Pyramids and Peyote, an adventure ride in the Jungle. Part 1. – Peten, Guatemala.

“You know, rain right now would be a really mixed blessing. We would have water to drink, but would never get the bikes out of here.”

An early morning visit to the ruins of Tikal came highly recommended by everyone I talked to who had visited Guatemala. So I got up at 5:30am, well before any of the others were willing to open their eyes, and explored Tikal solo. I saw Monkeys, snakes, and even birds eating each other. I heard howler monkeys howling and gazed as the ruins revealed themselves out of the morning fog. Tikal was amazing. You should visit if you have the chance. But this blog post isn’t really about Tikal. This is about El Mirador.

…and getting there ain’t easy.

El Mirador is an even BIGGER ancient ruined city in northern Guatemala. It is home to “La Danta”, the biggest pyramid in the Americas, and the largest by volume in the WORLD. Erik aka “Ernesto”, fellow KLR rider, had mentioned the existance of El Mirador a few times prior to us going to Tikal, and post Tikal I was sold. Bigger than Tikal? To El Mirador I must go.

Unlike Tikal, which has a paved road going right to it with hundreds of tour buses, cars and vans making trips daily, a trip to El Mirador is a touch more difficult. The “standard” tour to Mirador is a five-day 92km hike with mules and a guide, after a long dirt-road drive to the starting point in a town named Carmelita. This tour costs around 400$US EACH, though we heard of folks getting it for closer to 150$ by bringing their own food and gear. Regardless, we didn’t want to pay, or walk. This is a motorcycle trip after all.

…and these two motos are packed and ready for a ride to the jungle.

We packed more gear/food on my bike, necessary as Erik’s monoshock was faulty and his pre-load setting stuck on “1”. Leaving his panniers back at the house, less weight was more for Eric.

Day 1 (edit: Apr 24th 2013, 0730am departure):

My map shows a road that goes to Mirador. It’s not very detailed, but there is definitely a road of sorts on that map.

apparently Google disagrees

We set out intent to find this road. I had done a little reading online, but didn’t really find much in the way of information on “motorcycle trips to El Mirador”, so we set out knowing we’d have to ask for some directions. While Ernesto shopped for camp food and I watched the bikes, I met a young man who confirmed not only that there IS a road, but that he had ridden it on HIS motorbike. Boom.

Ok, so he didn’t ride to Mirador on THIS motorbike.

After food, we needed a splash of Whiskey, a camping necessity. Once out of Santa Elena, there’s not much for tiendas (aka corner stores) to buy whiskey or much else. Determined, 45 minutes of very hot riding, following poor directions to empty tiendas later, we were successful. For the record, whiskey is available at the yellow tienda, NOT the blue one, no matter how many people insist otherwise. Whiskey acquired we ventured forth, and it wasn’t long on the road before pavement gave way to gravel, and gravel gave way to dirt. It also wasn’t long before my thoughts went from thinking “I can’t believe Jayne is skipping this trip” to “I’m glad Jayne didn’t come on this trip. We’d be turning around soon”. The dirt turned downright dusty, making it hard to see when stuck behind anyone, and even a touch loose and sandy at times too. It was HOT. In full gear, I was dripping sweat, and guzzling the water from my camelback. And then suddenly my clutch wasn’t fully disengaging. This was fine when just riding along, but when I had to stop or ride slowly I would stall out. Quick handlebar adjustment solved the issue, but I’m to this day a bit baffled at what caused it.

Hot, but hot in a scenic kind of way

There were a number of checkpoints along the road, with the barricades mostly down. I say mostly, because they were all just high enough for two tall men on motorbikes to duck under without stopping. Both Ernesto and I shared the philosophy that if you don’t stop, they can’t ask you for money.

Did I mention it was hot? After a bit over an hour of fighting dust and dirt, we came to a fork in the road with some locals sitting around, some of whom were drinking cold cervesas. Time to stop. Couple cold beer sitting in the shade really hit the spot.

The spot was hot.

Took the opportunity to consult the locals for advice on where this road is to Mirador. “The only way is via Carmelita, and that trail is very tough… impassable by moto” came the response. Little did they know we’d met a young man who had recently ridden it. Impassable was a frame of mind. We finished our beers and got back on the road.

Follow the blue signs

Very new looking blue “Mirador” signs led up to Carmelita, where the trail to Mirador starts. Again ducked under a barricade at the edge of town, then rolled towards the head of the trail.

How many times must you freely pass a barricade before it’s not a barricade anymore?

The “co-operativa” runs the show in this town, and basically all tourists book their guides and mules through through them, regardless of which agency they book through. We just kept following the blue signs until we got to the head of the trail, at which point we stopped to discuss.

That’s more of a wide path than a road

“This isn’t a road.”


“Were we not told there was a road? And on the map, it shows a road right?”


“Should we find that road? We can always come back.”


U-turn. Back in the town we stopped and asked a gentleman for his advice.

Obviously not working for the co-operativa, this man kindly laid out our Mirador options.

He mentioned a road 20 km back called “Los Pescaditios”. That road goes to El Mirador he said. Or we can take the trail. But he noted the trail has some fallen trees and such blocking the path in places. It might be impassable.

Nothing is impassable.

Carmelita Barricade man most certainly is passable. We stopped on the way out and asked for directions. He asked us for money for the way in.

Back under the Carmelita barricade, where we stopped quickly to confirm directions. He said the only way was via the trail. He then asked us for money. Back we went to find the road to Los Pescaditios. Riding along the Los Pescaditos road, we happened across a couple men standing in the trees off to the side. We asked them for directions. “Go up 3km ahead and ask for Ricardo, he’ll help you. And watch out for the logging trucks.” Logging trucks?

Oh, THOSE logging trucks.

3km ahead there was yet another road barricade, though this one was lowered to a height not duckable, and guarded by army men. With guns. We stopped at this one.

Stop. or they’ll shoot.

“We’re looking for Ricardo.” Remembering names, not usually a forte, would prove to be very handy this journey. I shook hands with Ricardo, who hand beenfetched by one of the military men with a gun. I asked Ricardo how to get to Mirador. He replied “Just up this road. But you need permission”. I asked him for permission. Laughing, he said it has to come from a higher power than him. After a little more discussion, Ricardo got on the radio and called said higher permission.

Photos of scantily clad women make the radio work better. Over.

Young men waiting for their turn on the radio.

Sit-ups, chin-ups, shine your boots. Repeat.

After 20 minutes, the higher permission said “no”. We had to go through Carmelita. That’s the “only way for tourists”. The only way for us to be allowed on the road would be to get a signed paper from the Guatemalan Tourist board INGUAT. The only way to get that paper was a 4 hour ride (and several ducked barricades) round trip… with no guarantee they would even give us said signed paper once we got there. I tried to be persuasive with Ricardo, and when a local came through the going the other way and drew us a map of the route, I thought we were in.

I thought wrong.

I thought wrong. While he was very kind and jovial, Ricardo was not swayed by my words. Nor was he swayed by my first attempt at a bribe this trip: 200 Quetzals tucked in my map.

“We need permission paper? Here’s some permission paper.”

This attempt did convince Ricardo that we A) really wanted to ride this road and B) were not going to go back to Flores to get a piece of paper from INGUAT. My 200 Quetzals were paper, I argued, and far more useful than the document would be. Perhaps the one honest official in Central America, he would not accept the bribe. But he did go climb a tree instead. A very high tree. Over 100 feet up.

Want to call the chief? Better not be afraid of heights.

This is the only way to get cell phone reception out here, and where Ricardo called his Chief on our behalf. 10 minutes later, the answer was still no. Thanks Ricardo, for doing all you could… Just wish you had a single corrupt bone in your soul. This did settle it though, the only way to get to El Mirador was the trail in Carmelita.

On the way back, we stopped to buy more water. All this time in our gear in the sun and I was down to less than half my 4.5L supply. It had only been maybe 5 hours. Ernesto was equally low on water. This would be a theme.

Back under the Barricade for the third time now, the man in the box didn’t even stand up to protest. We now knew where we were going, and that this was the only way there for us tourist types.

Welcome to the trail to El Mirador. I am your first fallen tree.

The road was a mix of rough trail with the occasional easy trail ride sections. There was a smooth-ish path where people had been walking, but you were surrounded by the foot deep holes from the hooves of mules in the wet times, and deep ruts from quads hauling in gear to Tintal. This was not a route to take in the rainy season.

Dried ruts and hoof holes.

Slow going, first gear only riding with many stops to play catch up, move fallen trees and drink water. Most trees were smaller and on the ground and could be ridden over, others had fallen across the path at an angle and needed to be moved or ridden around.

Bring a rugby player. Move some trees.

All worked up a thirst. Drank lots of water. Our shirts soaked in sweat. The heat from our motors was baking us, and with no wind to speak of at the speed we were traveling, our jackets had to go. The relief was instant. The only thing the Jackets would save us from at these speeds were thorns on the jungle plants anyways.

Jungle thorns like these ones.

Erik took the thorns like a champ

It was worth it though right Erik?

We met some hikers coming out the trail, and politely pulled off and killed the engines to let them pass. The first gentleman was interested in the trip, chatted for a bit while the others caught up to him. Fooled into thinking they were all kind. One smiling hippy came up, put her hand on my shoulder and said “it’s so great that you’re out here on your motorbikes, killing the monkeys and the environment. That’s great”. Then walked off. I’m pretty sure she rode that high horse all the way to Guatemala. No way she would have flown in a polluting airplane.

A few hours down the trail, we were still yet to make it to the mid way camp of “Tintal”, another “smaller” set of ruins in the area. I had read online that Tintal camp had a few resident staff, and more importantly, water. I was down to less than a liter, EriK no better.

“You know, rain right now would be a really mixed blessing. We would have water to drink, but would never get the bikes out of here.”

Saved by the large water container in the trees… the large, EMPTY water container.

With the sun setting, we made a push to make it to Tintal, but with more ruts, logs and uneven earth to navigate, the going was slow. The occasional drop didn’t help. I was heavily laden, and the occasional log or rut would snag me. Worse yet was when the kickstand would sink after I hopped off to help Erik over a log. I’d come back to my bike on it’s side.

What’s that smell?

This was most irritating, as until I got the kickstand back up, I couldn’t lift the bike. It was awkward, and took one to lift the bike more upside down and the other to pop the kick stand up. The worst problem with all this was my gas tank leaks gas around the cap when on it’s side. I like gas. It’s useful. The longer the bike on it’s side, the more gas lost. I lost a bit on the trail that day. A few drops too many, and the sun setting, we resigned and set up camp on the side of the path.

Camp exhaustion-on-water-rations.

The jungle at night is an incredible place. Rustling breeze, incredible light bugs brighter than any I’ve ever seen, and so quiet. Much more quiet than I anticipated. Our macaroni and cheese plans quashed by our water shortage, we made dinner of tortillas and tuna, then went to sleep.

End of part 1.
Part two: The trail gets tougher. No bikes allowed on this trail, I anger Erik giving away mac and cheese, we eat some cactus, and much more. Coming soon…