In 2011 we ended up trekking to El Mirador in Guatemala, the largest Mayan ruins ever discovered. This is our story.
“What are we doing here?” is a question that backpackers, travellers and world explorers sometimes are forced to ask ourselves while we are out discovering the wonderful places and things that this planet has to offer.
The question can stem from fear of the unknown. From a disconnection of the comforts we have grown used to. From shear disbelief at the adventures we are undertaking, or simply from frustration of being on the road for an extended period of time.
For me, the first time I really asked myself, “What are we doing here?”, came from absolute amazement.
I pondered the thought while I was standing on a hastily-built, makeshift bridge constructed from a branch no thicker than my big toe, suspended over waist-deep mud.
A solid helmet of mosquitoes surrounded my head. Ann intense, spiked tree jabbed sharply into my kidneys. We had just passed our 4th highly-venomous snake, hidden amongst the shrubs just to the side of our temporary path.
We were drenched head to toe from the torrential downpour that the skies had decided to unleash upon us. And our guide had turned to us and said in a language that was not my own, “Can’t go this way. Will have to try something else.”
At this point, I looked at Alesha and couldn’t help but crack a smile. We were 60km from the closest point of civilisation, deep in the Guatemalan jungle.
That’s when I mouthed the question to her, and we both started laughing.
Before we had begun our 7-month adventure in Central America there were only a handful of things we had put on our “bucket list”. Trekking to El Mirador was one of them.
This journey comprised of a 130km, 5-day hike to the ancient Mayan ruin complex, which happened to house the largest pyramid in Meso-America.
The only 2 ways of accessing this amazing site was by helicopter, or to put one foot after the other until you were standing on top of the temple of La Danta.
The helicopter was definitely not in our budget, so we packed our bags, double-tied our shoes and headed into the jungle.
Before we had arrived in the town of Flores, in the Peten region of Guatemala, we had discussed the possibility of doing the hike in the wet season with a friend of ours, who was an English-speaking guide for the hike.
His answer was, “Sure, you can do it at that time of year. I won’t be though. Just depends on how adventurous you are!”
We took that as a challenge.
We arrived in Flores at 6pm on a Sunday. Our goal was to spend the next 2 weeks trying to organise a group of equally adventurous people to come with us on the hike to El Mirador.
Through a twist of fate a local jumped on our bus and sat in front of us. I started up a conversation with him in my broken Spanish, and asked if he knew anything about the hike to El Mirador.
He replied, “My friend is leaving tomorrow at 5am. Do you want to go too?”
It’s funny how things always seem to fall into your lap when you are backpacking.
Before we realised what was happening it was 5am and we were squatted in the back of a pick-up truck with 5 other people on the 3 hour bumpy-ride to the small village of Carmelita, the closest town before the Mayan ruins.
We had received very little information the previous night about what to pack, who our companions would be, what would be provided and who our guide was. After a quick briefing when we met our team, most of our questions were more-or-less answered.
Our fellow hikers were 2 Guatemalan sisters, and 2 French men. Our team comprised of a local Carmelitan farmer, his 2 helpers with mules that would be carrying our supplies, and a cook who was 7 months pregnant.
The people who we had entrusted with taking us deep into the jungle seemed quite friendly, excited to help, and knew no English.
Alesha and I had learned a bit of Spanish in the months prior to undertaking the hike to El Mirador, but nowhere near enough to fully appreciate all the information and history the guide was going to be giving us in his native tongue.
Luckily for us our fellow trekkers spoke both Spanish and English fluently, and were more than happy to translate the stories. Once the introductions were made and the instructions given, we loaded up the mules to carry our supplies and began our trek.
The feeling of being in the jungle was quite spectacular. The sights, the smells, the abundant shades of green and brown and the hundreds of different species of insects and animals we came across were a sensory overload.
Everything was so still, yet so alive.
The guide, Antonio, had spent his entire life walking through this jungle and was full of knowledge which he happily passed on to us.
He pointed out which parts of a certain tree to suck on if we were bitten by a snake. Taught us about the way certain vines grow so that the first coil around a branch always points east. We learnt that crushed termites make a great temporary insect repellant, as well as providing an excellent source of protein when consumed (they taste like carrots).
The thrill of bush-bashing through flooded paths, howler monkeys screaming in the evening and finding fresh jaguar footprints in our camp after a night camping ensured that the trek to El Mirador remained exciting.
Having spider monkeys break off branches the size of my leg and trying to drop them on us when we ventured too close to their territory kept it light-hearted when exhaustion kicked in.
Besides the wonders of being consumed by the jungle, the Mayan ruins were simply breathtaking.
As the location is so remote, archaeologists have only managed to excavate a small portion of the sprawling metropolis.
What appears to be tree-topped mounds plotted throughout the area are actually the remains of ancient buildings that over time have been enveloped by the unforgiving terrain.
The select few which have been uncovered have yet to be fully restored, so unlike some of the other more popular sites like Chichen Itza and Tikal, you feel like you are the first people to view these epic monuments in centuries.
Climbing and exploring 2200-year-old Mayan temples was surreal.
Trying to imagine how the city would of been in it’s heyday was a mental challenge. The sheer size of the site and buildings was awe-inspiring.
To know that up to one hundred thousand people thrived in this inhospitable environment blew our minds.
Learning about the history and rituals of the ancient civilisation was fascinating.
The miraculous scale of what the indigenous people of Central America learned and constructed makes you reflect on how things are done in this day and age.
The way they used the stars to design and inspire their cities and lives makes you look at the cosmos in an entirely different light.
The skies influenced them, and many other civilisations, in profound ways. Being amongst the ancient world forces you to observe what is above us.
And when the destination was reached, and the crew had arrived, we reflected.
We sat on top of the pyramid, El Tigre, as the sun rose over the canopy.
The vastness of the jungle stretching out as far as the eye could see.
The stars disappearing as night became day.
Only the sounds of the wildlife awakening and our breaths being taken away from us. And we knew that it was through the determination of trekking kilometre after kilometre, with the help of our local guides, while the rest of the world slept and got on with their lives, we had experienced something truly special.
We had achieved what we wanted and learnt so much more than history in the process. We had experienced the feeling that only those who leave the comforts of their home, who venture out into the world to see what is out there have experienced.
Through seizing opportunity when it presents itself we had accomplished more than we anticipated.
When we look around at each other and ask, “What are we doing here?” we can answer, “Anything we want to!”