El Mirador, the Lost City of the Maya

Now overgrown by jungle, the ancient site was once the thriving capital of the Maya civilization

The peak of La Danta—one of the world's largest pyramids—pokes through the forest canopy. "All this was abandoned nearly 2,000 years ago," says archaeologist Richard Hansen. "It's like finding Pompeii." (Christian Ziegler)
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Had we been traveling overland, it would have taken two or three days to get from the end of the road at Carmelita to El Mirador: long hours of punishing heat and drenching rain, of mud and mosquitoes, and the possibility that the jungle novice in our party (that would be me, not the biologists turned photographers Christian Ziegler and Claudio Contreras) might step on a lethal fer-de-lance or do some witless city thing to provoke a jaguar or arouse the ire of the army ants inhabiting the last great swath of subtropical rain forest in Mesoamerica.

Mercifully, Itzamna, the supreme creator god of the ancient Maya, had favored us with a pilot named Guillermo Lozano, who was now easing his maroon-striped Bell helicopter into the air. It was a Sunday morning in northern Guatemala, late October. Next to him up front was the archaeologist Richard Hansen, the director and principal investigator of the Mirador Basin Project. About a half-hour’s flying time due north was the Mirador basin itself—a 2,475-square-mile tract of jungle in northern Guatemala and Campeche, Mexico, filled with hidden ruins that Hansen and others refer to as “the cradle of Maya civilization.”

We zipped away from the town of Flores at 140 knots. Off to the east were the spectacular Maya pyramids and ruins of Tikal National Park, which is now linked to Flores by road and draws between 150,000 and 350,000 visitors a year. We crossed a jungle-covered limestone ridge about 600 feet high. Hansen’s voice crackled over the intercom.

“This is the southern tip of the Mirador basin,” he said. “It’s shaped like a heart. It’s a self-contained ecosystem surrounded by these ridges. There are five kinds of tropical forest down there. Tikal has only two. ”

Visible below were clearings in the forest, the smoke of fires, a scattering of cattle, buildings and the occasional road.

“All this has been deforested in the last five years or so,” Hansen said over the roar of the rotor. “Any use of this particular area of forest other than ecotourism would be, to me, the equivalent of using the Grand Canyon for a garbage dump.”

After a few minutes there were no more roads or cows or any other signs of human settlement, just a few swampy open patches called civales breaking the great green quilt formed by the canopies of the 150-foot-tall ramón (breadnut) and sapodilla trees, whose trunks are slashed by skilled laborers known as chicleros for the sap used to make chewing gum. Hansen pointed out some of the sites that he and his colleagues have mapped in the Mirador basin, including the large lost cities of Tintal and Nakbe, which is one of the oldest known Maya settlements, dating from around 1000 to 400 B.C.

“See that there,” he said, pointing to a slightly raised and darker line of trees. “That’s a causeway. There’s a plastered roadbed under there 2 to 6 meters high and 20 to 40 meters wide. A sacbe it’s called—white road. It runs for about 12 kilometers from Mirador to Nakbe. It’s part of the first freeway system in the world.”

Suddenly clouds closed in, and Lozano began to climb, anxiously looking for a break in the skies. A tropical storm (named Richard, appropriately enough) was bearing down on northern Guatemala.

“There!” Hansen said. Lozano banked down toward what looked from afar to be a huge stone knoll, half swallowed in vines and trees. The pilots who first flew over the Mirador basin in the 1930s, among them Charles Lindbergh, were startled to see what they thought were volcanoes rising out of the limestone lowlands. In fact, they were pyramids built more than two millennia ago, and what we were circling was the largest of them all, the crown of the La Danta complex. At 230 feet, it is not as tall as the great pyramid at Giza, but, according to Hansen, it is more massive, containing some 99 million cubic feet of rock and fill.


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