The Best Maya sites to visit, at #10: Beautiful Ek Balam, Yucatán

A visit to Ek Balam

My first visit to Ek Balam was in 2018. It was one of the last Maya sites I visited during a tour of Yucatán & parts of Chiapas.

Picture taken during our visit to Ek Balam. Impresssion of passing the main entrance to the temple ruins.
Main entrance to the temple ruins of Ek Balam.

At the time, we had already visited Uxmal, Kabah & Labná, Palenque, Yaxchilán & Bonampak, Calakmul & Tulum. And to be honest, before entering the gate I seriously asked myself if my expectations – and those of my wife & daughter – by now weren’t too high to really get inspired by visiting another Maya site.

In other words, weren’t we overfed a little by Maya temple ruins now? Moreover, build in the tropical heat of Yucatán?

At first we felt that way for sure. Despite the quiet, shaded area & the glimpses of the first temples in the background. That is, until we arrived at the main monument, the Acrópolis.

A stately monument throned by a beautifully restored temple, inviting every visitor a more than honorable taste of the Inframundo of the Mayas, the Xibalba.

A unique experience

Our visit to Ek Balam was very different from earlier visits to Palenque & Tulum. And certainly to the one that would follow a few days later to Chichén Itzá.

Although there were still many other visitors, you couldn’t compare it to the masses we saw in the other sites mentioned.

  • Especially Chichén Itzá is so popular these days, it’s impossible to be on your own for just one moment. Or take a picture without including a fellow visitor. In that sense, also very different from the time we visited this enormous & impressive Maya city for the first time – in 1992 – and we were almost the first ones to arrive.

In other words, in Ek Balam you can still escape the crowds, isolate yourself from time to time & try to form yourself an idea of the city’s past.

Moreover, you can still climb the temples, which in Tulum, Chichen Itza & partially in Palenque isn’t possible anymore. Understandable, but in the end a whole other experience.

Temple at Ek Balam, Yucatán.
Ek Balam, Yucatán.

In conclusion, I highly recommend you – if you can – to include visits to smaller Maya sites, like Ek Balam. But also, Muyil, Sayil Yaxuná, Kabah, Labná

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A short history of Ek Balam

Ek Balam was founded midway between the better-known Maya cities of Cobá & Chichén Itzá. Both are located within a 50 km/30 mi radius from Ek Balam.

  • Ek Balam – actually Ek’ Balam – probably means “Star Jaguar” in the Yucatec Maya language. Although Ek’ can also refer to a “Black Jaguar”. A holy animal for the Mayas.

The city was founded around 300 BC & reached its highest peak roughly between 700-1100 AD. At the same time as the neighbouring city of Cobá.

Its regional power declined after this time, but the city was only abandoned completely during the 16th century. That is, just after the Spanish invasion & conquest.

  • A conquest that took a while on Yucatán, where the Maya people managed to resist the future colonists for decades. A historical fact they are very proud of. A sentiment you can still feel when travelling the peninsula & reading about it.
Entrance Arch to Ek Balam. Picture taken during our visit to Ek Balam in 2018.
Entrance Arch to Ek Balam.

A well preserved Maya city

The late abandonment is one of the reasons the city is well-preserved. The architectural highlights include – besides the already mentioned Acrópolis – a typical entrance arch, an oval temple, several plazas & a small central ball court.

  • On top of the Acrópolis you’ll find the main temple, beautifully excavated & partially restored. It’s called El Trono, the Throne! In this temple is supposedly buried the founding ruler of Ek Balam, Ukit Kan Lek Tok’. He ruled the city from 770 until to 797 or 802 CE.
  • At the front of El Trono temple you can admire one of the finest stucco sculptures in the Mayan world. Including a human-size mouth of a jaguar inviting you to enter Xibalba, the Maya underworld.
Map of the ceremonial center of Ek Balam.
Map of the ceremonial center of Ek Balam.

To indicate the location of some of the most remarkable monuments of Ek Balam on the map above:

  • (1) Defensive wall
  • (2) Entrance Arch
  • (3) The Oval Palace
  • (10) Ball Court
  • (14) Acrópolis
  • (15) El Trono temple

The rediscovery of Ek Balam

Ekʼ Balam was rediscovered by the French archaeologist Désiré Charnay in the late 1800s. However, serious research only started in the late 1980s. Led by foreigners & Mexicans alike. Afortunately, an ongoing process!

View from the top of the Acropólis. To the right Structure #17 or The Twins. To the left the Oval Palace.
View from the top of the Acropólis. To the right, Structure #17 or The Twins. To the left, the Oval Palace.

Tips for your visit to Ek Balam

Visit Ek Balam – Getting there

The nearest city to Ek Balam is Valladolid (28km/17 mi.) An authentic Mexican – or better Yucatec – city without mass tourism. And for that reason a good alternative for travellers who want to avoid busier tourist destinations, like Cancún & Tulum.

We stayed in Valladolid twice & loved it. The first time (1992) in a cheap, but friendly hotel for backpackers not too far from the main square.

The last time we stayed at El Mesón del Marqués. A hotel in a renovated 17th century monumental building on one side of Valladolid’s main square. It’s a typical Mexican & somewhat old-fashioned hotel. A friendly place with modern spacious rooms located at the back, a refreshing swimming pool & an excellent restaurant (local cuisine).

Swimming pool of the Mesón del Marquéz.
Swimming pool of El Mesón del Marqués.

To learn more, go to: El Mesón del Marqués, Valladolid

From Valladolid it’s a 30 minutes ride to the temples of Ek Balam.

Impressions of our visit to Ek Balam, Yucatán, Mexico.
Ek Balam, Yucatán, Mexico.

Visit Ek Balam – On a tour

From Valladolid

Alternatively you can go on a tour from Valladolid or one of the other tourist places nearby. Tours which mostly combine a visit to Ek Balam with other attractions nearby.

From Valladolid there’s an interesting Viator half-a-day tour which – besides a guided visit to Ek Balam -includes a stop at the beautiful Cenote X’Canche & (an optional) visit to the Mayapan agave distillery/tequila farm.

To learn more, go to: Guided Tour of Ek Balam, Cenote X’Canche (+agave distillery)

From Cancun/Playa del Carmen

GetYourGuide offers several tours from the popular beach towns of Cancún & Playa del Carmen. Visiting not only Ek Balam, but also others in the interior (like Chichén Itzá or Cobá).

I have picked two popular tours to Ek Balam, including hotel pickup & lunch (click on the the name to learn more):

Cenote ChichiKan.
The temple of Kukulcan, Chichén Itzá.
Entrance prices

IMPORTANT: Ek Balam, as well as Chichén Itza are much more expensive than other Maya sites nearby, like Cobá or even Tulum. This concretely translates in extra charges/ state taxes when you buy your entrance ticket. For that reason BE AWARE that these extras are generally NOT included in the price you pay for a tour to these two places.

  • The main reason why Chichén Itzá is costly is because it’s so popular. Certainly after it was named one of the New7Wonders of the World in 2007.
  • A visit to Ek Balam is more expensive because of the fact that the site is privately owned. Revenue serves maintenance & further exploration.

I personally think that although the entrance prices are high, both cities are well worth your visit.

Photo Impressions of Ek Balam

Impressions of our visit to the Maya site of Ek Balam, Yucatán.

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Impressions of the beautiful stucco sculpture on El Trono temple, Ek Balam.

Me, on top of the Acrópolis at Ek Balam, Yucatán.

For an overview of my personal favourites, go to: Top #12 Maya-sites

For an overview of all travel posts of my blog, go to: the Home Page.

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