Last updated: 09:00 PM ET, Mon November 02 2015

Opinion Home | Far-Sighted Field Notes

  • Rosalind Cummings-Yeates | November 2, 2015 9:00 PM ET

    Ek Balam: Ancient Maya’s Best-Kept Secret

    Ek Balam: Ancient Maya’s Best-Kept Secret

    Photos by Rosalind Cummings-Yeates

    Mexico boasts so many significant Mayan ruins and temples that visitors can spend weeks immersed in different ancient kingdoms and never view the same one twice. There are nearly 20 Mayan sites on the Yucatan Peninsula alone but none are as famous as Chichen Itza. Although Chichen Itza's complex buildings win most of the attention, Ek Balam, located just 30 minutes away, predates Chichen Itza by 600 years and displays striking structures still being excavated.

    Ek Balam translates to "Black Jaguar" in the Maya language and the imposing size of the buildings demonstrate how significant the city was to the Maya from about 500-900 AD. It's estimated that about 15,000 people lived in the city, which was fortified with three walls as protection from invasions. Most of the buildings are well preserved and display substantial period details. Despite this, Ek Balam is one of the best-kept secrets in the Yucatan Peninsula. There are very few crowds and I was able to stroll leisurely throughout the site.

    Restoration has been ongoing at Ek Balam since 1997 and the uncovered buildings include a ball court, a tomb, a palace and a 104-foot-tall Acropolis pyramid. The ruins show a blend of several Maya architectural styles, which makes the city unusual. The structures are scattered closely so that you can explore the ruins easily if you like to climb. I recommend sturdy shoes — I saw a lot of lost flip-flops on some of the ruins. Bring a hat and sunscreen as well; the sun beats down quite intensely around the site.

    There’s a towering flight of stairs that lead to the top of the Acropolis that visitors love to scale for the best views of the site. From the top, you can see Coba, the tallest pyramid of the Maya world. The stairs were so narrow and steep that I could barely fit my long feet on them. It's also a pretty unstable surface with crumbling stone and uneven stairs that requires careful climbing.

    With the climbing conditions so daunting, I opted not to go all the way up. Instead, I took a detour to the newly uncovered royal tomb. Archaeologists discovered 700 offerings along with the king's skeleton, jade, obsidian and carved shells. Those artifacts are in the Museum of Merida. Statues of high priests sporting flattened heads and crossed eyes guard the tomb. This was supposed to emphasize their difference from the lower classes. All the intermingling with the upper classes produced a lot of deformities, which were considered lucky. 

    You can't really make out these details with a quick glance, so be sure to get close and examine the statues, it's really fascinating.

    Chichen Itza supplies stunning evidence of the astrological and archaeological wisdom of the Maya, but Ek Balam provides the other half of the story, illustrating how they lived on an everyday basis. I felt like I walked away with a more complete image of ancient Mayan life and I think a visit to this under-the-radar landmark makes a cool side-trip in the Yucatan.

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Rosalind Cummings-Yeates Far-Sighted Field Notes

Rosalind Cummings-Yeates Rosalind Cummings-Yeates is a journalist, author and blogger who specializes in travel and culture topics. She loves guiding readers through the richness of various cultures and discovering the essence of a destination. Her travel and culture blog, Farsighted Fly Girl, offers travel insights through the music, food, art and history of various countries and cultures. Join her on the journey at www.Rosalindcummingsyeates.
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