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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El Mirador today is part of the Mirador-Río Azul National Park, which itself is part of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, an 8,100-square-mile tract of rain forest in northern Guatemala. The reserve, established in 1990, has lost nearly half of its forests in just the past ten years. The protection afforded by the national park, which was set up at the same time, is marginal at best—it covers only a narrow swath of the northern basin along the Mexico border and includes only 3 or 4 of the 51 ancient Maya cities currently mapped. “The boundaries don’t respect the hydrological, geological, geographic, botanical or cultural borders of the basin,” Hansen said. “The park only saves a small area. We’re trying to save the whole system.”

Hansen and conservationists from Guatemala and around the world are hoping the government will declare the whole basin a roadless wilderness. Hansen hopes its ancient cities will attract ecotourism and provide livelihoods for local Guatemalans, who might otherwise turn to looting, poaching or the unsustainable promise of logging; despite short-term economic benefits, the industry undermines the long-term integrity of the ecosystem, as it leads to roads, cattle pastures and the destruction of habitat.

“We’re trying to give the poor campesinos [peasants] more than they have now,” Hansen said. “Every country needs wood and wood products. But the issue here is the potential for far greater economic benefits than can be generated [by logging]. There is a model that will work, and is far more lucrative economically, and has far better conservation results than anything in place now. It will need to be done right. If the area is declared a roadless wilderness, then tourists will be obligated to travel to the local communities rather than fly or drive directly to the sites. They will buy local artisan products, sandwiches, soft drinks and beers, and sleep in local microhotels, and hire local guides, cooks, mules, and rent local mountain bikes. The economic pie would get spread among the communities.”

He supports those uses of the El Mirador forest that are sustainable, such as the harvesting of renewable plant products: allspice; xate, the Chamaedorea palm leaves used in floral arrangements; bayal, for wicker baskets; and chicle, for chewing gum.

And, of course, he supports archaeology, which has already pumped millions of dollars into the local communities of the Petén, as the region is called. Some of the guards Hansen has hired are former looters. Most of the workers hired to help excavate the ancient cities participate in literacy classes run by the Mirador Basin Project, which has also provided local schools with computers and computer training, helped install water-purification filters in villages and trained local residents to be guides. The future of the basin ultimately depends on the local people and communities.

My last evening in El Mirador I stopped in the forest not far from the Jaguar Paw Temple, where Hansen had his potsherd epiphany. It was unsettling to think how thoroughly the Preclassic capital of the Maya and hundreds of thousands of people had been silenced by time and rampant nature. The sun was hurrying away, darkness rising. Ocellated turkeys were ascending to the trees for the night, their wings laboring against the plush air. Red-eyed tree frogs were beginning to sing. Curassow birds fussed in the canopies. You could hear the cool interjections of a spectacled owl; cicadas droning; the croak of toucans; lineated woodpeckers running their jackhammers; the grunts of spider monkeys and the fantastic aspirated roar of howler monkeys, which seemed to cross the basso profundo of an African lion with the sound of metal grinding on a lathe. It always amazes me how unsentimental nature is, resoundingly here now, unbound by the past apart from what is secretly conserved in genes. It’s left to us to listen for voices that can’t be heard, to imagine the dead in that note between the notes, as in those moments when the jungle cacophony dies away and the almost-audible strains of the underworld echo in the stillness and silence of the night, until the clamor of the living starts up again.

Chip Brown is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and the author of two nonfiction books. Photojournalist Christian Ziegler specializes in science and nature subjects.


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