Helicopter trip to El Mirador in the heart of the Guatemalan jungle

Nature
The wow factor for nature - does it show nature at its best? Doesn't need to be the wilder-beast migration or diving with hundreds of hammerheads. Rather make you pause as you realise just how awesome the natural world can be
7
Culture
How much does this experience showcase some of the better and finer things that us humans can offer? Sure, it can be ancient ruins and renaissance churches, but it can also be festivals or soaking up some of the great modern cities of the world
8
Fun factor/activity
Very simple - was it fun? This is usually linked in with doing some kind of activity - i mean, walking along some cliffs is nice, but paragliding from them, now that is fun. Its a vastly underrated factor in a truly great experience
9
Avoid the crowds
Big tour groups and being surrounded by loud fellow tourists can sap the life out of even the greatest of travel experiences. This score is to reflect just how much you can avoid this. But. . . The score also takes into account if the crowds actually add to the experience, such as with a party town or a bustling food market
10
World famous
How world famous is the experience?
1
unique
How hard is it to have a similar experience in other places round the world?
10
Overall Score
The highest score of nature or culture, + fun factor, + avoid the crowds, + the highest score of world famous or unique. Then turned into a score out of 100. More details at the bottom of the page
92 *What the scores mean and where do they come from
continent
North America
country
Guatemala
Length of time
1 day or less
Rough cost
Obviously people have different tastes, so this will depend on those tastes, but this is a rough idea of price of the whole experience based on 2 people able to split the accommodation costs and excluding travel there and back
$ 800
Time of year visited
June
Primary Tags
Click on any of the tags to see all travel experiences with the same tag
RANKING
How this travel experience ranks compared to all the other experiences on this site
3rd/359 This travel experience's ranking compared to all the other experiences on this site
Top 1% SUMMARY RATING: The best of the best

Summary

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

highlights

#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

Background

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

Rough itinerary

  • 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

Travel Tips

  • 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!)

Experiences nearby

The below map shows experiences nearby with a colour that reflect the Overall Score of those experiences

Score Detail

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