The remains of the first great cities of the Maya are still engulfed by the most extensive forests in the region, an area known as the Mirador Basin. The discoveries here in the extreme north of the country have already led to a complete rethink about the origins of the Maya, and it’s now clear that this was once the cradle of Maya civilization. The main focus of interest has been the giant site of El Mirador, the first Maya “superpower”, which is famous for its colossal triadic temple complexes. But neighbouring Nakbé, the first city to emerge (around 800 BC), Wakná (which was only discovered in 1998) and the massive ruins of Tintal (on the scale of Tikal) are just three of the myriad cities that once thrived in this now remotest of regions.
The conditions are very difficult – marshy mosquito-plagued terrain that becomes so saturated that excavations can only be attempted for five months of the year. Currently only around three thousand people make it to Mirador each year, and archeologists outnumber visitors at any one time. Numbers are tiny because of the effort or expense required to get to the ruins, which either involves days of hard hiking through dense jungle and swamps or a brief visit as part of a helicopter tour.