Ek Balam, meaning black jaguar in the Yucatec Mayan language, is a powerful term in Mayan history. The site is believed to have been an influential and important Mayan city in northwestern Yucatan during the late Classic period of 600 AD to 900 AD. Located 30 miles (48 kilometers) north of the city of Valladolid, Yucatan, Ek Balam is about three hours from Cancun. The site is somewhat remote, but not being far from Chichen Itza, it could be combined into one trip.
Just a handful of the 44 structures at Ek Balam have been excavated, but the vast size of this ancient city reveals the extraordinary accomplishments of the Mayan civilization. The key structures at Ek Balam are the Acropolis, an awe-inspiring restored pyramid rising to 96 feet (29 meters); and El Torre, the tower, one of the tallest Mayan pyramids in the Yucatan rising to 100 feet (30 meters).
Records indicate Ek Balam was populated and flourishing for about 1,000 years, whereas most Mayan cities only existed for five or six years. Some of its structures were initially erected back in the late Preclassic period of 100 BC to 300 AD, and artifacts discovered point to this Mayan city as possibly being a major agricultural center at the time.
About a half hour drive north of Valladolid, Yucatan, you need to keep your wits about you lest you miss the turnoff or crunch into a pothole. The site is not yet ready for the tourist buses, something that helps preserve its charm for the time being. There’s also a village of Ek Balam nearby. And don’t expect an arrival fanfare–this site is as low-key as you can get.
With a central core of three large structures, including the impressive temple (Acropolis), surrounded by a series of a few dozen smaller structures, Ek Balam is much more compact than Chichen Itza, although there are some outlying structures are up to a mile away. But it’s easy to take it all in in an hour or two and makes for a great day trip from Cancun (tip: stop in the nearby colonial town of Valladolid for lunch). In the past couple of year there’s a shiny new welcome center with a ticket counter and bathrooms. It’s nothing like what you’ll find at Chichen Itza, but it serves its purpose nicely. The site is not very accessible for wheelchairs and there are no paved paths, but the ground is mostly flat. Climbing the buildings–especially the Acropolis–is definitely only for the ambulatorily able, though.