Jungle Gym: Maya Ruins in Guatemala

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Moises Castillo / AP

HIDDEN WORLD: U.S. archaeologist Richard Hansen and frieze

Guatemala's most popular Maya ruins lie at Tikal, but for real bragging rights you'll have to head deep into the Peten jungle, where you'll find the ancient city of El Mirador. Dating back to 300 B.C., it's about a century older and more than twice the size of Tikal. And while getting to Tikal is a simple matter of climbing into an air-conditioned vehicle, to get a glimpse of El Mirador's monumental temples you need to trek your way through the jungle — the nearest road is about 45 miles (75 km) away.

Expect a two-day slog through dense rainforest, bare-bones style camping and blisters. From Guatemala City, it's a short flight to Flores, where you can organize guides, mules and equipment through a local outfitter (try www.nitun.com). The trail proper starts at the village of Carmelita and the wise will arrive in dry season (November to May), when the rainforest is scorching but mosquito- and mud-free. The journey is utterly exhausting, of course, but your inner Indiana Jones will exult at your first glimpse of El Mirador — thought to be home to around 80,000 at one time. (See 50 authentic American travel experiences.)

Its partially excavated remains lie spread out in the forest, connected by stone causeways (the Maya were the world's first highway builders). The expanse of the site is breathtaking: thousands of ruins lie over an area of 23 square miles (38 sq km). Towering 236 ft. (72 m) over it all is the Danta pyramid, of greater volume than the Egyptian pyramid of Cheops and affording sweeping views of the lush green canopy. No trip to El Mirador is complete without a climb to this aerie of the gods — nor a wry contemplation from its summit of the long slog back.

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