Thursday, September 5, 2019

El Mirador Trek Part Four: The Big Day

On top of La Danta, El Mirador

El Mirador Trek Part Four is an installment of my continuing series documenting my recent trip to Guatemala to explore the Maya Biosphere Reserve and El Mirador Mayan Ruins with Teena Clipston and Mike's Expedtions Guatemala

To catch the full story from the start, please check out these previous posts:

When we last left you, we had arrived in El Mirador camp after two days of trekking in the jungle, feeling chingona and eating watermelon. We spent the rest of the evening resting, getting set up in the tent and enjoying a most delicious bucket bath. Cold water never felt so good. Abel cooked us up a fabulous dinner and we met 'The Dutch Boys plus a Kiwi". 

The Dutch Boys and the Kiwi
This group of handsome young men kept us in stitches all night with their stories and together we even created a whole new religion, all hail the Tea Cup! Three of the four informed us that they would not be sleeping in the tents as the fourth had an incredible snore. They chose to sleep in the hammocks on the other side of camp while we foolishly tried to sleep in the tent next to Rene the Snorer. You know that howler monkeys are the loudest animal on the planet? Rene sure gave them a run for their money. We should have heeded the warnings. 

Between the howler monkeys and Rene, there wasn't a lot of sleep and I got up before dawn in search of coffee. Our fabulous guide Miguel directed me to the hammocks and brought me a piping hot cup of joe, best all-inclusive service ever. I wrote in my journal, listened to the sounds of the jungle and watched the camp come alive. El Mirador is a working archaeological site with over 200 people making it home for about 90 days of the year. This was the last day for many and I watched them walking with their packs and final paychecks to start the long trek back to civilization. 

Morning Journal Time
Today was THE day, the reason for our trek and the impetus behind the whole adventure. Teena had been invited to interview the director of the archaeological site project, Dr. Richard Hansen and we had a meeting set for early morning. Of course, as is often the case, the best laid plans often go awry and we had our meeting pushed to a little bit later. And a little later. And a little later. We didn't get to the interview until after dark but that's ok, we had the whole day to explore and play in this magical place. 

Our first stop was the most famous structure of the site, La Danta pyramid. This is the tallest pyramid in the Maya world and the largest by volume, it is an imposing structure that makes one wonder HOW they managed to build such a thing without the use of horses or the wheel. Extraordinary. From the top you have a view of jungle, lots and lots and lots of jungle. To the north we could see the top of the pyramid at Calakmul in Mexico and to the north-east is the area known as "Las Tres Banderas", "The Three Flags" where the borders of Guatemala, Belize and Mexico meet. It was exhilarating, a feeling of standing where few would ever travel and being a part of history. The only reasonable reaction was to sing The Carpenters in full voice of course, "I'm on top of the world looking down on creation". My apologies to the songbirds of the jungle for my less than extraordinary singing voice. 

The rest of the day we explored and hiked and waited for word on the radio that the interview was a go. We practically ran to the Acropolis to see the frieze of "Popol Vuh" and we actually got a bit emotional (there may have been tears). It's a striking piece of art carved in ancient stone, according to Dr. Hansen it is the depiction of the hero twins Xbalanque and Hunahpuh carrying the head of their father as written in the ancient Mayan creation story. There is some dispute as to whether this is indeed what is represented here, there are papers stating alternative opinions but regardless, it is an incredible sight to see and its importance cannot be diminished.

The amazing archaeologist Lorena Gonzalez
I was poking around the Acropolis site and turned a corner to see a beautiful woman sitting with tools and ceramics. I struck up a conversation with her and discovered that she is an AMAZING woman! Lorena Gonzalez is a Guatemalan archaeologist working at El Mirador for the last five years and as it turns out, she was responsible for new findings and excavations in this particular area of the site. I can't share photos or even tell you what the discovery was as it hasn't been published yet, HOW COOL IS THAT? I am the holder of archaeological secrets! I really clicked with Lorena and am looking forward to interviewing her and sharing her story with the world!

We covered a lot of ground that day. The site is huge and everywhere you walk, you are pretty much standing on an ancient structure. The whole city area was "paved" with limestone which of course is what led to the downfall of the civilization, DEFORESTATION destroys (and here we are repeating history). We mostly walked but also had the good fortune of getting the occasional ride with the site's crew on the all-terrain vehicle which seemed to appear at opportune times. I didn't think anything of this....until later.

I feel good on top of El Tigre pyramid
It was late afternoon and I had just taken a wee nap in the hammock before having to meet the gang at the Popol Vuh (I just love saying "Meet you at the Popol Vuh"). The ATV magically appeared and I hopped on board and started chatting with the driver (who shall remain unnamed, just in case). He asked me a question and I thought I couldn't possibly have heard him correctly, did he really just ask me out? In the middle of the jungle? Why yes, he did. He wanted to take me out to a pyramid later that evening to show me the stars. "A pasear un rato juntos". I truly wasn't expecting this, I'm sure I reacted badly with my confused blushing face and I told him I was there to work and couldn't possibly. He said he would come find me later.

The lighter side of Dr. Richard Hansen in my glasses of love
We finally got to interview the man in charge himself, the well-known archaeologist Dr. Richard Hansen. This is really Teena's part of the story to tell and I can't wait to link to her articles to share all the details of this fascinating conversation. He invited us to dine with the archaeologists and we enjoyed a fine meal and great conversation before tiredly making our way back to our camp.

I chose to sleep in the hammocks this time, the tent was too hot and I loved the idea of sleeping in open air. The guy who had asked me out showed up at my hammock. Twice. We had a lovely conversation, he whispered sweet words and I sent him packing back to his own bed. Twice. I wasn't looking for romance (or casual hammock sex). It was all quite flattering and good for my ego and self-esteem, I've been single for almost six years so a little male attention was not entirely unwelcome. I finally got to sleep with those sweet words and the song of cicadas in my head and a contented smile on my face. A day full of adventure, history, drama, intrigue and even a little romance, vaya! 

Next up El Mirador Part Five: The Return to Civilization

Saturday, August 31, 2019

El Mirador Trek Guatemala: Part Three

A continuing series on my expedition to the depths of the Guatemala jungle to visit El Mirador with Teena Clipston and Mike's Expeditions Guatemala, please see the first installments here:

Part One: Trek to El Mirador
Part Two: Learning How to Walk Again

My journal. That could say "unreal" or "surreal", both are appropriate. 

We arrived in Tintal after a long, hot, HOT HOT HOT day of travel, we'd been on the go for twelve hours, six of those walking. Obviously the first thing we do is climb to the top of a pyramid. I was recovering from my first bout of heat exhaustion but there was no way I was going to miss this chance! Suck it up buttercup, I climbed (very very slowly) to the top, recorded the above video and promptly vomited red Gatorade on to the ancient structure. My sacrifice to the gods of the temple. Our plan to eat a snack and watch the sunset from the top of the pyramid was foiled when a sly fox stole our sandwiches. We forgive you Swiper.

Abel cooked us up a delicious meal in the rustic kitchen, we got set up in our tent and we crashed out hard after a snake and bug check. I heard my first howler monkey at about 3 am, the roar/bark/growl woke me up and I was DELIGHTED. The "chicharras" were so loud it was difficult to go back to sleep, but I managed a couple more hours of rest before we got up with the sun and the smell of the breakfast fire for another day of jungle trekking.

Stuck a feather in my cap and called it an existential moment

This was a really good day. A marvelous day, a magnificent wonderful and tremendous day! We had learned our lessons from the first jaunt of jungle walking and we found our groove. We vibed with the jungle and found ITS pace, not rushed, not hurried, just....grooving. I was breathing deep, the untainted oxygen filling my lungs and purifying my soul. I noticed that I was walking differently, chest held high, shoulders back and I couldn't wipe the smile off of my face. My steps were more confident and I found myself striding through the jungle feeling like royalty,

Suddenly, there was an entire novel in my head. A whole story laid out for me that I could feel in my skin just bursting to get out! I've never had an experience quite like this, a creative rush of joy. I was walking ahead of the group, threw my arms wide and turned my face to the sky and said out loud "I am a queen!" In that moment I WAS a Mayan virgin stolen from her village to be brought to the snake king of El Mirador for marriage. Or is she to be sacrificed? You'll have to read the book.

La Muerta - Death

Trek to the death! Well, we trekked to "La Muerta", the first group of structures of El Mirador! We'd been walking for about five hours, me writing a novel in my head while listening to Alux music and out of the jungle she appears! We were energized and excited, the videos are mostly us saying "HOLY SHIT" over and over again. There are two structures here, we entered one dating from 350 BC that used to be a mausoleum below and a residence above. The other structure was built about 150 years later, during the height of Tikal's civilization. Holy shit.

Chingona con Sandia

With renewed vim and vigor, we strutted (seriously strutted like John Travolta Saturday Night Fever in the Jungle) the last 45 minutes to the camp at El Mirador. We made it! High fives all around, watermelon slices for everyone and a well-deserved rest in a hammock. The sense of pride and accomplishment I felt is something I never want to forget. I must remember this moment. In this moment, I am a bad-ass, hardcore, chingona, I can do anything woman. With a big ass feather in my cap.

Next up: El Mirador, La Danta and....a date?

Friday, August 23, 2019

Trek to El Mirador Part Two: Learning to Walk

I am back from “La Caminata”, my trek to the depths of the Guatemalan jungle to explore the ancient Maya ruins of El Mirador. We walked more than 100 kms in the heat of summer, climbed endless pyramids and somewhere along the way, I discovered my own strengths and the power I hold over my own happiness. The jungle is my Emerald City of the Wizard of Oz, the trek to El Mirador was my search for courage, knowledge and love. This was not my goal, not the expected result, but a wonderful side effect of an adventurous and difficult journey.

*In case you missed it: Trek to El Mirador part one

Trek to El Mirador Part Two: Learning How to Walk Again

When I last left you, I was riding in a beat-up pick-up being driven by Gabriel, smiling and singing “Vuela Vuela” to myself like a crazy person. A content crazy person. We’re on our way to the last village before the jungle walk starts, Carmelita. Teena is in the back of the truck with our guides Miguel and Abel, Abel is carrying a birthday cake for a little girl in the village, quite a feat on these bumpy roads! Abel is the quiet hero in a few of our jungle tales.

Carmelita kitchen
Two neck-wrenching dirt road hours later, we arrive in Carmelita, thank Gabriel and give ourselves a good stretch as we head to breakfast. We pass colourful weather-beaten huts and skinny dogs and we are drawn by the delicious smell of the burning lena and FOOD. We’ve been traveling for about 5 hours by now and we are starving! Breakfast was delicious, all the food on this trip was amazing! Fresh air, wood fires and an appetite turn even scrambled eggs into a divine creation.

After successfully navigating the obstacle course of chickens and dogs to use the outhouse, we washed up with rain water and went to find our horses. First a little stop to feed puppies. Teena asks me to take her picture with cute pup, cute pup bites Teena’s finger and draws blood. Bad puppy! We get Teena cleaned up and bandaged and it is time to rock, rabies or not.

Bad puppy!
We’ve been up since 4 am, our van broke down so we’re running late and we don’t hit the trail until about 10:30 am, really behind schedule. We are excited though and happily trot along like the heat is nothing. Midday sun and inexperienced jungle walkers full of adrenaline. You want heat stroke? Cuz that’s how you get heat stroke. I started to feel a little tired and I pushed. And I drank water and pushed more. I didn’t want to say anything as I didn’t want to slow us down! Finally after a big hill I said “Yo, I need a rest” and Miguel said we would stop at the next good shady spot. I pushed on for a few more minutes then I just couldn’t, I said “This is a good spot” and fell/sat down. (On our return trip Abel officially named the hill “Colina Mata Kelly”, so that is cool. I think.)

My ears were ringing, my heart racing and my vision was fading in and out. Dumb girl! I was mortified, totally embarrassed and trying not to puke to make it worse. Miguel and Abel got me some Gatorade and cookies and Abel even used a fallen palm leaf to fan me like a princess. My heart-rate returned to normal and we talked about learning to walk the pace of the jungle. To slow down, to listen to our bodies and la selva. We don’t have to get there fast, we just have to get there.

Vibing with the jungle ommmmm

I mounted the horse so we could keep moving, closed my eyes and just inhaled and exhaled slowly. I started to listen to the jungle sounds, feel the movements of the horse and the pull of the trail and just relaxed. I heard a flute in the distance behind me and thought there must be hikers nearby. I heard it again but closer and off to the left, strange. My eyes are open and scanning the thick jungle but all I see is green. The next time I hear it like a whisper in my right ear and I ask the group if anyone else hears music. Nope. Just me. Must be hallucinating. Heat stroke you know. Miguel tells me there is an alux dedicated to making music and for the rest of the trip I hear his melodies. And it makes me smile still to think of it.

The next time Teena needed a break (before melting down, smart girl), I got off the horse to walk with a new feeling. Listening and vibing with the jungle, I changed the way I walked, not forcing my pace on the place, relaxing my muscles and taking smaller, slower steps, letting the trail tell me where to step w,ith confidence, without hurry or fear. Fear, anxiety and excitement all feel the same in the gut, I decided to let excitement take over and from that moment the walk was a million times easier. No stress about keeping up or fear of falling down, just excited to keep moving forward.
Hearing alux music

We arrived at our camp much later that afternoon. It was the hardest day, really hard. Physically, mentally, emotionally tough. We were exhausted, we had pushed through some killer heat and tough hills and trails but we had made it. I thought I would want to just crash out for the next few hours but the jungle gave us a boost and the camp gave us a breather so we set off to explore and climb a pyramid! The jungle energy is a magical thing!

End part two.

El Tintal in our next episode

Coming up, El Tintal: Jungle Camp on the El Mirador Trek Guatemala.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Trek to El Mirador Guatemala: Part One

I am back from “La Caminata”, my trek to the depths of the Guatemalan jungle to explore the ancient Maya ruins of El Mirador. We walked more than 100 kms in the heat of summer, climbed endless pyramids and somewhere along the way, I discovered my own strengths and the power I hold over my own happiness. The jungle is my Emerald City of the Wizard of Oz, the trek to El Mirador was my search for courage, knowledge and love. This was not my goal, not the expected result, but a wonderful side effect of an adventurous and difficult journey.

I’ve realized there are a multitude of layers to this story and sharing in a linear, step by step way just isn’t easy. I’ve sat with my best friends attempting to relate my Guatemala experience and I get lost in the web of the tale. I try to tell the story from beginning to end, dates, times and places and I end up on a roll about the insects and animals we saw or the food we ate or the inside jokes we shared with the Dutch boys and I forget where I am in the story. Please be patient with me as I attempt to give some semblance of order to a wild and wonderful adventure.

Do NOT Be Distracted by Wild Turkeys

How did I end up in the jungle of Guatemala drinking rain water and wiping my tushie with leaves? A Facebook post of course. Teena Clipston, a fellow Canuck living in Playa del Carmen was looking for a travel partner/photographer to capture the trip and I jumped at the chance. Traveling with a “stranger” was far easier than expected, we had a great click and worked well together. I learned a lot from Teena and I hope it was mutual, we are different in many ways but the balance totally worked for me and I can say we are now great friends after surviving this trip!

Chicken Bus From Belize to Guatemala

Our journey began on a bus. Oh man did we spend a lot of time on the bus. We left Playa del Carmen shortly before midnight on the “red eye” to Belize City and arrived at the border before the crack of dawn. By 7:30 am we were on a “chicken bus” leaving Belize City headed to the Guatemala border. The driver was getting behind schedule so he tried to make up time by RACING DOWN THE HIGHWAY. We heard a long HOOOOOONK HONK HONK and a CRUNCH and felt the bus slamming into a car (nobody hurt!). We evacuated the bus in the middle of nowhere to the stench of burned rubber and asphalt and the heat of a blazing sun and joked about the possibility of getting a taxi in the surrounding fields. TADA, the universe provided us a taxi out of the ether and for $25 USD we were on our way again. 

Everyone please evacuate the bus

We crossed the border easily (border crossings in Belize and Guatemala are a whole other post) and found our Guatemala tour guide Miguel waiting for us. Teena had met him on previous trips to Guatemala so there was a level of comfort immediately. We sweaty hugged, got in his car and continued driving to the island of Flores. We checked into Hotel Sabana at 3:00, making it about 15 hours in transit by bus, taxi and car, my body was aching. We got a good rest, spent the next day interviewing organizations concerned with the conservation of the Maya biosphere reserve and enjoying the sights of Flores.

We're on a boat! In Florea, Guatemala

The day of the caminata arrived and we were up at 4 am to start ahead of the heat of the sun. We knew we had about a three or four hour drive ahead and then we would start walking. We were NERVOUS, excitement and the fear of the unknown, the anticipation was quite a rush.

Yep, she's broken

We did not anticipate the road conditions that led to a broken suspension on our van, but once again the Universal Ride Fairies blessed us with Gabriel and his beat-up pick-up to lug us the last couple of hours to the town of Carmelita. The radio barely worked but the song “Vuela Vuela” played softly as I watched the countryside go by, inhaled the aroma of the jungle and smiled contentedly and sang  to myself. 

¡Vuela, vuela!
VerĂ¡s que todo es posible (vuela, vuela)
¡Vuela! (Vuela)
Despierta tu mente

Fly fly!
You’ll see that everything is possible (fly fly)
Fly fly!
Wake up your mind

Vuela vuela

End part one

Sunday, July 7, 2019

El Mirador, Guatemala from Cancun: Expedition Just Got Real

La Danta Pyramid, El Mirador, Guatemala

It all started with a Facebook post. "Huge Adventure Opportunity: El Mirador, Guatemala". It caught my attention immediately as I love a good jungle adventure AND I had just watched "Expedition Unknown: The Lost Tomb of the Snake King" for the millionth time. Host Josh Gates (my imaginary TV boyfriend) charmed and tempted me with the world of El Mirador and Teena's post lit my adventure pilot light and I replied "PICK ME PICK ME PICK ME".  In a more adult and professional manner of course. I sent her my info, explained why I should go with and went to sleep with dreams of pyramids and howler monkeys in my head.

And here we are, 32 weeks later and I've just purchased my first pair of snake gaiters and am getting ready for the adventure of a lifetime. I know everybody says that about their journeys but seriously, this is not a experience you can just book on Expedia. This is 2 days on buses through Mexico, Belize and Guatemala then a 6 day trek into the jungle, walking 2 days to get in to El Mirador and two days walking out, repeat return bus journey. Teena has hooked us up with super guide Miguel Enrique Manzanero Campos who will be leading us on this trek. There are no roads to the archaeological site (preventing looters) so getting there is an adventure in its own right, hiking approximately 60 kms through untouched jungle in summer, it's going to be hot, there are going to be bugs and there are going to be snakes. BRING IT ON.

Excited about snake gaiters!

So, why visit Guatemala? Why go to such extremes to visit El Mirador? How do you get to El Mirador Guatemala? Will I get ticks in my coochie? Is it safe for a single woman to travel in Guatemala? Aren't you too old for this crazy stuff? I'm going to do my best to answer all these questions and more in upcoming posts. The personal reasons why I am doing this may change by the time I finish the trek, my answers are waiting in the jungle. My mission right now is to get in shape, come up with some money, get to the site and capture photos and videos along the way. Any "Eat, Pray, Love" spiritual revelations will be a bonus.

My "Eat, Pray, Love" trip to Veracruz

The ultimate goal and reason for the trip is to meet with Dr. Richard Hansen, an archaeology rock star and the driving force behind the exploration, investigation and conservation of the Mirador Basin. Please check out Teena's post about our El Mirador, Guatemala expedition for an in depth look at what we will be investigating on this journey. It is an absolute honour for Teena to be invited by Dr. Hansen and I am super grateful to be able to tag along and be a part of this adventure. History, nature, culture and adventure, I'm going to kick butt on the "What I did on my summer vacation" homework.

Dr. Richard Hansen and Josh Gates
photo courtesy Josh Gates 

I am so incredibly excited about this trip, I get butterflies thinking about it. The countdown to the first overnight bus to Belize from Cancun is ON. Teena and I are two bad ass women "around 50" and we are ready to rock the adventure and bring home incredible stories, videos and photos of this once in a lifetime El Mirador expedition. We still have some equipment to buy and some payments to make to our guide, if you feel compelled to contribute to our journey and can help in any way (really, $10 USD goes a long way in Guatemala), please make donations to my Paypal or contact me via email with sponsorship opportunities or commissioned work. We are super grateful for donations and opportunities to contribute content to your magazine or website!

Dr. Richard Hansen and Morgan Freeman in Guatemala.
photo courtesy GlobalConservation
Are you tempted? Would you like to come along? We have room for more on the El Mirador trek with Miguel, drop a line to Teena Clipston or myself ASAP and let's see if we can make it work!

Look for my El Mirador Guatemala Trek posts coming soon, follow me on Instagram and Facebook.

D is for Dengue, Depression and Dread

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