El Mirador is perhaps the most exotic and mysterious Maya site of all. Encircled by the Petén and Campeche jungles, this massive city surpasses Tikal’s scale although we are only now beginning to piece together its history. Mayanists are not even certain of its name – el mirador means “the lookout” in Spanish – but it could have been Ox Te Tun (Birthplace of the Gods). Until the 1980s, it was assumed Mirador was a city from the Classic era, but this theory has been totally overthrown. We now know that Mirador was a Preclassic capital of unprecedented scale, and its fall around 150 AD was just the first of two catastrophic collapses suffered by the Maya civilization.
The ruins are surrounded by some of the densest tropical forests in the Americas, and you’re sure to encounter some spectacular wildlife, including the resident troops of howler and spider monkeys, toucans and perhaps even a scarlet macaw. Wildcat numbers in the area are some of the healthiest in Latin America, with an estimated four hundred jaguar, as well as ocelot, jaguarundi and puma.
The latest research indicates that it was the boggy nature of the Mirador Basin that drew the first settlers here, the richness of its bajo mud allowing the early Maya to found villages based on crop cultivation. By 1000 BC (though some ceramic evidence suggests as far back as 1480 BC) these settlements were established and thriving at Mirador. The site chosen for the city itself was a commanding one, on an outcrop of karst (limestone) hills at an altitude of 250m, with swamps providing protection to the east.
By the Middle Preclassic, ceremonial structures were being built, including early temples at Los Monos, El Tigre and the Central Acropolis (generations later these structures would be built over and enlarged to a much grander scale). For centuries Mirador flourished, peaking between 350 BC and 100 AD, when it was home to over one hundred thousand Maya. The city’s ruling Kaan dynasty were overlords of hundreds of thousands more subjects in the Basin region and overlords of millions in the wider Maya World.
Mirador became a great trading centre as jade and obsidian were brought from the highlands; granite, shells and coral beads imported from the Caribbean and salt carried in from the Yucatán. The city grew to dominate the entire region, and by the time of Christ it must have been something to behold, its emblematic triadic temples painted scarlet with cinnabar and soaring high above the forest canopy, with a web of stone causeways connecting the great capital to dozens of other cities in its empire.