Ek’ Balam is best known for the intriguing, richly-decorated, somewhat-horrifying tomb of Mayan King Ukit Kan Lek Tok’. The site is largely overlooked by the tourist hordes (who seem to prefer Tulum and Chichen Itza, and, if they still aren’t done, perhaps Uxmal), but if you have the time then Ek’ Balam is well worth a visit.
Upsize it with a trip to nearby X’Canche Cenote and you have, in my opinion, the best Mayan-ruin/swimmable-cenote combo in all of Mexico.
Ek’ Balam, which means Black Jaguar in the Mayan language (or possibly Star Jaguar) dates back to the Pre-classic Mayan Period (the timeline for the Mayan Empire is broken into three major eras: Pre-classic (roughly 2000 BCE to 250 CE), Classic (250CE to 900 CE), and Post-classic (900 CE to 1500 CE)).
Which means the city is a thousand years older than its highfaluting neighbour Chichen Itza.
Ek’ Balam was the seat of a Mayan kingdom that reached its pinnacle between 770 CE and 840 CE. The city is estimated to have had a population of 20,000 at the time.
There are 45 structures amongst the ruins, including a ball court, a squat, round ziggurat known as the Oval Palace (El Redondo), and an enormous pyramid-like structure known as the Acropolis.
Half way up the Acropolis is the richly-decorated doorway leading into the tomb of Mayan king Ukit Kan Lek Tok’. The tomb is nicknamed El Trono (the Throne).
The portal is made of stucco and sculpted to resemble a monstrous, fang-lined mouth – perhaps that of a jaguar’s.
El Trono, Ek’ Balam
Stucco decoration is fragile, susceptible to the elements, and usually doesn’t survive very long in outdoor settings.
The reason El Trono is still in such good shape is because the Acropolis spent the last thousand years or so buried in soil – a deliberate act that occurred following the decline of the city in the Postclassic era.
The decline of Ek’ Balam
Ek’ Balam is surrounded by defensive walls three metres wide and two metres high. A smaller, hastily-built inner wall was erected towards the end of the Ek’ Balam’s lifetime.
Historians posit that this inner wall was a final, desperate measure to hold out attackers.
Considering the sudden abandonment of Ek’ Balam around this time, there is a strong likelihood that the wall failed, and the residents of the city were either slaughtered or fled.
And thus the city of Ek’ Balam came to an end.
X’Canche Cenote is 1.5 kilometres from the ruins of Ek’ Balam. You can easily walk the distance between the two sites.
If it’s too hot (which in summer it may well be), or you just don’t feel like walking, then there are usually a few local men hanging around with pedal rickshaws who will transport you to the cenote and back for a reasonable fee.
X’Canche Cenote is the classic, circular, vertical-walled cenote. And this cenote is vast – no overcrowding here.
The water is a little murky, as is to be expected, but on the positive side, at least it doesn’t smell of guano (bird and bat droppings).
There is no better way I know of to follow up your hot, sweaty exploration of the Mayan city of Ek’ Balam than with a dip in these cool, catfish-filled waters.
Practical information and how to reach Ek’ Balam:
You can find more information on how to reach Ek’ Balam here.