Ek’ Balam

14 Feb


Ek’ Balam is an ancient walled city of the Mayan civilization. Near Chichen Itza, it is a less-well known but primordial example of Mayan architecture. Dana and I visited Ek’ Balam before we went to Chichen Itza. The contemporary differences in the sites are immediately apparent. Chichen Itza is overrun with tourists. Multiple buses are idling in the parking lot and gaggles of people following multi-lingual tour guides make it difficult to approach some of the best preserved antiquities. At Ek’ Balam quiet reigns.


It is peaceful at Ek’ Balam, a remote jungle site near Valadolid. There are stunningly fewer tourists and the site is itself is remarkably perserved. Decorative wall friezes and steles present throughout the site stun in the complexity of limestone carving.DSC01275

When Ek’ Balam was first discovered in 1994 it was just a grouping of large jungled mounds in the middle of a Yucatan. Today it is an excavated site with fourteen structures showing a walled city with a North and South plaza, temples, palaces, pyramids, a ball court, steam baths, twin pryramids and a four-footed arched entry.



The main structure, the Acropolis is 480 feet across, 180 feet wide and 96 feet tall It is one of the tallest structures among Mayan ruins, second only to the pyramid at Izamal. The Acropolis has six levels where the city’s governors lived above the population they ruled. You can climb the Acropolis, stand and look out over the whole of Ek’ Balam seeing the exposed structures and more jungle mounds still to excavate. Archaeologists believe that the site was not built all at once but served as a significant center of commerce and culture that was abandoned and not replaced by the Spanish after their “conquest” of the Maya.DSC01245


The Ball Court is situated in the middle of the North and South Plaza of Ek’ Balam showing its significance to the workings of the culture. Ball games were a metaphor for the struggle of Mayan progress after death passing through a conflict ridden underworld before being reborn in the living world once again. The game’s winning team was reborn, the losing team was abandoned to the forces of the underworld. Losing team captains were sometimes sacrificed, a high price to pay for failing to get the ball (made from burnt stone) through the stone ring high above the field.



The site contains wall decoration unique for its magical detail and outstanding preservation. Unlike other Mayan sites the stuccos of Ek’ Balam exist due to the modern preservation techniques used early in the process of excavation. And the discovery that new rooms were not built with alterations to existing rooms advanced their strength and purity of design.


The name Ek’ Balam means “Black Jaguar” or, for native Mayan speakers, “Jaguar-Star.” In the main facade of the Acropolis is a beast-like representation with huge jaws and fangs surrounding a significant doorway to the structure’s interior. The lower jaw of the beast forms a terrace. The black maw of a doorway is lined with fangs.


In the upper part of the open doorway is a headless figure generously adorned and assumed to be the governor of the city. It is unknown what ceremonies were held here but the placement of the sculpture and surrounding rooms at the top of the Acropolis suggests important tribal leaders and priests might have inhabited the structure when it was a powerful center of Mayan civilization


The Oval Palace is a building that reveals construction over time with the oldest stage stacked ovals, the second stage of ten rooms attached to the ovals and the third stage a small temple that tops the structure. Stone details are woven into the design of the palace’s walls.


The arched entrance of Ek’ Balam stands on four legs, constructed over the road that leads into the city, and was probably ceremonial in purpose. It leads into the center of a city intricately walled for defense against aggressors.


The day we spent at Ek’ Balam was special for us. The peace and power of the site bring you closer to its history and give a sense of the beauty that surrounded the days of Mayans in this remote walled city.

COMING NEXT…Chichen Itza




One Response to “Ek’ Balam”

  1. Barbara and Ernie Werren February 14, 2016 at 6:01 pm #

    Wow! What a treasure! Our museum, DMNS, had a Maya exhibit a few months ago, so everyting Maya intrigues me! We have seen many Maya sites (glad we saw Chichen Itza 20 years ago before it became one of the “new 7 wonders”!) Now we must get back to Yucatan to see Ek-Balam! So many places still on the Bucket List, so little time!

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