It’s a deceptively hard climb considering it’s only 106 steps. The stones are old, worn, and uneven. It’s steep–surprisingly so–and there are no railings running along the side of the wide steps and nothing else at hand to hang on to. It might not be for the vertigo-challenged, but getting to the top of the Acropolis at Ek Balam is well worth the effort. It is, quite literally, a view fit for a king.
It’s also somewhat eerie. Like Chichen Itza and a number of other sites in Maya Mesoamerica, a thousand years ago this was once a thriving city. Actually, covering about 12 square kilometers, it was the largest regional center for about three centuries from A.D. 600 to 900, more than half a millennium before the Spanish arrived.1
No-one lives here now, and the mounds of stone remnants are largely overgrown with the forest, except where the forest has been peeled back in the past few decades to make way for archaeologists and tourists. It’s a marvel in itself that the jungle could have been tamed a millennium ago to make way for sophisticated crop farming and such extensive engineering feats.
Located about 32 miles northeast of Chichen Itza, Ek Balam is among the half-dozen largest Maya sites of the Yucatan northern plains. Ek Balam, in particular, is both more intimate and has more personality than its better-known brethren, and it has only been fairly recently that the site has been open to visitors.
Calm and serene and lightly visited–the only way in and out is by foot–it’s a world away from the glitzy, luxury resorts of Cancun. The hordes of hard-drinking, hard-partying tourists staying at the beach strip of Cancun often miss out on one of the world’s great spots just a couple of hours to that commercialized beach resort’s west: the spectacular ruins of the Maya civilization that once thrived on the Yucatan Peninsula.
Chichen Itza has received pretty intense attention since the late 19th century. But it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that archeologists turned more of their attention to Ek Balam. As a result, it retains its rather unkempt feel–as if it has only recently been discovered in the jungle–something that just adds to the charm.
The most striking building on the site is the Acropolis, at once a temple and a palace. It features ornate carvings about two-thirds of the way up, decorating the exterior of the Tomb of Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’. Many of these have been restored, but you still get an excellent sense of how grand and unusual it was originally.
Rising over 100 feet and measuring about 540 by 210 feet at its base, the Acropolis dominates the area and rises well above the surrounding forest. It was up here that the king and his family lived, with a 360-degree view of unbroken horizons.
A recurring motif in the carvings is the jaguar–Ek Balam itself means “dark jaguar.” Large stone teeth create the impression of a massive jaguar’s mouth protecting the tomb, and frescoes and carved warriors remain uniquely well preserved (and reconstructed) among modern-day Maya sites. To get there is a very steep climb on uneven steps without a handrail. It’s only a matter of time before Ek Balam follows several of the other Maya sites in banning visitors from climbing the structures, but for now one can freely scale the temple and not only see the fresco up close but also get a spectacular view of the surrounding region with unbroken views to the horizon.
Photos of Ek’Balam
What to Know Before You Go
About a half hour drive north of Valladolid, you need to keep your wits about you lest you miss the turnoff or crunch into a pothole. The site is not yet ready for the tourist buses, something that helps preserve its charm for the time being. There’s also a village of Ek Balam nearby. And don’t expect an arrival fanfare–this site is as low-key as you can get.
With a central core of three large structures, including the impressive temple (Acropolis), surrounded by a series of a few dozen smaller structures, Ek Balam is much more compact than Chichen Itza, although there are some outlying structures are up to a mile away.2
It’s easy to take it all in in an hour or two and makes for a great day trip from Cancun (tip: stop in the nearby colonial town of Valladolid for lunch) or enroute to Chichen Itza. There’s a shiny new welcome center with a ticket counter and bathrooms that has been built in the past few years. It’s nothing like what you’ll find at tour-bus-friendly Chichen Itza, but it serves its purpose nicely.
Ek Balam is not very accessible for wheelchairs and there are no paved paths, but the ground is mostly flat. Climbing the buildings–especially the Acropolis–is definitely only for the ambulatorily able, though, and not for anyone who has issues with heights.
Panoramic Virtual Tour
Here’s a 360-degree panorama of one section of the Ek’Balam site.
- A George J. Bey III, Tara M. Bond, William M. Ringle, Craig A. Hanson, Charles W. Houck, and Carlos Peraza Lope, “The Ceramic Chronology of Ek Balam, Yucatan, Mexico,” Ancient Mesoamerica, 9, (1998): 101-120. ↩
- George J. Bey, III, Craig A. Hanson, and William M. Ringle, “Classic to Postclassic at Ek Balam, Yucatan: Architectural and Ceramic Evidence for Defining the Transition,” Latin American Antiquity, 8, 3 (September 1997): 237-254. ↩