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DESTINATION: GUATEMALA

Atop the world of the Maya

Visitors brave snakes, mud and mosquitoes in the Guatemalan jungle to visit an ancient civilization's jewel. With `Apocalypto,' more tourists may hit the trail.

January 07, 2007|Ben Brazil | Special to The Times

El Mirador, Guatemala — 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.

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