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