Ek Balam Mayan Ruin was a bit of a surprise for me. I hadn’t expected it to be as worthwhile as it was, and I found it difficult to believe the quality of one of the facades. This façade is the best preserved Mayan architecture of anything I have seen. Also notable is the Acropolis, its largest pyramid.
Upon arrival, it was quickly clear that Mexico has invested in this site. The entrance area was nicely constructed and the grounds were well maintained with nice landscaping that added to the experience. I was also pleased to see how empty the site was – we arrived first thing in the morning and had the site almost to ourselves the entire time. I’m sure that busses of visitors from Cancun and Playa del Carmen would arrive later in the day, but we were done and on our way before that happened.
The ancient Mayan world was a surprisingly connected world, with sacred roads (called sacbes). Ek Balam has these roads leading off in all four directions. When we walked into Ek Balam, we traversed along one of these roads and came to the Entrance Arch. This arch was part of an interesting little building featuring four corbel arches facing in opposing directions. It was a neat way to enter the main portion of the city.
Next to the Entrance Arch was the second most interesting structure of Ek Balam – the Oval Palace. This was the only place other then Uxmal where I saw extensive construction using rounded corners. The Oval Palace has a series of circles one atop another leading to the top.
There were several other nice pyramids besides this of varying size and restored quality. Most can be climbed. There was also a ball court, small compared the the massive one at Chichen Itza, but sized about the same as the other ones I’ve seen at Yucatan Mayan sites.
Throughout our exploration the giant pyramid of Ek Balam rose in the distance. We resisted rushing off to see it first, but came to it finally. Sometimes called the Acropolis, excavations on this amazing structure didn’t begin until 1998 when it was just a mound. At 480 feet long, 180 feet wide and 960 feet tall, it is the largest pyramid by volume in the Yucatan. It rises up with 6 levels and has 72 rooms discovered within. The Acropolis can be climbed and the stairs are not as steep as those at Coba. Climbing the steps was one of the highlights of my visit there. From up there, we could see a wide view of the Yucatan jungle around us as well as the other structures of Ek Balam far below us.
Along some of the levels of the Acroplis are palm-thatched roofs that were not part of the original structure and looked appropriately out of place, but these protect the most amazing part of Ek Balam. We went under these palm-thatched structures and found an amazing site – a façade in apparently perfect condition. Having not studied up on all of the site ahead of time, I was surprised to find that these are as they were originally built. No reconstruction has been done on these at all!
The ancient Maya preserved this stucco themselves by carefully filled the passages of the tomb and the entire façade with rocks and powdered limestone not long after construction. Why they would do this I have no idea, but it enables us, the visitor nearly 1500 years later, to enjoy their handiwork. Even the whiteness was natural – scientists believe it was never painted.
One of the most striking portions of this façade was the Jaguar Altar. Looking like a massive mouth with a door beyond, on-going excavations have revealed this to be the burial site of the greatest ruler of Ek Balam and the builder of the Acropolis. Known as Ukit Kan Lek Tok, he ruled from 770 and presided over the city at its height. The city appears to have wrestled control of the region from the nearby Coba during this time. Ek Balam, being in such good shape, is revealing much about the Maya of that time. The rest of the façade about the tomb is equally beautiful. Featuring winged Maya warriors, snakes, glyphs and many geometric shapes, it is mesmerizing to study.
Excavation work has only revealed about 10% of Ek Balam, and much more is still to be discovered. The newness of the site explains why it isn’t more known and, consequently, more visited. But its relative closeness to Cancun and its overall quality ensure that it will not remain unknown for long. I’m glad I got to visit this beauty of a site soon before it gets too busy.
You’ll find advice for seeing Ek Balam yourself here.
Pictures of our trip are here.
A listing of my favorite Mesoamerican ruins is here.