The tropical forest is a place of endless transformations, I realised, watching a blue butterfly tangled in a spider’s web. Life springs from death, and everything devours everything else.

Eight hours of hiking in such ravenous surroundings had left my legs in a state of virtual rigor mortis. In the absence of a surgical saw, I was settling for an old-fashioned brew of pungent jungle herbs.

‘Drink,’ rasped Antonio, my guide, pressing a steaming concoction to my chest. ‘Es bueno.’

I took the cup and drank. Soon the incessant forest noises, the shadows, the rampant decay and damp-cloaked foliage, all dissolved into a strange, sweet drowsiness…

Central America’s Petén forest is as thick with intrigue as it is impassable. The haunt of drifters, poachers and itinerant criminals, this dark expanse in northern Guatemala conceals a network of ancient ruined Mayan cities, all obscured by centuries of exuberant growth.

One of the largest and least visited is El Mirador – a vast 2,000 year old metropolis separated from the nearest human habitation by 60km of dense jungle. It takes two long days and a pair of stout walking boots to reach it.

My journey began in the brightly coloured tourist town of Flores, where I jumped into the back of a pickup truck in the 5am twilight. Three talkative European travellers were to be my companions.

We headed north until the shuddering end of the road – Carmelita, a diminutive hamlet of scratching cockerels and copper coloured dirt tracks. Here we drank coffee, chatted and ate a feast of fresh eggs.

Then Antonio, our guide and muleteer, made an impressive entrance on horseback, rifle slung over his shoulder and machete at his side.

‘Buenos días, caballeros,’ he announced, cigarette burning fiercely. Antonio’s son loaded the mules, who eyed us gloomily under their packs and saddles.

Flanked by matted vegetation, the trail to El Mirador was a convoluted ribbon of mud, crossed by innumerable fallen trees, rocks, roots and swarms of militant ants. We marched north, mules in tow.

Up in the trees, chattering toucans and gangs of guttural howler monkeys observed us. Antonio took the lead, pointing out various medicinal plants, hairy tarantulas and bulbous termite nests. His energy was endless. At twilight, we reached a ramshackle encampment inhabited by a scruffy, half-drunk poacher and his dog. ‘I’m chasing wild pigs,’ he declared spiritedly. ‘And I’m having bacon for breakfast!’

We slung our hammocks and cooked up a campfire. That evening we dined on turkey stew and drank jungle tea into the night, watching fire-flies and swapping stories…

A day later, we finally reached El Mirador and proceeded to the largest pyramid in the complex, El Tigre, a monumental giant with a 16,000 sqm base. Upon such structures, the ancient Maya would have communed with the gods. We grappled to mount it, clinging to roots and vines, pressing upward from one crumbling platform to the next. At last we emerged at the pinnacle, high above the treetops.

The forest below us was unbroken in every direction, and far in the distance, other ruined cities were silhouetted on the horizon. The vast emerald canopy had transformed, and now burned a deep red under an immense, hungry sunset.

Source: The Observer