Atop the world of the Maya

Special to The Times

BEFORE the torrential rain and the ankle-deep mud, before the quarter-sized blister and the mouse-sized cockroach, before all that, I climbed a 2,000-year-old Maya pyramid, watched the red orb of the sun sink into the jungle canopy and felt the thrill of being an anachronism.

Modern society has no claim on this place. In every direction, unbroken jungle spread in green waves. Monkeys crashed through the trees below. Dragonflies patrolled the pyramid's summit in jerky circles. All around, the buzz of cicadas crested and receded as rhythmically as ocean waves.

For two days, my guide, our pack horse and I had been hiking through the hinterland of El Peten, Guatemala's northernmost state. Our destinations were some of the world's largest and earliest Maya cities, several of which are in Mirador-Rio Azul National Park. That they sat near the remote southern Mexico border, in one of Central America's biggest tracts of virgin jungle, was a sizable hardship as well as a bonus.

Spider monkeys had hurled branches at us from treetops. Clouds of mosquitoes dogged our every step with the mechanical persistence of zombies. Although the jungle had wowed me with its ecological diversity, it had mainly stung me, sucked my blood and dehydrated me.

Now, after hiking 15 hours over two days, I was at Nakbe, a city that flourished from 800 to 300 BC -- a millennium before the Maya civilization's classic period. I prowled the mostly overgrown, unexcavated site, visiting ancient rock quarries and gazing down the ragged trenches left by looters.

Then, as the sky turned red, I spotted an unusual lump about eight miles to the northwest. That enormous, jungle-covered hill was the ruins of El Mirador, a colossal city some experts call the "cradle of Maya civilization."

It was still a day's hike away.

Difficult to access

MEL Gibson, of course, had beaten me to it. His Maya epic, "Apocalypto," was filmed in Mexico, to the north. But it was inspired, in part, by his involvement with the Mirador Basin Project, an effort to conserve this region's forests and archeological treasures. The ultra-violent R-rated movie probably will not give you warm, fuzzy feelings about the ancient Maya.

In August, when I arrived in Flores, the Peten region's travel hub, it became clear that I was in for an epic of my own. Around the small tourist town, there were two basic opinions about the best time to do the trek to El Mirador: "never" and "not now." The warnings came from expatriates, guides and tour operators, and they focused on the rainy season's bloodthirsty mosquitoes, vicious horseflies and sucking mud -- calf-deep or worse, everyone said. It would be best to wait until the place dried out, maybe in January.

Those were the warnings. This was the lure: a giant Maya city hidden deep in the jungle, possessing the largest pyramid in the Maya world. The ruins are accessible only by foot, horse or helicopter, which made them more alluring.

And that was before I even knew its history. I soon learned that El Mirador's civilization peaked between 300 BC and AD 150, making it a whale when the most famous Maya cities were minnows.

By the time Tikal, Palenque and Copan were beginning their golden ages, the rulers of El Mirador ("The Lookout" in Spanish) already had built some of the biggest structures the Maya world would ever see, thoroughly trashed their environment in the process and collapsed into oblivion.

It's this story of extravagance and decline that informs "Apocalypto," though the movie is set many centuries later. Archeologist Richard Hansen, who has investigated El Mirador for 26 years and consulted on the movie, says it doesn't represent El Mirador per se, although the deforestation, construction methods and "conspicuous consumption" seen in the film's Maya metropolis are similar to what he's found at El Mirador.

Gibson serves on the board of Hansen's foundation, and he has visited the ruins and donated to Hansen's project, which deals with more than a single, isolated ruin.

For several centuries around the time of Christ, El Mirador dominated the larger Mirador Basin, an Orange County-sized region with at least 26 major ruins and dozens of smaller ones. It's an area of spectacular archeological richness, and it faces threats that need no embellishment from Hollywood.

Looters, slash-and-burn farmers and drug smugglers, or "narco-ranchers," already have plundered, razed and effectively seized much of the jungle in El Peten. They now threaten the Mirador Basin, most of which is outside the park.

Hansen and his allies -- most prominently the Palo Alto-based Global Heritage Fund -- have pressed to expand park boundaries and develop El Mirador as a tourist attraction. Only tourist dollars can save the jungle and its treasures, Hansen says.

But his proposals do not sit well with community logging cooperatives and industrial loggers, who have doggedly defended the rights they gained under an earlier conservation plan based on sustainable forestry. That initiative received U.S. development assistance and involved the World Wildlife Fund and other prominent green groups.

In a region rife with drug and immigrant smuggling, the question of who best preserves forests gets complicated. Slash-and-burn farmers have ravaged strictly protected areas with impunity, and logging representatives point out that their lands have fared better. But it's clear that they're losing forest too, and Hansen thinks unprotected areas of the Mirador Basin soon will be overrun.

If they don't want to implement his tourism plan, Hansen said, "then we can all watch it burn down."

Tourist development got a major boost in September, when the U.S. Interior Department signed an agreement to send American park management experts to Guatemala. Better signs, better trails, better security and better lodgings are on the agenda.

"Apocalypto" too may draw more tourists to El Mirador, where visitor numbers have climbed from 400 in 2001 to more than 3,200 in 2005, according to the Global Heritage Fund. Executive director Jeff Morgan predicts 10,000 visitors in 2010.

For now, the biggest problem is access: Not everyone can afford a helicopter ride or make the five- or six-day walk. The obvious solution -- a road -- would open the jungle to slash-and-burn farmers. A narrow-gauge railroad has been studied.

Although the environmental politics are complicated, visitors' options are clear: Wait and see if the trip gets easier and more popular, or go now, while you still have the jungle, and its travails, almost to yourself.

I did the latter, booking with a Flores tour operator to whom I confided my fear of poisonous snakes.

"Don't worry!" he said. The snakes in the trees were harmless; I just had to watch out for the ones on the ground.

Flora and creepy fauna

THIS one was on the ground.

"Un coralillo!" exclaimed Victor Bol, a 48-year-old park guard who quick-stepped through the forest like a hound following a scent. He jabbed his finger toward the trail's edge, where a beautiful red, yellow and black coral snake was squiggling away.

Our boots provided ample protection against the fleeing snake's tiny, deadly fangs, but still, it had taken less than 10 minutes to see our first poisonous snake.

Bol was on his way to La Florida, a ruin he would guard for a 30-day rotation. He'd fallen in beside me and my guide, 34-year-old Humberto "Beto" Machuca, at Carmelita, a strip of ramshackle homes where the trail begins.

The flora changed constantly -- low, brown and brambly in the bogs, soaring and green on the high ground. In the taller trees, spider monkeys flashed across the canopy like sunbursts, shaking branches to pelt us with sticks. At random intervals, brilliant blue butterflies floated past like visual grace notes.

Not all my wildlife encounters were so pleasant. At our Nakbe camp, something grazed my head and alighted on my thigh. When I glanced down, I saw a cockroach the size of a mouse. Its antennae twitched atop my quadriceps.

But the abject misery I'd been warned about had not yet materialized. I was dirty and tired, but my bug repellent, pants and long sleeves had kept the mosquitoes at bay. At night, we camped at guards' quarters and backcountry camps, snoozing comfortably in hammocks covered with mosquito nets. I was even lucky with the weather: It hadn't rained for more than a week.

But two days later, on my first night at El Mirador, thunder boomed, the skies opened, and the rainy season was back on.

The all-night deluge hit two 31-year-old Londoners, Bob Bardsley and Chris Taylor, a day's walk from El Mirador. By the time I met them at the ruins the next day, Bob was airing out gigantic blisters on both heels, staring blankly into space and refusing to visit any part of the ruins he'd walked two days to see.

"I just want to get the hell out of the jungle," Bob told me.

Here's what he missed: A ruined city sprawling across an area about the size of downtown L.A., its remnants simultaneously stunning and disappointing.

Because the majority of the site still is covered with jungle, most of its buildings look more like natural, vegetation-covered hills than man-made pyramids. But their enormous size helps you imagine how the city once looked, painted the same sinister red as the metropolis in "Apocalypto" but with different architecture. The site is pockmarked with excavation pits, and one small temple has been restored -- you can see a huge jaguar face and claws. Unfortunately, a lack of interpretive markers makes it difficult to understand what you're seeing.

The highlight is the pyramid complex of La Danta -- at 230 feet tall the loftiest structure in the Maya world, with a base platform big enough to cover nearly 36 football fields. Only its topmost pyramid has been fully excavated. Still crawling with thick tree roots, it looked like a piece of a lost world. Which, of course, it was. I pulled myself up rickety ladders and a rope to see the stunning jungle panorama from the top.

The summer dig season was winding down, and Hansen, the archeologist, was circulating among the roughly 200 workers who were excavating, laser mapping and otherwise sifting El Mirador for data. El Mirador, he told me, was the capital of a society so complex that it may have been the first political state in the Americas.

"These guys were just light years ahead of everyone else," he said.

The morning I left, I climbed the 180-foot-tall Tigre pyramid for sunrise. Silently, I watched El Mirador's pyramids disappear into the mist rising over the jungle.

It had been a fantastic four days. Unfortunately, there were two left.

During those last two days, the abject misery I'd been warned about surfaced. Our next-to-last day's walk took nine hours, and it poured rain for most of them. The last day involved slogging for six hours through putrid muck that sucked at our boots like wet cement. I walked it with a quarter-sized blister on my heel.

The Londoners hiked out with me. Their tour agent wrongly had told them that four days was enough for the trip, and now they alternated between mumbled profanities and inarticulate screams of exhausted desperation.

"Hardships I can handle," Chris said. "It's just pointless hardships without joys. That's where I draw the line."

But I'd had joys -- pyramid-top views, wildlife encounters and the exhilaration of finding a place filled with more scientists than tourists.

As we rode a micro-bus back to Flores, I watched another huge storm roll over clear-cut, smoldering pastures. The scene made me equally glad of two things: that the Mirador Basin was still there, and that I was not.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Walking to an ancient wonder

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, Delta, LACSA, Mexicana, TACA and United offer connecting service (change of plane) to Flores. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $560.

To save money, fly to Guatemala City and take an eight- to 10-hour bus to Flores. Fuente del Norte (at the corner of 17 Calle and 9 Avenida, Zone 1, Guatemala City; 011-502-2251-3817) has frequent departures. But be warned: Many are on old buses that get uncomfortably crowded. One-way fares are about $12, $24 or $26, depending on the class of service.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), the country code (502) and the local number.

ESSENTIALS:

Weather: The dry season (roughly late November to early May) is the best time to avoid mud, but temperatures are hot, and "dry" is a relative term: It can pour at any time, especially from September to early November.

Safety: Although most people visit Guatemala without incident, it has substantial problems with crime and unsafe highways because of reckless drivers and occasional highway robberies. Traveling in groups during daylight is best. The State Department notes that the northern Peten district is a "relatively high-risk area" because of drug and immigrant smuggling.

Health: Natural dangers include poisonous snakes and malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Insect repellent is a must, long sleeves and long pants are best, and anti-malaria pills are recommended, but consult your doctor first.

Pack: a small first-aid kit, with moleskin to treat blisters, and calf-high boots made of rubber for the mud, which are available around Flores.

WHERE TO STAY:

Hotel La Casona de la Isla, on Calle 30 de Junio, Flores; 7926-0593, www.hotelesdepeten.com. The hotel has a mellow vibe, a small pool and a terrace with lake views. Doubles from $48, before taxes.

Youth Hostel Los Amigos, on Calle Central, Flores; 7924-8405, www.amigoshostel.com. It has a good, cheap restaurant and a tropical-garden ambience. Shared dorm rooms begin at $3.25 per person; private doubles and singles run about $9. Matthias de Hoogh at the hostel is familiar with local, low-cost operators of tours to El Mirador and has a reputation for booking guests on good trips. His rates for four travelers are $160 per person for the five-day trek, $180 per person for the six-day.

WHERE TO EAT:

On the trail to El Mirador, meals are whatever your horses and/or mules haul in.

La Luna, on Calle 30 de Junio, Flores; 7926-3346. Easily Flores' best restaurant, with inventive decor and upscale entrees like pork medallions in pineapple sauce. Entrees $5.50-$15.

EL MIRADOR TOURS:

Trekking to El Mirador is a no-frills experience that demands toughness and good physical condition. You'll need a guide and at least five days, round-trip -- six to see the Nakbe ruins, which are on a different trail. Expect long days (six to 10 hours of walking). Pricier tours may offer a combination of walking and horseback riding.

Maya Expeditions, 15 Calle A 14-07, Zone 10, Flores; 2363-4965, www.mayaexpeditions.com. The American-run company offers seven- to 10-day treks costing $625-$1,085 per person with a four-person minimum. Price does not include travel to Flores.

Martsam Travel, Calle Centroamerica, Flores; 7926-0346, www.martsam.com. The well-established Flores agency has five-day treks for $350 per person or seven-day treks for $460 per person for groups of four. English-speaking guide is extra. It also arranges guided, one-day helicopter trips to El Mirador, which cost $1,420 for up to four people if a helicopter is available in Flores. Often the helicopter must come from Guatemala City, raising the cost dramatically.

Many travel agencies in Flores sell cut-rate trips. Be careful: Some have sent clients without sufficient food or water, and service may be surly or worse.

TO LEARN MORE:

The Guatemala Tourism Institute, (888) 464-8281, www.visitguatemala.com.

-- Ben Brazil

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