Since the only bus to Carmelita, the starting village for the El Mirador trek, was at 5am, we began our day extremely early. Virtually no tuk tuks run at this hour, and we made our 30 minute walk in the dark towards the bus station. When we got there, we had a quick bite to eat at the bustling early morning market at the terminal, and boarded the bus. We had tried to go the day before, but the bus that supposedly leaves a 1pm was broken, so only the 5am bus was still running. Our tour agency who had arranged the trip paid the driver, and the driver asked us if we had a guide. We responded that we would look for one when we got there, and he gave us a skeptical glance before ushering us on. He glared at us the entire bus ride, and we suppose that he was probably thinking which cousin he should try to get us to hire as a guide once we were there. The ride took about 4 hours and was quite bumpy, since after about 10km, the road turns into a dirt road. We had to get off the bus to register with the park, and were ushered in the Cooperativa Carmelita gate.
We had read online only of people who had done the trek as a tour, with the exception of one blog which talked about doing the tour on his bike. We felt as we were entering Carmelita that the driver was throwing us massive shade and was going to harass us to get a guide, so we hopped off early at first sight of the sign that said “Sendero- El Mirador.” For those interested in the history and stories of the piles of rock you will see, we can see the benefit of having a guide to explain them to you. However, we were mostly interested in just doing the hike, and noting the steep price tag (In Flores, it cost around USD $200 per person for a 5 day trek; In Carmelita, it would probably be around USD $100 per person), we decided we wanted to do it ourselves. We guess that this is technically not a 100% legal, but then the only sign warning you against it could easily be overseen. Furthermore, the tours provide equipment and food, and after encountering the abysmal equipment that was provided on Acatenango, we decided this was an expense we did not want to spend.
Once we got off the bus, we walked quickly into the forest down the very flat path and put on bug spray. The mosquitoes are pretty terrible during the rainy season, but fortunately, at least they are slow. If you are walking at a moderate speed on terrain that did not include rain puddles, you will be unmolested by them. However, once you stop, they will eat you alive. This meant that we took virtually no breaks over our 4 days of hiking in an attempt to not completely poison ourselves with DEET. We did not even take out our cameras at the Tintal ruins that are en route the first day of the hike.
The first day of hiking was pretty easy, and it took us a little under 5 hours to cover 18km and reach the first campsite. The trail begins quite flat and we easily moved quickly, but due to the rainy season, it soon denigrated into mud puddles. We were lucky that on the day before, there was no rain, and we could more easily stand on the baked mud without falling through to mosquito egg infested waters. We spent most of this trail on the side of it, taking refuge in the leafy ad hoc paths that avoided this mud. Along the way to the campsite, we noticed two covered shelters where you could stop and set up camp in an emergency, or take a shady break during the dry season. When we arrived at our campsite, we were pleasantly surprised to see that it was quite busy and developed. To our great surprise, there were even showers. Plastic sheets covered the floors below, and we set up our tent in the same covering as the workers. This meant that all our stuff was dry, and we didn’t have to put on the fly (thank goodness because it is still quite hot). The cooking area was also available for all to use, and our encounters with the workers there made us feel like there is absolutely no issue hiking to El Mirador alone. They were extremely friendly, shared with us hot water and coffee, and let us use their facilities. In fact, they seemed surprised that we even asked them if we could set up camp or have a bit of their coffee. It seemed to be a true communist outpost in the jungle.
The next morning, we got up and began trekking at the first hint of sunlight. We covered 23km in about 6 hours, and arrived at the campsite at the base of El Mirador in the early afternoon. About a kilometer away from the campsite behind the white sign were two ruins, one of which you can enter.
Once we got to El Mirador, we decided immediately to begin exploring the ruins, and walked around. As someone we encountered at the campsite the day before stated, El Mirador is truly a construction site. We saw elaborate coverings of excavations currently in progress, since much of the discovery was still unpublished and the academic researchers were protecting their work. Many of the ruins were still covered by trees, foilage, and dirt, and we really had to stretch our imaginations to envision what the place used to be like.
The upper section of La Dante is mostly an exception to the rest of the archaelogical site. There are stairs leading visitors to the top, where you are granted a great view over the jungle and the other temples. Since much of this is still in progress, viewing the other temples from the top meant looking at hills covered in trees. After our brief exploration of the site, we returned back to the campsite, and met three girls travelling with a mule and a guide. They told us that they had just met Dr. Richard Hansen, the chief archaeologist on the site from the United States. He was on site with a film crew to probably create a documentary, of which Morgan Freeman will play a role in it. He arrives in late June to the site. We chatted with the other hikers for a bit, and they invited us to join them to the El Tigre pyramid to look at the sunset. Since it was really cloudy and just about to storm badly, we didn’t stay long, and soon headed back to the camp. However, we were satisfied with our walk through the El Mirador site, and decided that we could leave the next day back to the first campsite. This campsite is also covered with plastic sheets, however, there are quite a few holes in them, and we had to use the fly to avoid getting soaked.
We went back to the first campsite the same way we came. The paths to El Mirador is really flat and generally uninteresting. The forest is all the same and there is little variation in terrain. However, this meant that we listened to so many podcasts. We set up our tent in the same place as the day before and spent time with the other hikers in the evening. To our great consternation, it rained throughout the afternoon and night. We remembered the horrific trail conditions of the first day and realized it would get much worse because of the rain. We overheard from the other hiker’s guide that there was an alternate route that was much better, and resolved to give this a try.
The next morning, we left at the first light with the intention of getting to Carmelita before the 12pm bus departing to Santa Elena. When the turn off point was indicated on Maps.Me, we took the easternmost trail, which turned out to be an excellent decision. This trail is obviously not possible for mules to go through, but for two humans, it was a pleasure. Leaves covered most of the trail and mud was scarce with the exception of some small parts, and we made the 17km in 4 hours to Carmelita. This trail was a little more hilly, but we strongly recommend taking it in the rainy season to avoid the mud.
When we arrived a 10am, we had breakfast at one of the three comedors in town, and waited for the other hikers to return to take the bus back. About halfway to Santa Elena, the bus driver’s helper asked for the fare for the bus, and we handed him the paper ticket. The bus driver lost it, claiming that he would not recognize this ticket and it meant nothing to him. Luckily, one of the other hikers spoke fluent Spanish, and convinced him to drive us all the way to Santa Elena where the tour agency was to sort it out. He was extremely unimpressed. Apparently this has happened to him before and he did not get paid, and rambled on and on about how we should have taken a guide with the Cooperativa. We figured that some of his rage was directed at the fact we didn’t hire one of his cousins. Once at the bus terminal, Emily went to the tour agency and the bus driver followed, and the agency said that their boss left with the money but would be able to pay him the next morning. He threatened he would not let us take our backpacks off the bus if we didn’t pay him the money. However, one of the agency workers convinced him to let us go, and we took the tuk tuk back to the hostel. We learned from this not to buy tickets in advance for these chicken buses- instead, it is much better to pay him the Q 75 per person per way to go to Carmelita.
All in all, our visit to El Mirador provided us the most raw experience of ruins. They are a pain to get to, meaning that it is far less touristed than Tikal. Much of the site is still under development, and we had to use our imaginations to visualize the place. With our fill of ruins mostly complete, we began our trip to the complete opposite of El Mirador to Chichén Itza, which instead represents the pinnacle of well excavated, easy to get to, and heavily touristed.