Helicopter trip to El Mirador in the heart of the Guatemalan jungle
Ok so this is was cool. For many travelling through Central America, seeing glimpses of the ancient Mayan civilisation is one of the highlights of their trip. These glimpses tend to focus on the Classical Mayan Period, such as those at the world famous Tikal. But . . . seeing El Mirador will allow you to see not only the largest cluster of buildings from any Mayan site, but also to see the PRE-Classical period and have the place largely to yourself
There is a 5 day trek to get there, but if short on time, want to see from the air and, like us, had never been in a helicopter, take the helicopter flight for a unique experience
#1 Seeing the ancient pre-Classical Mayan Ruins almost all to yourself. In this case the magically situated El Tigre
#2 Helicopter ride over the dense Guatemalan jungle and a fantastic view over the other-worldly pyramids of El Tigre and the La Danta
#3 Climbing up to the top of La Danta, the most massive pyramid complex in the world and being in amazed when you realise just how big the base is
#4 Wandering through the dense jungle - far, far away from any recent human development, so almost completely untouched
#5 Being in awe imagining the vast city around you . . . and why it collapsed
#6 As the area is still being excavated, you get to have access to the ancient sites as they are being unearthed and discovered. Very cool
To give a bit of context to this fascinating place and the area around it:
- El Mirador was one of the city states that made up the Mayan “empire”, but it was at its height (600BC – 100AD) far before the classic Mayan period (150AD – 900AD) of the more famous sites such as Tikal
- It collapsed primarily due to the sheer pressure the early Mayans put on the environment – they chopped and burned so many trees to produce mortar for their huge building works that this in turn led to deforestation and a chronic shortage of water
- The sheer scale is vast. Just one of the pyramid complexes, La Danta, is 72 metres tall, but the platforms it is built on blows the mind – the bottom one is 180,000 square metres and 2.8 million cubic metres, making it the biggest pyramid structure in the world. And there are multiple pyramid complexes – we visited another 3 which were slightly smaller, but at the same scale.
- El Mirador was first discovered in 1926, but the remoteness meant detailed investigation only started in 1978 and thorough promotion to the outside world in 2003. Whilst there was no one there when we visited, a team of 300 archaeologists arrived in a week to crank up the excavation .
- Because of just how recent the discovery is and that many of the sites are still to be excavated, no one has really heard of this place. Look at top lists of archaeological sites, even top Mayan sites and you won’t see it there. I suspect that will change as people realise what a spectacular place it is
- Check in for the helicopter at Flores airport at around 8am
- Roughly 50mins to El Mirador (around 70km to the north)
- Spend roughly 5 hours at the site, including visiting the major pyramids and having a packed lunch
- Return to Flores
- We booked everything through elmiradorhelicoptertours.com and they were fab – very clear instructions, good lunch and the guide Noah was fantastic
- The archaeologists – they arrive around the start of the July and stay for the Summer. Because the site is so vast, I doubt having them there would reduce the enjoyment of the place
- Wandering – it won’t be hard as there are so few people there, but do make sure to get some time to explore on your own – we found checking out the Tiger Pyramid by ourselves a great experience
- Helicopter – see if can get the front seat of the helicopter for a great view!
- Bring lots of mosquito repellent!
- Visit Tikal, or another excavated Mayan site, first to get a feel for what the pyramids yet to be excavated would have looked like. Bear in mind that El Mirador was only relatively recently brought into the global view and was from the Pre-Classical period rather than the later Classical Period like Tikal
- To get an idea of scale – look at the sign next to The Tapir Pyramid showing a representation of what it looked like. It is then that you realise that the hills you’ve been climbing were all built as part of the vast pyramid base … mind blown
- We stayed at the Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel just outside of Flores and it was fantastic
- Books – I’d strongly suggest if any interest in Pre-Columbian American civilisations, to read 1491 by Charles Mann. It gives an insight into what these civilisations were like before Europeans arrive and just how impressive they were.
- Movies – the Apocolyto movie isn’t a bad attempt at what it must have been like back in the Classical Mayan days (although ignore the arrival of Europeans at the end!)
The below map shows experiences nearby with a colour that reflect the Overall Score of those experiences
Other Jungle Adventures around the world
Background - how many times have you asked someone what a travel experience was like and the response was "amazing" or "awesome"? That response is nice to know, but it makes it hard to differentiate that experience compared to others. That is exactly what these scores are trying to do - differentiate the experience by giving a score out of 10 based on 6 categories and then giving an overall experience score
This overall experience score is calculated by: take the highest of the "Culture" or "Nature" score (1-10) + "Fun factor" (1-10) + "Avoiding the crowds" (1-10) + highest of the "Unique" or "World Famous score" (1-10). Then convert into a score out of 100
Extra detail - the logic being that I find all of the 6 individual scores important, but I don't want to mark an experience down just because it doesn't cover both "Culture" and "Nature", or because it isn't both "World Famous" and "Unique". Take the examples of Safari in The Serengeti and walking through Rome - they both appeal at opposite ends of the nature / culture spectrum, and you can have a fantastic time without needing to appeal to both sides. So, their overall scores aren't penalized for their lack of one or the other, and I've done the same for "World Famous" vs "Unique". But . . . I do think that the "Fun factor" of an experience is important, irrelevant of other factors, and so is "Avoiding the Crowds" (or where there are crowds that add to the experience). So, both of these scores are standalone
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