Mirador was the birthplace of the Maya and the cradle of their civilization. From the monumental pyramid of La Danta to the epic Popul Vuh frieze, Mirador is the shining emblem of the Maya’s cultural splendor
Where We Work
The lowlands of northern Guatemala appear to contain little more than endless expanses of sultry rainforest canopies and the omnipresent smoke of slash-and-burn agriculture. Beneath the modern surface, however, lies a vast wealth of temples, pyramids, monumental artworks, and the 2,000-year-old ephemera of a forgotten civilization fossilized in time.
Mirador Archaeological and Wildlife Area, located in the heart of the Maya Biosphere in northern Guatemala, is home to the earliest and largest Preclassic Maya archeological sites in Mesoamerica. However, until recently, it remained an undiscovered metropolis hidden amongst the backwaters of the rural Guatemalan jungle. As late as the 1930s, aviators flying over the jungle’s face believed the massive limestone structures were nothing but volcanoes rising up from the lowlands.
It’s hard to see how they made that mistake. Rising to 230 feet in height, El Mirador’s La Danta is not the tallest of the world’s great pyramids – that title belongs to the Great Pyramid of Giza – but its smaller stature belies its larger scope, as 99 million cubic feet of building materials combine to form a structure of truly monumental proportions and the world’s largest pyramid by volume.
And yet, La Danta is but one among the great Mayan constructions; now covered in trees and only discernible through special sensors, it is here that the world’s first freeway system snakes for miles from ruin to ruin, connecting the jungle’s many wild inhabitants to each other in place of its erstwhile human engineers. In a city three times the size of downtown Los Angeles, a place that once teemed with over 200,000 people, the only sounds that may be heard in the jungle’s vast silence are of wild turkeys, raptors, monkeys, and snakes.
While archaeological work has been ongoing in the region for over 30 years, the sheer number of cities, villages, and Maya-manipulated topographical features provide an endless source for future research and an invaluable wellspring of future knowledge about the Maya and early Mesoamerica. Equally invaluable is the environment in which these Pre-Classic Maya cities are situated, one of the largest remaining areas of primary forest left in Central America.
Though hidden in peaceful repose for over 2,000 years, El Mirador’s ancient structures are under heavy threat from intensive agricultural development, logging, drug trafficking, and looting. In the past five years alone, these forces have combined to destroy 70 percent of the Maya Biosphere in Northern Guatemala, largely due to slash-and-burn agriculture and clear-cut logging.
Nature isn’t the only casualty, however. For millennia, the Atlantic forests sheltered and protected the delicate remains of the metropolis. Now that the jungles have been replaced with intensive agricultural activity, the looters’ trenches or the farmer’s plough have damaged or destroyed virtually every site in the Mirador Basin.Human, wildlife, and drug trafficking pillages what few resources remain.
What We Do
Global Heritage Fund and our partners stepped up in 2006 to establish economic alternatives to these extremely destructive practices. Through sustainable tourism, job training, income generation, and more dignified agricultural practices, our work in Mirador will help stymie the destruction and invest the local community in the future of their heritage.
Global Heritage Fund and partners stepped up in 2006 to present our first Master Conservation Plan to the government of Guatemala. Since its inception, we have incorporated input from government ministries, local communities, indigenous stakeholders, and the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Our primary goal was to restore the most significant structures in the city of El Mirador, the namesake for Mirador Archaeological and Wildlife Preserve. Beyond the city itself, preservation is an ongoing, long-term mission in the Mirador Basin, and Global Heritage Fund is reviewing potential conservation work at other cities in the Maya Biosphere.
Global Heritage Fund is conducting scientific conservation work at the regional level to understand the origins, cultural and ecological dynamics, and demographic collapse of the complex Maya society that flourished in the Mirador Basin.
After receiving formal approval, GHF and our partners dispatched a team of forty specialists to survey, map, and assess the ecological and archaeological state of the Mirador Basin. During their work there, they mapped 26 Maya cities previously unknown to the Guatemalan government, and additionally discovered important monumental architecture in the precincts of El Mirador itself. All of these areas now have formal protection under the Guatemalan constitution.
An important component of the research and conservation work in the Mirador Basin has been the social, educational, and developmental work with the communities that live in the Mirador Basin. The purpose of such activity is to provide economic alternatives to the negative forces that wreak havoc on the environment, the archaeological sites, and individual lives and families.
In order to combat looting, deforestation and poaching activities, the project includes the placement of numerous guards, implementing education programs and vocational training, as well as providing employment and business development opportunities for communities and towns in northern Guatemala.
The opportunities that the project provides represent a major advantage for the protection and preservation of the area, and a feasible solution to many of the challenges facing Guatemala and the Lowland communities that live adjacent to the Mirador Basin.
- The Foundation for Anthropological Research and Environmental Studies (FARES) USA and FAREX Guatemala.
- The Foundation of Cultural and Natural Maya Patrimony (PACUNAM)
- The U.S. Department of the Interior
- The Guatemalan Government
Why It's Important
Mirador was the birthplace of the Maya and the site of their most monumental architectural achievements. The Mirador Basin in which it sits contains four of the largest and oldest Maya cities, all larger than nearby Tikal National Park – El Mirador itself, Nakbe, Tintal, and Wakna. These ancient places of worship, gathering, civic importance, and sacral splendor are the last remaining relics of a highly evolved and complex society. Their preservation is integral to the full tapestry of the human story, and we hope that you will support as we continue to protect this priceless heritage.
- Mirador Archaeological Management Plan approved by the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of the Environment
- Preliminary exploration and mapping of ten previously unknown and unexplored ancient cities (La Sarteneja, La Tortuga, Paxban, Wakna, El Camotillo, El Guiro, El Porvenir, La Ceibita, la Florecita, La Iglesia) which now complement the recently finished maps of the ancient cities of Tintal, Naba, Bejucal, and Xulnal. This study was under the supervision of Archaeologist Hector Mejia and 4 students from San Carlos University and the University Center of Peten.
- LIDAR study of Mirador Basin completed.
- Emergency consolidation and stabilization of La Danta Pyramid and other threatened major architecture at El Mirador.
- Large-scale archaeological excavations at El Mirador including Structure 34, exposing Preclassic mask reliefs and numerous plaza and platform excavations at the site.
- Discovery of major ancient Preclassic (ca. 300-200 B.C.) wall paintings at Wakna (similar to those recently found at San Bartolo) and at Porvenir (Late Classic, ca. A.D. 700).
- Monumental art discovered under the Popol Vuh frieze
- Popul Vuh frieze replicated and on permanent display in the Preclassic Hall of the National Museum in Guatemala City.
- 29 stucco heads with original paint discovered in the Casa del Coral, east of the Danta pyramid, and now on display at the Guatemalan National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology
- Community Forestry Concession Agreement protects an estimated 80,000 acres – encompassing eight major Mayan cities –from logging.
- Featured on National Geographic documentary The Creations, starring Morgan Freeman and Richard Hansen.
- Several shelters have been constructed over archaeological features. The shelters are well designed, minimal and on the whole functional. The roofs apply needed protection from rainstorms, and the run-off water is gathered by gutters and stored for use onsite.
- 60 guides trained
- 30 park rangers trained and working to patrol and protect sites
- 300+ local community members employed by the project
- 50 interpretive signs installed in and around Mirador
- 74 workmen trained in on-site literacy courses
- Portable water system and new school constructed in the village of Carmelita
They were the Cradle of Maya Civilization, but these long-dormant places – for 2,000 years hidden beneath jungle growth – are today threatened by the very modern forces of agricultural expansion, excessive logging, and looting. As Global Heritage Fund and our partners continue working to restore and enhance the monumental glories of the Mirador site, we are mindful of the immense challenges we continue to face.
- Further excavations and conservation on the first, second, and third levels of the Danta and Parva pyramids.
- Continued horizontal excavations and conservation on Cascabel Structure 200, 204, and 207, with broad horizontal exposure and stabilization of Middle and Late PReclassic architecture.
- Continued excavation and conservation of the façade of the Tigre pyramid
- Continued monumental work in the Central Acropolis, with excavations of Structures 313, 314, and 315.
- Continued excavations and supporting conservation to support the Late Pre-Classic art on the façade of the Popul Vuh frieze building.
- Continued excavation and consolidations on the primary stairway of the Great Central Acropolis and the royal throne in Structure 304.
- Tunnel excavations in Structures 316 and 34
Juan Carlos Calderon
Juan Carlos Calderon grew up in the village of Carmelita, a small and remote community of 200 people bordering Mirador Rio Azul National Park in the Peten region of Guatemala. Uneducated, unemployed, and faced with the basic human need to shelter and feed his family, Juan Carlos subsisted on wildlife poaching and looting the numerous Mayan ruins surrounding his home. Without alternatives, Juan Carlos was unable to obtain his daily necessities, and so he did not have a firm basis for supporting the cultural heritage and environment of the region.
Things started to change when Global Heritage Fund began work in the Mirador Basin. For the last five years, Juan Carlos has worked as a guard in the park. Defending the very assets he plundered for most of his life with a renewed sense of purpose and hope, Juan Carlos now has a job that provides him with a steady income, access to basic health care, and educational opportunities. Most importantly, because of Juan Carlos’ steady income for the past five years, his eldest son Enrique completed high school and is now studying law at university in Guatemala City.
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