Friday, May 22, 2015

The 2nd Annual El Mirador Jungle Epic

Last week we headed out again from the nice temperate weather of the Guatemala highlands to the steamy humid jungle of thePeten, Guatemala's Northern department and home to perhaps the highest concentration of Mayan sites known in the Mayan world.  We have done this before, this was to be our second time out, and quite frankly, after the first time I wasnt sure thatI would be returning. However, they say time heals and I must admit that in the car ride out last year I was happy to see the jungle disappear in the background as the lush, light and breezy highlands came into focus. However, oddly enough just a few short days after being back at home in Antigua, I found myself missing the jungle and all the hardships that she brought with her.  So we decided to make this a yearly pilgrimage.

For this years edition we headed out with a more paired down and better prepared (even if just mentally) team.  Three returning riders, Matt Hartell and Nico Marceca from Old Town Outfitters, Brian Zimmer from the Antigua Bicycle Coop and Tom Vanderbuilt, a free lance writer who was documenting this trip for the New York Times.    When Tom asked me about joining on this years edition we exchanged emails about the ride, timing, conditions etc. in preparation for the upcoming trip.  More than anything this was an opportunity for us to vet Tom.  After all, this was one of the hardest 42 km ride I had ever done.  When we got to topic of distance, 42 kms. or 26 miles, essentially the distance of a marathon, I remember Tom's disbelief that last year it took us nearly 8 hours.  That's 4x longer than it takes a world class runner to run the same distance.  "How  could 26 miles with only 1350 feet of climbing take that long" he asked me.  "That's the distance of my lunchtime ride" he said.

I told him that I understood that it seemed inexplicable to take that long but that last year the trail conditions were brutal.  The usual method to get out to El Mirador is on foot, a two journey through the jungle.  Mules carry all the gear so that hikers wont have to contend with the heat and their equipment.  These mule trains absolutely destroy the trail especially in the rain.  They create these deep ruts, channels and churn up these mud post holes that when dry become boulders of  cement hard dried mud.  Last year there was apparently late season rain so when we go there in Early may when  it was dry there hadn't been enough time for the mules and people hiking out to smooth out the boulders.  This year however, I was assured from our friends out there at the trailhead that the trail was in "great shape" a it had been dry since January and thus has had sufficient time for the mud to be smoothed out.  Armed with the knowledge that this year the trail was going to be great we headed out to Carmelita heads held high with the confidence that this year would be different.

Indeed it would.  We arrived in Carmelita after 11 hours on the road and quickly went to the tienda to find few cold beers to fight the heat while unpacking and prepping our gear.  We talked to the folks out there who all told us that we were in luck that the trails were in great shape to to not worry about the ride.  The following day we set out on the trail and quickly found that yes, the trail was in better shape.  In fact, they were right, it was in great shape.  Now I must back up to say that even in great shape the ride is still tough.  The low, boggy, dried mud "bajos" as they called them were still bumpy but much better than last year.  You could actually ride them as opposed to last year where you had to surgically attack them with precision, balance and a huge amount of determination.  We bumped our way through the bajos, cruised the fun rocky altos and made it out to El Mirador in just about four and a half hours of riding time.  Again, even these times are mind boggling if you were only to see the stats.  How could 26 miles take that long?  Some how it just does.  If its not the bouncy bajos, its a short techy rocky climb to the altos and always the heat.  If you are not accustomed to the heat and humidity of the Guatemalan jungle you WILL suffer. After nearly 8 liters of water, more than I probably drink in a week, my pee was still dark yellow, if I could even go.  The jungle takes every ounce of it out of you.  Arriving in Mirador, a trail and heat weary Tom looked over at me and told me that now he "gets it".  He finally understood what I was talking about when I said it was the toughest flat 26 miles you'll do.

It sounds like a lot of pain and suffering, which it is, but the payoff is amazing.  El Mirador is very remote and hard to get to. Unless you have the funds to helicopter in, which on more occasions than one I wished I had had, you have to walk 2 days to get there or in our case one long brutal day on the bike.  And that's only one way!  Only about 3,000 visitors a year make this trip overland so there is definitely a sense of accomplishment.  The site of El Mirador is nestled in a unique part of the "protected" Mayan Biosphere.  This area is being threaten by the communities near by and the devastating slash and burn practices for clearing cattle grazing land.  El Mirador boasts the highest man made temples in the Ancient world.  Bigger than the pyramids of Egypt and larger in volume than the entire main plaza of Tikal.  With only a handful of other tourists out there who had made the walk we felt that we nearly had the site to ourselves.  The sunset from the top of the temple alone, made the journey worth while.  There is something special about looking out from the top of the temple seeing nothing but jungle as far as you can see in every direction.

Forest covered Mayan pyramids dot the landscape on the horizon and leave you imaging what other sites are still out there to be discovered.  Unconsciously the planning for next years ride had already begun.  How to tie the trail into El Mirador to other further a field sites out in the jungle.  Next year we will push past El Mirador, now our old friend, and find new brutal trails that will lead us to another temple and another sunset over the jungle. I can only imagine that sitting on another new temple at sunset will only mean yet another new ride the following year.  As hard as it is, I'm already looking forward to future rides.

Get in touch with us if you are interested in next years 3rd annual ride which will be weather permitting around the end of April or the beginning of May.