Balamkú, the great city of the sacred jaguar lords

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos, and practical information about these ancient marvels and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. This week we venture deep into the jungle to explore the magnificent dwelling of jaguars and lords.

Balamkú is an archaeological site in the south of the Mexican state of Campeche, within the Calakmul Biosphere, near the entrance to Calakmul national park. 

Perhaps because of its proximity to Calakmul, Balamkú is relatively under-visited, though it is quickly becoming better known for its many impressive features. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The name of the city is made up of the Yucatec-Mayan words Balam, meaning jaguar, and Kú meaning temple — though it is often also referred to as the home or dwelling of the jaguar. 

Jaguars abound on the Peninsula, but their greatest concentration can be found within the Calakmul Biosphere. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The city was founded sometime between the 3rd and 5th century AD, right in the middle of the classical period, and was discovered fairly recently — in 1990 by the Mexican archaeologist Florentino Garicía Cruz while doing field research with a team from the INAH documenting evidence of archaeological looting. 

The archaeological restoration of Balamkú began in 1994 and was lead by a team of American and French archaeologists. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The ruins cover an area of 25 hectares or 62 acres and are divided architecturally into four major groups, with the central and northern groups being located near water sources. 

At Balamkú it is possible to observe several examples of Río Bec architecture, but the influence of the Peten style more characteristic of nearby northern Guatemala is also notable. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

It is widely believed that Balamkú was founded as a client state of Calakmul. That being said, it is likely that later in its history it was absorbed into an alliance of city-states lead by Tikal after the defeat of Calakmul in the 8th century CE.  

A partially surviving stone mask from the Classical period, likely representing the deity Itzamnña. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

When entering the archaeological site, notice that although some structures have been restored many other mounds just off the beaten path remain untouched. As you delve deeper from the periphery of the site, notice that the structures will begin to get larger and more elaborate. 

This structure in the southern quadrant of the Balamkú is believed to have been used for astronomical observation, though features indicative of this fact are a little hard to make out to the untrained eye given all the vegetation which is still allowed to consume much of its surface area. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

When entering the central group you will pass through a gateway leading to the central plaza where Balamkú’s greatest archaeological treasures are housed.

between this gateway found in Balamkú and those found further north in the Puuc or Chenes regions which almost always make use of the Corbel or Mayan arch. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Within the main plaza, you will notice a large single staircase pyramidal structure exhibiting features of Peten-style architecture which strongly suggest Balamkú’s occupation after the defeat of Calakmul by Tikal.

The site’s guardians do their best to fight off the encroaching jungle which surrounds Balamkú, but it is impossible to keep nature at bay completely. The tree growing near the top of the pyramid was perhaps allowed to grow to remind us that nature will always win out in the end over even the loftiest of human endeavors. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Balamkú’s core or Central group is made up of three plazas, creatively named A, B, and C. Within groups A and C it is possible to make out several interesting structures such as the city’s main ballcourt and mounds, as well a ceremonial platform. However, most of these structures are still awaiting restoration.

Structures in Balamkú’s Central group include some of the oldest at the entire site, though they would have been altered and repurposed several times through their history, leaving us only with their most recent iterations. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Balamkú really is an interesting site for a great many reasons, not the least of which is its transitional architectural style. But if you have ever heard about this great ancient city before, it’s most likely because of its main attraction, the Temple of the Four Lords. 

The exterior of the Temple of the Four Lords may be relatively unassuming, but it is what’s inside that will really impress. 

Visitors are allowed to enter the Temple of the Four Lords, technically designated Structure I, in groups of three at a time. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

It is often the case that it is next to impossible to convey the beautify of archaeology through photography. No matter how hard one tries to capture a treasure like the Temple of the Four Lords, something is always lost. Perhaps this has to do with the excitement of going up the temple steep stairs or the anticipation of what one will find inside — or maybe even maybe the odor which somehow smells of antiquity itself. Regardless, when you step into that chamber it is hard to not feel blown away.

Impressive Balamkú’s stucco frieze really is, so you really should visit and experience it for yourself. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The stucco frieze depicting four lords gives the temple its name and is full of symbology, both political and cosmological. 

The frieze itself is divided into four main sections, with segments one and four having been severely damaged by looters and segment three being the most complete. Illustration: Daniel Salazar.

Each segment of the frieze follows the same pattern. First, at the bottom, you have a zoomorphic mask, likely representing the Monster of the Earth or the realm of Xibalba itself. Then follows the image of an anthropomorphized animal figure, likely acting as an intermediary between the spirit world and the terrestrial plane of existence. Then at the very top is the image of a powerful noble at the height of his powers and adorned with regalia. 

The placement of each segment suggests that these images are also intended to depict a succession or lineage of Balamkú’s royal family. Illustration: Daniel Salazar

At the center of the frieze, we can see what would have been the entrance to the temple’s interior chamber, which is of course also adorned in stucco. 

As is the case in many temples across Mesoamerica, Balamkú’s Temple of the Four Lords posses interior chambers and passageways. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

There is a great deal more than can be said about Balamkú’s Temple of the Four lords, but if we are being honest here, they are for the most part simply educated guesses and conjecture. The truth is that even with all of the high-quality research done by the INAH, as well as international universities and research groups, there is just still so much we don’t know for certain — and likely never will.

The temple chambers are also adorned with a great many other figures from Mayan cosmology, as well as representations of reptiles including frogs and crocodiles. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go

To visit Balamkú and other nearby sites such as Calakmul and Hormiguero it is highly advisable to spend the night in one of the region’s hotels or campgrounds, near the town of Xpujil. Though roads in this part of Campeche are fairly good, keep in mind that these are some of the most remote archaeological sites in the country, so fill up on gas often and make sure to always bring enough water.

Segment 3 of Balamkú’s frieze within the Temple of the Four Lords. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Balamkú is located 60 kilometers or 37 miles to the west of Xpujil along the highway leading to Escarcega. You will pass the exit to Calakmul on the highway and find the detour to Balamkú after just a few kilometers.

A map shows the location of Balamkú on the Yucatán Peninsula. Image: Google Maps

The entrance fee to Balamkú is 50 pesos from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. On Sunday admittance is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents of Mexico with ID.

Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy, and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway.
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