Ek Balam is an Ancient Maya archaeological state situated in the heart of the Yucatan peninsula. It sits close to the settlement of Temozon.
The site is 28km north of Valladolid, 175.1 km east of Merida, and 171km west of Cancun respectively. The name Ek Balam translates to meaning black jaguar or dark jaguar in Ancient Maya.
Interestingly, the diaries of a Spanish Conquistador named Juan Gutiérrez Picón state that the area was named after Lord Ek Balam. However, there is no evidence that such a person existed and maybe something got lost in translation during the Spanish colonization of the Yucatan.
Ek Balam History
Ek Balam was occupied for more than 1,000 years. Like many Maya sites, some of the histories of the city have been lost in time since the Spanish occupation.
However, it is believed that Ek Balam remained inhabited for a period even after the Spanish Colonizers arrived. The city thrived between 770 and 840 AD. During this time, it was a major political hub for the region.
After it was abandoned, it was reclaimed by the jungle. Fascinatingly, Ek Balam was not discovered until the 1980s and only the center of the site has been excavated. Who knows what other treasures await beneath the surface or how more expansive this archeological site may become in the future.
The Name Ek Balam
The Yucatan jungle is home to over 100 species of mammals including five big cats. The most majestic of all? The solitary jaguar.
The word for Jaguar is “Balam” in Mayan. In Mayan mythology, the jaguar was seen as one of the rulers of the “Xibalbá” (the Underworld).
Important priests were known as “Balam” and they only made appearances at the most important ceremonies. The Ancient Maya even believed that their leaders and nobility were descendants of jaguars.
So, the jaguar is a highly important figure in Mayan culture and you will often see it depicted in paintings and carvings, or find that notable sites (like Ek Balam) are named after the jaguar. For the Ancient Maya, the jaguar was associated with strength, power, aggression, ferocity, and valor.
Similarly, and quite poetically, the Mayans recognized the jaguar for its night vision. They likened the jaguar’s ability to see at night to the ability of good humans and leaders to see into the dark parts of human desires.
Visiting Ek Balam Today
A winding dirt trail through the Yucatan jungle leads you from the site entrance to the phenomenal central square of Ek Balam. The sunbleached remnants of deep defensive walls still surround the city today, protecting its temples and shrines as they have done for millennia.
The various structures that are scattered around the site are accompanied by information plaques. They make it easy to understand what you are seeing even if you opt not to use the services of a local guide.
Some of the most impressive ancient Maya architectural creations can be found at Ek Balam. Keep your eyes peeled for ceremonial entrance arches guarded by the stray dogs of the Yucatan, the Oval Palace, and the tomb of Ukit Kan Lek Tok. The site is compact, so you can see most of Ek Balam in less than an hour.
Climb El Torre
El Torre is the name of the grand pyramid in the center of the Ek Balam site. You will see it peeking out above the jungle canopy in the distance from the moment that you pass through the turnstiles at Ek Balam.
This is one of the largest pyramids in the Yucatan and with a height of 95 feet, it towers above the trees. You can ascend to the top and although the climb is steep, it is absolutely worth it.
There are fewer sights as beautiful as gazing across the Yucatan jungle from the top of El Torre and seeing nothing but trees and lush, dense jungle as far as the eye can see. On a clear day, you can see the temples at Chichen Itza and Coba from up here.
You will sometimes hear people refer to El Torre as the Acropolis. The pyramid has been built in an unusual manner and partway up, there is a covered platform containing a tomb.
This spot is perfect for a little respite from the heat on a hot, humid day and breaks up the climb. Exercise caution when going back down.
Visit the Tomb of Ukil-Kan-Lek-Tok
Ukil-Kan-Lek-Tok ruled over the city of Ek Balam in 770AD. He was one of the most revered leaders and his intricately designed tomb can be found part of the way up El Torre.
The tomb is an architectural masterpiece formed of intricately carved Stucco statues and figures. The fact that it has withstood the test of time all this long is astounding.
The remains of a Pok-A-Tok court can be found at the base of El Torre. This Ancient Maya ballgame was played throughout Mesoamerica.
You will see the ruins of old ballcourts at Mayan cities throughout Mexico and wider Latin America. Notably, there are ballcourts at Chichen Itza and Uxmal.
The game was played with a rubber ball and the objective was to pass the ball through the hoops using any body part except the hands. Although Pok-A-Tok is no longer played today, you can watch reenactments of it in the Yucatan capital of Merida.
Just across the field from El Torre, past the Mayan ball court, you are greeted with several smaller structures. Many of these are smaller temples and shrines and they are always accompanied by information plaques that describe their history and notable features.
Attractions Near Ek Balam
Visiting Ek Balam needs only a few hours. However, there is plenty more to do in the area to make the most of your day in the Yucatan.
Swim in Cenote X’Canché
Cenote X’Canché is a large natural sinkhole located just a few kilometers away from the ruins of Ek Balam. It is easy to find and you will see various signs for “Cenote” scattered around the Ek Balam entrance and car park.
The cenote requires a separate admission fee of 70 Pesos ($3.5). It is accessible via a dirt trail that leads off from the ruins.
You can rent a bicycle for just a few pesos to make the journey and you will reach the cenote in less than 15 minutes. The turquoise water here is perfect for swimming in and reaches depths of 90 feet.
There are various adrenaline activities that you can opt to participate in while you are here – ziplining, rappelling, cliff diving, and rope swinging. All of these come with an additional fee, with the exception of cliff diving.
As Ek Balam is becoming more and more popular, most tourists tend to visit the ruins and then head to X’Canché. So, while the cenote can be fun, it can also get incredibly crowded which detracts from the experience. It is far from one of the best cenotes in the Yucatan.
Stop for lunch in Temozon
You will find a traditional restaurant beside Cenote X’Canché. However, it exists to cater to tourists, and the food there is not the best.
If you want to sample some of the best Yucatan cuisine in the area, head to Temozon. The town is just 18 minutes/15km away from the ruins.
There are dozens of excellent eateries along the main road here. Just pop inside whichever place takes your fancy.
Temozon restaurants specialise in smoked meats and BBQ food. Restaurante Ahumados and Carnes Concepción Smoked Pork are particular favorites.
Visit an Old Hacienda
Staying at a hacienda in the Yucatan is one of the best travel experiences that you can have in Mexico. These gorgeous properties are scattered throughout the Yucatan state and there are several close to Ek Balam and Valladolid.
Hacienda Kaan Ac and Hacienda San Miguel are two stunning places that are located a convenient distance away from Ek Balam. If you are looking to treat yourself, you can opt to stay overnight at a hacienda.
Alternatively, you can stop by during the day to tour the premises. Hacienda San Miguel is a particularly charming place.
This is one of the oldest haciendas in the Yucatan and dates all the way back to the 16th century. Guests can enjoy walking and cycling trails around the premises, visit the quaint historic church on-site and enjoy hanging out by the pool.
Ek Balam is situated just 71km (67 minutes) away from Chichen Itza. Many organized tours take travelers to the two sites in one day.
If you are driving, you can head to Chichen Itza first thing in the morning to beat the crowds. Then, stop in Valladolid or Temozon for lunch and continue onwards to the Ek Balam archeological site before relaxing in the nearby cenotes.
Cenote Hubiku and Cenota Santa Rica
Cenote X’Canché may be the closest cenote to the ruins at Ek Balam but it isn’t the only cenote in the area. There are two other great options if you want to avoid the crowds. Namely, Cenote Hubiku and Cenota Santa Rica
Cenote Santa Rica is the lesser-known of the two, accessible only by car. At first, it looks little more than an unsuspecting hole in the ground.
But follow the rickety wooden steps down into the darkness and you will be greeted with a stunning underground cenote with stalagmites and stalactites hanging from the ceilings. On the walls and ceilings of the cave, you can see handprints left by the ancient Maya.
Cenote Hubiku is arguably one of the best places in the Yucatan. It can get somewhat busy because a lot of tour groups stop here en route to Ek Balam or Chichen Itza. The turquoise waters here have a maximum depth of 27 meters.
Getting to Ek Balam
A lot of local tour companies offer excursions to Ek Balam departing from Cancun, Tulum, Valladolid, and Merida. Many pair these with a trip to nearby Yucatan cenotes or to the spectacular Chichen Itza, one of the seven wonders of the world.
Opting to participate in a tour can take a lot of the stress out of planning the logistics of a trip. Many are reasonably priced and so it doesn’t work out any more expensive than doing the trip independently.
A selection of reputable excursions that stop by Ek Balam is detailed below for your consideration. You should book your tour a week or two in advance to secure your travel dates.
- Ek Balam & Cenote Maya: Full day tour
- Chichen Itza, Hubiku and Ek Balam tour from Cancun/Playa Del Carmen
- Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, Cenote and lunch – excursion from Cancun
- Ek Balam self-guided tour audio app
- Yucatan: Self-guided Mayan ruins walking tour bundle
- Ek Balam, Cenote Hibiku and Rio Lagartos tour from Cancun
- From Merida: Farming, cenote and Ek Balam pyramids tour
Tour on Arrival
If you travel to Ek Balam independently and then decide that you want a little more context to the structures that you are seeing, you can hire a guide at the site. You won’t miss the guides – there is a little kiosk to hire one right by the site entrance opposite the ticket office.
It is 500 pesos for a day’s guidance excluding any tips that you would like to give. Tours are available in English, Spanish, and a select few other languages. It should take no more than 2-3 hours to explore the site in depth.
Driving to Ek Balam
Renting a car and driving in Mexico is not as intimidating as it may seem. Driving to Ek Balam from nearby Valladolid, Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, Merida, or Cancun is a pleasant experience.
The roads are well built and maintained. Driving also gives you a lot more flexibility to explore off-the-beaten-path cenotes and settlements that you simply wouldn’t be able to visit if you were depending on public transport.
As a rule of thumb, try to avoid driving at night. The Yucatan region is safe.
However, low visibility and a lack of street lights can make it difficult to see hazards like topes (speed bumps) and animals/people on the road. Be sure to carry some pesos in cash as depending on where you are driving from, you may have to pay tolls on some of the roads.
For instance, on the road from Merida to Valladolid, there is a toll of 210 pesos each way. This must be paid in cash and cards are not accepted.
Take the Bus
There is no direct bus from Tulum, Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, or Merida to Ek Balam. Instead, you need to travel first to Valladolid and then take the bus from there.
Mexican colectivos are small, shared minivans that run between Mexican cities to smaller towns and tourist sites. However, there are currently no colectivos servicing the route from Valladolid to Ek Balam.
You will find many local taxis lined up close to the ADO bus station in Valladolid center. A taxi from Valladolid to Ek Balam costs around 270 pesos for up to 4 people. If there are not 4 people in your party, you may be able to find other travelers willing to share the ride with you to cut the costs.
Ek Balam FAQs
Is Ek Balam Worth Visiting?
Is Ek Balam worth visiting? Honestly, it depends.
The archeological site was not open to the public until the 1990s. Until very recently, it remained largely under the radar.
You will note many online travel guides and resources to Ek Balam detail the site as being a fascinating off-the-beaten-path ruin. Many claim it sees just a fraction of the crowds that Chichen Itza experiences.
Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. Now, Ek Balam is every bit as crowded as Chichen Itza.
Whatever time of day you stop by, you will almost always be greeted with busloads full of tourists and a full car park. Ek Balam is the perfect example of the kind of over-tourism that can happen when people rave about an underrated place on social media.
While tourists are to be expected in fascinating archeological sites and Mayan ruins, the admission fees for Ek Balam have soared. A few years ago, site admission was just 85 pesos per person.
Now, the total price including taxes is a whopping 498 (£19.50/$25) pesos for foreign travelers and 198 pesos (£8/$10) for Mexicans. This is comparable to the prices at Uxmal and Chichen Itza, though these two alternative sites are far more expansive.
Honestly, visiting Ek Balam is not worth this amount of money. If you have an extremely limited amount of time in the Yucatan and you are visiting Ek Balam en route to Chichen Itza, fine. You can make a brief stop as part of your Yucatan road trip itinerary.
Alternatively, there are far cheaper, less crowded, and more interesting ruins to visit. Edzna, Mayapan, Dzibilchaltun, and Xcambo are all places to add to your radar.
Ek Balam Opening Times
Ek Balam is open to visitors every day of the year from 8 am until 5 pm. Keep in mind that the last admission will be at around 4 pm.
Visiting early in the morning or during the weekdays is a good way to avoid crowds. The nearby cenote X’Canché closes at 4 pm.
Ek Balam Amenities
You cannot take outside food and drink to the archeological site but there are several stalls right at the entrance. So, you can pick up a light bite, homemade ice cream, or some cold water before and after visiting the ruins.
You will also find clean, modern bathroom facilities at the entrance. Several stalls selling all manner of Mexico souvenirs can be found beside the car park and after passing through the site entrance.
Traditional Maya masks, handicrafts, and hammocks make nice gifts for loved ones back home. Just be prepared to haggle a little on the initially quoted prices.
Ek Balam Parting Words
Have you been to Ek Balam? What did you think?
Do you have any suggestions to share with other travelers that are planning on visiting the site? If you are visiting Mexico for the first time, you might also enjoy browsing through this list of Mexico travel tips!
Have a wonderful time in Mexico! Buen Viaje xo