The city of the black jaguar unveils its secrets

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 delve into the ancient city of Ek Balam.

Ek Balam’s acropolis. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Ek Balam is an archaeological site 30 minutes north of Valladolid in the northern Maya lowlands. Meaning “black jaguar” in Mayan, Ek Balam was founded sometime in the 3rd century B.C. and was continuously inhabited through the 11th century C.E. The site was first excavated in the late 1980s and was first opened to the public in the late 1990s.

When approaching the site, visitors will find an elevated rectangular structure with vaulted entryways on all four sides. Given its location, it is likely that the structure served as a checkpoint for travelers looking to gain access to the core of Ek Balam.

Ancient entrance to the city. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The city was protected by two large concentric walls built to defend against attack. In addition to the two large walls, a series of smaller walls and defensive positions bisected the core of the city. Though not much is known about the wars which Ek Balam fought, its fortifications date to the late classical period, a time of great strife between powerful city-states of the north of Yucatán.

The largest structure on the site is known as the Acropolis. It lay on the northern side of the city and houses the tomb of king Ukit Kan Leʼk Tok’, who ruled Ek Balam in the 8th century C.E.

The upper levels of the acropolis peek over the vegetation. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The Acropolis is famous for its elaborate stucco reliefs, which are some of the most striking and well-preserved examples of artwork in all of Mesoamerica.

Stucco figure of a human skull. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The most striking feature of the Acropolis is a specific section of its stucco facade, depicting an open-jawed “monster of the earth” accompanied by what appear to be winged human figures. Depictions of the “monster of the earth” are heavily associated with Xibalbá, the Maya netherworld.

With an open maw and bearing its teeth, the monster of the earth facade Ek Balam’s acropolis is a site to behold. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
The inclusion of such regal winged human figures in scenes depicting the monster of the earth, appears to be unique to Ek Balam. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Some rooms in the Acropolis contain wall paintings that survive to this day. These paintings depict a variety of scenes from Maya mythology as well as highly stylized hieroglyphics.

Relatively few Maya color wall paintings have survived into the 21st century. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The structure known as the oval palace served as an astronomical observatory, though its architecture varies greatly from those found at sites such as Chichén Itzá or Mayapán.

The Maya observatory is located near the entrance of the site. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

As is the case with most large cities in the region, Ek Balam features a ceremonial Maya ballcourt or Pok-ta-Pok.

Like most sites, Ek Balam´s ball court is missing its hoops or ball markers. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Ek Balam is easily accessible by car, but it is also possible to find tours departing to the site from any major city or resort in the region. However, given its proximity to Valladolid, Ek Balam makes for a great day trip from Yucatán’s second city. The popularity of the archaeological site has really taken off in the last few years, so it is best to arrive right at opening time to avoid the tourist buses from Cancun and the Riviera Maya.

Stucco figure sits nonchalantly above the monster of the earth. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Ek Balam is open to the public daily from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The site reopened to the public in early January 2021 after being closed for many months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The site has good facilities including clean bathrooms and a large parking lot.

As with all archaeological sites in Mexico, it is prohibited to bring in food or drink — other than water. When inside the site, it is obligatory to wear a facemask and be mindful of social distancing. As of early February 2021, Ek Balam is one of the seven archaeological sites currently open to the public at reduced capacity — 30% — to help avoid the spread of COVID-19.

View of the ball court and other structures in the city core from atop the acropolis. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Down a dirt road path, about one kilometer from the parking lot, you will find cenote X-Canché. The cenote is great for cooling off after a hot day, and the food served at the little restaurant is surprisingly good. Activities such as cycling, climbing, and rappel are also available for a fee.

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.