Ek Balam view of the site from the Acropolis

Ek Balam: Experiences From The Top Of The Acropolis Over The Years

As I looked down from the Acropolis in Ek Balam, I smiled. “I stood in this spot when the pyramid was a pile of rocks”, I thought.

“When was that?” asked a stranger, standing next to me on top of the structure. Apparently, I was thinking out loud. Totally mortified, I still answered, “Only about ten years ago.”

Others joined the conversation, and suddenly I found myself in the center of attention, with more people asking questions. Normally, this would be the time I would have my husband continue. He can talk to strangers easily, and he was there with me. But he was on the way down already, with the kids.

So, reluctantly, I started answering questions and ended up telling our story of my first glimpse of the now-popular site. I was excited to share my first experience of this amazing building, of standing on top of a pile of rubble, with not the slightest idea of what lay underneath.

It was great to be back and see what lay under the rubble we climbed about a decade before.

Ek Balam Acropolis 1995 & 2008

1995: Exploring Ek Balam as Lone Visitors

During my first visit to the Yucatan Peninsula, in 1995, my husband and I were driving from Chichen Itzá from Cobá, when we noticed a narrow dirt road leading to a small archaeological site called Ek Balam.

Naturally, we turned onto it. On a midday in April in Yucatan, it’s better to drive if you have an air-conditioned rental car, than walk outside in the scorching sun. So, if you find a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, leading to an archaeological site you haven’t heard about, you follow it. At least we did. We still would.

After what seemed like hours driving in the middle of nowhere, with not a building in sight, we spotted a small palapa on the side of the road.

As we got closer, we noticed a hammock strung between two poles, under it. A bicycle was leaning against one of the wooden poles holding up the structure.

By the weight of the hammock as it hung, we could tell someone was laying in it. A wooden sign nailed to one of the palapa’s poles told us we arrived at the archaeological site of Ek Balam.

So the road led to somewhere, after all. The palapa was the ticket booth.

We arrived to our destination

As I opened the car door, the muggy heat, heavy and oppressive, hit me. The air was still, with no breeze, even the insects were quiet.

I didn’t want to get out of the car, just like the person lying in that hammock didn’t seem to want to move. But my husband was excited. He jumped out of the car and walked into the shade, under the palapa.

His excitement is always contagious. So, as sluggish as I felt, I followed him. The person in the hammock slowly rose and greeted us. We could tell by his features he was indigenous Maya. Our Spanish at the time was almost nonexistent, and he wasn’t speaking any English, but somehow we could still communicate.

When he understood that we weren’t lost, but in fact went off to search for this unknown site, he seemed to get excited, too. After giving us the tickets, he walked us to the site. Unfortunately, the language barrier prevented us to take much. That, and probably the oppressive heat, when even talking seemed a chore.

Alone with the ancient ruins, we felt like explorers

You probably guessed by now, we were the only visitors at the deserted site. And at the time it wasn’t much to it besides a few mounds of rubble.

In Ek Balam 1995 Great Pyramid
In front of the Great Pyramid/Acropolis in Ek Balam in 1995

As I got used to walking in clothes dripping with sweat, I felt better. I grew excited when I spotted the few structures standing though they looked nothing like they do today.

Vegetation had taken over most of the ancient buildings, and the rest looked like piles of rubble. Alone with the deserted stones, we climbed every mound we found. We guessed that underneath our feet stood a pyramid, or another structure.

When we looked at the tallest mound, we knew by its shape that it was a great pyramid and it was only a matter of time before they excavated it. Dripping with sweat, I tried to find a trail to the top, with no luck. Then I noticed my husband on top.

“How did you get up there?” I yelled up to him, as soon as I got his attention.

“Go around it, the trail is in the back,” he said.

On top of the Acropolis in 1995

I did find the barely discernible, overgrown trail, and joined my husband on the top. Here, a breeze I haven’t felt below, made it slightly more pleasant.

The view from the tall mound, known now as the Acropolis, included more overgrown mounds, parts of the ancient city, and the low jungle beyond it.

After spending some time on top, enjoying the breeze, we descended to explore the rest of the site. Not that it was much to it, but we stopped at every little mound, every pile of rubble, trying to guess what it might have been when Ek Balam was a city.

At some point I came across a pile of large, cut rectangular stones. Most of them were cleaned and numbered, like pieces of a puzzle. Others, stood farther in a pile, as if waiting to be numbered.

I stood there, in awe, waiting for my husband to find me.

We were watching the work of archaeologists. We understood that they were in the process of reconstructing the buildings. So, we promised ourselves to return in a few years to see what they found, how the site would look after their work.

A Bit of Background: About the Site

One of the now-better-known Maya archaeological sites, Ek Balam (name translated as “Black Jaguar” or “Night Jaguar” ) was once an ancient Maya city on the Yucatan peninsula. People lived there for about a thousand years, during the Late Pre-Classic to the Late Classic period of the Mayan civilization, with most of the structures dating from about 700 to 1000 AD.

Although the earliest structures date from as far back as 100 BC, most were built around 800 AD, when the city was at its peak. The ruler at the time was Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’, and we know this because his tomb is inside the Acropolis.

In recent history, the site was first mentioned in 1597, when Juan Gutierrez Picon wrote the Relation de Ek Balam for the King of Spain. He described a site he heard about from the village elders, They told him that a great lord called Ek Balam constructed it.

Later, in 1886, Desire Charnay, the French traveler and archaeologist, visited the site. When he described it, he talked about it as a great discovery.

Sylvanus Morley, a well-known archaeologist who studied the Maya sites, visited Ek Balam in 1920, but he didn’t work on it. It took another half a century until they excavated the site.

Major work started at the site in 1985, by teams of archaeologists led by William M. Ringle and George J. Bey. It was the results of this excavation that we saw on our first trip.

They didn’t excavate and restore the central Acropolis until 1997, two years after my first visit.

2008: Visiting the Reconstructed City

Though we’ve visited the Yucatan Peninsula often in the next few years, it wasn’t until 2008 when we returned to Ek Balam.

Once again, I was standing on top of the same mound we climbed years before, but this time it had a name. They called it the Acropolis. And it looked nothing like I imagined it would.

View from the top of the Acropolis Ek Balam in 2008
On top of the Acropolis in 2008

Surrounded by tourists, we felt like visitors, no longer explorers. But the pyramid we climbed far exceeded our expectations. It was great to see the building in its entirety, adorned with gorgeous stonework and statues unique in the Yucatan.

Statues adorn the Acropolis in Ek Balam, Yucatan
It was great to see the statues that adorn the Acropolis.

Ek Balam is a compact site. Although the city itself was larger, the main plaza only covers about one square mile, and it is the only excavated area. Given its size, it is easy to walk through it.

We walked through the reconstructed site

A large archway stands at the city’s entrance, with the remains of a sac-be going through it. The sac-be, or ancient Maya road, connected Ek Balam to other sites, like Cobá and Chichen Itzá.

As I passed through the arch, I felt I entered the ancient city.

The Entrance Arch to the ancient city of Ek Balam
The Entrance Arch to the ancient city of Ek Balam

On the way to the main pyramid, I walked through the Ball Court, similar in size to the ones in Cobá. I tried to imagine the ancient Maya playing the ball game. Looking at the hoops, high on the sides, I had trouble with the concept. They must have been great athletes, getting a heavy ball through them.

Ek Balam ball court
Ek Balam ball court. 2008

We climbed the partially reconstructed Acropolis

We took our time climbing the exposed Acropolis, and we also walked around it, on all the levels. We followed our kids, the true explorers, who needed to see and touch everything close-up.

The constant worrier, I was a nervous wreck watching them walk on stairways and the ledges that seemed too narrow to walk on. But they stayed safe on their little feet.

The Acropolis is a palace and pyramid all in one and it is by far the most impressive structure in Ek Balam. At 480 ft long, 180 ft wide and 96 ft in height, it is the largest Maya structure in the Yucatan and it has some of the most ornate motifs and statues found so far on the peninsula.

Ek Balam View of the Acropolis
View of the Acropolis

We counted six levels as we climbed. Walking around one of the lower levels, a monster-like figure, maybe representing the Balam, or jaguar, stands guard, showing off its huge carved teeth. He is guarding the entrance to the Underworld, and the tomb of a great ruler, Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’.

Ek Balam monster teeth
The monster guards the entrance to the Underworld, and the chamber where the king is buried.

The jaguar is only one of many carved figures that decorate the walls. Elaborately carved figures adorn the walls, unlike anything else in Yucatan.

Ek Balam statues
Elaborately carved figures adorn the walls of the Acropolis in Ek Balam.

Exploring the rest of the ancient city

After leaving the Acropolis we walked to the other set of buildings we saw from the top.

We walked around and climbed the three palaces, overlooking an impressive courtyard. While exploring them, I kept noticing small, perfectly round holes in the ground.

They were choltuns or chultunes. The ancient Maya used them to collect and store rainwater.

We lingered at Structure 17, also called the Twins. Its base houses two identical temples on top, hence the name.

Ek Balam The Twins
The Twins, reconstructed.

We stopped in front of a well-preserved stela. Stelae (plural for stela) are pillars of stone filled with carved figures and writing. The ancient Maya erected stelae to commemorate important moments in history, most of the time relating to a ruler of a city. Most showcase the carved figure of the ruler and the important dates in his birth, life, and death.

The erected the one in Ek Balam in honor of the ruler named Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’, probably one of the most important ruler in the history of the city.

Ek Balam Stela

A last look at the Acropolis before Leaving

Before leaving, we took a last look at the Acropolis. It was magnificent, standing tall among the rest of the structures.

I thought back to the days when we first saw it, of our talks about a great pyramid under all that rubble. Seeing it reconstructed was a treat, made the trip worth it.

2017: Revisiting Ek Balam Once Again

In the spring of 2017, we returned to Ek Balam once again.

I didn’t recognize the road leading to it. We were driving on a four-lane highway, with light posts on the sides to illuminate it in the dark.

The site is now part of the Riviera Maya experience, a frequent stop for tour buses and easy access for everyone. It became a true tourist trap.

It was a new, very touristy experience

We found no sign for the old road that led to the site through the village. On our last visit, we stayed in a small hotel there, and we considered doing the same again. We could not find it.

Instead, we drove on a four-lane wide road with lights on both sides, leading directly to the site. The paved parking lot was as large as half the village we remembered.

A few locals came by, offering to “guard” our car for payment. Did theft become a norm there? Or they prey on the Westerners’ fear of it? We didn’t go for it, we still want to trust the locals, like we always did. In over twenty-five years, no one ever robbed us or tried to. We still believe in the same Yucatan.

The building where the ticket counters are was bigger than some structures. Besides tickets, they were selling ice cream and drinks, knick-knacks, and other tourist-junk. The whole structure was air-conditioned, a far cry from our old experiences. I definitely appreciated their clean air-conditioned bathrooms.

The experience seemed surreal. The whole setup, filled with tourists made me feel I was in Chichen Itzá. Almost.

On the main trail, they roped off separate lanes for entrance and exit. Locals, dressed in stylized “ancient Maya” costumes were standing in the heat, pretending to enjoy themselves. They were calling out to passersby, offering photo opportunities. The circus-like setting almost made me turn around.

But I wanted our youngest child to see the site. She was a baby last time we were there, and I knew she would enjoy it much more at this age.

The Structures Were Still as Spectacular as I Remembered

Once I passed through the old gate into the ancient city, I regained my admiration for the site. Though more crowded than I’ve ever seen it, the site was as spectacular as I remembered.

The Acropolis at Ek Balam
The Acropolis at Ek Balam in 2017

Since we knew the site so well, we knew where to find a few quiet places, to be alone with the ancient stones.

I appreciated some new things, too. The narrow ledges of the Acropolis were safer to walk through. The climb to the top only felt harder because I aged about ten years since our last visit. But I still made it and enjoyed the breeze and the view on top.

I didn’t feel the need to mention our earlier visits to anyone.

Still, I was glad to see that even as they opened it up for mainstream tourism they are protecting the site and the carved figures on the Acropolis. The newness might wear off in a few years, and only people interested in it might visit again.

The structures will still be there as spectacular as ever.

In a Nutshell: Quick Facts about Ek Balam Maya Site

  1. Where is the ancient Maya archaeological site of Ek Balam?

    The archaeological site of Ek Balam is in the state of Yucatan, in Mexico.

  2. What is the most impressive structure in Ek Balam?

    The most impressive structure at the site, the Acropolis, is also the largest pyramid on the Yucatan Peninsula by footprint (not height).

  3. What is Ek Balam most famous for?

    The elaborate wall ornaments and carved figures on the Acropolis are unique among all decorative elements in the ancient Maya world, making Ek Balam famous.

  4. When was the ancient city of Ek Balam built?

    The structures in Ek Balam date from the Pre-classic to Late Classic period of the ancient Maya civilization. The city was at its peak between 700 – 900 AD.

  5. How to get to Ek Balam from Cancun?

    The site is easy to reach now, with a well-developed road leading to it. The site is 172 km (106 miles) from Cancun, and 28 km (17 miles) from th closest town, Valladolid.
    To get there, take road 180D from Cancun to Valladolid, and from Valladolid, take road 295 (Carretera Valladolid-Tizimin), and take the turn-off to Carretera Ek Balam for 6 km (4 miles).

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.

Scroll to Top