After a daylong slog through the suffocating Guatemalan jungle, we emerged before a soaring pyramid in the ghostly ruins of El Tintal, our first stop in the forested realm of the Serpent King.
A slight breeze stirred the air, offering a respite from the heat. We climbed the pyramid and watched the forest swallow the sun. Earthen mounds entombing cities lost to time lay scattered below. And we were heading for El Mirador, the grandest city of them all, only now beginning to reveal its secrets.
We had set off before dawn from Flores (about 300 miles north of Guatemala City), driving four hours to Carmelita, a forlorn village on the edge of the rain forest. From there we would go on foot.
I was traveling with Thomas Kruger and his girlfriend, Andrea Kutzke, both 50 and from Germany. We were thrown together by a tour operator eager to get as many people on the trip as possible.
Abel Santano, a short, taciturn man with a big machete, gathered us around a map pinned to a wall.
"This is not a vacation," our guide said in Spanish. "This is an expedition, an adventure. Know this: If you are successful, you will remember this for the rest of your lives."
Tracing a line of unexcavated Maya cities, Abel showed us our nearly 100-mile route on the map, skirting the edge of the seductively named "Unexplored Region" near the Mexican border.
"Any questions?" he asked. "Vámonos!"
Tunnel of green
Our supplies were secured to mules and sent ahead. We fell in behind Abel, joined by our translator Melqui Recinos, 24, and cook Rosa Moreno, 20.
Ten minutes later, the sky vanished and a tunnel of green encircled us. Abel avoided the muddy trail, remnants of a Maya causeway, instead bushwhacking through the tangled, trackless jungle. Thorny trees stood ready to impale anyone who stumbled.
We expected to reach El Mirador in two days, spend a day exploring the site, continue to Nakbe and loop back to Carmelita for a total of six days.
El Mirador, or the Lookout, is considered the cradle of Maya civilization, the birthplace of its language, art, mythology and architecture. It was ruled by the dynasty of Reino Kan, or the Serpent King, flourishing between 600 BC and AD 100.
But unlike the ruins of nearby Tikal, which gets up to 350,000 visitors a year, El Mirador is far more isolated. Many of the 3,000 or so who try the trip annually are defeated by fatigue, illness or weather. Anyone attempting the journey should be reasonably fit.
Like so many others, I was entranced by the promise of a lost city and the prospect of testing myself.
We were traveling in the March dry season to avoid waist-deep mud. The trade-off was smothering heat. I was soon drenched with sweat and thirsty. After a few hours we stopped for lunch. Rosa stacked slices of American cheese on white bread, squeezed them together, and passed them around.
Andrea spied a line of crumbling Maya homes riddled with looter tunnels. Large fragments of painted pottery lay on the ground. Mounds hiding tombs and palaces rose from the forest.
"Back in Germany, we would build a museum around these," she said.
Although the cities were dead, everything else was defiantly alive. Birds shrieked. Spider monkeys shook branches. Tiny red butterflies chased one another in rapturous, iridescent loops.
By sundown we reached El Tintal, a huge, largely unexplored city. Rosa boiled rainwater for coffee. The fire's glow pushed back the inky night.
Howler monkeys sprang to life with their chilling roars. Bats whipped just inches overhead. Dozens of fat, winged cockroaches milled around the makeshift toilet.
We ate tortillas and beans and retired to our tents. The next day we left at dawn.
Wary of ants
Hiking in the jungle sounds more fun than it is. Take your eyes off the ground for a second and you'll trip. Stop and mosquitoes will torment you. Worst of all?
"Ants!" Melqui cried.
That was the signal to stomp your feet and run to escape the stinging swarms flowing down the trail. If they gained a toehold on a shoe they could swiftly access your body.
Abel couldn't speak English but knew the Latin and Greek name for every creature we encountered. He would light up at the sight of a tarantula, toucan or iguana.
A divorced father of two, Abel, 51, lives in Carmelita. He regularly attends church, and I often heard him quietly singing "The Lord Is My Shepherd" as he walked. But mostly he was silent.
Nearing El Mirador, we briefly stopped at La Muerta, home of two royal tombs. Melqui and I crawled inside one, following a narrow passage to a chamber full of vampire bats. They rose in a squeaking, indignant clatter, and we promptly fled.
La Muerta has a tragic contemporary history. Richard Hansen, the University of Utah archaeologist who heads excavations at El Mirador and neighboring cities, told me in an interview later that looters had raided the tombs.
"We were told that there was a codex in there that could have told us the origins of El Mirador," said Hansen, who has spent 34 years in the region. "The looters didn't know what they had and it disintegrated."
Looting is a major industry here, with thieves tunneling into tombs and temples to steal truckloads of priceless artifacts. Hansen has had to rebury enormous stucco masks and murals simply to protect them from looters.
"It's nothing less than the saga of humanity that is being destroyed," he said.
Shortly after leaving La Muerta we entered El Mirador and made camp for the night.
"This is the origin of Maya civilization," Abel said the next morning as we began exploring the site. "It was one of the most powerful Maya cities in history, ruled by the dynasty of Reino Kan — the divine Serpent King."
The magnitude of El Mirador is staggering, though less than 10% of it is excavated. Mossy stone temples, crumbling guard towers and gleaming white staircases stand among the thick jungle.
We picked our way around sprawling El Tigre, Los Monos and La Danta temple complexes made of limestone platforms topped by three pyramids. Jaguar masks were carved into monuments, and remnants of elevated causeways connected it all like ancient superhighways.
Archaeologists believe this was once the largest city in the Western Hemisphere, with as many as 200,000 people and a million more in surrounding cities.
But El Mirador's insatiable demand for monumental architecture led to widespread deforestation, experts say. That combined with drought and warlike neighbors probably hastened its collapse.
We climbed the 230-foot-tall La Danta pyramid, one of largest on Earth. As I stood on top considering the demise of this great kingdom, I heard a faint buzz.
"Stand like a statue," Abel whispered.
The buzzing increased and then whoosh, thousands of bees whipped around us like a golden wind before dissipating over the jungle. It was 100 degrees, but I had chills. Perhaps it was a greeting from Reino Kan.
Not far away stood the remarkable Central Acropolis Frieze covered in characters from the Popol Vuh, the book of Maya myths and histories.
The heroes of the story — Hunahpu and Xbalanque — are depicted swimming from the underworld carrying the head of their father. Mythical snakes and birds adorn the panels.
That night we sat in a small hut and drank tea made of allspice leaves. Maybe it was the glow of the candles or the refuge from the jungle, but Abel began to talk. He told us about the Spanish priest who burned 10,000 Maya texts in a single day and the end of El Mirador.
"When the Maya no longer believed in their leaders they began to abandon El Mirador," he said. "It was abandoned for 500 years, but they never forgot their city. When the Jews were taken to Babylon, they always believed that they would see Jerusalem again. The Maya felt the same way about El Mirador."
Later that night, Andrea told me Thomas was sick and couldn't finish the route to Nakbe as planned. The next morning I hiked seven miles to the site with Abel and Melqui.
Nakbe dates to 1400 BC and is perhaps the oldest Maya city found. In 1992, Hansen discovered here a stucco mask of the bird god Itzam-Ye measuring 16 feet tall and 34 feet wide. He reburied it to protect it from looters.
We had the place to ourselves, so we headed for the ruins. Melqui and I shinnied down a rope into a chultun, or Maya storage room, empty except for dozens of tailless whip scorpions — hideous but harmless arachnids.
We climbed a pyramid, explored Maya ball courts and examined jaguar tracks before returning to El Mirador.
The next morning we began the long trek back to Carmelita, spending a final night at El Tintal. When we reached the site, I flung myself on a bench, exhausted. I was swiftly enveloped in a blanket of euphoric clarity. The passage of time ceased. The jungle no longer felt like an adversary. In fact, nothing did. A satiny blue butterfly alighted on my foot.
The next day, as we neared Carmelita, the forest began to open. Rosa's 5-year-old daughter sprinted across a field and leaped into her arms.
The journey was over. We pooled our money and tipped our companions. Then I noticed a boy with Down syndrome watching us. Abel rolled up the tip and slipped it into his hand.
"For your mama," he said, before heading back into the jungle.
That night in Flores I watched young people parade along Lake Petén. I felt oddly out of sorts.
I missed the cocooning forest, the silent temples, the elemental life. And I felt a profound gratitude. To what or to whom I still don't know. Perhaps the Serpent King.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO GUATEMALA
From LAX, nonstop service to Guatemala City is offered on Delta and Avianca. Connecting service (change of planes) is offered on Avianca, United, American, Copa, Aeromexico and Delta. Restricted round-trip airfare from $767, including taxes and fees. Nonstop service from Guatemala City to Flores is offered on Tropic Air and Avianca. Restricted round-trip airfare from $253, including taxes and fees.
Reino Kan Tours, Flores, Guatemala; 011-502-576-19883, reinokan.com. My contact was Oscar Salas at firstname.lastname@example.org. I paid $600 for a six-day trip that included all food, water, tents, transportation and an English translator. The extra $200 for the translator was well worth it, as was the small group.
Ask for guide Abel Santano and translator Melqui Recinos. Abel would carry you out of the jungle if necessary, and Melqui translates his every word. You might even run into Richard Hansen, the archaeologist, in El Mirador. He has a camp there and will sometimes show travelers sites they would usually never see.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Petén, 30 Calle de Junio, Flores; 011-502-2366-2841, bit.ly/1xCDgah. Simple, air-conditioned place across from the Reino Kan office. Single rooms from about $49 a night.
TO LEARN MORE
The Mirador Basin Project (miradorbasin.com), directed by Hansen, is great background for anyone thinking of making the trip.
The U.S. State Department has issued warnings, usa.gov/1i6GVWw, about travel in Guatemala and the Petén region in particular. Most of this is drug-related and rarely affects travelers.