The Road to El Mirador, Part 4

turn into the jungle el mirador
The group of intrepid explorers pauses at the entry to the jungle for a photo. You'll notice that everyone had the good sense to be young, fit, and carrying only water. Except me.

Before you dive in here, you might want to read installments one, two, and three. Or not, if you're easily frightened.

I’ve been dreading writing installment four of My Death March to El Mirador almost as much as I dreaded actually doing it.

In general, we love what we’re doing, and don’t mind so much the “travel days” when we actually have to schlep bags to a train station or airport and give up the comfort of a hotel room for the discomfort of actually moving.

But nothing like this.

We’ve done some hiking. We’ve walked in the Minnesota North Woods. We’ve hiked in the Grand Tetons. We did the Camino de Santiago–800 kilometers worth of Spanish heat, punctuated by climbing mountains made of broken rock–but something was telling me all along that this was going to be only one seventh as long, but seven times worse.

I need to listen to myself more often.

After the three-hour coccyx smashing ride in the Mitsubishi van from hell, we finally arrived in the village of Carmelita. As far as I could tell, Carmelita exists solely to provide a jumping off point for El Mirador. (I later learned this was basically true.) It’s a village of about 300 residents, and most of the adults take turns leading expeditions into the various Mayan sites, and/or serving the tourists’ supply needs before and after the trek.

As we arrived and unloaded our packs from the van, we were not told what we were expected to carry ourselves, and what the mules would carry for us.

mules el mirador
Here are our mules. You'll notice they weren't stupid enough to be carrying 20 kilos of cameras. Yet.

This was important information, because we didn’t actually ever walk along side the mules. They were either way behind (at the beginning) or way ahead (a little while after we got going.) So, if you put something on the mules that you would need on the trail, you were out of luck. Or, if you carried something you wouldn’t need on the trail, you were, in a word, dumber than the mules.

Just call me Dumb Ass.

Since I photograph almost everything we do, I chose to carry my heavy photo backpack. Although I’d emptied it of everything except the actual camera and lenses, the thing still weighs far too much. Let’s face it: metal and glass are heavy, especially the full frame Nikon I’ve recently switched to. And, the sturdy tripod. Add to this a bladder system with three liters of water, and I was probably carrying more weight than I’d carried on the Camino.

But, we weren’t quite ready to start yet. First, there were beans.

You may have noticed that, except for Alex’s egg adventure, I haven’t mentioned food yet. That’s because there hasn’t been any. It’s nearly 11 a.m. We’ve been up since before dawn. And we haven’t had so much as a coffee. Or water.

But, we had been promised breakfast, and after piling our packs into people stacks and mule stacks, we were invited to the other side of the village to the “dining hall.” We walked over the baked pasture where the mules were grazing to another complex of shacks and were directed inside past the kitchen to a couple of rough tables and wooden benches.

What better way to satisfy that peckish feeling than a big plate of scrambled eggs and refried beans? I like eggs and beans as much as the next guy, but a late morning brunch of what is basically a plate of lard is probably not the most settling idea for someone like me who generally has a bowl of bran flakes and maybe a piece of toast. But, by now, I was very hungry and my appetite got the best of me. I ate it all and washed it down with two big cups of strong coffee.

Like I said, just call me Dumb Ass.

We sat around and talked for a little while before a heretofore unknown woman came into the dining area, introduced herself as Maria, and told us it was time to go. So, we dragged our newly fed and bloated selves back over to the other side of the village where the mules were already packed–in my case carrying my light little day pack with a couple changes of clothes and a toothbrush–and leaving enough camera equipment to shoot Lawrence of Arabia for me.

We set off.

I’ve mentioned that this was a jungle hike, but we weren’t actually there yet. After walking out of the village, which took about two minutes, we came to a dust road much like the one we’d driven in on. And it was now noon. The sun was directly overhead. It was about 40 degrees (104F) in the shade. And there wasn’t any shade.

We walked along this road for about a kilometer before taking a right turn into what was, comparatively, the jungle. By this time, I was thinking, repeatedly, “I should turn back. This is nuts.” But, I didn’t.

Dumb Ass.

maria el mirador
Maria at our first rest stop. She kindly said she wasn't laughing at me, but I know she was.

We walked through a wooded area. But I soon realized that it wasn’t what I’d call a jungle. There were no trees taller than about five meters, and certainly no overarching canopy that provided any shade. In fact, trees as high as even that were very rare and very scraggly and thin. As I peered deeper into the wood, I could see evidence of two things: stumps and fire. This place had been recently clear cut and burned off by farmers. Yes, they’d abandoned it a few years back, but the forest hadn’t recovered and we were walking without shade for as far as I could see ahead.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. Soon we got off the usual broken limestone base and got into an area that actually had some top soil. But here, too, was evidence of a stuff Americans usually only read about in earnest articles in liberal magazines. Here once was a tropical forest of cedar and mahogany. Now, what you could see was a deeply rutted road where the trucks had come into the area during the rainy season to haul out the timber.

Instead of a smooth leaf strewn path there were deep tire-plowed furrows of mud that had been baked into black brick by the unbroken sun. That provided a walking surface that reminded me of walking across stepping stones in a brook. You had to look for flat patches among the ruts to place each step, and good luck finding a level one that wouldn’t send your ankle bending and sliding into the rut. Sometimes it was easier to just walk in the rut. Sometimes it was better to walk on the frozen waves of mud thrown up on the side of the rut. Either way, it was slow, and treacherous, and clumsy, and hot, and miserable. Even more so since I was stupidly carrying the camera bag because I thought there’d be something beautiful along the way I’d want to photograph.

This went on for more than two hours before we finally reached the actual jungle.

Of course, by that time, I was courting heat exhaustion, I had more gas than Exxon-Mobil, and the rest of the group was a long way ahead of me.

And our stopping point for the day, Tintal, was still twenty kilometers ahead.

Here are links to all the chapters of The El Mirador Saga:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10

8 thoughts on “The Road to El Mirador, Part 4”

      • Well, I’d never have considered a hike on that scale, I assure you. I’d have relaxed on the veranda with a cold beverage of some sort and waved “goodbye and good luck” to your wife & other hikers. And we both know I’m no smarter than you are; one of the many reasons I’m such a fan of yours (it’s so difficult to find men willing to match wits w/me). Sigh. Loved your Oxford post, btw. Where to next? Love to you and Kris.


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