Ek Balam is a small, compact Mayan site in the northern Yucatan. It doesn’t have the fame and majesty of the nearby Chichen Itza, but it does have a large pyramid acropolis which can be climbed up for some superb views. The site is also renowned for the beautiful carvings and sculptures here, which have recently been uncovered. But perhaps best of all on a hot day, there is a beautiful cenote near the site that’s perfect for a cooling dip.
This guide will help you make the most of your visit.
HISTORY OF EK BALAM
Ek Balam was first settled in the middle Pre-classic period, sometime around the 3rd to the 1st century BC. The city reached it’s peak from 770-840AD, when it ruled a small local kingdom. The city had a population of up to 20,000 during this period. The city declined dramatically after 1000AD like many cities in the region, until the site was all but a shadow of it’s former self inhabited by a small number of Maya living in the ruins of their ancestors former glory.
The main attraction is without doubt the large pyramid acropolis here. The pyramid is 70 metres wide, 160 metres long and 31 metres tall, making it the second tallest pyramid in the northern Yucatan. The structure also contains 72 rooms. Best of all the pyramid can be climbed up, unlike at a few other sites. The climb to the top is very steep but quite easy, and there is a rope to help. From the top the views are amazing, with the green jungle of the Yucatan stretching to the horizon. It’s easy to see the layout of the old city from here too. I could even see the distance outlines of a few other Mayan sites from the top.
The pyramid has more to see than just the view. Ek Balam is most famous for the beautiful, ornate and extremely well preserved stucco reliefs here. The most impressive of all is the relief that forms the front of the tomb of Ukit Kan Lek Tak, the most famous ruler in the cities history. I was amazed with how well preserved the carvings were, and what I good job the archaeologists have done at uncovering them from the mound of rubble the acropolis had become.
The main plaza of Ek Balam is small but has a few interesting buildings. The oval palace is the largest of the buildings here, and you can explore the rooms inside here to get a feel for what it must have been like in the past. The shady interiors also provide a respite from the fierce sun here. It’s thought the Oval palace was aligned to coincide with cosmological events. You can climb up the stairs to the top of the building here and walk along the roof.
On the west of the plaza are two eroded buildings called the twins, which have temples facing each other. The buildings are set close together, so when I climbed up the stairs onto the first building I could easily jump across the gap to the second one. If you try this just make sure you don’t misjudge your step!
Another interesting feature is the entrance arch, which is the first structure you see after following the path from the car park. It’s a well preserved stricture and frames the view beyond, though it looks a bit out of place now it’s by itself without any walls around it.
Just over a mile from the entrance is this beautiful cenote, which provides a great place to relax and cool off after a hot, sweaty few hours exploring the ruins. The walk here is quite pleasant along a path through dry jungle and fields, though you can hire a cyclo to take you there. The cenote itself is very deep, and is reached by a steep wooden staircase that winds down to the pool. The cavern has some fantastic stalactites and rock formations, and has a rope across the centre to hang onto if you need a break.
Floating in the water here after another day exploring ruins under the fierce Yucatan sun was a great feeling. Best of all there were only two other people in the cenote with me. Around the centote are some gardens which are quite pleasant to wander around.
Ek Balam is a small site and isn’t anywhere near as spectacular as some other Mayan ruins, but it’s still an interesting site to visit. It’s quieter and much less touristy than Tulum and Chichen Itza, so you get a more authentic experience wondering around the relatively peaceful ruins. The views from the top of the pyramid are worth coming for alone, with the pancake flatness of the land offering great visibility. The ability to combine a trip here with a visit to Cenote Maya also makes it a great trip out. If you are in the region make sure you visit this secluded gem.
Admission Price: 196 pesos – seems steep compared to sites like Calakmul.
Opening times: 8am-5pm – I’m sure you could stay later if you were determined though.
Getting there and away: From Valladolid the only way to here is via a shared taxi that should cost 50 pesos. If you leave the site late you might have to get a private taxi, or hitch-hike. I left just after 5pm and was able to get the last taxi leaving the site.
Accommodation: The tiny village of Ek Balam has two accommodation options if you want to stay as close to the site as possible, and experience a side of the Yucatan most people don’t see.