovery of this vast and fascinating region has opened the door to a treasure trove of information on the intriguing life and culture of Mesoamerica’s ancient inhabitants.
While El Mirador may be worthy of a visit, getting there is no easy feat and requires braving both weather and wildlife. The trek begins in a small thatch-roofed village called Carmelita and leads straight into the heart of the tropical rainforest.
It takes two days hiking along a narrow trail to reach the ruins, and in all that time there is heat and sweat as well as bugs and snakes to contend with. But there is also a majesty and magic to the savage, untamed land. Parrots and toucans wing from tree to tree. Brilliant and strange bugs chirr in the undergrowth. And howler monkeys fill the night air with their ethereal calls.
After days hiking through the jungle, or a much shorter helicopter ride, La Danta, El Mirador’s massive 230 foot-high pyramid, rears up out of the undergrowth. This huge structure contains about 99 million cubic feet of rock, giving it more mass (if not more height) than the Great Pyramid of Giza. What seem to be thousands of hills dotting the area actually made up the infrastructure of the age-old city, structures that were built up on the flat, even ground.
For years, El Mirador remained one of the least explored sites of the Mayan civilization. Although rumor of “huge ruins” in the midst of the El Mirador Basin had circulated due to an early surveying trip as early as 1885, it wasn’t until 1962 that the first archaeologists began excavations.
Ever since a dedicated team began working on the excavation and conservation of the area, El Mirador has shaken many preconceptions about it to the core. The incredibly sophisticated architecture of El Mirador proves that the Maya were far more advanced, far earlier, than anyone could have imagined.
Richard Hansen, head archaeologist at El Mirador, was the first to realize that the site is pre-classic, dating to an amazing 200 years before Christ. The site has even shed light on the religion of the Maya and their creation story, which many archaeologists believed to have been influenced by Spanish Christians.
On the tops of some of the temples there are even the skeletons from long-ago wars, with obsidian arrow-heads buried in their rib cages.
All the excavations and discoveries at El Mirador are surely just the tip of the iceberg. It’s potential as a tourist attraction, the unique biodiversity surrounding it, and the acres of history hidden in the dust are both mind-boggling and thrilling. Doubtless there is much more to come.