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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

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.



Walking to an ancient wonder


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.


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


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.


Hotel La Casona de la Isla, on Calle 30 de Junio, Flores; 7926-0593, 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, 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.


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.


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