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El Mirador: Through the Eyes of Kings
Created by Kevin Dimetres
The view was once reserved exclusively for Mayan God-kings. Deep in the heart of northern Guatemala’s dense rain forest, atop La Danta, the largest pyramid of the Mayan world, lies one of the most spectacular vantage points on earth. Leaving modern civilization behind, I set out to scale its peak and see the world through the eyes of ancient kings.
Off-the-grid and above the clouds, the rugged journey to the lost city of El Mirador was the pinnacle of a twenty-mile, multi-day expedition through a sweltering tropical rain forest to the top of the world.
Considered by archaeologists to be the cradle of Mayan civilization, El Mirador thrived from the 3rd century B.C.E. through its mysterious decline in the 2nd century C.E. Supporting a population exceeding 100,000 people, El Mirador was one of the largest cities in the world during the time of Christ. Today, the ancient metropolis remains virtually unrecognizable, its ruins hidden beneath miles of dense foliage that engulf the Maya Biosphere Reserve.
The trek started where the dirt road ended and the jungle began, in the tiny village of Carmelita. A sleepy outpost located just south of the Mexican borderlands, the rural community is home to the Cooperativa Carmelita, an organization which supports sustainable tourism by providing expert local guides to lead excursions through their native region, en route to the ancient city of El Mirador.
The humidity was thick enough to cut with a knife. Mosquitos swarmed with the determined intensity of an angry mob. Tarantulas scurried about near their underground boroughs, quick to retreat at the site of what must have seemed like a human stampede. Meanwhile, bold and unwavering scorpions crawled along the brush with the aggressive stance of jungle ruffians.
Termite mounds grew from the trunks of ceiba trees like bulbous goiters. Our guide stated that people of the Yucatan had eaten termites for centuries, so, naturally, I reached my hand into the nest and plucked them like peanuts while they crawled along my palm; slightly crunchy and energizing, they had a taste and texture reminiscent of shaved carrots.
The swampy pathways featured a surprising plethora of unexcavated structures of all sizes. Overwhelming my senses to near manic levels, the ancient ruins filled my mind with cinematic fantasies of royal tombs and hidden treasures. Not everything had been left untouched however; a few pyramids displayed evidence of looting, made obvious by crawlspace-sized tunnels dug into their base.
Thick overgrowth consumed the ancient avenues and colossal pyramids. Trees were sprouting like sun rays from the crumbling structures’ hidden exteriors. An ancient Mayan ball court, identifiable by its rectangular courtyard centered between long, inclined walls, tickled my curiosity with its subtle vitality, as if the spirit of the Maya still remained steadfast in an ethereal realm, waiting for opponents to arrive for the next game.
I was shaken from my trance as troops of spider monkeys traversed the canopy above. They followed us through each set of ruins with the manner of a dubious chaperone. As we paused for a break on the stone steps of a partially excavated temple plaza, a monkey positioned himself between two branches overhead and proceeded to let loose a stream of urine in our direction. I’m not sure who laughed harder - us or the monkeys - but we got the message and proceeded on, deeper into the tropical wilderness.
Our arrival at El Mirador base camp was met with the bodacious wails of surrounding howler monkeys. Ocellated turkeys strutted about, their feathers displaying a mind-bending blend of shimmering neon colors. Numerous excavations were underway, with pyramid mounds and stone temple structures rising from the grassy overgrowth like giant cicadas emerging from their molted shells.
Over twice the size of Tikal and nearly three times taller than the pyramids of Chichen Itza, El Mirador is stunning in its grandeur. Considered to be among the largest pyramids on earth with a base that would cover over 30 football fields, the 240 foot summit of La Danta was finally within reach.
Multi-tiered with steps set on a dangerously steep incline, the size of La Danta was beyond comprehension; its peak extended above the canopy, out of view from the ground below, while its enormous base was too large to fit into a camera frame.
Scaling the crumbling stone steps proved to be a menacing challenge, as the elongated height between each haphazardly narrow ledge forced me to crabwalk to preserve my balance; one slip had the potential for disaster. Slowly emerging above the jungle canopy, I reached the sacred spot formerly reserved for the Maya royalty who claimed a direct connection with the gods.
I had made it. Hovering among the clouds, I lit up a prized Cuban cigar in a symbolic gesture of victory. While I reflected on the two-thousand year long series of events which had led to this moment in time, I was struck by an overwhelming sense of tranquility, overcome by the supernatural energy of the jungle.
A sense of fatalism permeated the air as the trails of smoke ascending toward the sky quickly vanished into the wind, a subtle reminder of my own unconquerable mortality. While the stone pyramids of El Mirador survive, the identity of the Mayan kings who built them has been lost to antiquity. As the empires of mankind rise and fall like the cyclical nature of the sun and moon, Mother Nature remains eternal.
Delicate flowers budding from the highest platform of La Danta danced against the breeze, each green stem swaying back and forth in a silent, timeless rhythm. Tiny dragonflies buzzed from one blossom to the next, germinating the minute florae that had risen from the crevices in the stone temple. I took a deep breath of the sacred air as I reflected on the infinite varieties of life which flourished in every direction.
El Mirador, which translates to “The Lookout,” is more than a scenic location atop an ancient monument; it’s a glimpse into the existential struggle between humanity, nature and time. Witnessing the view from La Danta makes one realize that ambition and humility must exist simultaneously in order for civilizations to thrive; the perpetual tug-of-war between nature and nurture will find success only when a balance is achieved. Standing on what was once thought to be the top of the world, observing the landscape from the perspective of ancient kings, I exhaled, relaxed and felt enlightened by the divine essence which brings light and life to all.
All photos taken by Kevin Demetres.