Ek’ Balam and X’ Canche, Mexico – see fang-lined El Trono, take a dip in cenote 2

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, Mexico

Ek’ Balam, Mexico. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

Ek’ Balam

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, Mexico

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

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.

Ball court, Ek' Balam, Mexico

The ball court. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

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

Ek' Balam, Mexico

El Trono. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Ek' Balam, Mexico

Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.


Ek' Balam, Mexico

The ruins of Ek’ Balam in the middle of the jungle-covered Yucatán Peninsula. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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

X'Canche, Ek' Balam, Mexico

X’Canche Cenote. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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, Ek' Balam, Mexico

Photo credit: Benjamin White

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).

X'Canche, Ek' Balam, Mexico

Photo credit: Benjamin White

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:

Ek’ Balam is 25 km north of Valladolid, and 56 km from Chichen Itza. There is no public transport, so your options are taxis and private transportion.

You can find more information on how to reach Ek’ Balam here.

More on Mexico:

Chichen Itza – a skull platform? an early observatory? the serpent effect?

Pyramid of the Magician, Uxmal – built overnight by a superhuman dwarf

Campeche – largest pirate attack in history, now UNESCO listed

Valladolid – stinking hot summer day + colonial charm = sepia tones

Cenotes X’keken and Samulá – dark caverns lit by intense sun beam at midday

More on the Mayan Empire:

Copán, Honduras – cashed up Mayan outpost builds Hieroglyphic Stairway

Tikal – Mayan pyramids and… the Millennium Falcon?

Posts on Central America:

El Salvador:

Joya de Ceren – preserved beneath metres of ash, just like Pompeii

San Salvador – worth a visit?


Semuc Champey – long way to go to see a waterfall. Is it worth it?

Lago de Atitlan – rain, cloud, lightning at El Mirador de la Nariz del Indio


Macaw Mountain – toucans, toucanets, aracaris, and… macaws

Lago de Yojoa – dangerous? no! sleepy, serene, safe? yes!

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