Discover lost Mayan cities in Guatemala's Mirador Basin

People have searched for Atlantis and Shangri-La, to no avail. But if it's lost cities you seek, look no further than the Mirador Basin in northern Guatemala.
The Mirador Basin, which contains dozens of pre-classic Mayan cities, sees fewer than 100 foreign tourists a month (Vawn Himmelsbach)

People have searched for Atlantis and Shangri-La, to no avail. But if it's lost cities you seek, look no further than the Mirador Basin in northern Guatemala.

The area is home to some of the largest pyramids in the world and the largest ancient freeway system in the Western hemisphere, and it's the cradle of Mayan civilization. The basin contains dozens of pre-classic Mayan cities — the oldest in existence — most of which remain unexcavated.

Rediscovering the Mayan civilization

Popular tourist destinations for Mayan ruins include Palenque in Mexico, Copan in Honduras and Tikal in Guatemala. These cities date back to the classic period (250 AD to 900 AD). But the oldest, largest and most sophisticated Mayan cities (from the middle pre-classic period starting somewhere around 1,000 BC) are hidden in the jungles of Peten in northern Guatemala.

The Mirador Basin is a piece of land shaped like an inverted pyramid, covering 2,169 square kilometres and covered with low-lying swamps, called bajos - there's no source of fresh water, which is why it's basically uninhabited by humans today.

El Mirador is the largest city, followed by Tintal — both of which dwarf Tikal. There are 45 sites in the Mirador Basin that have been mapped and excavated, nine of which are as large as or larger than Tikal; in total, it's estimated there are 200 ancient cities located here, 26 of which are considered to have had major populations.

Despite these historical riches, unless you're an archeologist or a member of The National Geographic Society, you've probably never heard of the place. The Mirador Basin sees fewer than 100 foreign tourists a month. Compare that with Machu Picchu in Peru — the Lost City of the Incas — that attracts 2,500 tourists in a single day.

This is, in part, because the Mirador Basin is hard to get to and has almost no infrastructure in place for tourists. Even for experienced travellers, the trek through the jungle to visit these sites is challenging, to say the least.

Outside the Mirador Basin, much of Guatemala's pristine rainforests have been burned to the ground; the Maya Biosphere has lost more than 70 per cent of its native forests in a mere 10 years. The Mirador Basin contains the last tract of virgin rainforest in Central America and some of the most important archeological and scientific discoveries of their kind in the Western Hemisphere.

But this could soon change.

While the new government of Guatemala has committed to preserving the Mirador Basin, previous governments have created logging concessions that cannot be revoked by law. Proponents of sustainable logging say this will help locals earn a living, while learning to protect the land that sustains them. Others argue that once a logging road is established, it won't be long before people move in and the slashing and burning begins.

Though it's a "protected" area, it's not immune from corruption and greed. Laguna Del Tigre National Park, for example, is a "protected" area in Guatemala, but despite its status the area has been severely deforested due to unauthorized logging, cattle ranching, oil extraction and intentional arson.

There's concern that the Mayan world's cradle of civilization will meet the same fate. But it's more complicated than that: From what I was told by several locals who wouldn't give their names for fear of the repercussions, the Mirador Basin's strategic location near the Mexican border makes it ideal for smuggling cocaine.

Deforestation in northern Guatemala is encroaching on the basin. (Vawn Himmelsbach)

Narcos entice or threaten villagers to burn down the jungle to make way for cattle ranches, which are fronts for money-laundering operations. Drug lords have a lot of power, and there are still elements of corruption within government. (I couldn't interview anyone "official" for this story unless I paid $1,000 US, which I refused to do.)

There are armed security guards posted throughout the Mirador Basin, but you're better off going with a guide who knows the area rather than venturing into the jungle alone (in some cases, groups choose to hire an armed escort for hikes). While there's no need to be paranoid, you shouldn't be naïve either — there are still incidents of armed robbery, highway holdups and even rape of tourists in Guatemala.

Don't carry valuables or a lot of extra cash while trekking, and carry the local currency (the quetzal) instead of American dollars to avoid looking like a rich tourist. It's unlikely you'll have to bribe anyone, but if a situation does arise, you're better off to play dumb — once you start bribing officials, you make it difficult for the next group of travellers.

Archaeological gem

The area is hard to reach, but it's well worth the journey. It's here that the Mayans formed the first state-level society in the Western Hemisphere.

El Mirador was at the height of its power from 300 BC to 150 BC, with a population estimated at 80,000. The city's main buildings cover an area of two square kilometres, and you can roam the sites at will.

La Danta, the largest pyramid in the Mirador Basin, is also considered the largest in the world in terms of volume (not height), at 2.8-million cubic metres.

The La Danta pyramid is the world's largest, at least in terms of total volume. (Vawn Himmelsbach)

Today, only the top of La Danta has been fully excavated, but it's possible to climb to the highest platform where you'll be rewarded with 360-degree views of the jungle and surrounding temples.

You can also explore the El Tigre complex, where it's believed rulers once performed human and animal sacrifices. The structures are decorated with large stucco masks and panels depicting deities of Mayan mythology.

You can walk on ancient causeways, the Western Hemisphere's first freeway system that links cities in the Mirador Basin. The causeways, made of a thick layer of lime plaster, are several metres above ground and 25 to 50 metres across. Like the Great Wall of China, these causeways (and La Danta) can be seen from space. The cities were abandoned, mysteriously, around 150 AD.

You can also watch archeologists at work as they excavate sites and uncover stucco art and codex-style pottery. About 240 archeologists work at El Mirador during the summer months, supported in large part by private funding (including the likes of Mel Gibson, who consulted with some of the archeologists for the film Apocalypto).

The rainy season (mid-May through October) is the ideal time to go, if you want to watch the archeologists in action. Of course, that means you'll have the pleasure of trekking in the rain, through mud and muck, fighting off swarms of mosquitoes. If it's too wet, you can't set up a tent — you'll have to sleep in a hammock covered with a tented mosquito net.

And there are no showers, though you can fill a pail with swamp water from a nearby bajo and dump it over yourself — which is surprisingly refreshing, under the circumstances.

Getting there

To get to the region, travel from Guatemala City to Flores, the base for visiting Tikal. Then take a bus or hire a driver to take you to the nearby village of Carmelita.

You can arrange a tour in Flores, but you'll get the best bang for your buck — and likely the most experienced guides (though they may not speak much English) — if you deal directly with a local outfitter in Carmelita. I paid the equivalent of $400 US, split between three people, for a guide, hammocks and mosquito nets, a couple of mules and enough water for our entire trek. It typically takes two to three days to get to El Mirador, which is 65 kilometres from Carmelita.

The trip may get easier in the coming years. The Mirador Basin Project, which involves scholars from 34 research institutions around the world, is attempting to increase tourism to help protect the area from slash-and-burn development. Plans include a light-rail train that would make sites more accessible to tourists who don't find the idea of a trek in the jungle fun. Guatemala earns $960 million US a year from tourism; of that, $220 million is generated from Tikal alone.

Those involved with the Mirador Basin Project estimate the country could generate hundreds of thousands of dollars every year by conserving the Mirador Basin. While tourism has turned many of the world's most important archeological sites into circuses, this is one place where tourism may be its saving grace.

The author is a Canadian journalist who spends much of her time exploring the far, hard-to-reach corners of the world.