Mexico: Ek Balam's Mayan Mysteries
The (Lesser Visited) Mayan Ruins of Ek Balam in Mexico
By Heather Sinclair
It was late afternoon, and the humid air felt sticky. I wiped the sweat off my face with my shirt sleeve, ignoring the tiny mosquitoes buzzing in my ears. The further I went into the jungle, the more I realized the route from the ticket booth to the Mayan ruins of Ek Balam was not particularly well-marked.
My feet kicked up pale dirt as I followed a swath of barren soil. I looked ahead and saw the tumbled stone remains of a city wall. Excited, I picked up my pace. As I stepped through the wall I entered the Ek Balam ruins: one of the least-touristy Mayan cities in the Yucatan.
In the Mayan language, Ek Balam means "Black Jaguar" or "Bright Star Jaguar" (depending on who you ask). Before being abandoned around the time the Spanish arrived, the city of Ek Balam was the capital of the area, and had its own king.
Ek Balam was populated for around 1,000 years (other Mayan cities maxed out at a few hundred). A sacbe or "sacred road" marked by an archway, joined Ek Balam to other Mayan cities. The archway still stands today.
Archaeologists visited the site in the 1800's, but was it wasn't mapped until the 1980's. After the mapping, excavation at Ek Balam really got going.
Today, visitors are welcome to interact with the ruins of this once-great Mayan city. Although the city covers 12 square km's, only 1 square km has been excavated to date. Fully excavating the rest of Ek Balam should keep the archaeologists busy for a while.
Get Up Close to Ek Balam
As I walked through the city wall, I looked up in awe at the round building in front of me. Glancing to my left, I saw an intact archway – the "Arco de Entrada" – where just two tourists listened to a guide.
I decided to go around to the front of the pyramid to keep from disturbing the tour. The archway would be there later.
As I followed the path around the pyramid I came into the central plaza where I heard the sounds of cheering and whooping. At the far end the plaza a group of people were climbing the largest pyramid in Ek Balam: "El Torre" (the Tower). They shouted encouragement to each other on their way to the top. It didn't look like an easy climb.
Easy or not, I knew I couldn't leave Ek Balam without conquering that pyramid.
But first, I wanted to warm up. I started by climbing the round building I had seen when I entered the site. It was called the "Oval Palace", and from the top I had a great view of Ek Balam: El Torre across the plaza, two small (also climbable!) pyramids on the left, and on the right a set of steps with a square room at the top.
The Ball Court
I also spotted the ball court, a fixture in any respectable Mayan city. Only the most important people were allowed to play the ball game, and the captain of the winning team had the honor of being decapitated (!). (His entire family was elevated with honor, of course.)
The stairways of Ek Balam's pyramids were slightly uneven, but their restoration made them easy to climb. I made a point of climbing every pyramid that I could (allowing people to climb the structures could be forbidden in the future.)
Besides the staircases, many stucco façades on the buildings were restored: palapa roofs made of thatched palm leaves protected exposed stucco and sculpture details.
Speaking of stucco façades, Ek Balam is home to a spectacular stucco burial tomb: "The Mouth of the Jaguar". To see it, I had to conquer El Torre climb (at least part way). I was warmed up and ready to take it on.
Half way up the El Torre, I came to the tomb of Ukit Kan Le'k Tok (an important king of Ek Balam). His tomb was a huge jaguar mouth complete with fearsome fangs (hence the name "Mouth of the Jaguar"), surrounded by a stucco wall full of detailed statues and hieroglyphics. The details showed Mayan angels, warriors chopping off heads, people standing, sitting, meditating… The stucco is said to be some of the best-preserved of the Mayan ruins excavated to date (at least according to playa.info).
After being awestruck by the Mouth of the Jaguar, I climbed the rest of the way up El Torre. From the top, I looked out over the city, imagining what it would have been like to rule Ek Balam.
From where I stood, I could see everything in the main plaza, the ball court, the Oval Palace, and all the other pyramids I had climbed. I marveled at how everything I saw was built by hand without the use of the wheel.
Atop El Torre
Looking outside the city walls from the top of El Torre, all I saw was thick jungle blanketing flat, dry, land. Down in the plaza the sun had baked the moisture out of the ground everywhere I looked, just like it was baking me at the top of the exposed pyramid. I was glad to be wearing my hat, even though I had probably sweated out all my sunscreen on the climb up.
On the way down the steep stairway, I noticed two building-sized piles of rubble on either side of the main plaza, with scraggy vegetation growing over them. In such a flat landscape, they weren't hills. These un-excavated pyramids were two of the largest structures in the main plaza. I made a mental note to visit Ek Balam again, when archaeologists have peeled back more of the jungle.
At the bottom of El Torre, I made for the dusty path that had lead me in. I was hot and tired, and I had climbed every pyramid on the site.
Visiting a barely-excavated Mayan ruin was a unique experience. I didn't run into many visitors, I was able to explore and climb the pyramids, and the quality of the preservation was outstanding.
Tips for Visiting Ek Balam
Visit in the morning, the heat in the afternoon (even in April) was oppressive. Bring plenty of water, hat, sunscreen – all the usual things you'd bring for a day in the sun.
The entrance to Ek Balam is low-key, follow a dirt path from the parking lot to the main ticket building. You can buy water, juice, small snacks, and souvenirs at a boutique. The ticket booth is at the far end, pay the entry fee and you get two tickets: one for the federal government, one for the state government (this two-tiered ticketing is typical of other Mayan ruin sites).
Ek Balam in the middle of the jungle in Mexico.If you think you get to the site by walking past the ticket booth, guess again. Exit the building on the left, and follow the dirt path. Pass the sign for the cenote, and continue to the huts where vendors sell souvenirs. There, the path makes a sharp left, proceed to get your tickets checked.
Keep following the dirt until you reach the city walls.
Getting to Ek Balam
The ruins are located 35 miles (56 kms) north of the town of Valladolid, Mexico. Although famous for being the entrance to Chichen Itza, Valladolid makes a good base for visiting Ek Balam.
There are no "colectivos" going to the site, if you're taking public transportation your only choice is a share taxi which costs $120-$150 pesos (depending on how you bargain with the driver).
This total cost is split between all passengers. The taxis can (legally) take 4 people at most, so you can wait around for other travelers to fill up the seats or pay the full taxi fare yourself.
The share taxis to Ek Balam wait at the intersection of Calle 37 and Calle 44 in Valladolid. Drivers wear white shirts, and call out "Ek Balam! Ek Balam!".
To return to Valladolid, wait by the shaded area at the edge of the parking lot (where you'll likely be let off) for another taxi to arrive.
It is possible to drive yourself to the site, watch carefully for signs to Ek Balam. Here are driving directions to the site from hiddencancun.com.
For more history, details, and descriptions of Ek Balam be sure to visit:
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