Chichen Itza has received much attention since the late 19th century. But it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that archaeologists turned their attention to Ek Balam. As a result, it retains its rustic undiscovered feel.
The Centre piece of the site is the Acropolis, once a temple and a palace. Ornate carvings about two-thirds of the way up decorate the exterior of the Tomb of Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’. Many of these have been restored and you get a real feel for how spectacular it was originally.
Rising over 100 feet and measuring about 540 by 210 feet at its base, the Acropolis dominates the area and protrudes well above the surrounding forest. It was up here that the king lived with his family, enjoying a 360-degree view for miles.
A recurrent theme in the carvings is the jaguar–Ek Balam itself means “dark jaguar.” Large stone teeth create the impression of a jaguar’s mouth protecting the tomb. Frescoes and carved warriors remain exceptionally well preserved (and reconstructed) among modern-day Mayan sites.
About two-thirds of the way up the Acropolis, in an area now sheltered by a large thatched roof. This part of the Acropolis was built as a tomb for the city’s ruler, Ukil Kan Lek Tok. The entrance to the tomb is made in the shape of a huge jaguar’s mouth with large fangs, and around the mouth the walls are covered with decorations in high relief. When he died the ruler was placed in the tomb together with treasures including gold, jade and obsidian, and the whole tomb area was sealed under a thick stone wall. It was only rediscovered by accident when serious restoration work began at Ek Balam in 1997.
To get to the top is a very steep climb on uneven steps and without a handrail. It’s only a matter of time before Ek Balam like many other Maya sites prohibits visitors from climbing the structures, but for now you can freely scale the temple admiring the frescoes up close and experience the breath-taking views.
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 way more compact than Chichen Itza, although there are some outlying structures stretching out up to a mile away.
You can easily take in the entire site in an hour or two and makes for a great day trip from Cancun.
A good idea is to stop in Valladolid for lunch or combine the trip with a visit to Chichen Itza. There’s a welcome centre with a ticket counter and bathrooms that has been built in the past few years, nothing fancy but does its job.
Ek Balam is not wheelchair friendly and there are no paved paths, but the ground is mostly flat. Climbing the buildings–especially the Acropolis–is definitely only for the able bodied and not for anyone who has issues with heights.
Ek Balam is about a half hour drive north of Valladolid, the site is not yet geared up for the tourist buses, something that helps preserve its charm for the now. Don’t expect a mass of gift shops and restaurants, this site is as low-key as you can get but could easily be the highlight of your stay in the Yucatan.