Ek'Balam seems to be one of the "minor" Mayan ruins sites in the Yucatan area. I say this because it tends to be overshadowed by its much larger neighbor 56km northeast of Chichen Itza. Valladolid makes a great base for exploring Ek'Balam as it's only about 25km from town.
According to Wikipedia, Ek'Balam is noted for its preservation of the plaster work on the large pyramid tomb of king Ukit Kan Lek Tok' who is buried there. The city of Ek'Balam was at its height from 770-840 CE and apparently had a fairly rapid decline in its later years.
We were drawn to seeing Ek'Balam because of this plasterwork. I had briefly read about these "fangs" that surrounded the entrance to the tomb and was totally intrigued.
We arrived to Ek'Balam before 10am so as not to fry in the hot hot sun. Our experience with Mayan ruins tells us they are usually out in the open with little to no shade. Ek'Balam, however, had a fair amount of shade and we also lucked out with some good cloud cover. Even still, it was hot, so arrive early, bring sunscreen, bring a hat and cover yourself with some mosquito repellent.
There's a large parking lot and a welcome center where you can use the bathroom, buy a paleta and pay for your tickets to the site. We don't remember paying for parking, though both our brains could be faulty. There's a cenote on the premises but your tickets to the archeological site do not cover entrance into the cenote, and vice versa. There are a lot of signs about this in the ticket area. You can also pay for a guide if you wish to have some details about the place as you wander around. Our experiences with on-site guides has not been so great so we refrained from booking with someone and just went in on our own. That and it's 600 pesos.
The park is nicely shaded with gravel walking paths that lead you to the ruins. You pass the entry to the cenote as well as what seems to be a "craft village" that sells touristy souvenirs and such. We were sort of put off by this as it was just sort of weird and felt like a weird recreation of a village but there was nothing really happening. We tend to be annoyed by stuff like this, so perhaps I'm just being a crank about it. I just usually like to have less commercialism with my ruins, I suppose. Call me old fashioned.
Anyway, the site itself is definitely worth visiting. You come in on some of the minor ruins on your way to the pyramid itself. These minor ruins are super interesting on their own and best of all can be climbed upon and explored in and out. I love when I can get into these spaces and climb on top and really get a sense of the place. It was fabulous.
We walked a bit further past additional ruins and arrived at the piece de resistance, the pyramid. As with all Mayan pyramids this was imposing. There was a huge central staircase that just went up, up, up and looked like it was an extreme pitch. I saw the area where the teeth and plasterwork are preserved and that's about 3/4 of the way up these steep stone stairs. By this point the sun was blasting down on the pyramid and the heat was increasing. There were groups of people around us with guides and so we got to hear some tales about the temple but not too terribly much. Zac abstained from climbing the pyramid, as he has a fear that can be triggered by steep open stairs that could have made it difficult for him to get back down, so I went solo. And so, up into the sun I went.
The stairs did not seem that steep but man the sun was really beating down. I felt myself getting warmer and sweatier and redder with each step. But I was not to be deterred. I wanted to see the teeth. I arrived at the jump off point for the plasterwork much faster than I thought. Oh and the area is blissfully covered with a palm roof! Alright, so it only provided shade for the plasterwork and not for those of us standing outside the fenced off area, but still it felt like something, The plasterwork was incredible and you could tell someone important was buried here. One of the bits I heard from one of the guides was that one could tell how important a site was to the Mayan people based on how they maintained it. If the site was in good condition that meant it was important to the Mayan people and culture. There's been some work done in recent years to maintain and preserve this work, but wow, the feeling it conveys is incredible. And the teeth are everything that I thought they would be. Just incredible.
I continued my climb to the top so that I could get a good view out over the rest of the site and into the jungle beyond. It was quick from the plasterwork landing to the top and I think the stairs got a little steeper. At the very top you lose the stairs all together and complete the last 4 steps on solid wooden branches. Just hold onto the rail and you'll be fine, it's super sturdy.
At the top you are rewarded with amazing views into the ruins you previously walked around and out to the jungle beyond. I heard the guide say that on a clear day you can see Chichen Itza. All I could see was jungle as far as the eye could see and nothing else. As I stood at the top of the pyramid with the sun beating down on me and sweat pouring out of every pore, I felt exhilarated and at peace. There's really no good way for me to describe what it was like up there other than to say that I didn't want to come back down. I wanted to just sit there and stare into the deep green that was surrounding me. I wanted to feel the strength of the pyramid underneath me and breathe in the air. There was definitely something special happening up there, but alas, I needed to get myself out of the searing sun and back down to the shaded ground.
The descent went quickly and smoothly, though some around me decided to sit down as they descended a few steps. I heard a few people say they were scared but continued on as one must. I didn't find it scary but I think I might have still been high from how I was feeling at the top.
I met Zac at the bottom sitting on a bench underneath a tree. He handed me some water as I joined him in this amazing spot to just sit and gaze at the pyramid I recently climbed. We did a quick check of my photos to see if they were ok or if I needed to go back up to the top to re-do. They seemed alright so I just continued to sit on the bench and soak up the shade. But to be honest, I was kind of hoping I would need to go back up to the top. Maybe next time.
Additional Images of Ek'Balam
A side Story...
We stopped off at one last ruin section as we were leaving the site. As we stood atop this small pyramid I noticed something move in the grass and took a startled jump back. What I was looking at was a rather large iguana who was as startled by me as I was of him. He stood stock still as we approached to see his full beauty and we could see his heavy breathing as he pondered if he should run or pretend like he was invisible. He stayed put and we quickly moved on so the poor guy could relax. It was an absolute delight to see him.