Trek to The Lost Mayan Capital

Today it is nearly impossible to get to, buried in the deepest part of the rainforest, taken back by the earth and swallowed by vines. On the bright side, this inaccessibility has hidden the greatest Mayan artifacts far from grave robbers for nearly 2000 years.

I have always been fascinated with Mayan ruins; I’ve been to dozens of them across 5 countries, but I’ve always wanted to take the trek to the most sacred of Mayan ruins, Mirador. And what better time than the day the calendar ends. Mirador is the epicenter of this legend, to the spot specifically chosen as the planned center of their empire because it is the point of “highest energy.” The one point on earth that is metaphysically closest to the gods of creation.

Mirador was the largest and most spectacular of all Mayan cities. This iconic metropolis jumped to the forefront of popular culture in Mel Gibson’s ‘Apocalypto,’ which sensationalized the brutality and human sacrifice of the culture. What’s not as well-known is how this civilization, isolated from the “known” world, incubated some of the most advanced centers of learning of the time.

The World’s Largest Ancient Pyramid

La Danta towers over the city of Mirador and is the largest manmade structure in the ancient World, according to Richard Hansen, the lead archeologist in the Mirador basin who has published more discoveries about the Maya than anyone in history. This pyramid is much larger than the great pyramids of Egypt and 15 times larger than the towering Temple IV in Tikal. The size of La Danta was originally severely understated and thought to have been built on a large hill, but recent excavations have revealed the entire hill is actually stone construction on completely flat ground. Additionally, only stone-age tools were used in the construction – nothing more than smashing rocks together to create these architectural wonders, so this effort represents possibly the largest manpower effort the world has ever seen.

These tree-strangled ruins represent the climax of the Mayan empire, an intricately planned urban center, a thriving seat of government, a sophisticated culture, advanced scientific accomplishments and unprecedented military success. This city was so glorious and powerful that it was able to govern and maintain control of a population almost 10 times the size of the more famous Tikal, and equal to the size of Rome at the time of Christ. La Danta towers over the main plaza and enormous Central Acropolis nerve center of the once sprawling metropolis of over a million people in all directions. Evidence suggests that this flourishing city was abruptly and completely abandoned in mysterious circumstances.



Expedition Overview

The Lost Mayan Capital

The expedition from Flores takes 5-days from the virtually uninhabited Peten region in northern Guatemala. Our expedition costs only $250 including an English-speaking guide, porters and everything we need. We were fortunate to meet up with many others because it is not safe to go in small groups. Our outfitter seems prepared and we will have the most experienced guides available with many clamoring at the opportunity to visit the holiest of Mayan places on the holiest of days. I’m also told a real doctor will even join us with a first aid kit with anti-venom.

The debilitating journey will not be without its rewards. Mayan shamans have been practicing to perform the sacred rituals and ceremonies to celebrate the end of the long count calendar. Richard Hansen, perhaps the most famous archeologist of our time, will take a private helicopter for this intimate event.

Getting Lessons from the Shaman of Lake Atitlan

Before the big trek, we take a quick shuttle from the airport to the magical volcano-rimmed lake of Atitlan where we will relax and learn about this event from an inside perspective. Pablo Culum is the most powerful Mayan shaman and spiritual leader for all of the surrounding villages and he takes us on a spiritual journey. He has dedicated his life to preventing loss of Mayan culture and traditions and will tell us everything we need to know.

Pablo is showing us how to make music from the sacred rock altar

The temple is the most sacred Mayan site in the area and was hewn into the side of a vertical cliff overlooking the spectacular volcano-rimmed heated crater lake of Atitlan. This mysterious site has been used continuously for 1800 years for ceremonies. Sadly, live sacrifices have been discontinued. (I asked if this was possible).

“This is a sacred place to offer sacrifices and to give offerings to Mother Earth into our body to cleanse our body, mind, spirit and soul. It is said to open the cosmic door to allow your soul to reconnect with the Mayan gods of the earth,” Pablo said.

Pablo sprinkled us with “spiritual attractant,” that he bought from a street vendor and played drums on a magical rock altar that was hollow and sounded like a musical instrument. He prayed to the gods for a safe and enlightened journey.

The Chicken Bus

We are in Flores, the breathtaking ancient city perched in the middle of Lake Peten Itza to begin our expedition into the jungle. This was the largest ever expedition to El Mirador for the celebration of the end of the Mayan calendar, 13 Baktun.

Our chicken bus flores to remate to trek to el mirador

Our chicken bus in Flores to El Remate to Start our trek to Mirador

From Flores, we travelled by chicken bus (which broke down on the way) to the end of the last gravel road in Carmelita where our 108 km roundtrip hike began. It is a sleepy, thatched-roof jungle outpost deriving most of their income from running supplies via mule train to the archeologists at El Mirador.

One of the Most Challenging Expeditions on Earth

There is a good reason why there have been more summits of Mount Everest than tourist treks to Mirador. This is one of the most difficult expeditions on the planet. Facilities are basic and the only amenities are those we can carry on our back. It is the most remote major site in the Mayan biosphere rainforest, the largest area of undisturbed rainforest in the western hemisphere.

We have a grueling hike ahead of us, almost a marathon-distance each day, hacking our way through unmarked trails and overgrown mule paths the whole way. The jungle is so vigorous and aggressive here that it can swallow a house in a month, and a whole village in a year. It is no wonder how this forest so completely digested this massive city that the world’s largest ancient structures were only discovered a few decades ago.

Dangers here are ever-present. Mosquitos are almost the size of tennis balls and transmit deadly diseases with a single bite. Jaguars have a taste for humans. Fer-de-Lances are the deadliest snake in the Americas because they are so perfectly camouflaged against the jungle floor.

To compound things, this will be the first big trip with my girlfriend, whose only other international vacation was at an all-inclusive resort. She hasn’t even been camping without a hot shower and a hair dryer. This should be an interesting experiment…

The nearest gravel road ends more than 50 miles away so we have to trek on foot through swamps teeming with carnivorous animals and insects and overgrown jungle so thick that machetes seem powerless. We timed our epic journey to arrive on the last day of the Mayan calendar on the winter solstice 2012, a day that spawned thousands of apocalyptic theories and has aroused curiosities worldwide.

The Road to the ‘Camelot’ of the Mayan Kingdom

The Mirador basin is filled with hidden ruins that Hanson and others referred to as the “cradle of Maya civilization.” As many as 200,000 people lived in El Mirador At the peak, With an estimated 1 million living in the interconnected cities in the Mirador basin. El Mirador flourished from the sixth century BC reaching its height in the third century BC.

The city appears to have been planned from its foundation as perfect alignments have been found between the architectural groups and temples with solar alignments of important constellations. The city design reflects an advanced study of urban planning and sacred spaces to the first settlers. The built an advanced society in El Mirador and placed great emphasis on developing advanced studies in the fields of trade, literature, astronomy, agriculture, economics and warfare.

The Missing Supplies

At the end of the road, we lay out all of our supplies on the ground and the porters load the mules for the long journey ahead. We look around and meet our ragtag crew, a delightful mix of hippies, soothsayers, die-hard travelers and our “doctor.” (who later revealed his PhD was in Philosophy) One woman had been studying Mayan astrology for 15 years and was intent on reading our fortune, while another did not have any shoes and was intent on doing the journey barefoot. Long hours of punishing heat and rain and mud and mosquitoes lay ahead of us while with dangers at every corner.

Our Mule Train to El Mirador Saddles up all of Our Belongings

Our Mule Train to Mirador Saddles up all of Our Belongings

We set off on our first 26 km leg north to Tintal on the same sacred pilgrimage path of the ancient Maya in use 2000 years before Tikal. Arriving exhausted and dehydrated, we find that we don’t have nearly enough tents for everyone and the distribution method is going to be a mystery. Our campsites lacked running water, so showers consisted of wading into the swamp to fill buckets of water to pour over our heads for our makeshift bath. All drinking water was boiled, but retained all of the original earthy, gritty taste.

For bathing we would fill up buckets from thie swamp and pour the black water over our heads

For bathing I had to stumble across these sticks to fill up buckets of swamp water so we could pour the black water over our heads


We awake for a pre-sunrise climb to the top of the tallest pyramid at Tintal, a lush green ocean of 150 foot tall canopy trees shrouded in the morning mist appears as far as you can see in all directions. We get our first glimpse of Mirador 28 km far off on the horizon. What seem to be a thousand hills dotting the area make up the overgrown infrastructure of age-old cities that was built on completely flat ground. You can see straight lines of razed and darker trees that are “causeways” or ancient limestone road beds 40 m wide heading toward the surrounding cities. This was the first freeway system in the world according to Hansen.

Sunrise at Tintal facing El Mirador

Sunrise at Tintal facing Mirador

The Mysterious Collapse of the Great Metropolis

According to Hansen, the civilization at El Mirador collapsed due to deforestation caused by immense demand for firewood needed to make lime plaster, which was used generously in all structures from large temples to plazas to the floors of houses. All temples were painted the color of blood a sign of power. This deforestation erosion clogged the aqueducts with mud which further stifled food production and created a localized climate change that made the entire region toxic and unlivable.

The First Non-Archeologists to see the Jaguar Frieze

The inaccessibility of El Mirador has protected some of the most valuable Mayan historical artifacts ever found, an otherwise lucrative heist for grave robbers. According to Hanson, the discoveries at El Mirador turned the existing evolutionary model for the economic, cultural and social history of the Maya upside down.

The Stone Jaguar Carving inside the Jaguar Temple

The Stone Jaguar Frieze inside the Jaguar Temple

As part of the expedition, we were the first non-archaeologists allowed to go inside the temple of the Jaguar paw to see the Jaguar frieze. This frieze was recently uncovered as an older temple built beneath the Jaguar temple and is in pristine condition. We were able to pull back the blue tarps covering the beautiful Acropolis frieze and see the huge stucco panels of the hero twins from the Mayan creation story the Popol Vuh. It was previously believed that the Catholic Church had destroyed all of the remaining copies of this sacred text throughout the world because it conflicts with the Bible.

The Eve of the Apocalypse is Upon Us

Praying at the Sunset on the Top of La Danta
Praying at the Sunset on the Top of La Danta
Standing atop the Temple of Los Monos with La Danta in the Distance, El Mirador

Standing atop the Monkey Temple with La Danta Pyramid in the distance.

1700 years ago, the Mayans predicted down to the minute when the exact cosmic alignment would occur. They built their cities in the locations with the greatest natural energy, aligned their cities perfectly to the planetary cycles, and designed their structures to come alive when alignments occur.

The last night festivities about, including a Mayan shaman who dances around the fire until it turns into a tornado that he can seemingly control at his whim. The fire and flames twirl and dance wildly with the music.

We wake up an hour before sunrise to welcome the end of the 13 Bactun and await the coming of the next great calendar cycle from the top of La Danta. The rising sun slowly illuminates the canopy of trees covering the Mayan Kingdom. We bathe in the harmonious melodies of tree frogs and toucans and howler monkeys as the earth is renewed for a new cycle.

So it turns out the world did not end that day. It’s a really good thing we paid for the whole trip and even our return flights home. My girlfriend (now ex) had a difficult time on this trek but I think she de-sensitized herself a bit by the end.




The Santa Catalina Arch in Antigua Guatemala

The Santa Catalina Arch in Antigua Guatemala



Have you ever completed this journey? What is the most incredible trek you have ever taken? Please leave comments below.


How to Book, Where to Stay, What to Bring on a Trek to Mirador

When to Go

The dry season in Peten typically runs from February through April. Trips as early as December are common. It can get very chilly at night in the winter months.

How to Book

According to the website, you can book expeditions through Amigos Hostel, but they are typically unresponsive. A better option is Carlos Linares at Lands Maya is the most accommodating and responsive travel agent. $250-$350/ person for 5 days, a little more to also visit Nakbé in a triangular route. I suggest asking a month ahead of time to find the timing of other groups to get the best rate and meet minimums. You can also find Lands Mayan on Facebook

How to Get There

There are 2 flights/ day to and from Guatemala City. The cost is about $145pp and the flights are typically very empty. You can get an overnight “tourist bus” from Guatemala City.

From Belize City, there are daily flights to Flores and you can even get a private taxi from Belize City (I paid $150 for the car from a nice hotel, but I’m sure you can get better)

Where to Stay

Tours leave before daybreak, so you will have to arrive in Flores at least the night before. Amigos Hostel in Flores is the only true hostel on the island, and the best backpacker option. The meals are amazing and filling. It is an open, social hostel with amazing, filling dinners. Book ahead and ask for a treehouse room!

Items to Bring with you

  • Long pants (not jeans)
  • Light color, long sleeve shirts
  • Light rain coat during rainy season
  • Light boots or shoes
  • Personal backpack
  • Personal medicine (rash cream, talc powder, band aids(plasters) for blisters)
  • Toiletries
  • Insect repellant
  • Hat
  • Binoculars
  • Soft socks (ideally wool)- Plan for Double Socks
  • Photograph and/or video camera
  • Flashlight (can buy in Flores)
  • Water bottle to refill on the trail. You want a 2 liter bottle or you can run out on the trail.

Optional Items

  • Machete or Pocket knife (optional)
  • Yoga or sleeping mat to sleep on
  • Comfy shoes for evening
  • Extra socks!!

Luxuries: Things we would have killed for by day 4:

  • Honey candy
  • Chocolate covered raisins
  • Gatorade mix packets
  • Hot sauce
  • Starbucks instant coffee
  • Coffee Mate Flavored Creamer

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About the author: Brad Bernard


Brad Bernard has traveled through 92 countries to find off-the-map experiences and authentic adventure travel. He pushes his own personal boundaries by travelling experimentally. Brad’s personal quest to find the most extreme and unique in travel has bred misadventures and moments of enlightenment alike. You can read his craziest stories on his adventure travel blog