Balamkú's stucco frieze. Detail

Balamkú and its Spectacular Jaguar Temple

Balamkú, the Maya site translated as “Jaguar’s Temple” got its name from an image of a jaguar on a stucco frieze in a temple. A small site, it is easy to miss, easy to overlook. Close to the Calakmul Ruins and Nature Preserve, it is rarely visited. On the other hand, if you are on a quest to be alone at a site (like we usually are), it is the perfect place to seek out.

Since it’s right on the road, and small, the best way to visit Balamkú is as part of a road trip through the Yucatan peninsula.

About the Site

A little-known site, occupied between 300 BC and 1000 AD, Balamkú lay hidden in the jungle until 1990. When INAH (the Mexican National Archaeological Institute) investigated a report of looting, they came across the stucco frieze in one of the ancient buildings. A few years later, in 1994, they officially excavated the site and opened it up for visitors in 1995.

Three architectural groups constitute the core of the site, though only two are open and excavated. The smallest, the South Group comprises four plazas with small pyramids. The North Plaza has not been excavated. The Central Plaza is home to the Jaguar Temple, or Structure I.

The frieze in the Jaguar Temple, almost intact after all these centuries, makes the visit worthwhile.

Stucco frieze in Balamkú
Part of the stucco frieze the site is known and named for.

Our Visit to Balamkú

We stopped at Balamkú a few years ago when we were spending time in and around Calakmul. After spending the night at La Puerta Calakmul, we explored the small site before getting on the road. Alone at the site, after paying the small fee, we set off for the structures.

The Stucco Frieze the Site is Known For

After the spectacular pyramids of Calakmul, Balamkú seemed insignificant. But we knew what we were looking for, and knew where to find it. Without stopping anywhere else, we headed to the Central Plaza. We walked on with a purpose.

Balamku - entering the site
Balamkú – entering the site

Halfway through our walk I became aware of someone following us. One of the women who worked at the site was struggling to catch up to us.

When I got to the structure we were looking for, my husband looked disappointed.

“They locked it up,” he looked back at me, while I was climbing the stairs.

“Are you kidding me? ” I started, but suddenly the footsteps behind me made more sense.

I smiled and looked back. The caretaker finally caught up with us, keys in her hands.

“Can you let us in? Can we see it?” I asked her.

Since it was obvious to her that we knew what was behind the locked door, she didn’t try to explain much. She unlocked the door and led us in.

Balamku - stucco frieze all length
Balamkú – stucco frieze all length

I stood there in awe, speechless. The frieze was clear and more beautiful than I imagined it from the photos I’ve seen.

“Can we take pictures?” we asked.

“Yes, of course,”she smiled. “But no flash, please.”

While everyone was still taking photos, tried to talk to the caretaker. I don’t speak much Spanish, though I understand almost all of it. When I managed to ask her about the hole I noticed under the mask, I understood her answer about the tomb inside. She stayed with us until we were ready to leave, patiently waiting for all of us to marvel at it, and take enough pictures. After we left, she locked the structure behind us.

Revisiting the Site

On our recent road trip through Mexico, we stopped at Balamkú on the way back from Palenque. Though we’ve been there only a year before, it gave us a good excuse to get out of the car, after driving for a few hours.

This time we saw another family just leaving the site as we arrived. Another small group was still in, climbing the small pyramid on the premises. They were on the way out as we were on the way in. We all greeted each other since we knew how rare it was to see visitors at this small site.

We stopped at the South Group and climbed a small pyramid, then headed to Structure I, home of the frieze we stopped for.

Balamkú pyramid
Pyramid in the South Plaza

By the time we got to the Jaguar Temple, we were alone at the site once again. We looked around for someone working there to let us in, and we noticed him walking towards us.

Late in the day, the afternoon sun illuminated the frieze in a whole different light. It seemed to me even more beautiful than I remembered it from the previous year.

Balamkú - stucco frieze
The late afternoon sun illuminated the frieze, highlighting its features.


About the Author

Emese-Réka Fromm has been visiting Maya ruins and archaeological sites for over thirty years, since the first time she set foot on the Yucatan Peninsula on her honeymoon. Besides exploring well-known and off-the-beaten track ruins all this time, she reads about the ancient Maya, and recently attended a lecture of respected Mayanist and epigrapher David Stuart at the Maya meetings at the UT of Austin. A published travel writer with bylines in publications like Lonely Planet and several others, she is also a language instructor in Phoenix.

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