Photo: Freelance writer Dave Howard hiked 40 miles through the largest tract of rain forest left in Central America to reach the lost city of El Mirador, and interview Dr. Richard Hansen.
Hiking Eighty Miles Through A Guatemalan Jungle To The Lost City Of El Mirador
Story and Photographs By John Murray
Editor’s Note: The following story is an account of a 12 day adventure that transpired in July 2003 when Observer publisher, John Murray, traveled into the jungles of northeast Guatemala with his friend, Dave Howard, who was on assignment for Travel & Leisure Magazine. Murray was invited along to photograph the expedition and fired off 45 rolls of film. Murray damaged his Canon EOS camera during the journey and 60% of the images were unusable, and totally out of focus. After emerging from the jungle, the good film languished inside the photo department at Travel and Leisure for ten months, and was ultimately never used in Howard’s feature story. By the time the images were returned to Murray, and he had gathered notes, tapes and recollections from Dave Howard, nearly a year had elapsed. For the past 18 months the story lay buried beneath a jungle of details inside Murray’s head. Thankfully, and with great joy and relief, the story has been extracted from the thicket of Murray’s brain. We hope you enjoy the adventure.
We scampered up the sharp incline as loose rock and soil shifted beneath our feet.
Gnarled tree roots, rock outcroppings, and a thin rope stabilized our ascent as we hoisted ourselves towards a clearing atop a giant mound of rock and earth in the extreme northeast corner of Guatemala. For two days we hiked along a trail unable to glimpse anything other than tree trunks, earth and brush. When we entered the jungle we had been swallowed by a canopy of green, our eyes snatching only an occasional glimpse of blue sky.
Bizarrely, as we emerged onto a small clearing atop the mound, we were now above the forest canopy – standing in the sky – peering down on the largest tract of rain forest left in Central America.
We gazed upon a carpet of green rolling unencumbered to the horizon. Beneath the jungle canopy lay the ruins of El Mirador, the largest city ever built by Mayan Indians. And beneath our feet – the giant mound of rock and earth we just climbed – was La Danta, the largest pyramid in the world. Other pyramids in the world are taller, but La Danta, at 230 feet in height, has the largest volume of dirt and rock ever used to construct a pyramid.
Photo: One of our guides, Armando, sharpenens his machette
We stood silently on top of La Danta and listened to the stillness of the jungle. The only sound we heard was the heaving of our chests, the rhythmic thumping of our hearts banged in our ears. Eventually, in the distance, we heard a band of Howler monkeys.
Their growls sliced through the stillness low and deep like a foghorn warning sailors of looming danger. We gazed down on what appeared to be a series of low rolling hills, which were smaller pyramids that had been swallowed beneath jungle growth. We were looking down on a 3000 year old Mayan city that once had been one of the most prosperous and advanced civilizations on the planet. Now the entire city, the massive pyramids included, lay beneath jungle debris.
The clearing on top of La Danta was 20 feet long and ten feet across. It was late afternoon and we had hoped to catch the sunset. A bank of clouds rolled in and obscured the sun, so we sat and pondered our journey. There were five of us atop the pyramid that day. Among them was Dave Howard, a former editor at the Waterbury Observer, who at the time was a freelance writer living in NYC. Dave had snagged an assignment from Travel and Leisure Magazine to write about archaeologist Richard Hansen and his extraordinary 20 year effort to unearth the treasures of El Mirador. Dave invited me along to photograph the adventure.
Photo: The Mayan city of El Mirador was a booming metropolis 900 years before Jesus walked the earth. It is estimated that 100,000 Maya lived in and around the great city. Mysteriously the city was abandoned, repopulated, and then abandoned again. For the past 1000 years the rain forest reclaimed the ruins of El Mirador, which now lies buried beneath ten feet of soil and debris. The painting above was published in a National Geographic article about El Mirador in the 1980s.
Rounding out our little group were Joep Arts, a dashing young Dutch archaeologist, Brian, a graduate student from Duke University, and Matais, a medical student from Switzerland. We met our three companions along the way as we travelled 3000 miles, changed planes three times, rode like shoehorned pigs crammed into the back of a pick-up truck for six hours, and hiked the last 40 miles through a dense jungle in 90 degree heat to reach El Mirador.
As we drank in the scenery I noticed an inch thick vine that rose from the jungle and reached straight past the platform ten feet into the sky. I wondered where the vine was headed, and in that moment I began to comprehend the force of nature that had altered this landscape during the past 2000 years. The vegetation of a rain forest aggressively seeks light, and when the Maya mysteriously abandoned El Mirador 1500 years ago, the surrounding jungle crept in to take their place. Eventually the vines and brush swept up the pyramids – what better spot to seek light – and totally obscured the abandoned city.
As we sat spellbound atop La Danta we watched as a tiny crack in the clouds drifted magically towards an intersection with the sun. It looked like we still had a chance at a glorious sunset. Minutes later, and against outrageous odds, the tiny opening in the clouds made a perfect pass in front of the sun. The collision of opportunity and light formed a keyhole and a magnificent beam of reddish orange sunlight cascaded down upon the vast wilderness of El Mirador.
It was a phenomenal dance of nature that transcended our imaginations. Seconds later a horde of giant moths started to dive bomb us like kamikaze pilots from WWII. With the light flickering towards nightfall, and the moths acting like vampire bats, we began a steep descent off the pyramid. A few of us used head lamps to help rappel ourselves down a sharp incline of loose dirt and gravel. Without the rope to slow our descent we would have tumbled headfirst into a dark void. The first few of us that got down turned and shone their lights back up the trail to guide the rest of us to safety. The treacherous descent only added to the evening’s magic.
It was one of those experiences in life where color was a bit brighter and sound more intense. When I get to the end of the road and reminisce about the days that I felt truly alive, this was one of those days.
Dave first heard about Dr. Richard Hansen and the Lost City of El Mirador when Dave was traveling through Guatemala a few years ago with his wife, Anne. Dr. Hansen works half the year in the Guatemalan jungle excavating Mayan ruins, and the other half as a potato farmer in Rupert, Idaho. Dave first made contact with Hansen during the winter months when Hansen worked the potato farm with his father and brother. Dave had heard several environmentalists describe Hansen as a tad bit whacked, and he conjured up a strange picture of Hansen in his mind. His initial phone contact did little to sway that opinion.
“Dr. Hansen came across on the phone like he had gone native down in the jungles of Guatemala,” Dave said. “I pictured him like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. It sounded like El Mirador had become this crazy wild kingdom all his own. He was an extreme character during our phone conversations, shouting and challenging me. He was intense and aggressive.”
After we snagged our plane tickets, loaded up our backpacks and headed to Newark Airport, Dave continued to have this vision that we were about to hike 40 miles through a Central American jungle to reach an amazing buried treasure, and to interview the mad man there trying to dig it all up.
It sounded good to me.
To get to El Mirador we flew into Guatemala City and took another flight to Flores the following morning. The plane that took us from the capital to the far northeastern corner of the country looked like it was last flown by Howard Hughes in the 1930s, a funky silver metallic prop plane. We flew up into the scattered clouds and looked down on dozens of volcanoes, lakes, and a vast undulating carpet of rich, lush vegetation. Our destination was Flores, a small city built atop an island mound jutting out into a vast beautiful body of water – Lake Peten Itza.
Photo: The jungle is filled with jaguars, wild boar, monkeys, snakes and billions of spiders. On the first day of the hike we stopped to fool around with a wild tarantula we discovered on the trail. We didn’t eat it.
We spent a day in Flores working on our Spanish “ums and ahhs”, Dave was better than me, and trying to hire a guide to take us into El Mirador. The food and lodging were inexpensive ($2.50 each for our lunch, and $20 for our hotel). While we were taking a mid-afternoon siesta hundreds of firecrackers began to explode on the street below. We went to investigate and stumbled into a political rally for Oscar Berger, who was running for president of Guatemala. I had my camera and fired off a roll of film while backpedaling down a small cobblestone street. Berger grabbed my hand and asked where I was from. When I told him, he said “Welcome to Guatemala, it is a beautiful country”, and continued marching past, hugging babies, waving to people in their windows, and parading through a haze of smoke left hanging in the air from firecrackers.
Flores is a beautiful little town supported by tourism. Flores is a launching point for tens of thousands of tourists who head off to the ruins of Tikal, a 90 minute bus ride away.
Tikal, like El Mirador, was a Mayan city that had been reclaimed by the jungle. Tikal was much smaller and much less significant to the Mayans 2000 years ago, but due to its close proximity to a road, it was excavated and rebuilt, while El Mirador still slumbers beneath the jungle. It is estimated that Tikal National Park generates more than $200 million a year from tourism.
One day Dr. Hansen hopes he can transform El Mirador into an eco-tourism destination.
His plan, which is opposed by many high powered groups in Washington D.C., is designed to preserve the ruins and protect El Mirador from looters and loggers, who driven by greed, are threatening to destroy one of the world’s great treasures.
Photo: Our lead guide, Adonis, right, loads up the pack mules with enough food and water to sustain six men in the wilderness for a week. Joep Arts, an archeologist from Holland, assists in the task.
But we weren’t headed on the bus to Tikal, but into a tangled nest of tropical rain forest to find a primitive site buried beneath 2000 years of jungle growth. Later that day we made arrangements to meet up with a guide in Carmelita, an isolated village four hours away. Carmelita was literally at the end of the road in northeastern Guatemala. We paid a small travel company $400 each for our week journey into El Mirador, and agreed to meet a small truck the following afternoon for the ride to Carmelita. We spent the evening watching the locals play a highly skilled game of soccer on the local basketball court. Unlike soccer games in America, this game involved people of all ages, and sexes. Twelve year old girls were battling for the ball against 45 year old men, with half the town milling around watching the spectacle.
The following day, as the sun set, we piled into the back of a small pick-up truck headed to Carmelita. We paid extra money to go on our jungle hike with just our guide, and the two of us. We didn’t want to get stuck with some unknown companion (we pictured a knucklehead) for the next seven days of our lives. But within minutes the truck was stopping around town to pick up a few fellow travelers, which turned out to be just the beginning of our surprises. There were five of us piled into the back of the truck, sandwiched between backpacks and the boxes of food we needed for the week we would be living in the jungle. But instead of heading to Carmelita, we were headed to a smaller town, on the far northern side of the lake, to spend the night at our guide’s house.
Nobody told us this until we arrived at the far end of the lake, and suddenly our well conceived return flight to America was in jeopardy. We had calculated that we would have already been on the trail hiking to El Mirador, but we were now standing in our guide’s backyard, talking to his wife, and she was telling us it would be several days before we would be on the trail. It turns out her husband, Adonis, wasn’t even home – he was in the middle of the jungle leading a group of three Americans back from El Mirador.
Our travel agent back in Flores had lied to us. Not only were we not going on the hike alone, we wouldn’t be setting out for days. What to do? The only thing I could think of was to throw a Spanglish hissy fit. We got one of the other travelers, who spoke excellent Spanish, to interpret. I explained that Dave was a very important writer and needed to get into El Mirador as fast as possible. Dr. Hansen was waiting for us. We had a plane to catch to get back to the United States.
My very important story was a huge success. Instead of heading directly to Carmelita, Adonis’s family set up hammocks for us in the backyard and we listened to pigs snort all night long from a neighboring alley. Before dawn a rooster crowed in the backyard and we awoke to the smell of fire and the crackle of dried wood exploding. Adonis’ wife was standing next to a fire pit in the corner of the yard making us pancakes and eggs for breakfast. I went for a short walk and ran into a several piglets roaming loose on a narrow cobblestone street. I suspect they were the little snorters we had been listening to all night.
After breakfast our plans were still fluid and we had no idea when we would be heading to Carmelita. Instead of fighting it any longer, we surrendered to our circumstance and headed down to the lake. It was hot and we went swimming out far and deep into the clear blue water. We found out later that the lake was home to crocodiles and raw sewage from the lake side towns and villages. Fortunately, we made it back ashore with our limbs intact and no soiled diapers on our heads.
We befriended three young boys beneath the cool shade of some trees and spent an hour communicating in broken Spanish, drawing them maps of the United States and Central America, and eventually sketching goofy stick figure portraits of ourselves. We met Elvis, a Swiss ex-patriot, who lived in the town. Elvis, we were told, would be driving us to Carmelita. While we waited to depart, Elvis fed a lollipop to a monkey with a chain around its neck.
Suddenly our great Mayan adventure was taking a hard turn towards a carnival freak show.
Finally, in the early afternoon, we piled back into the pick-up and drove four hours down a dirt road to Carmelita. We drove past vast tracts of land that had just been clear cut, miles and miles of complete deforestation. Other areas were charred from massive wildfires that had triggered smoke dense enough to be detected in Houston, Texas, 1500 miles to the north. We later learned from Dr. Hansen that the fires had been purposely set by local Guatemalan firefighters. When times were tough – start a fire – then get paid to put them out.
When we finally pulled into Carmelita, a village of 100 Guatemalans, Adonis was resting in a hammock. After introductions we pushed to move up our departure time. He wanted to rest for a few days, but after he discovered that Dave had spoken to Dr. Hansen on the telephone, Adonis agreed to lead us into the jungle early the next morning. The three Americans who had just emerged from the jungle with Adonis were in their early 20s. They were grizzled and smelled raunchy from their 80 mile hike. They hadn’t showered in five days. They were sweaty, dirty and a bit whacky. They had smoked pot most of the way, and said “dude” a lot. But we were curious. They were insiders. Veterans. What was it like? we asked.
They acted cocky, like gunslingers fresh from a shoot out. They said the biggest danger was ticks, thousands of them, and they talked about Dr. Hansen’s daughters. After days in the jungle smoking fresh Guatemalan weed they described the two oldest Hansen girls as mythic Mayan goddesses. They cackled like hyenas, talked about Adonis in reverent tones, and within the hour they climbed into the back of the pick-up truck and headed back to Flores and a hot shower.
We spent that night in hammocks hanging above a dirt floor in a thatched hut on the edge of a vast tropical rain forest. There was no electricity and Dave and I talked for hours by candlelight, an eerie yellow glow flickered through the room as we swayed back and forth in our hammocks. In the morning we awoke to the sounds of fire snapping from the kitchen. Adonis’ wife was making tortillas for our journey. After a hearty breakfast Adonis loaded water and supplies on two pack mules and we plunged into the unknown.
The Death March
Richard Hansen and his family have made the 40 mile hike into El Mirador dozens of times and he jokingly refers to it as “the death march”. While it takes most hikers two excruciating days to make the journey, Hansen routinely hikes the entire 40 miles in one long push, ending long after darkness has fallen on the jungle. While both Dave and I consider ourselves physically fit, neither of us had ever before set out on a 40 mile hike, in 90 degree heat, through 90% humidity. Within an hour our shirts were completely drenched and rivers of sweat flowed freely down our backs.
Early in the hike I found a parrot’s beak laying on the side of the trail. I picked it up and stashed it in my pocket. I deposited the beak back onto Guatemalan soil seven days later after reading a poster in the airport threatening huge fines, and prison, for any one trying to smuggle portions of exotic birds and animals out of the country.
Our entire hike was underscored by a whirring sound created by millions of circada insects. At times the noise was deafening. Vines with four inch spikes jabbed at our heads and legs. Dave, at 6’7”, seemed to snag every spider web constructed in the past year, and he nearly poked his eye out on the trail walking into a jagged branch. Me, I wasn’t worried about spider webs and spines, my mind was 100% focused on snakes. The jungles of Central America is home to a bright yellow viper, the fer-de-lance, which is one of the deadliest snakes on the planet. Basically if a fer-de-lance bites you in the jungle, you are going to die. They camouflage on the jungle floor and they are very aggressive.
Photo: Adonis explains the death of a worker who was bitten by a deadly fer de lance snake in the jungle. The man died within hours
Adonis told us to be careful where we walked, and during the entire hike I never placed my foot onto a spot I couldn’t see. I was extremely cautious and never took the point during seven days in the jungle. After a few hours of hiking we stopped at a grave site just off the trail and Adonis explained that a villager had died there after getting struck by a fer-de-lance.
Great, just what I needed. My fear didn’t need any reinforcement and I began to conjure up a plan of action if a fer-de-lance sunk its poisonous fangs into my calf. Instead of waiting for the poison to shut down my central nervous system, I was going to get Armando to hack my leg off with a machete. Then I would rely on Matais, the medical student from Switzerland, to stop the bleeding. The rest of the gang could throw me onto the back of a pack mule and we could beat it back to Carmelita. I could live the rest of my life without the lower portion of a leg, but I wasn’t going to die in the rain forests of Guatemala.
Dave thought I was nuts.
We stopped every few hours along the trail to rest, eat a snack, or listen to Adonis talk about the jungle. He would stop unexpectedly and point to a band of monkeys, or to a Mayan burial tomb that had been ransacked by looters. It was clear from the outset that Adonis had enormous respect for Dave and deferred to him in making important decisions.
It took us a while to figure out why, but Brian, the Duke graduate student, finally solved the mystery. Adonis, and everybody back in Carmelita, thought Dave possessed some enormous power because he had spoken to Dr. Hansen on the telephone. Hansen was a powerful and influential man and nobody in Carmelita had ever spoken to him on the phone, but Dave had. This extraordinary feat made Dave a powerful and influential man in the northeast corner of Guatemala. The villagers had begun referring to Dave in Spanish as the Telephone Man, and we followed suit. From then on we called Dave the Telephone Man.
But the nicknames didn’t stop there. Joep Arts is a dashing Dutch archaeologist who speaks five languages and possesses a wonderful sense of humor. Joep (pronounced Yupe) was in his late 20s, 6’4”, 200 pounds, with a stubby four day old beard. When he introduced himself to me his name flew in one ear and out my other. I asked him to repeat it again and filed it away for future use. Minutes later I attempted to strike up a conversation and referred to him as U-Bay, falsely believing I had mastered the Dutch language. After addressing him as U-Bay several times, he asked if I was talking to him, and then corrected my mispronunciation. For some reason I couldn’t picture the name Joep (Yupe) in my mind, and moments later called him U-Bay again.
My dear friend Dave, who loves to bust my chops, struck like a fer-de-lance in the bush. “What did you call him?” he asked. “U-Bay?” Everybody began to laugh, and Joep suddenly had a new nickname – U-Bay. That is until we started calling him Gadget Man. I have never seen any traveller in the world more prepared than Joep Arts. He carried gadgets to suck snake venom out of flesh and to snag ticks out of skin. He carried sewing kits, first aid for every emergency, bug spray, mosquito netting for his head, zip off pants that transformed into shorts, quick drying shirts and the perfect hiking boots and socks.
By comparison Dave and I were inept. We were so impressed that we alternated between calling him U-Bay, and Gadget Man.
After pounding U-Bay, Telephone Man, and Gadget Man for a few days, the tables turned on me. Adonis had asked me to carry a roll of toilet paper in my backpack and I was eventually nicknamed Toilet Paper Man, far less glamorous, and certainly much less dignified. There is something juvenile and wonderful that occurs when a small group of men hike 80 miles through a tropical rainforest together. We had deep conversations about life in Europe, the Iraq War, women, and sports. But a majority of our banter was childish potty humor. It was hilarious and unprintable in these pages.
Photo: After hiking 27 miles in 90 degree heat Dave rests in his hammock two feet off the jungle floor.
Two of our traveling companions could submit an application to the United Nations. Joep and Matais both spoke five languages and conducted hour long conversations in French, then switched to Spanish, then to English. I was humbled and awed by their gift of language. My Spanish is poor to non-existent, Surrounded by linguists my Spanish was reduced to bueno (good), mucho trabajar (much work) and pelegroso (danger).
One of the unexpected delights on the hike was the excellent trail food prepared by Adonis. He cooked hearty soups with onion, carrots and potatoes. We woke up from our hammocks after spending the night dangling between two trees and were fed a huge bowl of granola smothered with fresh pineapple, mango, bananas, melon and papaya. For lunch we had warm tortillas, beans, cucumbers and tomatoes all rolled together. “ It was a joy putting the food in my mouth,” Dave said. “The food was astonishingly good.”
We hiked past gringo nose trees with their trademark red peeling bark. We hiked past termite mounds and armies of leaf cutter ants marching single file to and from their nest. We stopped and played with a tarantula spider, letting it crawl over our hands and arms. We shone our flashlights into the dark and saw the reflection of thousands of spider eyes peering back.
And finally we made it to El Mirador.
Dr. Hansen, I Presume
The first stage of our death march through the jungle was over and nobody was bitten by a fer-de-lance. We were either lucky, foolish, or overly concerned. After months of speculation it was now time for Dave to come face to face with Dr. Richard Hansen. When we found him working at an excavation of a small temple he seemed subdued, certainly not the wild man Dave had described from their telephone conversations. Hansen spoke in a near whisper and we leaned in just to catch what he was saying.
Photo: After hiking 40 miles we met up with Dr. Richard Hansen, one of the most fascinating people I have ever met in my life. He spends six months of the year as a potato farmer in Idaho, and the other six months living in the jungle excavating the pyramids and tombs of El Mirador. But his passion soars beyond archaelogy, he has risked his life to protect the ruins and wilderness of El Mirador from theives, drug smugglers and lumber companies.
We later surmised he was either exhausted when he met us, or he was acting like a boxer in the opening rounds of a big bout, feeling us out, seeing what questions Dave asked. The remainder of our three day visit in El Mirador found Hansen passionate and charming. He has a husky, velvet voice and a mischievous twinkle in his eye. Hansen is in his early 50s, a Mormon, a scientist, and seems to possess a little Dennis the Menace within his broad shoulders. He is quick with a laugh and is always on the go. He stands 6’4’, weighs 230 pounds and looks like he was a star football player back in Idaho.
He was a superb downhill skier until he blew his knee out and won the Idaho debate championship while a senior in high school. Hanson earned degrees in Spanish and Archaeology from Brigham Young University, a Masters degree in Anthropology from Brigham Young and a Ph.D in Archaeology from UCLA. Hansen was a Fulbright Scholar in 1990 and was named the Outstanding Graduate Student at UCLA in 1991. He has published more than 70 research papers and has presented his findings to more than 150 symposiums around the world.
Dr. Hansen’s wife, Jody, is amazingly supportive. Every summer she brings seven children out into the jungle to live at El Mirador. Imagine chasing after your kids while they are pulling pythons out of trees, and your husband is climbing in and out of Mayan burial mounds after receiving a death threat from poachers. Jody shares Richard’s dream and vision of El Mirador and has spent thousands of hours sketching Mayan symbols and glyphs from the ruins.
Photo: While we watched Richard at an excavation site, a small rattlesnake slithered past Dave Howard’s boot. Richard calmly captured it with a shovel and released it unharmed back into the jungle.
“The first night we camped in the jungle we pitched our tent on a small trail,” Jody Hansen said. “Later that night a wild boar ran into our tent. We were camped on an animal super-highway.”
In 1980 Dr. Hansen persuaded a Guatemalan general to send in a regiment of men to protect the site from looters. “Forty armed special force soldiers came in and the looting stopped overnight.” But a new problem emerged. “We had jaguars that were so used to human presence that they would walk right out on the trail, we had foxes that would come right into camp, we had wild pig everywhere, monkeys and ocelot…..and the soldiers shot everything.”
One day Hansen found 120 monkey carcasses piled up, the soldiers had shot them out of the trees for sport.
“After that we never saw any more jaguars out here,” Hansen said. “And I quit counting on the military to give us any protection. They stopped the looting, but it was a bittersweet victory. It was awful. Just a carnage. We have spider and howler monkeys back now, thank heavens.”
Hansen has used his own money to hire guards and protect the sites. “Can you imagine losing a site now that has remained intact for 2000 years?” Hanson said. But some critics say Hansen is just protecting his life’s work.
“No, I don’t look at it that way,” Hansen said. We’re protecting the sites for the guy 100 years from now who will have technology we can’t even fathom. Better methodology, better theory…they are the ones who are going to reap the rewards of this.”
Hanson is the founder and president of the Foundation for Anthropological Research and Environmental Studies (FARES), a non-profit research institution based in Washington D.C. From its website FARES is described as a sponsor of research and environmental studies in the Mirador Basin in northeast Guatemala. The FARES project is “currently exploring the origins and demise of early Maya civilization, trying to preserve the tropical rainforests in the basin, and assist the communities surrounding the basin with education, employment and health.”
Hansen tries to see the overview of life in Guatemala and not zero in on the 2000 year old Mayan ruin. He is battling to save the rain forest surrounding El Mirador. He is fighting to protect the wildlife from poachers. He wants to employ the locals.
“I came to the conclusion years ago that science that doesn’t bless the lives of people is sterile,” Hansen said. “I can do some great research here and lay it out at a conference and everybody goes bravo, bravo….but then what…..it’s sterile, it just sits there. So it’s a matter of converting science to blessing the lives of people.”
Which is what he envisions happening at El Mirador. He sees the ruins, the rain forest and the rural Guatemalan people all interconnected. Hansen believes they can work together to strengthen all three, and for the past several years Hansen has worked tirelessly to transform El Mirador into an ecotourist destination. He envisions a railroad and a helicopter bringing tourists into El Mirador where they’ll stay in an upscale lodge while they wander around the massive Mayan ruins. For the more intrepid tourists Hansen will encourage them to still make the 40 mile hike from Carmelita, but instead of spending the night in a hammock, they’d stay at a small hut along the trail where they could clean up, get food and sleep in a bed. Hansen wants to make El Mirador more accessible, but leave it rustic and primitive. By making it accessible he belives he can save the ruins, protect the largest tract of rain forest left in Central America, and benefit the local population.
“If there wasn’t a road into Angor Wat, would you still want to see it?” Hansen asked.
“Word would get out that it’s hard to get too, it’s exotic, let’s go. All of a sudden you’ve employed mules, horses, equipment, guides and cooks out of these little villages and they get a piece of the economic pie. If we don’t incorporate these communities we are shooting ourselves in the foot. Or if they punch a road in here and you and I can drive here in air conditioned comfort..great…but the villagers are shafted. They will perpetuate themselves in a misery that will never, ever end.”
The Nature Conservancy and other well intentioned organizations have paid local Guatemalans to selectively log areas of the Peten Rain Forest to lure them away from drugs and poaching. But as good as it sounds in the board rooms back in Washington D.C., Hansen says it doesn’t work on the ground in Guatemala. Hansen says the local mafia controls the money, and the frontier wild west economy in the isolated northeast region of Guatemala is unsuitable for the altruistic plans. As an example, Hansen says many local Guatemalans are paid to put out fires that threaten the Peten forest. In the spring of 2003 many local Guatemalans sets hundreds of fires so they could get paid for putting them out.
Photo: Richard Hansen’s wife, Jody, and seven children, spend every summer living in the jungle with him.
“It was a total joke,” Hansen said. “A scam to make some money, and we lost 100,000 acres of virgin rain forest. They could see smoke all the way up in Houston from these fires.” Many of the people in these villages are illiterate and have lived by plundering their whole lives.
“Traditional power in these communities is decided by who has the money,” Hansen said.
“But where does the money come from in a frontier town with no law and no policemen? You don’t get it by going out and planting your bushel of corn. You got it by looting, by drugs or poaching jaguar pelts.”
Hansen is determined to keep logging roads out of the rain forest. He believes there are important lessons to be learned from Jane Goodall’s battle to save the chimpanzees in Africa. Logging roads around Gombe National Park in Tanzania made the site more accessible to loggers, poachers and thieves. “If you punch roads in here it is all over,” Hansen said. “People have floated the idea of building a highway to El Mirador. The idea is frightening. Devastating.”
Bizarrely, Dr. Hansen spends months every year excavating temples and burial mounds inside El Mirador, but before he heads back to Idaho, he reburies everything.
“We know where everything is,” Hansen said. “But we want to keep it out of the hands of the looters.”
During our visit to the ruins Hansen was excavating the temple of the 13th Mayan king who reigned over El Mirador from 152 BC to 145 BC. There was a massive jaguar paw on the outside of the temple. “This is like a Pompei,” he said. “The only thing stopping us is money. Everything we do is ground-breaking, nobody has ever seen this kind of pre classic architecture, we have changed the entire trajectory of the evolutionary sequence.” Hansen discovered something very wrong with the traditional model of Mayan civilization.
“Complex architecture like this temple is very sophisticated,” he said. “But they built this when they were supposed to be a little peasant society that gradually became civilized. Instead it was almost the opposite.”
Pottery is used to document a collapse of Mayan civilization and there was a major depopulation in El Mirador around the time of Christ. The city of El Mirador collapsed around 150 AD and was reoccupied in 600 AD.
“We believe lime production led to deforestation,” Hansen said. “The Maya began lavish and wasteful use of lime to enhance their social prestige. Some floors of homes were ten feet thick. Why? Because you have the economic power to extract that kind of wealth.”
The process of creating lime hinged on green wood. Just the last stucco layer on El Tigre, one of the many pyramids in El Mirador, is estimated to have used every available tree in 16 square kilometers of forest. It is estimated that the city of El Mirador required 453 square kilometers of jungle just to fuel the lime industry.
Photo: Joep Arts stands atop La Danta, the largest pyramid in the world. The view from La Danta is uninterrupted wilderness for as far as the eye can see.
Hansen uses pollen samples taken from cross sections of soil to recreate human activity in the area. “We can see when humans first started cutting the forest here and we can see when they abandoned the site. We can record the entire human saga through pollen.”
Hansen’s research has flipped traditional Mayan theory on its collective ear. Traditional theory says the Mayans were hunters and gatherers until 300 AD when they became somewhat civilized, and by 600 AD they were civilized.
“This is not true,” Hansen said. “In many ways the Maya were light years ahead of the so called civilized guys. We have changed that perspective, but we’re going against the good old boys at Harvard and Yale who say “it can’t be”
But Hansen said resistance to his findings has disappeared. “Data is a powerful force. Once we had the data it’s cut and dry. Now I don’t have any trouble with the scientific community at all.”
Hansen wants to map El Mirador and compare the construction here to the building of the Panama Canal. “This was a monumental undertaking,” he said. “I wonder how far the Maya would have got if they had taken their effort here and tried to build another Panama Canal ? It’s that monumental. It was a monumental movement of rock and mud. It’s amazing.”
Photo: A Mayan burial mound that had been hacked into by looters seeking valuable jade.
It’s ironic that 2000 years ago the Maya were driven from a bustling metropolis due to massive deforestation and now the abandoned city is swallowed by a jungle rich in diversity and wildlife. And even stranger yet, the region is now again threatened by deforestation. Two thousand years ago El Mirador lost its humanity. Now it could all go – trees, ruins, wildlife, and local villages.
Hugh Downes of 20/20 flew in a few years back and filmed a segment on Hansen that was part science and part Hollywood. The report featured Hansen as a real life Indiana Jones, a reference made numerous times throughout the segment. In fact there was never an Indiana Jones, he is an imaginary action hero. Richard Hansen, however, is real.
He and Jody survived a plane crash in the jungle. During the crash Jody cradled their infant daughter and moments later kept Hansen from diving back into the wreckage to get his research papers. Jody saved his life, but Hansen lost several years of early research. The crash site is a short hike from the pyramids, where visitors can still see the burned out wreckage.
Photo: We visited the site of an airplane crash that nearly took the lives of Jody and Richard Hansen twenty years ago at El Mirador. After they escaped from the burning plane, Jody restrained Richard from heading back through the flames to salvage years of research. It was all lost.
Once while exploring an abandoned grave site Hansen turned to his left just as a fer-de-lance whizzed past his ear. Danger is all around. Richard Hansen is the thumb in the dike holding back the loggers, drug dealers, looters and poachers from raping El Mirador. If they kill Hansen the barn door is open and unprotected. He has received many death threats over the years.
“I’m on the high wire out here,” Hansen said. “If I fall this will all go. Looters will take over the place.”
But the future appears to be brightening.
Hollywood star Mel Gibson recently donated $500,000 to Hansen’s project. Gibson is also planning to film a movie about Mayan warriors and is considering El Mirador as a possible site for filming.
And just a few months ago, Guatemala’s president, Oscar Berger, presented Dr. Richard Hansen with the country’s highest award for his efforts in El Mirador. His National Order citation read “Dr. Richard Hansen has been at the forefront of research, exploration, conservation and protection of the priceless history and culture found in the earliest Mayan cities.”
Forget Indiana Jones.
For everything Dr. Richard Hansen is doing in the jungles of northeast Guatemala, he has certainly earned his own nickname.
How about Idaho Hansen?