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Explore Guatemala's ancient Maya metropolis before the crowds come  Dec 14, 2008

Buried beneath deep jungle growth in Guatemala's northern reaches, the ancient Maya metropolis of El Mirador is worth the walking. And walking, and walking some more.

Go now for the rare chance to experience lush tropical forest and have the ancient city — more and more of which is being uncovered by archeologists every year — largely to yourself. Soon, both the wilderness and the solitude may be harder to come by.

El Mirador owes its extraordinary state of preservation to its remoteness. About 50 miles from the nearest road, a stone's throw from Mexico, the region is approachable today only by a trek or by helicopter.

But if a coalition of environmentalists, corporate leaders and politicians has its way, it will soon be a tourist destination, complete with a narrow-gauge train to carry visitors there. The group touts large-scale tourism as the only way to stop illegal logging and encroachment by farmers and ranchers, which has reduced the jungle by 13 percent over the past 21 years.

"The old idea of leaving the forest pretty and green because it's got orchids and monkeys and parrots . . . — and in the states we get this romantic vision of this — it won't work," said archaeologist Richard Hansen, director of the Mirador Basin Project and head archaeologist at the site. "Because here's a guy, with a little family, they're starving to death, the kids are hungry, they're crying, and what is he going to do? He's going to go out, he's going to do whatever it takes to feed his family. . . . in this case, it's cutting the forest."

Hansen said the region needs an "economic justification to save the forest."

"These cities are crucial to that," he said. "Our bet is that people will come to see this.'' He hopes that in a few years, tourists will number in the tens of thousands, as opposed to the current trickle of hikers and celebrities who arrive by helicopter at a cost of up to $1,000 per seat. His many influential supporters include Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom and Hollywood celebrities like Mel Gibson.

Locals and experts are debating how increased tourism will shape economic development in nearby communities. Hansen wants tourism to replace all logging, sustainable or not, in the archaeologically rich area around El Mirador. He said ''the fact this has been opened up for logging is the equivalent of using the Grand Canyon as a landfill for Los Angeles" and that earnings from tourism for local communities will far surpass logging income.

His foundation has raised money to rent land from local cooperatives in order to prevent most logging.

Environmentalists who have spent more than a decade developing the sustainable forestry model argue that paying people not to log will undermine years of work teaching people how to use forest resources responsibly.

In the 1990s, the Guatemalan government granted local towns the right to sustainably harvest wood and plants from certain areas in exchange for the opportunity to patrol those tracts of jungle. Many communities developed successful logging cooperatives, but some allowed their areas to be razed.

Regardless of how the tourism plan turns out, there is still time to explore the region the old-fashioned way: on foot and by pack mule.

60 percent mental

Before I set off on the two-day jungle trek, Josué Guzmán, a young archaeologist who also was headed there, warned that the trip would be 60 percent mental, 40 percent physical. After several hours on muddy, hoof-pocked trails, his meaning became obvious.

The mud sucked at our feet and threatened to pull our boots off. Conversation dwindled. Darkness fell in the remote wilderness. We pressed on with our head lamps, this time to Guzman's quiet mantra, "one hour more," arriving at our bare-bones campsite long after dark. After another, thankfully drier day of walking, we arrived at our destination.

After two days in the jungle, El Mirador felt surprisingly urban, even for an abandoned city. Tents occupied the base of the ancient stone-and-lime architecture, with nearby open-air kitchens serving a steady diet of beans, rice and tortillas. The jungle that once fully laid claim to this place has been subtly manicured by the legions of workers and archaeologists who make this their temporary home each year.

During the day, workers from surrounding communities steadily picked, shoveled and brushed away dirt at excavation pits cut into buildings so thick with overgrowth that they look like hillsides. You can go from one pit to the next and watch as archaeologists uncover everything from giant masks on the sides of temples to household pottery left when the last families took flight.

The largest pyramid, La Danta, exceeds even the pyramids of Egypt in volume, Hansen said. A climb to the top of the mountainlike edifice offers views of unbroken jungle canopy gently rising over the peaks of pyramids in other Mayan cities.

The Maya here were gifted engineers and artists. Along the canals where rainwater collected — the only source of water in a region without lakes or streams — intricate reliefs demonstrate the culture's dedication to public art even on utilitarian structures.

The Maya here also left behind free-standing carved reliefs honoring dynastic leaders and, a thousand years later, codex-style ceramics covered with finely wrought hieroglyphs and drawings of mythological scenes.

Today, technology at El Mirador juxtaposes the modern with the ancient. To store enough rainwater for the dig season, workers have built underground reservoirs based on ancient Mayan water systems.

At the same time, satellite Internet keeps archaeologists connected to the outside world. Visitors can see ancient burial tunnels and towering twin pyramids, the taller one rising 230 feet above the jungle floor.

At a temple known as Structure 34, masks symbolizing the king Great Fiery Jaguar Paw flank huge, curving white steps. Underneath the stairs, archaeologists have tunneled to reveal an earlier facade also decorated with masks whose intricate red-and-black paint hints at the original colors of the city.

While the monumental structures bear the glyphs and insignia of kings and deities, they also reveal the traces of the daily lives of common people. Archaeologists are excavating neighborhoods where families lived for centuries and often built new houses on top of the old, until the city's final abandonment around 900.

A piece of the puzzle

Archaeologists for decades have been trying to piece together how and why the Maya collapsed. El Mirador's contribution to the debate is that it pushes back the origin of the Maya several hundred years before what had once been assumed to be the society's peak. Now it's becoming clear that Maya civilization ebbed and flowed several times over more than 1,200 years.

After three days at El Mirador, I was loathe to leave. Riding a mule over the ancient causeway on the way out to give my aching feet a rest, I considered the contradictions. This is a story of a metropolis that for centuries struggled for dominance with the surrounding forest. Now both are endangered by human development.

A train may make El Mirador easier to reach some day, but there's nothing like walking in on your own two feet.

Explore Guatemala's ancient Maya metropolis before the crowds come
El Mirador / Image via

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