This little gem of a Mayan city is rarely visited and you may very well end up strolling around all by yourself among temples and jungle. It's a bit off the beaten path since it's located about 20 minutes north of Valladolid. From Playa del Carmen it's a two hours and 45 minutes trip, which is best handled by car. But if you're into Mayan art and architecture, this is a real treat and should not be missed!
Ek Balam is Mayan for 'Black Jaguar', which in itself is a powerful name. There is much additional evidence that Ek Balam was an important and influential city. First of all it was inhabited for a very long time. Whereas many other cities in the Yucatan had a life span of five or six hundred years, Ek Balam was alive and kicking for about 1000 years. Construction started in the late Pre-Classic period (100 BC to 300 AD) and continued well into Late Classic time, which is 700 to 900 AD. It may even have been inhabited as late as the time for the Spanish invasion in the 16th century. Read more about general Mayan history and culture in our Overview of the Mayan World.
Further evidence for the city's importance is the monumental buildings. The Tower, El Torre, is one of the largest Mayan structures in the Yucatan. It measures over 500ft/151m long, 200ft/60m wide and reaches 100ft/30m in the air. The city also has a wall which is not high enough to provide much protection, which probably means it was built for ceremonial purposes. Other ceremonial features include the ball court, where the important Mayan ball game was held. Read more about this special game in our Chichen Itza article.
Furthermore a road network has been found. Sacbe is the Mayan word for white road, and their roads were paved, wide and built perfectly straight – yet another indication of the greatness of Mayan engineering. The presence of a wide system of these roads indicates frequent interaction with other cities. The evidence of the importance of Ek Balam has led archaeologists to theorize that it was an agricultural center of Northwestern Yucatan. This area still produces plenty of corn, vegetables and honey.
While only a few principal buildings have been excavated and restored, the grand size of this site gives you exceptional examples of what the Mayans were capable of. It starts right at the entrance with a beautiful Mayan arch of typical design. This arch was probably used as both entrance and exit, and most probably people would make offerings to the gods at the altar. The rounded wall of the big building to the right of the arch is a fine example of Classic architecture. As you stroll around it, you enter the impressive plaza which is surrounded by huge structures. Two of the biggest ones are still un-excavated giving you a hint as to how the whole site looked before it was reclaimed from the jungle. Across the plaza, with its smaller ceremonial temples and its ball court, you reach the majestic El Torre –The tower.
This building's magnitude and design is unique in the Yucatan. As in many other monumental temples of the Mundo Maya, it is a result of many generations of construction, layer upon layer. The Mayans, like many other Mesoamerican cultures, employed the tradition of adding a new "shell" of construction, covering the prior temple. It was often done in 52-year cycles, a time lapse of great importance according to the Mayan calendar. Archaeologists have excavated part of the temple in order to reveal the underlying levels of construction. That has left the façade un-intact, so to speak. But, for what they found beneath the temple wall, it was worth it!
Beneath the outermost layer of wall the team of archaeologists discovered the amazing tomb of the ruler of Ek Balam. What's even more amazing is the exquisite and awesome stucco wall making up the opening of the tomb. The doorway itself is made in the shape of a jaguar's mouth with fearsome looking fangs all around it. There are full figure statues with so much detail you can see the braids in their hair and the pattern of their loincloths. Hieroglyphs of corn sit next to warriors with skulls on their belts. In some places you can see some wall paintings in excellent shape. This unique stucco wall takes the breath away from even the most seasoned ruin buff and is in itself reason enough to visit Ek Balam. Its equal cannot be found anywhere else in the Mayan World.
Before you leave this interesting Mayan ruin, stroll around The Tower, peak into the small rooms along the wall and walk around the complex to marvel at the greatness of Mayan architecture. Seeing the back of the ruins also gives you an inkling of the amount of work involved in excavating a ruin.
Check out the water reservoirs in the back, also built by the ancient Mayans. Most cities in the Mayan World were built in the close proximity to a cenote, which was their fresh water source in this country with no over ground lakes or rivers. Ek Balam, however, is about a kilometer from the nearest cenotes, which is why the city figured out a way to store rain water underground. If you want to learn more about this natural wonder, read our article on cenotes.
One last thing before you leave - remember to pay your respect by walking through the arch on your way out!
Ek Balam is open seven days a week between 8 am and 5 pm. The entrance fee is about 4 usd. There are authorized guides available, which is a good way to gain a greater understanding of this interesting site. There are also plaques with information in English, Spanish and Mayan in front of the more important structures. There are very basic restrooms at the entrance and a parking lot just outside. You will need about an hour or two to see the site at a nice slow pace.