Deep in the jungles of Guatemala, a team of intrepid explorers are making their way to the heart of the forest. With each step, the green canopy overhead grows thicker as they keep one eye on the path for deadly snakes. Then suddenly, something spectacular looms on the horizon – a great pyramid stretching hundreds of feet above the trees.
When most of us think of pyramids, we tend to picture the vast stone structures that tower over the desert in the Egyptian city of Giza. But while these wonders of the ancient world are no doubt the most famous, there are other, even grander, complexes scattered across the globe. And from Illinois to Mexico, they can often appear in some of the most unexpected places.
In the Central American country of Guatemala, for example, a number of vast pyramids lurk in the depths of the Mirador Basin. Thousands of years ago, they were the crowning glory of El Mirador – the one-time capital of the ancient Mayan civilization. But over the centuries, the city has been reclaimed by the jungle, and now its great structures lie hidden and overgrown.
Alone, any one of these ruins would be enough to wow the few explorers who make their way to this part of the world. But all of them are dwarfed by the sheer bulk of La Danta – a 236-foot pyramid that towers over the jungle below. In fact, it is thought to be even bigger than the Great Pyramid of Giza in terms of mass size; so why has it remained a secret for so many years?
We’ll return to the pyramids in Guatemala a little later, but first let’s learn a bit more about the people responsible for constructing them. In around 2000 B.C. the first seeds of the Mayan civilization emerged in the region now known as Mesoamerica. And over the years, its people spread out to cover large swathes of modern-day Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Belize and Guatemala. By roughly 750 B.C. the Maya had begun constructing cities, and soon great structures were springing up throughout the region.
Over the years, archaeologists have been able to piece together much of the history of the Mayan civilization. We know, for example, that its people used a system of writing that is considered exceptionally sophisticated for that time period. Moreover, they were gifted artists and architects, and their detailed calendar continues to fascinate scholars to this day.
At its peak, the Mayan civilization was home to as many as 15 million people and it was spread out across some 40 settlements, according to Smithsonian. And by the third century A.D. they had built a number of great cities. In the southern lowlands, the city of Tikal grew in power, while its rival Calakmul also wielded significant influence across the land.
For thousands of years, the Maya thrived across Mesoamerica – sustaining their growing population through advanced agricultural techniques. Then suddenly, they disappeared, and by around 900 A.D. most of their great cities lay abandoned. Though what happened to them remains a haunting mystery, experts believe that the collapse was caused by a number of factors.
Although no one can be sure, historians believe that a combination of environmental collapse, overpopulation, changing trade routes and war caused the Mayans to abandon their cities. Leaving their staggering achievements behind, they fled to the north, where settlements in what is now Mexico began to flourish. However, this second chance for their civilization would also come to an abrupt end.
In the 1500s conquistadors from Spain arrived on the shores of Mesoamerica. And within three decades, most of the Mayan civilization had fallen to the European invaders. Only in the Petén Basin, located in modern-day Guatemala, did these ancient people hold out against the Spanish. But ultimately, by the end of the 17th century the conquest was complete.
Contrary to popular belief, however, the Maya did not disappear. Instead, their civilization continued to thrive in remote villages and communities scattered across the region. And even today, there are millions of people speaking Mayan languages and carrying on their traditions in many parts of Central America.
Meanwhile, the ruins of the once-great Mayan civilization are one of the region’s top tourist draws. In Mexico, for example, more than one million people visit the temples and pyramids of Chichen Itza every year. And in Guatemala, the ancient settlement of Tikal attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
But that popularity comes at a price, and a major road now links the once-remote citadel with civilization. Some 40 miles to the north, however, there is another Mayan city that has so far avoided the creep of modernization. This is the settlement of El Mirador – which sits in the last huge expanse of subtropical rainforest in Central America.
Located in what is now northern Guatemala, El Mirador first came to the attention of Western science in the 1880s. Apparently, an engineer was surveying the region when he noted the presence of great ruins scattered across the landscape. But it wasn’t until 1926 that the first records of the ancient city were made.
Four years later an aerial photograph revealed the ruins of El Mirador from above. Nevertheless, it would be another three decades before the first scientific investigations would take place. In 1962 archaeologist Ian Graham spent time in the Guatemalan rainforest mapping the city – and he soon realized just how vast it really was.
Experts at the time believed that the Mayans had not reached the peak of their architectural talents until the Classic period – beginning around 250 A.D. Prior to this, they believed, the cities and structures of the ancient civilization had been far more primitive in appearance. But El Mirador soon challenged these preconceptions.
It was initially believed that El Mirador’s grand architecture placed its construction squarely in the Classical period. But in March 1979 archaeologist Richard Hansen made a startling discovery. There, inside the settlement’s Jaguar Paw temple, he discovered pottery that dated the structure to before the aforementioned era.
The age of the artifact found there meant that El Mirador could have been built up to 1,000 years before the Mayan civilization was at its peak. And since this find, the settlement’s ruins have been integral to those seeking to learn more about this ancient culture. Thankfully, however, the remote location of the city has so far held off the hordes of tourists that frequent nearby sites.
There aren’t actually any roads connecting the ruins of El Mirador with civilization. In order to reach the city, intrepid explorers must hike for days through the rainforest – or fork out for an expensive helicopter ride. And as such, only a few thousand people visit the site, where Hansen’s work is ongoing, every year.
Hansen, for his part, has alternated between heading up excavations at El Mirador and campaigning tirelessly to raise funds for his work. But while he was busy networking with the rich and famous, a connection of a different kind was being made thousands of miles away in Montreal, Canada.
Alone in a new city, Ammar Kandil, who is originally from Egypt, overheard a party on a rooftop and decided to invite himself along. And there, he met Thomas Brag, a Swedish adventurer with an entrepreneurial mind. Within minutes, Kandil had revealed something incredible – he was one of the only people in the world with a permit to climb the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Brag and Kandil hit it off, and along with two other friends – Matt Dajer and Derin Emre – they formed Yes Theory in 2015. A digital media brand, the project began as a succession of challenges which were filmed and broadcast on YouTube. But while the group was attracting followers with celebrity stunts, another plan was forming behind the scenes.
Ever since he was a child, Kandil had fostered a dream to climb the pyramids that his home country is famous for. Back in 2014 he had spent nearly 40 days collecting all the official signatures that he needed to achieve his goal. But the government changed before he could embark on his adventure – rendering his paperwork useless.
After another failed attempt in 2017, it seemed as if Kandil was going to have to give up on his dream. But then came another twist in the tale. On a trip to Guatemala, a friend of Dajer’s had found out about El Mirador and the enormous La Danta pyramid. And on his return, he gushed to the Yes Theory crew about his discovery.
“[Kandil] wouldn’t stop talking about this guy Pressi,” Dajer explains in a video uploaded to Yes Theory’s YouTube channel in September 2019. “And he wouldn’t stop talking about this specific thing that Pressi told him.” Apparently, the Egyptian had been told how to get to the Guatemalan pyramid.
Soon, the team had hatched a plan to travel to El Mirador and climb to the summit of La Danta. And so, they assembled a team of creatives and travelers and headed to Guatemala – capturing each step of the adventure on film. For two days, the group of ten trekked through the jungle on foot, eventually arriving at the ruined city of El Mirador.
After making their way through piles of indistinct rocks, the video shows the team stumbling upon their first significant ruin. Kandil enthuses in the film, “We’re in the middle of a Mayan structure, that’s in the middle of the jungle, in Guatemala.” But with his dream of climbing a pyramid so close at hand, the explorer soon breaks down.
At this point in the film, Kandil reveals that he had been disowned by his father for joining Yes Theory rather than pursuing a traditional career. He admits, “I miss him a lot.” However, the other team members are buoyed by their friend’s experience – taking his sacrifice as another reason why their mission must succeed.
“He made a point that this video is for every single person who isn’t accepted for who they are, and who isn’t able to dream and do the thing that they actually want to be doing,” Brag recalls. Dajer, meanwhile, adds, “You feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility to make sure whatever happens, his dreams come true.”
Finally, on the third day, we see the team reach the foot of La Danta. Then, after skirting tarpaulins left behind by Hansen’s archaeological digs, they begin to climb. But in order to reach the summit itself, the explorers have to first ascend to the platform at its base. Measuring some 2,000 feet in length and 980 feet in width, this vast stone mass helps to make the pyramid one of the most massive ancient structures ever discovered.
The biggest pyramid at El Mirador has an estimated volume of around 99 million cubic feet. And although, at 236 feet, it does not quite reach the dizzying heights of the Great Pyramid of Giza, it is larger than that landmark in terms of bulk, according to Hansen. He told Smithsonian in 2011 that its vast size posed a huge challenge to the workers tasked with its construction.
“We calculate that as many as 15 million man-days of labor were expended on La Danta,” Hansen told the publication. He continued, “It took 12 men to carry each block – each one weighs about a thousand pounds… We’ve excavated nine quarries where the stones were cut – some 600 to 700 meters away.”
After the first platform, the Yes Theory YouTube video shows the team climbing to a second level which stands more than 30 feet above the jungle floor. And from there, two of the explorers go on ahead – equipped with radios to communicate with their team. Brag exclaims, “I can’t even see the top from here,” as the pyramid towers before them.
From the second level, the team ascend steps to a further third platform, located 86 feet above the ground. And finally, their mission is at an end. Through a break in the trees, they can see the pinnacle of La Danta – a triad of pyramids taking the total height of the structure to more than 230 feet high.
Talking of the three pyramids, Hansen told Smithsonian, “You don’t find the triadic pattern before about 300 B.C.” And although their exact purpose may never be known, experts believe that the three structures were designed to represent the constellation Orion. Apparently, the stars were associated with the creation myth in Mayan culture.
For the team at Yes Theory, however, the pyramid of La Danta had almost become a myth in its own right. In their video, Dajer tells the camera, “You can’t even grasp fully in your mind how huge this must have looked when it was for real.” Elated to have reached their destination at last, the friends begin to scramble to the very highest point.
Finally able to fulfil his long-standing ambition, Kandil is one of the first to reach the summit of the pyramid. And there, the camera captures his expression of joy. He explains in a voiceover, “This is for every kid out there, to dream the wildest they can, to dream the biggest they can.”
As each member of the group makes it to the summit, the film shows one of the explorers using a drone to capture footage of the thick rainforest surrounding them. In it, the group appear to be standing on a small stone island in a vast sea of green. Meanwhile, the team’s guide sums up the mood. He tells the camera, “If you are here, it’s for a reason. Nobody comes here for fun. It’s difficult, it’s not easy, but if you have that connection, everything comes.”
Two years after his desire to climb the Great Pyramid of Giza ended in disappointment, Kandil had made it to the top of an even bigger structure. Afterwards in the team’s YouTube film, he tells the camera what the achievement means for him. The adventurer explains, “The Yes Theory is saying yes to those dreams that you think are so far-fetched. It’s being constantly in the pursuit to go after those dreams, to go after the things that matter the most to you in life.”
Kandil is today counting on the support of his friends to help him through estrangement from his father in Egypt. Meanwhile, Hansen hopes that the Guatemalan government will make moves to preserve El Mirador, designating the region an ecotourism zone. But for now, at least, the Yes Theory’s ambitious movie is the closest that most of us will get to climbing one of the ancient world’s most massive structures.