Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Wanderings: Beyond Chichén Itzá -- Ek Balam

Take a good look at that set of steps. The pyramid above is larger than the famous pile at Chichén Itzá, named last year in a marketing-inspired competition as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. This amazing structure is much less popular than the one at Chichén. In fact unless you live in Yucatán or have made a point when visiting to seek out less-famous archaeological sites, it's likely you've never heard of it.

This is Ek Balam, which means Black Jaguar in the Mayan language, located about twenty minutes' drive from Valladolid, Yucatán, or a couple of hours from either Cancún or Mérida. It's as accessible as Chichén Itzá.

A number of years ago, when I first visited Yucatán, I made my obligatory pilgrimage to Chichén, the signature Pre-hispanic site of Yucatán. It was impressive. My friend and I meandered among the hundreds of columns, strolled through the ballcourt and wondered at the cenote. We wandered in and out of buildings, climbed the pyramid, and admired the far-reaching view. We arrived early, just as the site was opening, and by the time we had explored for a couple of hours the tour buses from Cancún were roaring in at an increasing pace. The June heat was rising quickly and the place began to get crowded, so figuring we'd seen enough for a first visit and wanting to avoid the crush, we left.

I have yet to make a return visit. Why?

Well, as my friend Paul recently wrote, Chichén Itzá has become a victim of its own success. It has become so popular that, in order to protect the site from the hordes of tourists who daily descend upon the ancient city, officials have had to prohibit many of the activities that once enhanced the experience. You may no longer climb the pyramid, enter buildings or walk among the columns. Due to the crowds, it is no longer easy to quietly contemplate the genius of the ancient Mayan planners and architects who built this city. And running the guantlet of souvenir vendors does not add to the experience.

The other reason I haven't gotten back to Chichén Itzá is that there is a great number of other sites to visit. Ek Balam is one of many fascinating alternative archaeological sites in Yucatán. Not only does it boast structures larger than the pyramid at Chichén Itzá (according to one guide I read), you can climb right up, hang around on top and appreciate the expansive views. You can walk through ancient doorways and imagine what life here may have been like before the arrival of the Spaniards. You can bird-watch and appreciate orchids growing in the trees. And you can relax, because since the tour-bus crowds have never trampled the place the guards are mellow, few areas are roped off, and it's quiet. It's like Chichén Itzá was years ago.

I don't mean to mislead you...
Ek Balam has not been rebuilt to the extent of Chichén. It contains at least 45 structures, roads, is surrounded by stone walls, and covers 12 square kilometers, but is mostly in ruins and covered by undergrowth. Only one facade of the large pyramid is restored, but there are heiroglyphs, beautiful sculptures and other monuments. Several buildings have been rebuilt, but much of the site is still covered in trees and vegetation. You have to look more carefully. You have to walk on dusty trails. To me, this is part of the attraction.

There is also a beautiful cenote on the grounds, suitable for swimming and snorkeling. The cenote is owned by the local ejido, and you've got to pay additional fees to enter. I didn't go this time, but I am told it's worthwhile.

It is certain that under-visited treasures like Ek Balam will become more popular as time passes. As if to make the point, when I was coming down from the pyramid or "Acropolis" of Ek Balam, several van-loads of day trippers from Cancún approached with their guide, and some began to climb. One of the young women stopped short and stared up at the height of the structure. Fashionably turned out in heels, revealing tropical mini-skirt, bikini top and jewelry, she was dressed more appropriately for being "seen" at a resort poolside lunch than climbing ruins. I do believe her jaw dropped for a second as she took in the massive stairway in front of her. But she quickly returned her attention to the Blackberry in hand and while eyeing text messages, commented, "There's no elevator?"

This is the sort of package-tourist that has made Chichen Itza what it is today.

So I suppose that with tourism growing and the Yucatán state government's frequent promises of new projects to "detonate" tourism growth in the area (for reasons I can't fathom, they always say "detonate"), it is inevitable that sites like Ek Balam will receive more visitors in the future. Let's hope that as visits in the region increase, these wonderful places can be developed in sensitive ways that permit them to retain some of their innocent, underdeveloped qualities.

I guess it's a good idea to spread the visitors around, rather than have a small number of famous sites, places like Chichén Itzá, suffer most of the impact. This also would more evenly distribute the economic benefits of new jobs. 

The good news is that there are many fantastic places like Ek Balam in the Yucatán. I plan to write about more of these in future posts.


  1. You can see a fair number of sites from the top of the main building that must be cities/towns that have not been touched. On a clear day, Coba is easy to pick out to the south.
    The plaster work at Ek Balam is the best I have come across in Mayaland and that includes Copan. Calakmul is a site you might want to look at before the tour buses find their way...

  2. Norm, I agree with you about the sculptures at Ek Balam. They are well worth the visit on their own. And I, too, wonder about all those mounds and other sites visible in the distance. There is so much out there.

    I'll have to check out Calakmul the next time I am down that way.

  3. Lovely, Marc. Mike and I were fortunate enough to be allowed to climb to the top of a small city of cliff dwellings on private land in New Mexico a few years back. The feeling of standing in a place where ancient civilizations thrived is indescribable. Can't wait to see Ek Balam and so many others.

  4. I wish we had had time to see this site when I was visiting. And I better get back before the Chichéns come home to roost.

  5. Lynette -- you are right about the feeling you can get in these places. Unfortunately, it's hard when there are hordes of people around you talking on cell phones and taking pictures. That's why I hope there always will be places like Ek Balam.

    Steve -- I think there's still time...look forward to seeing you on your next visit.

  6. Fabulous photos, Marc. I especially like the one overlooking the site. Photos never do justice to the expansive view, though, do they?

    I laughed at your description of the fashionista who expected an elevator. Good

  7. Barb -- I didn't make that up about the elevator...hard to believe what peoples' expectations are sometimes.

    You are right about the views. It's hard to capture in photos the feeling you get looking out over the huge expanse of country.

  8. Thanks for another great post, Marc. I hope to visit this site yet this winter.

    About the only thing I enjoy about Chichen now is the people watching. Lots of fashionistas and inane comments. It is a whole 'nother world.

  9. Paul -- the idea for this post and other probable future posts about "Beyond Chichén Itzá" were inspired by your post about your recent visit to Chichén. Thanks to you.

  10. Marc, I know enough young women in that age group to believe your story to be 100% true. Still, I couldn't help but giggle a bit at her

  11. Very cool info..our goal is to visit every Mayan Ruin in the Yucatan and we have heard about Ek Balam. Maybe this will be our next trip. Thank You for the info and the photos.

  12. Great post and photos Marc! Ek Balam is one I missed, now have a reason to return - as if I needed one. Love the Yucatán!
    Nice blog, enjoying it and it is a nice addition to my blogroll as well.

  13. MT: Glad you enjoy the blog. Thanks for adding me to your blog roll. I write for the fun of it, but it's nice to know that there are folks out there enjoying it enough to pass it along.

  14. Hey Marc, I was here last February and Ek Balam was the most accessible, for now until the tour buses eventually arrive. It was so peaceful and low key that I actually fell asleep from my trek and woke up near closing time near one of the ruins. Only one watchman noticed that I was still on the grounds and was more concerned that I was okay and made sure I didnt get lost while leaving the area, than ushering me out in a hurry. I will miss that when it gets crowded. Since it is a very new archaeological discovery, I am sure the govt. will encourage the growth of tourism, unfortunately.

  15. Hi Aggie. It's nice to receive comments from you. I am glad you appreciate Ek Balam as much as I do. It's one of my favorite spots. And, as usual, when a place is not jammed full of tourists, the locals and the employees seem friendlier and have more time for visitors.

  16. Great pictures of Ek Balam, Marc.
    I have been there twice, and it is a truly magnificent site. A few years ago I played tour guide and took a couple friends to the Yucatán. We skipped Chichén Itzá altogether. Instead I took them to Ek Balam and Uxmal. Although Uxmal is more visited the Ek Balam, it doesn't have the hordes of Cancún day trippers that invade Chichén. And, mercifully, there are no vendors within the archaeological zone. One of the pyramids is closed to climbers, but you can explore and climb to your heart's content throughout the rest of the site. My friends were very impressed by both places, and did not feel at all cheated that we had not visited the "wonder of the world."

  17. Hello! Hola Marc!! Qué maravilla! Fui dos veces a Chichén Itzá, la primera en el año 1999 creo, aún se podía subir a la pirámide y no había demasiada gente, la segunda fue en 2013 y es cierto lo que dices, estaba lleno de gente, vendedores intensos...uff Conozco Uxmal y Tulum, y el mes que viene iremos de nuevo a la Riviera Maya, pero estaremos sin carro propio. ¿Cómo podemos hacer para ir a Ek Balaam desde Playa del Carmen? O desde el mismo Valladolid, hay algún bus? También iré a las cuevas y al cenote en Ek Balaam, y al cenote Zací de Valladolid, que no lo conozco! Muchísimas gracias desde ya!


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