Do you know the feeling that you have experienced something special and would like to tell about it but just don’t know where to start? It took me a long time to get my visit to El Mirador in Guatemala down on paper, because this trip is so unique. El Mirador is a former Maya city, located deep in the jungle of Guatemala. It must have been the biggest city in the Mayan empire with the largest temple (72 meters) ever built by the Mayans. The city has been completely taken over by nature, and can only be reached by helicopter or multi-day trip, where you spend the night in a tent in the jungle. In this article you’ll read all about my visit to El Mirador, with many practical tips for the El Mirador Guatemala trek and helicopter tour, including the best time to travel and a packing list.
- Day 1: Flores – Nakbe – El Mirador
- Day 2: El Mirador
- Day 3 : La Muerta & El Mirador
- Day 4: In search of the jaguar and return flight
- Departure city: Flores
- El Mirador Guatemala trek tour
- El Mirador helicopter tour
- A combined El Mirador Guatemala trek & helicopter tour
- Food and drinks along the way
- Range and electricity
- El Mirador Guatemala trek – packing list
- Best travel time El Mirador Guatemala trek and helicopter tour
- About Tikal Go
The trek to El Mirador in Guatemala
Several times I visited Maya cities like Tikal and Yaxha. The El Mirador Guatemala trek was a tour that had been on my wish list for years. To follow in the footsteps of the Mayans and live completely isolated from the outside world. How fantastic that must be! Since I had already been on several trips with boutique agency Tikal Go, there was no choice but to do this unique trip with them. Besides, there are only a few agencies that are allowed to offer this tour. After some back and forward, a customized program came out, something Tikal Go is known for. The plan: A combination of the El Mirador Guatemala trek and helicopter tour, with an additional visit to former Mayan city Nakbe. In other words, 4 days of hiking, 3 nights sleeping in the jungle, visiting three archaeological sites and two helicopter tours. I couldn’t wait!
Day 1: Flores – Nakbe – El Mirador
The helicopter flight
At 8 am we are picked up at our hotel. At 8.30 am we are expected at the helicopter platform. Here we meet the pilot and guide Cesar who will accompany us the next few days during our jungle adventure. Everyone is busy packing and the helicopter gets a final check before departure. I notice that I am a bit nervous but I am so looking forward.
Take-off is always a little weird. It is accompanied by a deafening noise and the helicopter shakes on all sides. But you soon get used to the feeling. Once in the air, you really realize you are in a helicopter. Through the windows in front of you and below, you have a good view of the surroundings. First we fly over Lago Petén Itzá and you see the city of Flores, the peninsula on the lake.
Then the landscape changes and you see how green the area is. Everywhere, left, right, in front and behind you, you can see tropical rainforest, with countless colors of green. And that for miles. It is truly special to experience this area from the air. After flying for about half an hour, our guide points out a green hill. That is the temple of the former Maya city of Nakbe. Most temples in this region are all still under vegetation and this is clearly visible from the air. We fly around it for a half circle before we start the descent.
There is a small plain where we land and it feels a bit like dropping. It is, in fact, the middle-of-nowhere where we end up. We find ourselves in the former Mayan city of Nakbe, which has been completely taken over by the jungle of Guatemala.
The helicopter leaves and we are left behind. After a short walk, we encounter a ranger. In fact, a small group of rangers and researchers live on Nakbe to do research. They live and work here in shifts of 30 days. I find it fascinating. How special it must be to live and do research in the jungle for 30 days. Although, of course, it is not always easy for these people. It soon turns out that we are the only tourists. El Mirador is already an off the beaten track destination in Guatemala, but Nakbe is not at all on the tourist route.
Guided tour through Nakbe
We get a tour of about 2 hours through the complex. You have to let your imagination run wild because very little has been excavated. But that’s exactly what makes a visit unique. The guide and rangers show us numerous ancient shards of Maya pottery. In places like Tikal and Yaxha, this is quiet rare, but here it is really full of them. I can hardly believe it. Finally we climb the 45 meter high temple that we have seen from the air. The view is amazing!
Nakbe is one of the oldest cities in the region and was inhabited in the pre-classical period, around 1200 BC. The former Mayan city is located about 13 kilometers south of El Mirador. And from the 45-meter-high temple, you can already see El Mirador’s La Danta temple. Nakbe was an important place for the Maya, because of the large quarry system of limestone. The basis for the construction of the many great temples. The first excavations of Nakbe began in 1960 where much research was done on the use of material and the way of building. Still large parts lie under the vegetation and archaeologists, led by the American Richard Hansen, work hard for many months a year. The site is still visited by few people and most of the people you meet here are archaeologists and researchers.
La Danta – the highest temple of El Mirador Guatemala
The guide points out a mountain very much in the distance. That is La Danta, he tells us. And that is where we are walking to this afternoon. La Danta is the most important temple in the Maya city of El Mirador Guatemala and also the highest that was ever built by the Mayans, 72 meters high. My travel partner and I are both a little startled by it. It looks really far away and I can’t imagine that we will actually cover this distance on foot today.
Mayan highway during the El Mirador Guatemala trek
The guide also tells us that if you look closely you can see a difference in height and color. That is the former Maya highway and the route we will walk. If all goes well we will reach El Mirador in 4 to 5 hours, our base for the next few days. After lunch we start the hike. It is not raining and because most of the trail is in the dense tropical rainforest, sheltered from the sun, the temperature is pleasant. Moreover, it is a flat road, without ascents and descents. Occasionally we walk through a piece of swamp, which is a bit of a struggle because of the swampiness. But the rest of the hike is doable.
The hike – El Mirador Guatemala trek
Along the way we learn all kinds of things. We are told that the Maya used to cut down a lot of land for agriculture. The narrow path we are now walking on used to be a wide highway made of white rock. If you dig, you will also find white stone remains. Also, the little mountains that the ants create are white in some places. Very interesting to see. We see numerous birds and walk past several groups of monkeys. It is clear that these monkeys are much less used to people. In some places we are really attacked with branches. Around 5:30 pm we approach the campsite of El Mirador.
The campsite is situated in the middle of the jungle, on the outskirts of the former Maya city El Mirador. There is a small plain surrounded by a number of wooden structures, where the organizations have their base camp. Mules are resting from their trek with the hikers and jungle pheasants (great curassow) are bustling around, looking for food. There are guides and cooks at work and some hikers taking some time to relax. Due to its difficult accessibility, few people visit El Mirador in Guatemala and therefore it is very quiet.
The facilities are anything but luxurious, but what else do you expect deep in the jungle. However, there are good tents with mattresses and blankets, under a roof, sheltered in case it rains. There is a real toilet and a place to wash yourself. Meaning: there are jerry cans with water that you can throw over yourself. Because you are sweaty at the end of the day, it is nice to be able to rinse off with fresh water. There is a communal table near the kitchen where the various meals are prepared for you and all the locals get together for a chat or a nap in the hammock. Very cozy, especially in the evening when everyone talks about the adventures of the day. Even though it is all very simple, I find it more than fine. Where in the world can you sleep in a former Mayan city?
Sunset in El Tigre
The beauty of the campsite is that you are less than 5 minutes away from the Mayan temple El Tigre. El Tigre means tiger and is a 55 meter high Mayan temple. The climb up is therefore a bit tough. In the time of the Maya, people had to bow down deeply to the priests in this way, who held their ceremonies here. Once at the top you have a 360 degree view of the surroundings. The green jungle, the colors in the sky, the countless dragonflies flying around and the ultimate tranquility. It is beautiful. In the distance, right in front of El Tigre, you look out on the 72 meter high temple La Danta. And when the sun rises or sets, you experience magical moments. I feel honored that I can call this place my home for the next few days.
In the evening, my attention is drawn to shimmering lights. Those are the eyes of the wolf spider. There are really hundreds of them around me and I only dare to walk around with closed shoes. Anyway recommended of course!
Day 2: El Mirador
Sunrise El Tigre
The next morning we leave early, at 5 am. We walk with a flashlight on our heads to El Tigre to watch the sunrise from here. The sun rises from behind La Danta. It is again a tough climb up but by now we are a bit more used to it. From the top of the temple you can see the jungle really wake up. Bats gradually stop flying and dragonflies take their place. Howler monkeys wake up and make a sound that makes you think it is a lion family. And a beautiful glow emerges over the green jungle. And also the view of La Danta is once again stunning.
Tour through el Mirador Guatemala
After breakfast our tour through El Mirador in Guatemala begins. Our guide leads us along various temples. It is very clear that here people are still working hard on research and excavations. We learn that it is important to cover parts of the temples when they are excavated, otherwise they will fall apart because of the rain. After all, they have been under the vegetation for so long. Numerous hieroglyphs have been excavated in the area of the acropolis, with so much to tell and learn about. Very impressive. We walk for quite a few hours, trying to absorb the information as much as possible and stopping frequently along the way to observe the numerous monkey families.
El Mirador is an archaeological site, located deep in the jungle, near the border with Mexico. It was inhabited, in the pre-classical period, between 800 BC and 150 AD, with over 100,000 inhabitants. Something that was a lot at the time. El Mirador was the largest city in the Maya world with over 850 structures. Temple El Tigre (55 meters high) and temple La Danta (72 meters high) are therefore among the largest structures of the Mayan empire. The complex was discovered from the air in 1930. In 1960 the first investigations began, but only a very small part has been excavated. The difficult access, climatic conditions (no work can be done in the rainy season) and lack of funds make this quite a task. American researcher Richard Hansen leads the investigations and can be found here himself for large parts of the year.
La Danta sunset
The afternoon is dedicated to La Danta. After a well-deserved lunch we walk in about 30 minutes to the famous temple, to watch the sunset from here. The sun now sets on the side of El Tigre, the temple we have already visited twice. This too is a tough climb up. This is because the temple consists of several platforms, each of which provides a new rise. The last part is via a wooden staircase, where we run into a large family of coatis. Once at the top, we turn out to be alone. Alone on a Maya temple in the jungle. How unique is that! In the dark we walk back to the campsite and the first full day at El Mirador is over.
La Danta, with its height of 72 meters and volume of 2,800,000 cubic meters, is the largest pyramid in the world. The pyramids consist of different levels and platforms. Characteristic of these pyramids are the triadic temple structures, where there is always one large and two small temples facing each other on the upper platform.
Day 3 : La Muerta & El Mirador
Since it is a bit foggy this morning, we decide not to do a sunrise but sleep a bit longer (until 7 am). After a breakfast we start our hike to La Muerta, about a 2 hour walk from El Mirador Guatemala. La Muerta is a small complex with a number of tunnels. Here you can really see how the jungle has taken over the complex. A gigantic tree has completely grown over the structure.
We walk, via La Danta to make beautiful pictures in daylight, back to the base camp to again watch the sunset from El Tigre. And the view is different every day. Today we see a beautiful rainbow. The nice thing about staying at the same place for a longer period of time is that you have this opportunity. As often as you want. So the big question of the day is always, where are we going to watch the sunrise and where are we going to watch the sunset? If that are your biggest problems on a daily base, life would be so easy.
Day 4: In search of the jaguar and return flight
For a few nights now we have been sleeping at the campsite. Hikers come and go but many guides stay here for weeks and sometimes even months to welcome tourists and show them around. And everyone is friendly and helpful. One of the guides who practically lives here, invites us for a special morning tour; in search of the jaguar. Of course I realize that this incredible animal, also called the king of the jungle, is difficult to spot. But still, I have a bit of hope of seeing him one day, as I was able to admire the puma in Chile. Moreover, the guides here have numerous photos of the jaguar and 47 have been spotted in and around El Mirador Guatemala. Surely, then, there should be a chance. So we set out to find the jaguar in the swampy area, behind the camspite.
Soon I am told not to stomp so much and to walk softer. I do my best but it’s not easy with my hiking boots and muddy path. We walk for a few hours but as always in nature, these animals do not show themselves on request. Nevertheless, it was a nice trip.
The return flight
And then our visit is almost over. We wait for the helicopter. Only it does not come. Soon we understand that the weather conditions in Flores are not too good and therefore the helicopter cannot take off. After all, no new tourists have arrived either. If the helicopter has not arrived by noon, we prepare ourselves to stay another night in the jungle. We decide to watch the sunset at El Tigre. And then something happens that we had not expected. Very far away we see something flying. It is a helicopter and we are picked up after all. We walk back to the campsite towards the helipad and within 40 minutes we fly back to Flores.
I can actually be very short about this. The El Mirador Guatemala trek is a tour you won’t forget for a lifetime. A great experience, where you spend a few days very far from civilization, with a minimal number of other tourists. A trip that you really should not miss during your visit to Guatemala. Whether you do it on foot or by helicopter.
How to get to El mirador Guatemala – Tour options
Of course you can’t visit El Mirador on your own. You have to do this with a professional guide and usually even with a whole team, consisting of porters, guides and a cook. A number of people from the team you will meet at the campsite, because they live here for a longer period to receive the visitors. Tikal Go is one of the top tour operators that can offer this unique El Mirador tourin Guatemala. Below you can read everything you want to know about the different tours to El Mirador in Guatemala.
Departure city: Flores
All El Mirador Guatemala tours depart from Flores in Guatemala. Flores is a small town/island located on Lake Petén Itzá, and the base for Maya archaeological sites like Tikal, Yaxha and El Mirador.
From Guatemala City you can fly with Tag Airlines within 40 minutes to Mundo Maya International Airport in Santa Elena / Flores. There are also direct flights from Cancun in Mexico. From the airport you can take a cab to Flores, El Remate or Tikal National Park. Tikal Go offers several packages, where your flight, transportation and tours are arranged. Super nice and often very beneficial.
If you want to travel by land from Guatemala, you can book transportation directly from Guatemala City (something I don’t recommend) because of the long distance. Or travel from Guatemala City or Antigua via Lanquin and/or Rio Dulce to Flores.
Looking for nice hotels in the province of Peten? Look here for an overview of hotels in Flores and hotels in El Remate. I myself stayed several times at La Lancha, the jungle lodge of director Francis Ford Coppola, a little paradise in a tropical setting at Lago Peten Itzá. Check the availability and current prices of La Lancha in Guatemala here. And here you can find a detailed report on my stay at La Lancha.
El Mirador Guatemala trek tour
Are you in good physical shape, do you have enough time and are you up for an adventure? Then you want to do the multi-day El Mirador Guatemala trek. A trek where you walk 5 days and sleep 4 nights in the jungle. On day one you walk from Carmelita to the first accommodation: the ruins of the Maya city Tintal (19 km). Here you can already see El Mirador in the distance from the Tintal pyramid. The next day at the end of the day you will reach the campsite of El Mirador (23 km) where you will spend two nights. The next day you have plenty of time for a tour of the complex. A relatively quiet day, compared to the other days.
On day 4 you will walk back to El Tintal for an overnight stay (23km) and on day 5, after a few hours of walking, you will reach Carmelita (19km), where you will be picked up by car and return to Flores.
This trip is obviously not for everyone. You really have to be willing to walk for hours at a time every day, with maybe a little bit of suffering now and then. But what you get in return is an unforgettable experience. Along the way you meet almost no one and you really enter the world of the Maya.
El Mirador helicopter tour
If you have little time in Guatemala, the easiest way to visit El Mirador is by taking the El Mirador helicopter tour. In about 30 minutes you fly from Flores over the immense rainforest to the archaeological site. Upon arrival a guide awaits you and gives you an extensive tour of the complex. After a light lunch you will depart by helicopter back to Flores. Towards your hotel. Are you a little more adventurous? Then you can also choose to spend the night in a tent in El Mirador. That way you have time to watch the sunset from La Danta and the next morning the sunrise from El Tigre. Magical! The next day you fly back! And this last option I can really recommend. You really want to experience this unique place and let it work on you.
A combined El Mirador Guatemala trek & helicopter tour
Do you want the best of both worlds? Then choose a combination tour tailor-made by Tikal Go. You can choose to walk to El Mirador in two days (day 1 = 19km and day 2 = 23km), spend one or two nights here and then fly back by helicopter. I myself flew by helicopter to the archaeological site Nakbe, for an extensive visit. Then I walked to El Mirador (1 day). Here I slept for three nights to explore the city and its beautiful surroundings. On day 4 I was picked up in El Mirador and flew back to Flores by helicopter. And so there are several combination tours possible, depending on your interests and desires.
Tips for the El Mirador Guatemala trek & helicopter tour
Food and drinks along the way
Most El Mirador Guatemala treks offer all meals included. That is, breakfast, lunch and dinner. With the exception of the first and last day, where you must provide your own breakfast and dinner respectively. You will also be offered some fruit and snacks along the way. And that is super well organized! During the day you often get nice sandwiches and in the morning and evening you get simple but delicious meals. It is wise to stock up on things you need. Tasty things that do not spoil easily and are not heavy. You will be happy with it!
Range and electricity
Please note that in the entire area in and around El Mirador there is no coverage. So it’s important to bring a power bank and put your phone on airplane mode to save battery. There is also no electricity. Sometimes there is a generator that you can use to charge something, but usually these are for other things (read the local team and researchers). So bring extra batteries for all your devices.
Nothing is as changeable as the weather. Therefore, it is important to be prepared for rain and heat at the same time during the El Mirador Guatemala trek. In the evening it can cool down a bit but it will not get really cold. Also keep in mind that the El Mirador Guatemala helicopter tour is weather sensitive. If it is very cloudy, the helicopter may not be able to take off. In that case you will have to wait until the weather is better.
El Mirador Guatemala trek – packing list
- Good hiking shoes
- Poncho/rain suit (no bright colors, you’ll scare away all the animals)
- Mosquito spray and afterbite
- Daypack (check if someone carries the big luggage for you)
- Light clothes, it’s generally hot and humid there
- A sweater for in the evening (it can cool down a bit in the evening)
- A headlamp
- Snacks and water (check in advance what your tour agency will arrange for you)
- Power banks to charge your electronics (there is no electricity)
- Blister plasters + medical kit
- Quick drying towel
- Water bag
- Toilet paper
- Sheet bag (check in advance what your tour agency will arrange for you)
- Money for tipping
- A notebook to keep track of your experiences. Use discount code traveltheworld and receive 10% discount on all products from Miss Wood.
Best travel time El Mirador Guatemala trek and helicopter tour
El Mirador in Guatemala is best visited from November to April. Then the temperatures are pleasant (not too hot) and it is generally drier than in the other months. However, it can still rain of course. In the summer in Guatemala it is very hot and rains a lot. The trails of the El Mirador Guatemala trek are therefore slippery and muddy and your tour will certainly be more strenuous because of this. Consult with Tikal Go for the best periods and options.
In the next article you will read more about the best time to travel to Guatemala.
About Tikal Go
Do you also want to travel through the province of Peten in Guatemala and visit the beautiful Mayan cities? Tikal Go is a top boutique organization that takes all the worries out of your hands when it comes to arranging excursions. And if you want, they can also arrange transportation and stay. All packages are tailor-made for you and you always go on your trip with specialized guides. More information can be found on the website of Tikal Go.
More about Guatemala
The El Mirador Guatemala trek and helicopter tour are among the most unique trips for me! Do you want to read more about this amazing country? In this article you’ll find the 20 best things to do in Guatemala, including off the beaten path destinations, best time to travel, travel itineraries and information about safety in Guatemala. Have a look in the Guatemala archive for a cityguide for Antigua and travel guides about Lake Atitlan, Lanquin, the famous market of Chichicastenango, the Acatenango volcano hike, a boat trip on the Rio Dulce to Caribbean Livingston and a Guatemala hotel guide. In this article I’m taking you to the Maya ruins of Tikal, the less visited Maya site Yaxha and Quiriguá, a smaller and less visited Maya site with beautiful Maya stelae.