Exploring Ek Balam Through the Decades
As I was looking down from the Acropolis in Ek Balam, my first thought was "I stood on top of it when it was a pile of rocks". I must have blurted it out aloud, since a few fellow visitors looked at me. I became the center of attention, people asking me what the place looked like years ago. I don’t like being the center of attention, but at the time I enjoyed talking about the sit I was revisiting. It was an amazing feeling to be back here, and see what lay under the rubble we have climbed years ago.
Exploring Ek Balam as Lone Visitors
I visited Ek Balam for the first time with my husband, 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 a small site that called Ek Balam, where we wanted to stop at.
On that very hot and humid day we drove on a dirt road that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere and leading to nowhere. Finally, we spotted a small palapa hut on the side of the road. As it turned out, it was the ticket booth for the site. The only person around it was the Mayan caretaker, laying in a hammock, with his bicycle nearby. It was midday, hot and humid, and the air was still, no breeze. I didn't feel like even getting out of the car, but the excitement of seeing a new site motivated me to finally get going.
We were the only visitors at the deserted site. There weren't many structures excavated, but we noticed a few mounds of rubble.
Alone with the ancient ruins, we felt like true explorers.
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 only a pile of rubble. We climbed on every mound and knew that under the rubble there was a pyramid, or another structure.
We climbed the tallest one, and wondered what lay beneath us. We knew it was a pyramid, and it was only a matter of time before they ecavated it. We climbed to its top on a barely discernible trail. It was a challenge for me, but once I was on the top I felt better, especially when I looked around. I had a spectacular view of the site and the low jungle way beyond it.
We noticed big pieces of cut stones, and we recognized them as part of a building. As it turned out, we were on top of the Acropolis, indeed the biggest structure at this site.
After getting off that mound, we kept exploring. I noticed a pile of uniformly cut rectangular stones, most of them numbered, like pieces of a puzzle. It was such an exciting discovery! It was a sign of the work of archaeologists. We understood that that they were starting to reconstruct some of the buildings.
About the Site
Ek Balam, translated as "Black Jaguar", was an ancient Maya city on the Yucatan peninsula. People lived there for for about a thousand years, during the Late Pre-Classic to the Late Classic period of the Mayan civilization.
Most of the structures date from about 700 - 1000AD. It is interesting that the city's architecture is different from the nearby sites.
Earlier structures are evidence that the site was occupied as early as 100BC. But the city was at its peak in 800AD, when its ruler was Ukit Kan Le'k Tok', whose tomb is inside the Acropolis.
In recent history, Ek Balam was first mentioned in 1597, when Juan Gutierrez Picon prepared the Relation de Ek Balam for the King of Spain. He described a site he heard about from the village elders. They told him that a great lord called Ek Balam constructed it. ,
Later, in 1886, Desiree Charnay, the French traveler and archaeologist, visited the site. When he described it, he talked about tit as a great discovery.
Sylvanus Morley, one of the best-known Mayan archaeologists, visited the site in 1920, but he didn't get a chance to work on it. Ek Balam started to be excavated only in the 1980s.
Major work started at the site in 1985, by teams of archaeologists lead by William M. Ringle and George J. Bey.
But the central Acropolis was excavated and restored in 1997, two years after my first visit.
In the spring of 2008, I was standing on top of the same tall mound we climbed years before. Surrounded by tourists, we felt like visitors, no longer explorers. But the pyramid we climbed now far exceeded our expectations. It was great to see the building in its entirety, adorned with the statues specific to this site.
Ek Balam is a very compact site. Although the city itself was larger, the main plaza only covers about one square mile. It is the only excavated area. Given its size, it is easy to walk through it.
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, connected Ek Balam to other sites, like Coba and Chichen Itza.
As we passed through the arch, we felt like we entered the ancient city.
On the way to the main pyramid, we walked through the Ball Court, similar in size to the ones in Coba. I tried to imagine the ancient ones playing the ball game. Looking at the hoops, high on the sides, I had trouble with the concept. Especially since I know that they played with a very heavy ball.
The Acropolis is definitely one of the most impressive sights in all Yucatan. Though not as tall as Nohuch Mul in Coba, it is much larger, it has a bigger footprint. Reconstructed, it is spectacular, with all the carved figures on its walls. They are unlike any that we've seen in Yucatan.
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 the Yucatan.
The palace has six levels. At the entrance a monster-like figure, maybe a jaguar, with huge carved teeth stands guard. Behind him is the tomb of a great ruler, Ukit Kan Le'k Tok'. He is guarding the entrance to the Underworld, the place the Ancient Maya went after death.
Other than the jaguar, there are many carved figures, some of warriors, decorate the walls.
We took our time climbing it, and we also walked around it, on all the levels. We followed our kids, the true explorers, who needed to see and touch everything close up. At times, I worried about them falling. Some of the stairways and the ledges seemed to narrow to walk on. But they were safe.
After finally leaving the Acropolis we walked to the other set of buildings that we have seen from the top. We walked around them, climbed all three palaces, overlooking an impressive courtyard. While exploring all these structures, we came across many round holes in the ground. We noticed them around the buildings, and realized that they were Mayan choltuns, or chultunes. They were used to 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".
We stopped in front of a well-preserved stela. Stelae (plural for stela) are pillars of stone filled with carved figures and writing. The ancient Maya erected stelae to commemorate important moments in history. Usually these had to do with a ruler of a city. Stelae usually have a figure of the ruler they are talking about, with the important dates in his life, birth. The one we were looking at was erected in honor of the ruler named Ukit Kan Le'k Tok'. We could see his figure and the hieroglyphic writing around it.
Before leaving, we took a last look at the Acropolis. It is magnificent. I thought back to the days when we first saw it, of our talks about what a great pyramid lies under all that rubble. It was nice to finally see it.
Returning to the Site Once Again
In the spring of 2017 we returned to Ek Balam once again. We hardly recognized the road leading to it. We seemed to be driving on a four-lane highway, with light posts on the sides to illuminate it in the dark. The site is now incorporated in the Riviera Maya experience, frequent stop for tour buses and easy access for everyone. It became a true tourist trap.
We found no sign for the old road that lead to the site through the village. On our last visit, we stayed in a small hotel in that village, and we considered doing the same again. We could not find it. Instead, when we pulled up to the site, the parking lot was as large as half the village we remembered. A few locals came by, offering to “guard” our car in exchange for some payment. Theft became a norm there? Or they prey on the Westerners’ fear of it? We didn’t go for it, we still want to trust the locals, like we always did. In over twenty-five years, we weren’t robbed once, no one even tried, ever. We still believe in the same Yucatan.
The building where the ticket counters are seems bigger than some of the structures. Besides tickets, they sell ice cream, knick-knacks and other tourist-junk. But they do have clean, air-conditioned bathrooms. The crowds were almost as bad as we used to encounter at Chichen Itza. On the main trail, they roped off an entrance and an exit lane. Locals, dressed in stylized “ancient Maya” costumes were standing there in the heat. They were calling out to bypassers, offering photo opportunities. I was ready to turn around, but I wanted our youngest child to see the site. She was a baby last time we were there, and I knew that she would appreciate it much more at this age.
Once we passed the old gate into the ancient city, we regained our appreciation for the site. It was more crowded than we’ve ever seen it, but still the same. Since we knew the site so well, we were even able to find quiet places, where we were alone with the ancient stones. I appreciated some of the new things, as well. The narrow ledges of the Acropolis are safer to walk through now. The climb to the top only felt harder because I aged about ten years since our last visit. But I still made it and enjoyed the breeze and the view on top. I didn’t feel the need to mention our earlier visits to anyone.
Still, I was glad to see that even as they opened it up for mainstream tourism, they are protecting the site and the carved figures on the Acropolis. The newness might wear off in a few years, and only people who are interested in it might visit again.
The structures will still be there, as spectacular as ever.
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.