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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
When entering the central group you will pass through a gateway leading to the central plaza where Balamkú’s greatest archaeological treasures are housed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The stucco frieze depicting four lords gives the temple its name and is full of symbology, both political and cosmological.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.