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"El Tigre Complex", in El Mirador

El Mirador is a large pre-Columbian Mayan settlement, located in the north of the modern department of El Petén, Guatemala.



El Mirador was first discovered in 1926, and was photographed from the air in 1930, but the remote site deep in the jungle had little more attention paid to it until Ian Graham spent some time there making the first map of the area in 1962. A detailed investigation was begun in 1978 with an archaeological project under the direction of Dr. Bruce Dahlin (Catholic University of America) and Dr. Ray Matheny (Brigham Young University). Dahlin's work focused primarily on the bajo swamps and mapping, while Matheny's team focused primarily on excavations in the site center and architecture. This project ended in 1983. To the surprise of the archaeologists, it was found that a large amount of construction was not contemporary with the large Maya classic cities in the area, like Tikal and Uaxactun, but rather from centuries earlier in the Pre-Classic era (see: Mesoamerican chronology).

In 2003, Dr. Richard D. Hansen, a Senior Scientist from Idaho State University, initiated major investigation, stabilization, and conservation programs at El Mirador with a multi-disciplinary approach, including staff and technical personnel from 52 universities and research institutions from throughout the world. By August 2008, the team had published 168 scientific papers, and produced 474 technical reports and scientific presentations as well as documentary films in the History Channel, National Geographic, the Learning Channel, BBC, ABC's 20/20 and Good Morning America, 60 Minutes (Australia), and the Discovery Channel.


El Mirador flourished from about the 6th century BCE, reaching its height from the 3rd century BCE to the 1st century CE, with a peak population of perhaps more than a hundred thousand people, judging by the size and extent of the labor pool required to build the massive constructions. It then experienced a hiatus of construction and perhaps abandonment for generations, followed by re-occupation and further construction in the Late Classic era, and a final abandonment about the end of the 9th century. The civic center of the site covers some 10 square miles (26 km²) with several thousand structures, including monumental architecture from 10 to 30 meters high.

There are a number of "triadic" structures (around 35 structures), consisting of large artificial platforms topped with a set of 3 summit pyramids. The most notable such structures are three huge complexes; one is nicknamed "El Tigre", with height 55 metres (180 ft); the other is called "La Danta" (or Danta) temple. The La Danta temple measures approximately 70 metres (230 ft) tall from the forest floor,[1] and considering its total volume (2,800,000 cubic meters) is one of the largest pyramids in the world.[2] When the large man-made platform that the temple is built upon (some 18,000 square meters) is included in calculations, La Danta is considered by some archeologists to be one of the most massive ancient structures in the world. Also the "Los Monos" complex is very large (48 meters high) although not as well known. Most of the structures were originally faced with cut stone which was then decorated with large stucco masks depicting the deities of Maya mythology. According to Carlos Morales-Aguilar, a Guatemalan archaeologist, the city appears to have been planned from its foundation, as extraordinary alignments have been found between the architectural groups and main temples, which were possibly related to solar alignments. The study reflects an importance of urban planning and sacred spaces since the first settlers.

An additional feature of El Mirador is the quantity and size of causeways, internally linking important architectural compounds, and externally linking the numerous major ancient cities within the Mirador Basin during the latter part of the Middle Preclassic and Late Preclassic periods. The causeways were known anciently as sacbeob (the plural form of sacbe, meaning "white road" in Mayan, from sac "white" and be "road"). These are raised stone causeways raising 2 to 6 meters above the level of the surrounding landscape and measuring from 20 to 50 meters wide. One sacbe links El Mirador to the neighbouring site of Nakbe, approximately 12 km away, while another joined El Mirador to El Tintal, 20 km away.

While the city and the sister centers of the Mirador Basin thrived between 300 BCE and the Common Era (CE), apparently, the site was abandoned, as were nearly all other major sites in the area, by about 150 CE. A large wall, which must have been as high as 3 to 8 meters, had been constructed on the entire northern, eastern, and southern portions of the West Group of the city prior to its abandonment in the terminal Preclassic period, suggesting a possible threat that had been perceived by this time.

In the Late Classic period, ca 700 CE, portions of the site were reoccupied by a more modest occupation, with small structures nestled among the ruins of the great Preclassic center. The largest structure from this time period is scarcely more than 8 meters high, and many of the Preclassic building were plundered for stone materials for construction and lime making. The Late Classic occupants however, were noted scribes and artists. The area of the Mirador Basin is the only known source of the "Codex-style Ceramics", a particularly fine polychrome ceramic consisting of black line drawings on a cream colored background. The Late Classic occupation was brief, and by about 900 CE, the area was again nearly completely abandoned, and remains so until the present time.


Dr. Richard D. Hansen, an archaeologist from Idaho State University, is the current director of the Mirador Basin Project, and according to his discoveries here, he thinks that the more than 45 mapped sites in the Mirador Basin may have formed the earliest well-defined political state in Mesoamerica.

Although containing striking examples of Preclassic Maya civilization, the remote location of El Mirador has prevented it from becoming a popular tourist site. Major plans by the current government of Guatemala are including El Mirador as an important center of the Cuatro Balam Conservation and Development project.

Threats to Mirador

This large concentration of Preclassic Maya cities in Mesoamerica is threatened by massive deforestation, looting, and destruction caused by equipment used in logging road construction, which itself facilitates intrusive settlements.[3]

The Mirador Basin in the far northern Petén region of Guatemala is known for its abundance of sites, many of which are among the largest and earliest in the Maya world. Of 26 known sites, only 14 have been studied; an estimated 30 more await discovery. By the time scholars get there, looters may already have plundered them.

Trafficking in Maya artifacts is big business. George Stuart of the National Geographic Society has suggested that 1,000 pieces of fine pottery leave the Maya region each month, not an unreasonable estimate in light of the site damage observed. The most sought-after finds are codex-style ceramics, Late Classic (600-900 CE) black-line-on-cream pottery depicting mythological and historical events. Looters are often paid between $200 and $500 per vessel. Collectors may pay more than $100,000 for the same pieces in a gallery or at auction. At even minimal prices this amounts to a $10-million-a-month business in stolen cultural property. Collecting Precolumbian art is often viewed as a justifiable means of preserving the past. It is, in fact, a destructive and sometimes violent business, as attested by the recent assassination in Carmelita of Carlos Catalán, a local chiclero who had become a staunch opponent of looting in Petén.[4]

See also


  1. ^ Sharer & Traxler 2006, p.253.
  2. ^ National Geographic Channel - Dawn of the Maya
  3. ^ Archaeology Magazine - Under Threat, January/February 2009
  4. ^ Archaeology Magazine. Plundering the Petén, September/October 1997 by Richard D. Hansen


Grainger, Sarah; [Reuters India] (3 September 2009). "Guatemala Mayan city may have ended in pyramid battle" (online edition). World News (Thomson Reuters). Retrieved 2009-09-04.  
Sharer, Robert J.; with Loa p. Traxler (2006). The Ancient Maya (6th (fully revised) ed.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-4817-9. OCLC 57577446.  

External links

Coordinates: 17°45′18.18″N 89°55′13.55″W / 17.75505°N 89.9204306°W / 17.75505; -89.9204306

Travel guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikitravel

El Mirador is a large site of Mayan ruins in the Petén region of Guatemala.


The reasons that El Mirador is not swamped with tourists are its inaccessibility and, although a lot of work being done here, most of this huge site involves many unrestored mounds and pyramids in the jungle. Structure 34 is an exception, where some interesting figures were unearthed and an entire wall has been laid bare. Danta is another exception, where work to stabilize it was done. Once a person has hiked to the top of El Tigre, the view that awaits is mostly of jungle and other ruins, such as Calakmul and Nakbé in the distance. However, any mound or group of mounds that you can see as far to the horizon are former cities. It is the idea of lost cities the jungle that brings people to see it.

Because of serious ongoing work, this site will become more and more visibly intriguing as time goes on.


El Mirador flourished as a trading center from around 200 BCE to 150 CE during the Maya Pre-Classic Period. With a population as high as 80,000, it was one of the first large cities in North America. In the mid second century CE the entire Mirador Basin with its numerous other cities and villages became rapidly depopulated. There is little evidence of a population until there was a modest one in the Late Classic Period, and there is no permanent population today.

On April 18th, 2002, President Alfonso Portillo signed legislation, which established the Mirador Basin National Monument as a Special Archaeological Zone. This is intended to provide for the permanent protection of 600,000 acres of tropical rainforest in this area, which surrounds the oldest and largest Maya archaeological sites in Mesoamerica. The Mirador Basin National Monument is designed as a wilderness preserve without roads.

However, events of 2005 in Guatemala have pitted ranching and logging interests against this effort. Even some locals who do not see how tourism in the area will benefit them yet are in favor of what will result in roads, short term logging, non-sustainable swidden agriculture and ranches where once there was rain forest. See


It's not a rain forest for at least half of the year. However, there are are a good number of bajos en route that are muddy through much of the year.

Flora and fauna

Animals and insects were surprisingly sparse in January, but were fairly common in an earlier July trip. It is very dry for enough of the year to make survival a problem. You will most likely hear birds, but may see them from time to time. There are some monkeys, both howler and spider. The area has some interesting butterflies, spiders and an occasional snake.


Tropical, but it will get cool toward morning. In December and January, you will be glad that your guide brought blankets for sleeping on your solid cloth hammock. You will enjoy a hot drink in the morning year around.

Getting in

Virtually all trips in go via the village of Carmelita, but these can be arranged in Flores or Santa Elena.

Go via mule train with a guide. The wetter it is, the better it is to also pay for another mule for riding. The driest months are March and April.

Travel lightly. Only bring a large ribbed backpack if you plan to carry it yourself all day. Your duffel or soft bodied backpack should be small enough to easily be of such a size that it could be a legal carry on if you took it onto an airline.

Many agencies in Flores and Santa Elena can arrange it for you and this will include transportation to Carmelita and back. Generally speaking, the more people in the group, the cheaper it is per person. At present, the least expensive place to arrange a trip is Hostel Los Amigos [1].

Anothr possibility is to deal directly with people in Carmelita. To arrange directly instead of through some agency, after calling in Spanish and arranging your trip ahead of time, you would take the afternoon bus to Carmelita the day before departure, then stay in the inexpensive and basic rooms behind the comedor. In the morning you would have an early start and there would be no rush to get back your final trip day, because you would be taking the bus back to Flores the next morning.

If you are a keen hiker, it is also possible to walk there on your own. For a short description of the hike see i.e. [2].


Effective July 20th, 2007, officially there has been a 60Q entry fee per visitor mandated.

Get around

It is best to do this trip with a sixth day to see Nakbé, which is 3 1/2 to 4 hours away and just a bit closer to Carmelita. Much of the route there will take you along an ancient causeway, which you can still see the edges of. Going this route also makes you head back in such a way that you will travel through more lost cities along your way back to Carmelita. If you are smart, you will make sure that the extra day includes a short detour to the ruins of Wakná, where work has just begun.


The city's main group of buildings covers two square kilometers and many were built on a grand scale. The largest pyramid at El Mirador, El Tigre, has six times the surface area as Temple IV at Tikal and is 55 meters tall.

The Danta Complex is about 300 meters wide on each side of the bottom base, which is 7 meters high and supports a series of buildings. The next and smaller platform rises another 7 meters. Above that is another platform around 21 meters high, which is topped off by three pyramids, the tallest of which is 21 meters high. The total height is 70 meters, making it taller than Temple IV at Tikal.


Current tours also can involve visiting Nakbé and will take longer than seeing just the one site. They require stamina and involve riding horses (or more often mules) or walking for around 27-30 hours over the course of five days. Saddle horses or mules are good to have along, but if you are not going in the rainy season, you will probably alternate walking with riding and may want to share a ride among two of you. Given a choice of horse and mule, keep in mind that the mule is far more likely to obey your reined demands to avoid scraping you against some thorny tree on a trip.


Buy what you need beforehand. The guards at any Guatemalan ruin rotate in for 40 days at a time, so consider buying and bringing "items" for them. Food treats or adult beverages would be enjoyed.

Be sure to bring and use DEET. Also spray pants legs and sox with Permethrin.


Food is included in any outfitted trip to El Mirador, but protein may be in short supply for most meals. Bring snacks and granola bars.


BYO, except for water. Great tips to bring for the guards at El Mirador are whiskey or rum.

On cool mornings, unless you really like instant coffee every day, hot chocolate or latte mixes will hit the spot.


Hammocks, mosquito nets and blanket provided. If rain is possible, your guide should put a tarp overhead.


Hammocks with mosquito netting and a blanket (included in all trips) are great. Apparently there is an actual building where bigwigs can stay on arrival. Can a basic hotel be far behind?


Any trip with a guide includes solid cloth hammocks, mosquito netting and a blanket. If it is winter in the Northern Hemisphere, you might enjoy a light sweater to sleep in.

Any time of year you are likely to enjoy a hot drink in the morning. Hint - a chai latte from a powder mix tastes wonderful there, but you need to bring it.

Stay safe

The last thing that anyone connected with these trips wants is for anything bad to happen to travelers. The local economy depends on good trips happening. Cooks are very careful to cook in such a way that no one gets sick and I think that thieves would receive a cold and dangerous reception there.


Always have a flashlight handy when leaving your hammock in the dark. Just going a little way to urinate might turn you around. A very small one that you always keep in the same pocket is good for this.

Probably the best flashlight you can have in the evening is one you can wear on your head. Just don't point it so it is in people's eyes.

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