I met Karl in Flores, Guatemala, a small island town in the middle of Lake Petén. He was a massive man, tanned and with a thick head of white hair and matching beard. I wouldn’t have guessed it, but he was 72 years old. He had a heavy German accent, but it turned out that he had emigrated to Australia when he was in his teens and was now living in Florida. A full life.
I asked what he had done for a living and he looked down at his feet for a second before answering. “I’m not proud of it, but I was a Screw.”
When I just stared at him, confused, he added “I was a prison guard. Twenty five years…”
We were hanging out at a cafe overlooking the lake, drinking cheap beer (a buck apiece) and swapping tales when I mentioned that I’d like to see the little-visited Maya ruins at Yaxha National Park, not far from its more famous neighbor Tikal.
A friend had recommended the Yaxha ruins as worth visiting, but the only way to reach them was to stay overnight in the town of El Remate and then rent a taxi for $40 or so to take you to the one hotel near the park.
There were also tours, which I wasn’t terribly keen on.
How to Visit Yaxha
To my surprise, he immediately embraced the idea and suggested that we team up—we’d split the cost of the taxi, and the lux Campamento Ecológico El Sombrero hotel was doable on a budget since it offers twin accomodation and we’d be splitting the room.
The Yaxha entrance fee cost a mere $10—all in all, visiting Yaxha from El Remate was a reasonably-priced adventure.
Even more, Karl seemed like quite a character so I knew going in that it’d be an interesting trip.
El Remate turned out to be a pleasant town and we spent a couple of days eating cheap tacos and drinking beer while hanging out by the Lake Petén—it’s a big lake. When we reserved the taxi, the agent assured us that the hotel had a car and would drive us to the ruins.
It didn’t, of course.
There was a boat option, but we’d arrived too late for that. In the end, we’d walk a sweaty seven kilometers just to reach the entrance. Karl outweighed me by fifty pounds and was thirty years older, but I struggled to keep up.
That sunset tour from Flores was starting to look pretty good.
Exploring the Yaxha Ruins
The ruins of Yaxha were impressive—a large complex set in the middle of wild jungle, surrounded by howler monkeys and macaws. The ruins actually lie within the national park boundaries, meaning the area is alive with protected flora and fauna. The trails in Yaxha National Park were well-maintained and most of the sites conveniently signed—better than you would expect considering this is the third largest Maya city in Guatemala, and sees far fewer tourists than Tikal, and the even the hike to El Mirador ruins are more well-known than the Yaxha ruins.
Perhaps why: A season of Survivor, had been filmed here and I suspect that the producers had to donate some development funds to seal the deal.
Best of all, we had the entire place practically to ourselves—there were maybe a half-dozen tourists in the entire park. When we approached the main pyramid, I found a piece of Maya pottery on the ground which I struggled not to steal.
We climbed to the top, where a bored security guard sat and chatted with him as we admired the view.
Raw jungle stretched as far as we could see. The main Yaxha pyramid was steep and in great condition, without much obvious reconstruction.
After we’d spent a few moment taking each other’s photos, Karl provided me with one of the most surreal experiences of my life.
We were sitting on the cool stone steps, enjoying the view, when he stood up and dramatically raised his arm to the sky. He opened his mouth and just boomed out this incredible aria.
Karl the Screw was an opera singer. And a damned good one.
I nearly fell off the pyramid. The combination of Maya ruins, wild jungle, and a German/Australian singing opera was something my mind just could have never put together. I sat there, stunned, as he finished and then we climbed back down the stairs carefully without saying a word. The security guard waved goodbye, wide-eyed and unsure.
It was then that the howler monkeys started up and Karl was immediately entranced. If you’ve never heard them, howler monkeys produce one of the creepiest, craziest sounds in all of the world.
It’s a like a choir from hell.
Karl andered off down a path, clutching an old-fashioned tape recorder (with a cassette, even!) and I puttered about, taking photos of a ball court.
I went looking for him but it started raining, so I retreated to the ranger station where we had agreed to meet at 3:00pm. The ranger had said that the boat to the hotel left at that time but it actually left at 2:30pm (welcome to Guatemala), so we’d missed it again. Around 3:30pm I started to worry, but then Karl came strolling up muttering “amazing, amazing…” and playing his tape over and over.
I lost track of him after we returned to El Remate. He was heading south to Rio Dulce and I needed to go to Antigua to meet a friend.
I have no idea where he is these days but I’d bet a fortune that he’s still listening to that damned tape.
Planning Your Yaxha Trip
Where to Stay
The Campamento Ecológico El Sombrero is, by far, the best located hotel in the area and is convenient for any explorations of Yaxha National Park, including the Maya ruins and archaeological site.
How to Get There
Yaxha National Park is further from Flores than Tikal by just a tad, but there’s just far less traffic headed toward Yaxha, so you’ll enjoy it more if you stay overnight.
Organized Tour: It’s easiest to visit the ruins on a day-tour since all transport from Flores is included, and usually lunch, too.
Taxi: The ruins are roughly 70 kms east of Flores, toward Belize. A taxi from Flores lasts about two hours will run you up to US $25 (200 quetzales), but can be negotiated for as little as 100 quetzales, sometimes. From El Remate, the journey takes just under an hour, and costs about the same.
Best Things to Do
Yaxha Ruins: Afternoon is a lovely time to visit the Yaxha ruins as any tours have already left for the day. It’s a quiet time to visit, wander, and soak in the nature, and you can easily spend up to four hours here.
Everything is well signposted and the excavated sites are all fairly close together—it’s not like Tikal, where you do need a guide to find the best paths and ruins. Instead, even if you’ve hired a guide be sure to take some time to independently wander.
End your time at the Temple of the Red Hands, #216 in Acropolis Este, which is the main temple. The ruins are easy to scale and this is where you’ll want to be for sunset views of the jungle and Lake Yaxha, since the ruins are 30 meters tall.
Other Ruins: Entrance into the park (80 quetzales) is for Yaxha as well as the ruins of Nakum, Naranjo, and Topoxte. You’ll need more than a short day trip to visit these other sites, since they are spread out within the national park. If crocodile observation is your thing, than head to Topoxte ruins as this activity is a highlight of that site.
By Wes Nations
Wes was a talented storyteller and photographer who blogged at JohnnyVagabond.com. I met Wes years ago in Bangkok, and was an inspiration to myself, and many others for his design skills, generous nature, and fascinating ability to tell the most interesting stories of any traveler I know.