Are you looking for which Mayan ruins to go and see during your visit to the Riviera Maya? Or you’ve seen Chichen-Itza and are wondering what else to see this time? Look no further than the fascinating Ek Balam ruins. They’re the undiscovered jewel in the crown of Mayan ruins. And at Ek Balam, you won’t have to compete with millions of other tourists, as you do at Tulum. In an authentic setting and with one of the largest pre-hispanic structures in all Mesoamerica, Ek Balam is the place to visit now. And end your visit with a relaxing and refreshing dip in the magnificent Ek Balam cenote. Find out all you need to know about these magnificent Mayan ruins.
Chichen Itza is Mexico’s #1 visited archeological site and a UNESCO World Heritage site. As well, in 2007, it was voted in a global survey as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. And Chichen Itza is well worth seeing as 2.6 M people who visit annually can attest to.
The Mayan Ruins at Tulum have also become a must-visit for millions of people each year. Located on a 12 m high cliff overlooking the Caribbean ocean and the rising sun. It is the only Mayan community on the beaches of the Caribbean. And it is the second most visited archeological site, behind Chichen Itza. And the Mayan ruins of Tulum are set in a spectacular setting. But are they better than the Ek Balam ruins?
The reason to visit the Mayan Ruins at Tulum is to see the setting against the azure Caribbean ocean. It is an amazing sight. But, if you’re interested in exploring Mayan Ruins then the structures at Ek Balam are far superior. Not only that but the architecture, and the differences in the Mayan culture at Ek Balam contrast with that of Chichen Itza. Older, and once more powerful than Chichen Itza, Ek Balam was the political and spiritual heart of northern Yucatan. Its acropolis is among the largest pre-Hispanic buildings in Meso-America. With many stairways, hidden passages, rooms, and temples. If you have time to visit all 3 sites on your trip: Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, and Tulum, then you should do so. Or if you’ve already been to Tulum then this time you should definitely visit Ek Balam. But what if you have to decide between Tulum and Ek Balam? My vote goes to the Ek Balam ruins. As you’ll see in more detail below Ek Balam has lots of advantages over Tulum
The Ek Balam ruins are located about 2 hours from Cancun or Playa Del Carmen and many areas in the Riviera Maya. It is north of the city of Valladolid in the Yucatan. Fortunately, the highway infrastructure is good making driving there easy. Ek Balam is located 190 kilometers east of the city of Mérida, Yucatán, taking Highway No. 295, which goes to Tizimín. About seven kilometers after the town of Temozón there is a deviation that leads to Santa Rita. Here take the northern access and about 2 kilometers away another detour it leads to the Ek Balam ruins.
Or you could pay for an organized tour, but you don’t need to. If you have access to a car the drive is uncomplicated. And it's easy and much cheaper to rent your own guide once you get there. Booking a group tour will cost about $100-150 USD per person and doesn’t include the entrance fee to Ek Balam.
If you don’t have a car but can get to Valladolid you can get transportation to Ek Balam via collectivo’s. Go to 44th St and 37th St near the Hotel Zaci. Rides are only $40 pesos per person each way.
Ek Balam is open every day of the year from 8am to 5pm. The last access is at 4pm. You’ll want to plan to spend at least 2 hours visiting the Ek Balam ruins. More if you are planning to visit the local cenote nearby too.
General admission to Ek Balam is only 75 pesos per person (< $4 USD). But there is an extra tax charge of $338 pesos (~ $17 USD) charged by the State Government. So the total is going to be about $20 USD per person. Unless you are a Mexican citizen when the tax is reduced and the total entrance fee is $153 pesos (< $8 USD). And if you are a Mexican resident then entrance is free on Sundays. If you’re not a Mexican resident then you might want to avoid going on Sundays as it can be busier then.
A guide taking you through Ek Balam costs $500-600 pesos ($25-30 USD). And that’s to take a group of you. So, if there are several of you the cost is minimal. I’m a big advocate of hiring a guide. For the modest cost, you can get historical insights and cultural stories that you otherwise wouldn't. Unless you poured through historical guide books for several hours. And you are supporting the local economy too.
Construction of Ek Balam began between 100 BC and 300 AD and continued until about 700-900 AD. In the early days, the population grew and the city expanded until its height from 770 to 840 AD. Ek Balam translated from the Yucatan Mayan language means black jaguar. But some inscriptions say that the original name of the site was Talol.
The first known king of Ek´Balam is Ukit Kan Le´t Tok (the father of the four flint fronts). He was the builder of most of an incredible palace. Now it is known as the Acropolis and is one of many structures created by this king. Inside the Acropolis is Sak Xok Nahh (white house of reading). This served as a tomb for Ukit Kan Le´t Tok. He was buried with a rich offering made up of more than 7,000 pieces such as ceramic vessels, shell objects. At its height, the population was 20,000. Most of whom were farmers and slaves supporting the lifestyle of the royal family and nobles.
The Spanish inhabited Ek Balam until the 16th century when they began their invasion. Shortly thereafter the settlement was abandoned. Ek Balam was rediscovered and explored first by the archaeologist Désiré Charnay in the late 1800s. But extensive excavation did not take place until a century later. With much of the mapping of the site occurring in the 1980s followed by extensive research in the 1990s. While the entire settlement covers 12 km2, only 1/10th of the area can be visited.
Many rare and original stucco sculptures make the Ek Balam ruins unique among Mayan settlements. These stucco sculptures are protected by modern thatched roofs on the Acropolis. As well the Maya buried the Acropolis at Ek Balam. In so doing preserved the stucco sculptures and many painted hieroglyphic inscriptions. Fortunately, the Ek Balam ruins provide an authentic illustration of what many other Maya sites must once have looked like.
The black jaguar was a very powerful symbol for the ancient Mayan civilization. The Black Jaguar was one of the most important symbols in the Mayan culture. Warriors, emperors, and priests alike studied the jaguar. Not only because it was then the biggest predator. But because of some of the attributes, the jaguar exhibited. It was believed that the great black jaguar was a part of the myth behind creation. And that the noblest Mayans and kings were descendants of the Black Jaguar.
The archeological site is surrounded by two concentric walls. These served as a defensive wall. As well many smaller walls snaked through the city. The inner wall encompasses an area of 9.55 hectares (23.6 acres). The carved stone of the inner wall is 2 meters (6.6 ft) tall and 3 meters (9.8 ft) wide. And is covered in plaster. The outer wall serves purely for defense and is less decorative. These walls were the largest in the Late Classic Yucatan. And seem to have a symbolic meaning of protection and military strength. Theories claiming a hasty desertion of the city are backed up by the fourth wall inside the city. This "bisects the Great Plaza. And, at less than a meter wide and made of poorly constructed rubble, was a last-ditch effort against invading attackers.
Within these walls are many structures, paintings, and sculptures to explore. All within this central area as indicated on the map opposite. As well there are five sacbe, white roads or causeways, leading from the central area. Exploring the ruins is an amazing experience. They are in a peaceful setting surrounded by the beautiful jungle.
As well, the site is compact. With the excavated structures situated close to one another. The surrounding jungle around the ruins contains many unexcavated structures.
The Maya word Sak means “white road”. These prehispanic gravel roads are called this because their surface was covered with white dirt. Sak Be 1 and 2 are prehispanic two roads that provide access to the Ek Balam ruins from the south side. This section of the road stretches 190 m to the exterior wall and is 10 m wide. But partway along they widen into a terrace, before narrowing again.
These prehistoric roads served important functions for the ancient Maya. Facilitating communication, and commercial and social relationships between Mayan settlements.
The Entrance Arch is constructed over the road that leads into the city. And it is open on all four sides. It served as a city gate and was used for ceremonial and religious processions. The roof with a false, crossed vault is unique in Mayan architecture.
One of the first structures you will see entering through the defensive walls is the Oval Palace. This impressive building contains burial relics and was aligned for cosmological ceremonies. The Oval Palace is on a rectangular base that was used for ceremonial activities. There are 10 rooms on the first level and 2 more at the top level of the Palace. The top is crowned by a small temple.
Structure 17 is called the Twins. It's to the west of the South Plaza and contains the best-preserved architectural characteristics of the Ek Balam ruins. It is built on a large foundation upon which two other foundations were also built. This is to support two vaulted buildings each with four rooms. The structure measures 40 m long, 17 m wide, and is 6 m high. At the top of the structure are 2 temples that mirror one another.
The decoration of the facades at Ek Balam was not carved stone figures. This is one of the reasons that the Ek Balam ruins are so important. And one that complements Chichen Itza, which like many Mayan buildings, has only carved stone figures. At Ek Balam, the Mayan artists used a stucco mixture which they modeled and painted into fabulous figures and decorations. During the excavation, stucco masks were also uncovered.
Beneath this building lies the structure of an older structure. It was common for the ancient Maya architects to build new buildings on top of older ones.
This is the largest structure on the eastern side of the South Plaza of the Ek Balam ruins. It has a rectangular base with sloping walls. Its most decorative element is the upper part of the cornice. This is formed by a band of large stones projecting out from the wall. Some of these stones are 1 m across! Also, the corners of the base are round which is very unusual. This is typical of Mayan structures in Guatemala in the Peten region. And suggests some form of communication across the regions.
The structure is 43 m long, 30m wide, and 5 m high. On the upper part are 3 more structures. There are 2 platforms and a vaulted temple with thick walls and an altar inside. Interestingly the base was built between 700-1000 AD. While the upper structures weren’t built until 1200-1542 AD.
Before heading to the Central Plaza don’t miss the beautifully carved stela. It depicts a ruler of Ek Balam, Ukit Kan Leʼk Tok. In part of the stela, he is wearing a complex headdress featuring stacked monster snouts. In his upraised hand, he holds a stylized K'awiil scepter that ends in the head of a snake. With his other hand, he was scattering an offering. Above this is the inscription that refers to Ek Balam's most venerated ancestor, Ukit Kan Le'k Tok'. This king founded the Ek Balam dynasty and built most of the Acropolis.
Like Chichen Itza, the Ek Balam ruins have a well-restored ball court. But the ball court at Ek Balam is much smaller. Interestingly, the temple runs the entire length of the court on one side. Also, the sides of this ballcourt aren’t as steep as those at many other Mayan settlements. Only the most important people were allowed to play the ball game. And unlike at Chichen Itza, the captain of the winning team wasn’t decapitated!
On the west side of the Central Plaza of the Ek Balam ruins is structure 2. It is the third-largest structure on the site and measures 80 m long, 55 m wide, and 20 m high. And the rooms on top of the structure which aren’t present anymore would add another 4 m to its height. When found by the explorer Desire Charnay in 1866 it was described as having a palace 70 m long. And it contained a double row of 24 rooms at the top of the structure. Due to the resemblance of the rooms as cells in a nunnery, it was named the Palace of the Nuns. Now only part of one of these rooms remains.
Structure 2 is important because it shows influences from other Mayan regions. For example, the cut stones and decorative elements are from the Puuc region. While the base has influences from the Peten region in Guatemala.
Opposite structure 2 across the Central Plaza is structure 3. This is on the eastern side of the Central Plaza of Ek Balam. This is the second-largest structure here at 110 m long, 55 m wide, and 24 m high. Unfortunately, the structure is very deteriorated. But in 1886 explorers could see the remains of a temple at the top. As well as a room facing the plaza underneath the temple. At that time the entrance to the room was decorated with a severed head! This was modeled in stucco. The explorer Desire Charnay dug up the floor of this room believing it to hold the tomb of a high priest. But only a few ornaments and figurines were found.
The last main structure to see is by far the grandest. And the largest, and most complete. The Acropolis is on the north side of the Central Plaza. This highly impressive building is 151 m (500 ft) long, 60 m (200 ft) wide, and 30 m (100 ft) high. As with other structures at Ek Balam, the Acropolis is made up of many levels. In this case, the Acropolis has 6 levels with highly decorated facades. A total of 72 rooms have been excavated so far. These provided space for apartments for the Mayan elite who lived on the plateau.
On the 4th level is a perfectly preserved tomb of Ukit Kan Leʼk Tok – the first and greatest Mayan king. The glyphs in the top row here (picture opposite) spell the name of Ukit Kan Le'k Tok'. At the lower left is the emblem glyph of Ek Balam, naming the ruler as a Divine Lord of Talol. This was the name of the kingdom in ancient times. But initial excavations didn’t uncover the tomb as the façade of the tomb was hidden with stone and limestone fragments. But one day a worker found a piece of a small carving, which led them to excavate this area. They then found a perfectly preserved stucco façade. A magnificent decorative façade as you can see from the picture opposite. As well as the intricately carved figures it contained a large altar resembling the mouth of a jaguar. Behind the façade is the inner chamber when to body of the king lay. Surrounding it were funerary offerings including over 7000 pieces of jewelry.
And inside above the king's burial chamber is a painted capstone. It represents the king as a Maize God – an important figure for the Maya. But interestingly it has a deformed lip. Usually, rulers would idealize their appearance. For example, many upper-class Maya would practice head-binding to mimic the pointed shape of corn. Corn is a symbol of fertility and extremely important in Mayan culture.
The Acropolis looks even more impressive because of the palapa roofs. These protect the structure just as it would have been when Ek Balam was a thriving settlement. And this remarkable example of Mayan engineering has another surprise. The view from here is spectacular. You have a stunning 360-degree view of the surrounding area. And while climbing up the stairs is one thing, make sure you are careful coming down. It’s harder coming down than going up and this is where your comfortable walking shoes really come in handy.
After spending a couple of hours exploring the wonderful Ek Balam ruins you might be a little tired and sweaty! What better way than to get refreshed by having a dip in the Ek Balam cenote?
Once at the parking lot and entrance area you can hire a bicycle taxi to take you to the cenote. That is if you don’t want to walk or drive there (~ 1.5 km). Your driver will take you down a gravel path through the jungle to the Ek Balam cenote. It takes about 10 minutes on the bike taxi. When you arrive there are some rustic washrooms, showers, changing facilities, and lockers for rent. While you relax in the cenote your bicycle taxi peddler will wait for you before taking you back.
Cenote X’Cache, as the Ek Balam cenote is called, is a large, round, natural sinkhole. It is located deep into the ground with steep rock walls and is 15 m deep and 50 m across. As you climb down the vibrant aquamarine color of the water explodes into view. When you reach the cenote there is a boardwalk around the outside and a swing bridge across it. It’s a very serene, and tranquil, place and often you will be the only people there. You, the fish, and the many birds.
The cenote is open from 8am to 5pm daily.
Now you know why the Ek Balam ruins are so fascinating. And definitely an excursion to take between visiting the fabulous white sand beaches of the Riviera Maya. With 45 structures to explore, in an authentic setting, without battling the millions of visitors of Tulum. And with one of the largest Acropolis structures in all of Mesoamerica and an amazingly refreshing Ek Balam cenote to relax in at the end. What’s not to like?
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