Mayan historical sites are one of the main attractions here on the Yucatan peninsular, especially for those who have some interest in how Mexico became what it is today. Most children learn about the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas in their schools, but there is nothing like actually seeing their ruins first hand.
The most famous Mayan site around the world is Chichen Itza, but many others are scattered across the scrub jungle of the peninsular and in many ways make for more interesting exploring. For our first excursion out of Valladolid we had planned a trip to Ek Balam, which translates roughly as “Jaguar Star”. Ek Balam is one of the smaller, and less visited Mayan sights, and in common with much of the Mayan culture dates back to around 300 A.D. but was abandoned around 1000 A.D long before the Spanish invasions. Archaeologists only started to unearth the historical buildings in 1996 and it has proved to be one of the more important sites of recent excavations, and also one of the best preserved.
The drive to Ek Balam took us along the main road north through smaller villages, each with their town squares and churches. This gave us a peek into the more rural parts of the Yucatan peninsular. After about half an hours drive we reached the parking lot for the archeological site. I would advise to get there as early as possible as some tour buses started to arrive late morning just when we were leaving and it is not a site suited to crowds.
It was a short walk from the car park to the entrance, where we paid 115 pesos per person. We then made our way along a path, lined with the ubiquitous souvenir and craft stalls that are common in all tourist sites. After a short walk through the jungle we reached the magnificent Mayan arch of Ek Balam. The town used to spread over a total area of 15km and 15,000 people used to live here at some point. Most of the buildings are still hidden deep in the jungle and have not yet been excavated.
Inside the walls to the main complex were only about 40 buildings and we could immediately spot two smaller pyramids and the giant acropolis. Unlike at many other Mayan sites we were able to climb the pyramids and buildings, which makes it a lot more fun to visit with children. Make sure you wear appropriate footwear if you intend to climb the steps as they are quite steep & smooth, so flip flops or smooth soled shoes could be dangerous.
Even though we were immediately drawn towards the larger acropolis we wanted to keep it until last, therefore we first ascended one of the smaller looking pyramids, that used to be the observatory. From the top it gave an overview of the site’s other buildings, while the acropolis’ thatched roof was still visible behind tall treetops.
Back down on the ground we strolled past other well-preserved buildings, including a ball court and other smaller temples, some with interesting details stone details and stone carvings.
Finally, we reached the acropolis, or “El Torre”, one of the largest Mayan structures on the Yucatan peninsular. It even amazed archeologists when they excavated the ruins, not only due to its impressive size but also for the preserved details. The main building is 30 meters high and 150 meters long and contains 6 stories. It houses the tomb of Ek Balam’s powerful ruler Ukil-Kan-Lek-Tok the highest official during the city’s peak in 800 A.D.
The best part for us was that we were able to climb the steep steps to the top of the temple. Other Mayan sites, including Chichen Itza no longer allow visitors to ascend the buildings.
At the top we had an amazing view over the other pyramids and ruins with the lush green jungle stretching to the horizon. It is said that on a clear day we should have been able to spot both Chichen Itza and Coba another important archeological site. Maybe we were not patient enough, but we could not see any pyramids in the distance.
About half way down we visited the tomb of the king, the entrance gate looked like a monster’s open mouth with long pointy teeth. Above is a snake’s head and open mouth with its long fangs, a symbol used on many temples. Other figures adorn the entrance gate they represent warriors and some even have wings. Older children will love to imagine the warriors and priests of old. Inside the tomb remains of the king were found together with thousands of objects that served as burial offerings, which are now in museums.
These stucco carvings are unusually complex and belong to the best and most beautiful of all Mayan figures ever found and therefore are protected by palm leaf roofs. In many temples the stucco has been weathered and the colours have faded. On the other side of the steps we saw further friezes some featuring jaguars on the carved rocks .
On our way out we strolled along the wall that surrounded the centre of Ek Balam and then back along the path to the entrance lodge. If you have more time and want to make it more of a day out you could go and visit the Cenote Xcan Che. It is located 1.5 km from the archeological site and is a great place to cool off and perhaps even have a go on the zip line if you have older children, so do not forget your swimming trunks.
Instead of going for a swim in the cenote we drove on to Izamal heading towards our afternoon plans on the northern coast of the Yucatan peninsular.