Visiting Mayan Ruins: Ek Balam
Visiting Ek Balam Through the Years
As I was standing on top of the Acropolis, the tallest building in Ek Balam, my first thought was "I stood on top of it when it was just a pile of rocks, covered with vegetation". I happened to mention this to other visitors, and immediately I was the center of attention, people asking me what the place looked like years ago.
I visited Ek Balam for the first time in 1995. We were on the way to Chichen Itza from Coba, on the old road. After we passed the town of Valladolid, a dirt road led to this small site that we wanted to just stop at. It was called Ek Balam, Black Jaguar. It was a very hot day, and after driving on a dirt road that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere and lead to nowhere, we spotted a small palapa hut. It was the ticket booth, and by it we met the Mayan caretaker of the site. It was midday, the air was still, with no breeze, hot and humid. I didn't really feel like even getting out of the car, but the excitement of seeing a new site motivated me to finally get going. The site was barely excavated, and it was deserted. Alone with the ancient ruins, we felt like true explorers. There were lots of trees, so most of the walk was shaded.
As I got used to walking in clothes dripping with sweat, I started feeling better. Especially when I spotted the few structures that were standing. Most of the buildings were overgrown with vegetation, and some were just a pile of rubble. We climbed on every mound and knew that under the rubble there was a pyramid, or another structure.
We knew that the tallest pile of rubble, overgrown with trees, was a nice size pyramid. We climbed to its top, on a trail that was barely there. It was a challenge for me, but on the top I was rewarded with a great view. We noticed big pieces of cut stones, that we recognized as part of a building. We were on top of the Acropolis, indeed the biggest structure at this site.
After getting off that mound, we kept walking through the small site. I noticed a pile of uniformly cut rectangular stones, most of them numbered, like pieces of a puzzle. It was such an exciting discovery for me! It was a sign the work of archaeologists. We knew that they were in the process of reconstructing some of the buildings.
Years later, I stood on top of the same tall mound, but this time we climbed it on a stairway, stopping along the way to marvel at the statues on its sides. The view from the top was pretty much the same, though there were a lot more structures standing.
We were definitely not alone at the site this time. The site had a different feel this time. I enjoyed seeing the buildings in their entirety. The fact that I've sen them overgrown and deserted made it so much more magical for me.
A Bit of History
Ek Balam was occupied for about one thousand years, from the Late Pre-Classic (100 B.C. - 300 A.D.) to the Late Classic (700 - 900 A.D.) period of the Mayan civilization. It was at its strongest and most populated around the Late Classic period, between 700 - 1000 A.D., when most of its structured have been built. The architecture is different from the nearby sites, though they have been occupied around the same time.
There is evidence that the site has been occupied as early as 100 B.C.,founded by its first ruler, Coch Cal Balam. At its peak, in 800 A.D. its ruler had been Ukit Kan Le'k Tok', whose tomb had been found inside the Acropolis. As excavations are still ongoing, there is not much more known about this site.
In recent history the first time Ek Balam was mentioned was in 1597, when Juan Gutierrez Picon prepared the Relation de Ek Balam for the King of Spain. In his work he described the site that he heard about from the village elders, who had told him that it has been constructed by a great lord called Ek Balam.
Later on, in 1886, Desiree Charnay, French traveler and archaeologist, heard about pyramids and other structures in the area, and he visited and described the site, considering it a great discovery.
Sylvanus Morley (well-known archaeologist who has excavated numerous Mayan sites) and Jean Charlot visited the site in 1920, but it wasn't until the 1980s that Ek Balam started to be excavated.
Beginning in 1985, major work has started at the site by teams of archaeologists lead by William M. Ringle and George J. Bey, but it was only in 1997 when the central Acropolis has been excavated and restored.
Ek Balam is a very compact site. Although it is larger, only the core of the city, the main plaza has been excavated, which covers about one square mile, very easy to walk though.
A large arch way stands at the entrance of the city, with the remains of a sac-be going through it. The sac-be, or ancient Mayan road (translated as "white road", due to the color of the limestone that it had been constructed from), connected Ek Balam to other sites, like Coba and Chichen Itza. As we pass through the arch, and feel like we entered the ancient city.
On the way to the main pyramid, we go through the Ball Court, similar in size to the ones in Coba. I imagine the ancient ones playing the ball game, though I have trouble with the concept, seeing how high they had to get the ball to make it through the hoops.
The Acropolis is definitely one of the most impressive sights in all of the Yucatan. Though not as tall as Nohuch Mul in Coba, it is much larger overall. Since it has been excavated, it is definitely the most spectacular, with all of intricately carved figures, unlike any other we've seen in all of Yucatan, standing on its walls. We take our time climbing the Acropolis, in fact we walk around it, on all of the levels. We basically follow our kids, the true explorers, who need to see and touch everything close up. At times I worry about them falling while walking on very narrow stairways, but they are perfectly safe.
After finally leaving the Acropolis we walk to the other set of buildings that we have seen from the top of the Acropolis. We walk around then climb all three three palaces, overlooking an impressive courtyard. While exploring all of these structures, we come across many round holes in the ground, or on the structures, the inside of which were all carefully paved with rocks. These are Mayan choltuns, or chultunes, places where they collected rainwater.
One of the structures is an interesting one. They call it the Twins or Structure 17. Its large base houses two identical temples on top, hence the name "twins".
Before leaving, we take a last look at the Acropolis. It truly is magnificent. I think back of the days when we first saw it, of our talk about what a great pyramid lies under all that rubble. Now it is visible to the public.
By far the most impressive structure in Ek Balam is the Acropolis, a palace as well as pyramid all in one. It is the largest Mayan structure in the Yucatan, measuring 480 ft in length, 180 ft in width and 96 ft in height. It has some of the most ornate motifs and statues found so far in all of the Yucatan.
The palace has six levels, and at the entrance a monster-like figure, possibly a jaguar, with huge carved teeth is guarding the entrance to the Underworld. The Underworld is the place the Ancient Maya went after death. Inside the pyramid is the tomb of a great ruler, Ukit Kan Le'k Tok'.
Other than the jaguar, there are many carved figures, some of warriors, decorate the walls.
Writing on the Wall
In some of the rooms in the Acropolis wall paintings, including accompanying glyphs have been found. Since the structure has been buried for so long, these rooms and the paintings on the walls have been well preserved. In one of these rooms, the sequence of the order of days in Mayan has been found, dating from the early ninth century AD.
One of the leading specialists in Mayan archaeology, David Stuart included it in his book, The Order of Days. He has also made it available in his blog, Maya Decipherment:
Writing in stone was very important to the Maya. They have erected stelae in every known site. It was a way for them to preserve history, to preserve the past. Of course they have also written codices, or books. Most of the codices have been burned by the Spaniards or just disappeared in the jungle, so stelae are very important for the study the Mayan writing and history.
Stelae were usually erected to commemorate a moment in history, a moment important to someone, mostly to the rulers of the cities. Because of this, stelae have a figure of the ruler they are talking about, with the important dates in his life. They have the date of his birth, of his accession as a ruler, some important dates of his rule, and finally the date of his death or descend into the Underworld.
One of them is standing in Ek Balam, depicting a ruler, with the hieroglyphic writing around his figure, erected in honor of Ukit Kan Le'k Tok'.
Other Attractions—Cenote Xcan-Che
Like most Mayan sites, Ek Balam is also close to a cenote, that has been opened to the public recently. Since I haven't been there, I can't say much about it, but it seems spectacular, and if you are there on a hot day (which means pretty much any day in that area), it is well worth the stop.
In a Nutshell—Things to Know
- Ek Balam, a Mayan site meaning "Black Jaguar", is situated between two major sites, Coba and Chichen Itza. It is easy to get to at this time.
- The site has been recently excavated and it houses some of the most magnificent wall ornaments in the Northern Yucatan.
- The center is surrounded by walls, and it houses the major structures, a few temples, two palaces, a ball court, and the most spectacular pyramid.
- The site was at its peak between about 700 - 900 A.D.
- It is very easy to get to, and it can be a short day trip either from Chichen Itza or Valladolid.
- There is a cenote close by, a great place for a swim in the heat of the day.
- There is a small town at the ruins. For those who want to stay longer, there is a hotel and restaurant there.
How to Get There
From Cancun take the road to Valladolid, then turn off to Ek Balam. The site is about 20 miles from the town of Valladolid.