Ek’ Balam, Maya City of the Jaguar

EK’ BALAM, Mexico — It might not be for the vertigo-challenged, but getting to the top of the Acropolis at Ek’ Balam is definitely worth the effort. It is, quite literally, a view fit for a king.

Ek' Balam Tomb of Ukit Kan Le'k Tok'
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It’s a deceptively hard climb considering it is only 106 steps. The stones are old, worn, and uneven. It’s steep–surprisingly so–and there are no railings running along the side of the wide steps and nothing else at hand to hang on to. It might not be for the vertigo-challenged, but getting to the top of the Acropolis at Ek’ Balam is well worth the effort. It is, quite literally, a view fit for a king.

It’s also somewhat eerie. Like Chichen Itza and a number of other sites in Maya Mesoamerica, a thousand years ago this was once a thriving city. Actually, covering about 12 square kilometers (4.63 square miles), it was the largest regional center for about three centuries from 600 to 900 CE, more than half a millennium before the Spanish arrived.1

No one lives here now—at least, not on the archeological site itself—and the mounds of stone remnants are largely overgrown with the forest, except where the forest has been peeled back in the past few decades to make way for archaeologists and tourists. It’s a marvel in itself that the jungle could have been tamed a millennium ago to make way for sophisticated crop farming and such extensive engineering feats.

Located about 32 miles (51 km) northeast of Chichen Itza, Ek’ Balam is among the half-dozen largest Maya sites of the Yucatan northern plains. Ek’ Balam, in particular, is both more intimate and has more personality than its better-known brethren, and it has only been fairly recently that the site has been open to visitors.

Calm and serene and lightly visited–the only way in and out is by foot–it’s a world away from the glitzy, luxury resorts of Cancun. The hordes of hard-drinking, hard-partying tourists staying at the beach strip of Cancun often miss out on one of the world’s great spots just a couple of hours to that commercialized beach resort’s west: the spectacular ruins of the Maya civilization that once thrived on the Yucatan Peninsula.

Chichen Itza has received pretty intense attention since the late 19th century. But it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that archeologists turned more of their attention to Ek’ Balam. As a result, it retains its rather unkempt feel–as if it has only recently been discovered in the jungle–something that just adds to the charm.

The most striking building on the site is the Acropolis, at once a temple and a palace. It features ornate carvings about two-thirds of the way up, decorating the exterior of the Tomb of Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’. Many of these have been restored, but you still get an excellent sense of how grand and unusual it was originally.

Rising over 100 feet and measuring about 540 by 210 feet at its base, the Acropolis dominates the area and rises well above the surrounding forest. It was up here that the king and his family lived, with a 360-degree view of unbroken horizons.

For some extraordinary photography on the local Mayan peoples and their environment, I highly recommend checking out the work of Santiago Sierra Soler. For his book, Nahual, he collaborated with the local community of Ek’ Balam. You can see some of his photographs from this project on his website.

A recurring motif in the carvings is the jaguar—Ek’ Balam itself means “dark jaguar.” Large stone teeth create the impression of a massive jaguar’s mouth protecting the tomb, and frescoes and carved warriors remain uniquely well preserved (and reconstructed) among modern-day Maya sites. To get there is a very steep climb on uneven steps without a handrail. It’s only a matter of time before Ek’ Balam follows several of the other Maya sites in banning visitors from climbing the structures, but for now one can freely scale the temple and not only see the fresco up close but also get a spectacular view of the surrounding region with unbroken views to the horizon.

Photos of the Ek’ Balam Archeological Site

Ek' Balam Mayan Carvings
Jaguar teeth. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Ornate Mayan Carvings on Ek' Balam's Tomb of Ukit Kan Le'k Tok'
A figure on the outside of the Tomb of Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Ek Balam Acropolish steps with tourists at top
Visitors reaching the top of the Acropolis. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Ek'Balam
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Ek' Balam's Oval Palace Steps
Steps leading up to the Oval Palace. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Aerial view of Ek' Balam Mayan Ruins
A view from the top of the Acropolis, looking out over the flat landscape and some of the other structures in the Ek’ Balam complex. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Ornate Carvings on Ek' Balam's Tomb of Ukit Kan Le'k Tok'
A wider shot of the outside of Tomb of Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Ek'Balam
A panorama of the Acropolis from ground level. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Ek Balam Acropolis Outside of Ukit Kan Le'k Tok'
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Ek' Balam Oval Palace Mayan Ruins
The Oval Palace. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Entrance Arch at Ek' Balam
Entrance Arch. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Tourists climbign steps at Ek Balam
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Ek Balam Acropolis Winged Warrior statues
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Ek Balam Acropolis statue, Mexico
Some of the restored carvings. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Ek' Balam's Acropolis
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Ek Balam Acropolis Jaguar Teeth, Yucatan, Mexico
With jaguar teeth in the foreground. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Ek Balam Acropolis Mayan Ruins steps with tourists climbing to the top
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Ek'Balam Mayan ruins from ground level
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Ek Balam Acropolis Sculpture, Mayan Ruins, Yucatan, Mexico
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Ek Balam Acropolis Ukit Kan Le'k Tok' Tomb
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Entrance Arch at Ek' Balam
Entrance Arch. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Ek Balam Acropolis stairs and symbolism
These carvings are at the bottom of the steps on the Acropolis. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Statue at Ek Balam Acropolis Mayan Ruins
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Ek Balam Acropolis
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Ek'Balam
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Ek Balam Acropolis Tourists
Restored carvings around the outside of the Tomb of Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Ek Balam Temple Reproduction at the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
This is not actually at the site. It’s an Ek’ Balam Temple Reproduction at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel

What to Know Before You Go

About a half-hour drive north of Valladolid, 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.

If you can’t make it to Ek’ Balam but can make it to Mexico City, the National Museum of Anthropology has a replica of some of the Ek’ Balam complex in an outdoor display area of the museum.

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.2

It’s easy to take it all in in about a couple of hours, and it makes for a great day trip from Cancun (tip: stop in the nearby colonial town of Valladolid for lunch) or en route to Chichen Itza. There’s a shiny new welcome center with a ticket counter and bathrooms that have been built in the past few years. It’s nothing like what you’ll find at tour-bus-friendly Chichen Itza, but it serves its purpose nicely.

Ek’ Balam 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, and not for anyone who has issues with heights.

More About Ek Balam

  • Ancient Mayan city in the Yucatan Peninsula
  • Flourished between 700 and 1000 CE
  • Known for well-preserved murals and sculptures
  • Features the impressive El Torre pyramid
  • Located near the Cenote Xcanche

Ek Balam is an ancient Mayan city located in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, approximately 30 kilometers north of Valladolid. The site reached its peak between 700 and 1000 CE, and its name translates to “Black Jaguar” in the Yucatec Maya language. Ek Balam was an influential city during its time, with evidence of its rulers’ wealth and power visible in the architectural and artistic elements found throughout the site.

The city covers an area of approximately 12 square kilometers (4.63 square miles), and its core is comprised of a central plaza surrounded by various structures, including temples, palaces, and the ball court.

The El Torre pyramid, also known as the Acropolis, is the most prominent structure at Ek Balam, measuring 31 meters (102 feet) in height. The pyramid’s well-preserved façade features intricate carvings and stucco reliefs, providing valuable insights into the city’s history and its inhabitants.

Archaeological excavations at Ek Balam have uncovered numerous artifacts, including pottery, vessels, and burial relics, which help paint a picture of the city’s economic and political landscape. Many of the structures at Ek Balam feature glyphs and inscriptions, with the emblem glyph representing the city’s name and symbolizing its power and authority.

One of the unique aspects of Ek Balam is the presence of well-preserved murals and stucco sculptures, which are rare among Mayan ruins. These artworks depict various scenes from Mayan mythology, as well as portrayals of rulers and other prominent figures. The murals are particularly significant, as they offer a glimpse into the artistic styles and techniques employed by the Mayan civilization.

In addition to its architectural and artistic treasures, Ek Balam is also located near several cenotes, including Cenote Xcanche, which provided the city with a vital source of freshwater. These natural sinkholes were essential for the survival of the Mayan civilization and were often associated with religious and ceremonial practices.

What’s Nearby to Ek Balam?

How to Get to Ek Balam

  • Located in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico
  • Nearest airport: Cancun International Airport (CUN)
  • Nearest public transport hub: Valladolid ADO Bus Station
  • Accessible by taxi or organized tours from popular destinations like Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Cancun, and Merida

Ek Balam FAQs

Can you climb Ek Balam in 2023?

Yes, as of 2023, you can still climb the Ek Balam ruins. There are relatively few ruins sites where climbing is allowed, such as Coba, Uxmal, and Tikal (on some structures). However, climbing is not allowed at Chichen Itza.

What is the entry cost for Ek Balam?

The entry cost for Ek Balam varies and may change over time. Please visit the official website or contact the site administration for updated information on entry fees.

What does “Ek Balam” mean in the Mayan language?

In the Mayan language, “Ek” means “black” or “dark,” and “Balam” means “jaguar.” Thus, Ek Balam translates to “Black Jaguar” or “Dark Jaguar.”

What is the main attraction of Ek Balam?

Ek Balam is best known for its well-preserved stucco facade on the main temple, the Acropolis. The site offers a unique opportunity to explore and climb ancient structures.

How much time should you allocate for a visit to Ek Balam?

To fully appreciate Ek Balam, it is recommended to allocate at least 2-3 hours for your visit. This allows time to explore the main structures and enjoy the stunning views from the top.

How can you reach Ek Balam?

Ek Balam is located about 2 hours from Cancun and 30 minutes from Valladolid. You can reach the site by car, taxi, or public transportation such as a colectivo (shared van) or ADO bus.

What is the distance between Ek Balam and Chichen Itza?

Ek Balam is approximately 55 km (34 miles) north of Chichen Itza, which takes about an hour’s drive.

Ek Balam is a smaller and less-famous Maya ruins site. It is also much less visited, which in turn means it is not as well set up for large tour groups but also makes for a rewarding visit for those seeking a road a little less traveled.

Are there any other Mayan ruins where climbing is allowed?

Yes, some other Mayan ruins permit climbing, such as Coba and Uxmal. However, climbing is not allowed at Chichen Itza.

How is “Balam” significant in Mayan culture?

In Mayan culture, the jaguar, or “Balam,” symbolizes strength, power, and the ability to traverse between the physical and spiritual realms. Jaguars were often associated with royalty and the ruling elite.

What is the most famous Mayan ruin?

Chichen Itza is the most famous Mayan ruin, known for its iconic pyramid, El Castillo, also known as the Temple of Kukulcan.

Ek Balam is not as well known (but well worth a visit!)

What is the history of Ek Balam?

Ek Balam was an important Mayan city between around 600-900 CE, reaching its peak in the Late Classic Period. The site was eventually abandoned for unknown reasons, with the jungle reclaiming much of the area until its rediscovery and excavation in the 20th century.

Is Ek Balam a Mayan or Aztec site?

Ek Balam is a Mayan site, not Aztec. The city was the largest regional center for about three centuries from 600 to 900 CE.

Is it worth visiting the Mayan ruins?

Yes, visiting Mayan ruins such as Ek Balam, Chichen Itza, Tulum, and Coba is a unique and educational experience. These sites offer insights into the ancient Mayan civilization and its architectural and cultural achievements.

  1. A George J. Bey III, Tara M. Bond, William M. Ringle, Craig A. Hanson, Charles W. Houck, and Carlos Peraza Lope, “The Ceramic Chronology of Ek Balam, Yucatan, Mexico,” Ancient Mesoamerica, 9, (1998): 101-120. []
  2. George J. Bey, III, Craig A. Hanson, and William M. Ringle, “Classic to Postclassic at Ek Balam, Yucatan: Architectural and Ceramic Evidence for Defining the Transition,” Latin American Antiquity, 8, 3 (September 1997): 237-254. []
David Coleman / Photographer

David Coleman

I'm a freelance travel photographer based in Washington DC. Seven continents, up mountains, underwater, and a bunch of places in between. My images have appeared in numerous publications, and you can check out some of my gear reviews and tips here. More »