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.