My Take on our 2002 El Mirador-Nakbé Trip
by Steve B.
(In July of 2002, eight fellow travelers, aged 46 to 65, gathered in Flores,
Guatemala for a seven day trip into the Mirador Basin Area. The distances shown in the place
we took off from by mule and on foot were 65 km from Carmelita to Nakbé and 70 from El Mirador to
Carmelita. There are about 12 km between the two sites and many other ruins along the way.)
Our trip began in the city of Flores, a Guatemalan town built on an island in Lago Petén Itzá. Those of us who arrived by plane met our companions there and we all went to the offices of Eco-Maya to prepare for our trip. After we did some last minute shopping, grabbed a bite to eat, and changed our clothes, we got in a van and were off to Carmelita on the edge of the jungle of the Peten region.
Chatting along the way, we got to know each other. Our group consisted of Kathleen Davis, Tom Noble, Tony Belfiglio, Mike Reed, Bob and Warren Westerberg, Dwayne Shreve and me. Our professions were widely varied. Along the way to Carmelita we traveled along a dirt road and passed many fields of maize which had been hacked out of the jungle and lots of small bamboo huts. They appeared to be in the throes of urban development.
We often had to slow down to a crawl in order to go over the small trenches which had been dug across the road. PVC pipe was being laid to each small hut so that the residents could have running water. A few miles into the trip we had a flat tire. The drivers changed the tire only to get another one a few more miles down the road. One of the drivers went get help.
Dwayne, Tony and I decided to hike to the next town. We didn't have to walk very far. Just around the bend we came upon the little village crossroad of Colorada. There were a few dozen huts, a small schoolhouse and a little general store.
As we walked up to the store, we caused quite a stir. Some of the local girls were grinding corn into flour and seemed more than a little surprised that three gringos had arrived on foot. Dwayne got the last cold beer in town, Tony and I each had a coke. As we sat and talked in the shade of the storefront, one particular little girl of perhaps 7 years hung around making sure that we saw her notebook and pencil, which she was very proud of. A few minutes later others showed up and sat and stared at us out of curiosity. Dwayne joked with them a bit. He asked them what classes were at the school. They said none, and he asked "What kind of a school is that?" That made them giggle and laugh.
Dwayne asked them if he could take their picture. They said yes, but ran away went he got his camera out. But, they came back a little later and he finally got one. As we got up and began to walk back to the van, they all followed us, giggling and laughing. Three of the little girls stopped him and asked him to take another picture. He did, then they laughed and giggled as they ran home.
Back at the van things had progressed. A small pickup truck had arrived and we loaded ourselves and our gear into it. Bob, Warren, Mike, Dwayne and I climbed into the back. It was a tight squeeze. As we passed Colorada and the small huts along the road, everyone waved at us. Bob taught us how to do the royal wave. We had fun.
When we arrived at Carmelita our guide and mules were waiting. We met Jose Morales, our guide, and had a bite to eat. The restaurant was bamboo and had a wood fired stove. The sodas were nice and cool due to the power from the solar cell outside. The menu included with the trip consisted of meat, meat, or meat, served with rice and corn tortillas.
As we ate, Jose's brothers were packing up our gear onto mules. This would be the pattern for the rest of the trip. As we ate or took a break on the trail, they would ride ahead with the pack mules and have the camp ready when we got there. They put an incredible amount of work into keeping us comfortable and happy.
Dwayne was the first to choose his mount. Unfortunately, he picked a most disagreeable beast, which nearly kicked him squarely in the chest. That particular animal was taken away and he got another one. Kathleen was given a smaller reddish mule they picked out for her. However, she has long legs and the short stirrups proved to get very uncomfortable after a while on the trail. My mule's name turned out to be Rosia. She wasn't fast, but she was steady and easy to guide around the many, many hazards on the trail. She sure did like to eat though. She munched on everything in reach as we went along.
As we got underway, we stopped at Jose's home to get his wife, Rosa, who would be our cook for the entire trip. The mules didn't seem to want to go at first. Warren's mule was way in the rear and didn't seem interested in joining the rest of us. Finally Edgar, one of our guides got it to move along.
A few hours later along the trail we stopped at a partially dried up lagoon in order to water our mounts. It looked much like the crocodile lagoon I had read about, which is infested with them. I had my only experience with a tick there. It was crawling up my arm.
We got back underway and as we progressed we saw more and more montículos (mounds), a few Chultuns (cisterns), and metates (grinding stones). This site was La Florida, a huge complex of mounds, terraces and pyramids. We arrived at camp just as the sun was setting.
A cooler full of ice cold juices awaited us. Rosa busied herself cooking dinner while Jose, Edgar, Alex, and Miguel set up hammocks for us. Tom, Mike, Warren and Bob explored the area and said they say some amazing ruins nearby. The meal was fantastic, consisting of chicken, tortillas, rice, melon, and fruit juices.
Mike broke out a bottle of scotch and shared with everyone. Tom shared a story called Bob's Bot Fly. It was about a fellow who returned to the USA with a parasitic maggot living in his scalp.
Shortly after that, we all went to bed. It wasn't easy sleeping in a hammock at first. It seemed that my feet were higher than my head. After a while I found a position lying on my side that was a little less uncomfortable and was fast asleep.
[Editor's note: Note that we camped short of where we would have normally spent the night, so the next day was longer.]
I woke to the sounds of breakfast preparation and of howler monkeys in the distance. We had coffee, eggs and ham. Jose said we had a long day ahead so after breakfast we were quickly back on the trail.
To say it was a long day is an understatement. Afterwards we referred to it as the Death March. The trail wasn't more than a tunnel cut through the jungle. Everyone of us was scratched by thorns or knocked off our horses. There was much to see along the trail; ruins and wildlife were everywhere. But, as we trekked through the lowlands and hills, if we averted our eyes for an instant, we were likely to get whacked by a tree branch. One of the more vicious vines that often met us at eye level was covered with 4 inch spines so thick, it looked like the back of a porcupine.
Walking was even more difficult. It was so humid that our perspiration would not evaporate. It stuck to us until we were soaked.
We teased Kathleen about the bats flying around. "You don't have to worry Kathleen, they only bother redheads. Oops, that's right, you are a redhead."
About noon we stopped for lunch at a ruin called Ramonal. Rosa had made sandwiches and brought cool juices to drink and a pineapple for dessert. Jose's brothers didn't stop. They went on ahead with the pack mules.
Mike started looking around and found a piece of a Maya Plate. A few minutes later Tom said, "Hey, here is the rest of it" They both put together a pre-classic piece of pottery just laying there for them to find. We left the pieces where they had found them and continued on our march.
Towards the end of the day, Jose stopped to water the horses. Tony, Kathleen, Dwayne and I decided to continue on to camp, which, as we understood, was just minutes away. I put my hiking boots and caught up with them. Wow, they are demons on foot. I slowed down and let them continue on. Rosa caught up with me and then we walked together. The minutes seemed to turn into hours, but finally we made it to camp at Nakbé. The others arrived a short time later.
We looked around a bit and went to the top of Temple I. As far as the eye could see, there were montículos and pyramids. This area must have supported millions of people. Then we had supper. Tom nearly was injured when a makeshift picnic table collapsed underneath him.
It was much easier sleeping in the hammocks that night. We were all exhausted. At one point, I awoke in the middle of the night. It was like waking up in a cave. There was a total absence of light. I couldn't see my hand in front of my face.
I woke to the sounds of breakfast being prepared. Some of my traveling companions were unhappy about some of the others snoring. I passed around the bag of ear plugs which I had brought. After that night, no one had any trouble sleeping because of someone snoring.
The guardian of the site was kind enough to show us around. He was a nice fellow, whose schedule was 30 days in the bush and 14 days in Flores. His campsite was marked by a huge plastic sack, which was being used as a cistern to catch rain water. He also had a short-wave radio and antenna by which he kept in contact with Guatemala City.
One of the first things he showed us was a chultun, which was very large. Tom, Mike, Tony and Kathleen climbed in along with the guardian. Next he showed us a stela that had been badly weathered and what looked like homes which had been excavated. We also saw a small quarry that had been dug. It was interesting in that the limestone was cut into blocks with large gaps between them.
It occurred to me that dry wooden blocks may have been put between the limestone, with the pit then filled with water. Would that have been sufficient to snap off the brittle limestone? Who knows? The coefficient of expansion probably would require a large diameter to do the job. Somewhere I have read of a similar technique being used in another part of the world a few thousand years ago.
On the way up the trail from the pit we came upon an ancient causeway. We were walking in single file with Mike and the guardian in the lead in front of me. It was then I noticed a little snake coiled up and glaring at Mike. He was mad and looked very much like he was going to attack Mike. The guardián came over and confirmed that the snake was the fer-de-lance, or three step snake. You take three steps after it bites you and you are dead. After a few minutes he decided against molesting Mike and crawled off into the bush.
We then went to the ball court which was in good condition. Mike explained what the games held there symbolized and what the results of the competition were. After that I left the group. They continued to another pyramid and I went to use the outhouse near the camp.
The outhouse was built of bamboo with an open door. Whenever you used it the local spider monkeys stopped by to watch.
We all had lunch and took a short break. A little later Tom, Mike and I went up near Temple One and scraped copal sap from a large tree there. We decided to burn it that night. Nearby there was an allspice tree. Cracking one of the leaves released the pungent odor similar to cloves. It also had a pronounced numbing effect on the lips and tongue.
Tony, Kathleen, Warren and I sat on top of one of the pyramids and enjoyed the view. The local monkeys were putting on quite a show. It is amazing to see how easily they navigate through the trees. They reminded me of Spider Man in the recent movie. One was so skilled he just walked over the tree tops without using his hands. We saw Toucans in the trees a short distance away. When they are in flight it makes you wonder how they keep that big beak airborne.
Later after everyone had rested, the guard returned and took us on another excursion. He took us to an area that had recently been excavated. Whether these were homes or temples, I don't know, but they were remarkably well preserved. We were able to just walk around and at our feet there were pieces and pottery sherds.
Tom discovered one looter's trench in which there was intact plaster and stucco. It was quite something to see the plaster that had been applied thousands of years ago. We left all that we had found where it was and returned to camp shortly thereafter.
Dinner consisted of yet another delicious meal, enjoyable conversation and good company. Tom put the Copal in the remnants of the cooking fire. Its smell is similar to pine, but not quite.
The guard brought over his guest-book for us to sign. The visitors before us had been there a month ago. The countries represented by previous visitors to Nakbe covered the globe.
At bedtime it was time to check ourselves for ticks. I was surprised that I had not yet had any problems with ticks or chiggers. A few people in our group had severe problems with them. I guess soaking my clothes in Permethrin before I left helped a lot. I also tucked my pant legs in my socks, sealing them with duct tape. Another big problem among some were saddle sores. The chafing I experienced was minimal. The tube of Aquaphor I had brought with me helped heal the chafing I did get quickly.
It was another dark night, and everybody rested peacefully with ear plugs in their ears.
I woke up early and decided to take a walk. This was a mistake. On the way back to camp I took a wrong turn. It was 45 minutes before I realized that I was on the wrong trail. I was imagining how upset everyone would be if they had to come looking for me. Fighting off the panic, I back tracked and found where I had taken the wrong turn. On the way back two very large and fast snakes crossed my path.
Never, ever go into the jungle by yourself. It is unbelievably easy to get your directions mixed up. Even if you have spent a good part of your life in the forests of north America, it can become a problem.
We then had had breakfast and were on the trail again. My mule Rosia seemed a bit unsociable that morning, but a few scratches behind the ear put her at ease. The night before I had lengthened the stirrups a bit so my knees wouldn't get so cramped.
The next part of the trail was unusually thick. Jose and Alex had to cut much of it as we went along with the machetes they carried at their sides. The Cicadas in the trees were deafening. So loud that it seemed the sound was rattling the fillings in my teeth. It was terribly difficult to speak to anyone who was more than a few feet away.
All along every trail we traveled, there were the trees from which chicle was harvested. The diagonal slashes made by the chicleros were still very evident, even far up the trunks of huge trees.
Around noon we arrived at the Danta Complex, which is part of the ruins of El Mirador. We went up to the platform, where there were three more temples Some of the walls were intact and reminded me much of the temples at Angkor Wat. The main temple was unusually steep and required you to pull yourself up with a rope. Tom, Mike and I walked around the sides of one temple and went into a cave dug out by a looter. There wasn't much in there except a large nest of hornets.
We had lunch up there, and then it began to rain. Rosa and Luis joked that it because of the copal we burned the night before. Dwayne and I walked down the pyramid wanting to get a head start to Mirador. That was till we realized we didn't know which way we should go. Along the trail we saw a turkey. This isn't anything like a north American turkey. It is covered in blue and looks much like a peacock. When the others caught up we continued to Mirador.
A while later, the trail widened and looked more traveled. It actually looked swept. As we passed signs pointing out various sights, we knew this area had many more visitors than the areas we had just come from. As we came over a ridge and entered a clearing where the campsite was, it began to rain in earnest.
Since we hadn't bathed in days, a few of us took advantage of the rain and rinsed off the grime. The mud was exceedingly thick and sticky. I attempted to walk up the trail to where a sign had pointed out Stela 2. On the way the air was thick with the smell of copal and all spice trees. By the time I got to the stela, my boots had collected several pounds of mud. I looked around a bit , then made my way back to camp.
The local guardián came over and showed us a number of interesting pieces of pottery. He told us some fascinating stories of the excavations that had been done recently.
A little later Jose took us over to El Tigre, the largest pyramid at the site. It was quite an amazing view from the top. It is easy to imagine why this building was called El Mirador, The Lookout.
A little later we all had supper and then sat around the campfire and swapped stories. Dwayne, Mike, Tony and I slept in hammocks on one side of the clearing. Bob, Kathleen, Warren and Tom slept on the other.
We all awoke early and had breakfast. Jose took us to the wreck of an airplane that had crashed on the edge of Mirador in the 1960s. On the way we saw an Agouti, sort of a large rodent. At the wreck we saw a large tarantula. We all took turns posing in the wreck.
On the way back I decided to take it easy for a while since it was Sunday. I left the group and returned to camp. I washed out some of my clothes and as I was drying them and heard a helicopter in the distance. Elmer, Alex and Miguel were very exited and hurriedly got the mules out of the clearing and picked up Jose's tent. Rosa told me that it probably was Hansen, the archaeologist, who has been working the site.
When we arrived at the clearing the day before we had wondered what the stones arranged in a square were for. Now I saw why they were there. It was the landing pad for the helicopters. As it came in, it blew everything that wasn't fastened down off into the bushes.
The passengers turned out to be Guatemalan. They had chartered the helicopter to come to see El Tigre. I spoke to them a bit. They were very curious about how we got there. They asked me directions, and I pointed them in the direction of El Tigre. A short time later the rest of the group came out of the jungle. Evidently they had thought the helicopter contained Hansen as well.
Later the men explained to Mike that they were on some sort of religious pilgrimage. Before they left they gave us a bottle of cold water and some cold cans of coca cola. It was a great treat. We then had lunch and everyone took a break.
I walked around a bit. I noticed that the entire clearing was covered with what looked like bits of plaster and broken concrete. The pyramids around us must have been covered with thick layers of stucco at one time.
I stopped at the camp across the clearing and talked with Bob and Warren a bit. I noticed something crawling up the log near Bob's leg and brought it to his attention. It turned out to be the largest beetle I have ever seen. Its body was about 6 inches long, shaped much like a cockroach. But its mandibles were as long as my index finger. After showing it to Rosa and Jose, I put it on the trunk of a tree, and it slowly climbed its way to the top.
A short while later Jose took us toward the Templo de Los Monos, or Temple of the Monkeys. On the way there was a most unusual chultun. It was carved out of the bedrock. The shape was about two feet wide and 6 feet long . In the middle another short slot was cut 90 degrees to the longer one. Nearby was a huge round stone about 5 feet in diameter and foot or so thick. No markings on it were evident.
Further up the trail there were outcroppings of the limestone bedrock. One of these back in the bush contained a small cave. A cave formed by a collapse and not by water erosion. It was very similar to a cave found at the Piedras Negras site. That one contained an unusual burial.
Further up the trail was the actual Templo de Monos. It was another steep climb. On returning to camp a horse and a foal passed by me. The guard told me that they both had been lost in the jungle for five days.
At supper we were surprised to see more people arrive on horseback. They were three men and two guides. One of the travelers was a medical student from Texas, one was a Swiss tourist. I'm not sure who the other fellow was. Incredibly, they had made the trip from Carmelita in one day. At sunset they and a number of our group went to the top of El Tigre to watch the sunset.
That evening we sat around the campfire of Kathleen's camp and swapped more stories. It was 80 degrees and humid, but the campfire was welcome and we had a lot of fun.
In the morning it was time to start heading back. We ate a quick breakfast and were back on the trail. Rosia had more pep in her step this morning. She must have known she was on the way home.
The trail was as thick as ever. Low vines and branches threatened to dislodge anyone who was distracted. Wildlife was everywhere. We saw a deer, turkeys, Toucans, some very large birds and many monkeys. The strangler figs and vines were huge. The scent of copal and allspice often wafted across the trail. Termite nests were everywhere and were characterized by huge bulbous growths on the trees.
About noon we stopped and had lunch in the bed of a dried creek. The horses were so thirsty they broke off the trees they were tied to in order to get to the water. We each pulled up a rock and ate our sandwiches in the cool shade. Just on the other bank there was the largest mahogany tree I have ever seen.
Many hours later we arrived at the ruins at Tintal. This was very rustic. There was no formal camping area or bathrooms. Everything was hacked out of the jungle by Jose and his brothers. They are amazingly proficient with their machetes.
After camp was set up and our hammocks hung, Jose took us to a pyramid nearby. This was a very hazardous climb. The trail up the pyramid was full of loose stones which fell down the trail when they became dislodged.
At the top we saw that we were surrounded by pyramids which were very close. Jose said they had no name and that the others had no trail to them. The area was totally unexplored.
Looking down at our feet, it was easy to find small pieces of pottery. Of course, we left everything where we found it.
There were a lot of bugs here and the ground was covered with dry leaves which were infested with ticks. The mosquitoes were large and hungry. Once I sprayed 100 percent DEET my arms, This stuff even melts plastic. While my arm was still glistening from the oily pesticide, a big orange-yellow mosquito bit right though it. I was amazed.
It got dark quickly that night. And we all went to bed early. Just as the sun set, some bird with the loudest most unusual call I have ever heard began to make his presence known. He was far away from the camp. Immediately he was answered by another behind our camp. I thought that if he continued, no one would get any sleep that night. After that another call from a distant part of the jungle, and another and another. It seemed like about a dozen birds called, but when it was dark there was silence. It was kind of like the Waltons saying good night to each other.
Later that evening I turned on my flashlight in order to get something out of my duffle bag. I saw that beneath my hammock was an ant mound, and they were erupting from it like lava from a volcano. I brought it to Jose's attention and he put two tarps over the mound. For the rest of the night they stayed on their side of the tarps and I stayed on mine.
We awoke to a breakfast of pancakes and strawberry jam. We had run out of coffee so our beverage was allspice tea. In order to lighten my load, I gave most of my gear to our guides.
Soon after we were back on the trail. This portion of the trail started out thick. One of our guides, Alex took special care of Kathleen and whacked down any offending branches that got in her way. We saw more toucans and some especially brave monkeys. One of them stood on a branch just a few feet above our heads and shook vines at us. I guess he was trying to frighten us. Further on, the trail widened. Along the sides were huge ant mounds of the same species, which I had met the night before. However, these mounds were the size of small houses. Tony, Mike and Dwayne rode ahead of the rest of us.
Somehow at one point my horse got in front of those of us who were behind. My mule seemed confused at one fork in the trail. I let her go the way she wanted, but I ended up in someone's cornfield. Jose came to set me straight. A few hours later we arrived back in Carmelita. Jose and Rosa's children ran up to greet us, smiling and laughing, overjoyed to see their mother again. Rosa left us at their home where we first met her.
We then continued on to Carmelita's only restaurant where we had a meal of chicken rice and tortillas with ice cold cervezas (beers). The van from Eco-Maya was there and took us back to Flores. This was an adventure of a lifetime.
Perhaps in the future it will become more accessible, but for now, I would not recommend it for those who are terribly out of shape or for anyone who would find going without bathing for many days in a hot, humid climate out of the question. The tour agency recommended that no one under twelve go on this trip, but I would think that no one under 14 would be more reasonable. It was very, very, strenuous at times.
The most remarkable thing about this trip were my traveling companions. They were, and are, truly a most amazing group.
- Steve B.
This was truly a wonderful group of people to be with in the Petén Jungle. I especially want to mention Steve, the author of this piece. Local people just seemed to love him. He can come in anywhere with his broken version of mangled Spanish (which did improve with practice) and they know he cares about them. It is really something to see.
Once we returned to Flores, Tom headed off for a reservation he had made at a hotel in Tikal, but the rest of us took rooms at a hotel called La Casona de la Isla, which has a pool that can be especially wonderful for those who have been traipsing through hot, steamy jungles. The coolness of the water provided a wonderful change in temperature and a chance to relax a bit. The first evening back, we had dinner there on the terrace.
This turned out to be a great idea, even for those not all that fond of swimming. It wasn't far to the bar, to the restaurant or to our rooms. It also was not far from the appropriately named Sunset Cafe, where without any impediments, we could and did watch that eerie, almost sacred, specter of the Sun going down over Lake Petén Itzá. For more info on the logistics of the trip, see this page. In order to read about how to arrange one yourself (if you speak Spanish), read about the Carmelita Cooperative.