El Mirador

El Mirador, located within the furthest reaches of the Peten jungle in Guatemala, just 4 miles (7 km) south of the Mexican border, was one of the first large cities in the Americas. Raised causeways spread out from the city to some of the other Mayan cities in the lowlands, including Nakbé and Wakná, all of which may have been dominated by El Mirador. The construction of these causeways would have involved a massive number of Mayans to build: The causeway to Nakbé alone was 8 miles (13 km) long. But these constructions are peanuts compared to the size of the Danta pyramid complex at El Mirador, which is the largest structure ever constructed by the ancient Maya. And the Danta complex was even joined by other massive pyramids, such as El Tigre.

El Mirador was virtually abandoned by 150 AD, its power taken over most likely by Tikal and nearby Calakmul. In the seventh and eighth century AD it was re-occupied although never approaching the levels seen during the Late Preclassic heydays. It wasn’t until 1926 before El Mirador was sighted again. Four years later its jungle covered temples were photographed from the air by Percy Madeira Jr. as part of an aerial reconnaissance of Maya sites. In 1962, Ian Graham surveyed and mapped El Mirador Guatemala.

La Danta Pyramid at El Mirador. Photo credit: Dennis

La Danta Pyramid at El Mirador. Photo credit: Dennis


El Mirador flourished from about the 6th century BC, reaching its height from the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD, with a peak population of perhaps more than a hundred thousand people. The difference in sheer size between El Mirador and its neighbours is a clear sign to its greater power. El Mirador almost certainly represents the earliest emergence of a powerful state in the Maya lowlands. Its rapid growth and unprecedented size have changed previous theories about the origins and development of the Maya civilization.

The scale of architectural planning and construction at El Mirador indicates the presence of a powerful elite. Without surviving royal portraits on carved monuments there is no direct evidence for individual rulers. A possible clue regarding the rulers at El Mirador however may be found on a series of vases with the names and inauguration dates for a sequence of 19 rulers, beginning with a founder nicknamed ‘Skyraiser’. Although they are identified as rulers of the ‘snake’ (Kan or Kaan), the name associated with the Mayan site of Calakmul to the north, the dates of their reigns do not correspond to the reigns of Calakmul’s known kings. But these dates do match a late preclassic chronology beginning in 396 BC and extending into the 1st century AD. The identity of the city ruled by these kings remains a mystery but the most likely possibility is El Mirador. In fact these vases were manufactured in the El Mirador basin.

Map of El Mirador, Guatemala

The map shows the location of El Mirador. The buttons on the left can be used to zoom in or out. Click and drag the map to move around.


There are hundreds of structures at El Mirador, but a major ongoing excavation has never been undertaken, so almost everything is still hidden beneath the jungle. Visitors have to use their imagination to picture the city at its height of its power.

The Western Group of structures at El Mirador is dominated by the El Tigre temple. This pyramid measures 18 stories high (more than 196 ft or 60 meter) and its base covers an area six times the area of Tikal’s biggest pyramid, Temple IV.

The Western Group is linked by a causeway to the Eastern, or Danta Group. The Danta Group is the largest complex at El Mirador, although it incorporated a low natural hill. The Danta Group rises above a basal terrace in three stages. The lowest platform is about 23 ft (7 m) high and support a series of buildings. The second smaller platform rises about another 23 ft and in turn support a third platform, some 69 ft (21 m) high. Crowning this third stage is a monumental triadic pyramid at its eastern apex know as Danta, rising about 230 ft (70 m) above the forest floor.

Visit El Mirador

Visiting El Mirador, Guatemala is not for the faint of heart. Conditions at the site are rudimentary: there are no toilets, beds, cold beverages or bathrooms. The village of Carmelita is the nearest point to the El Mirador ruins that you can go by car. From there it takes a grueling trek of at least five days and four nights through the jungle with ants, ticks and mosquitoes that never relent. That said, people who make this journey will never forget it.