El Mirador (Spanish for lookout) is a group of Mayan pyramids and settlements, abandoned since 1,000 BC, that occupy the most secluded nooks of one of Central America’s largest rainforests in northern Guatemala. Discovered in 1926, they’ve been the subject of sporadic study until 2003 when Richard Hansen, who spoke at the “Bella Guatemala” event Feb. 16 at the Pantai Inn on Coast Boulevard, established major investigation, stabilization and preservation programs onsite.
Hansen, who has a Ph.D. in Archeology, told La Jolla Light that El Mirador is “a scientific jewel,” and its environment is “pristine.”
“It’s a virgin jungle, and it has been that way for 2,000 years ... and in the middle of it are the ruins,” he explained. Asked why the settlement is so well preserved, Hansen said it’s because it is surrounded by a lush rainforest with a three-day hike to the nearest road. “Or you can helicopter in,” he added.
During “Bella Guatemala,” La Jollans learned about Hansen’s research and efforts to preserve El Mirador, alongside other cultural and historical aspects about the country from Los Angeles-based Bella Guatemala Travel environmentalists and travel professionals.
The Foundation for Anthropological Research & Environmental Studies (FARES), an institution Hansen created, strives to preserve El Mirador, support the site’s research and work with surrounding communities. “What’s going on in El Mirador is devastating,” Hansen said, “There’s massive deforestation, (locals) are cutting hundreds of thousands of acres of rainforest to render drug-traffic and support cattle.”
To save the jungle and the Mayan ruins, Hansen said researchers have created a model based on tourism that will sustain the forest for 500 years to come. “That’s the whole purpose,” he said. “And that model is based on tourism, prosperity and conservation. If you put all those issues together, you have a home run.”
Rodolfo Castillo and Gao Vilé are two Guatemalan musicians, established in Miami, who are involved with FARES and who attended the event at Pantai Inn to support the cause. “When you’re at El Mirador, you can feel the vibrations of the people who once lived there,” said Vilé. “You can feel the voices and hums of those people in the middle of the silence, embraced by the jungle, and that’s gorgeous.”
For Castillo, hiking up to “Tiger,” one of the pyramids, was a “magic” experience. “It makes you feel so little when you see the immense treasure that we have,” he said.
The El Mirador collection of settlements are, according to Hansen, bigger than Los Angeles, and “connected by a web of ancient highways.” Danta, a 236-foot-high Mayan temple that’s a part of it, is one of the biggest pyramids in the world. “The Mayans were always a fascinating society because they were the only tropical forest society that developed complexity,” Hansen said.
Elsie YiDonoy, who was born in Guatemala but lived in L.A. most of her life, first visited her country of birth in 2004. “My sister and I had a bad experience. The hotels and restaurants we went to weren’t good. So I came back and I started Bella Guatemala Travel to help people have a good experience (in my country),” she said. Since then, she sells all-inclusive tours to Guatemala. “I don’t sell anything that I haven’t tried first,” she said.
Now, YiDonoy is collaborating with Hansen to help El Mirador reach the U.S. tourism market. Her company is organizing two “Lost Kingdoms of the Maya” tours (May 3-14 and June 25-July 8) that, among other Mayan ruins, include a visit via helicopter to El Mirador, where tourists will visit the excavation sites led by Hansen ($6,195 per person).
Another reason to preserve El Mirador, Hansen explained, is the environment that surrounds it. “It’s the last large rainforest in Central America,” he said. Vilé added that the woodland acts as a “lung” for certain areas in the United States. “When there are fires at El Mirador, the smoke reaches Houston. In the same way, the oxygen generated also reaches Texas. If instead of a forest you build a city and a highway, what’s going to come over is a bunch of smog from non-regulated trucks.”