EK BALAM | Better Than Chichen Itza

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This is day 3 of our road trip. Click here if you want to see day 1 and day 2.
Click here for tips on going to Playa del Carmen.

Day 3- Ek Balam and Cenote X-Canche

Day 3 started early, but thankfully not as early as day 2. The power and electricity were back on track, so no midnight, burning hot, wake-ups this morning! Just an early work shift.

A lot people would hate waking up at 4:45 to work, but I really don’t mind. Especially when I’m working in Mexico. Especially when the large door is open, the breeze is fresh, the birds are singing, the sun is rising, Valladolid is peaceful and quiet. The occasional bicycle or motorbike passes by. A couple of older women on a walk. Then the church bells from the monastery around the corner sound, officially marking the beginning of the day.

Our host at the Airbnb brought us a warm breakfast every morning, always a little bit different, but always with fresh coffee, fresh fruit, and fresh bread with a spread on top.

As soon as the clock hit 9, I packed away my work computer for the day, and packed my swimsuit in my backpack. Today would be another day of exploration and relaxation. By 10 am, we were out the door and headed for Ek Balam. It was already insanely hot outside.

Ek Balam aka Black Jaguar

Ek Balam is less than 30km from Valladolid, and the drive took less than half an hour. We arrived to a near empty parking lot, where the parking fee was free save for a small fee paid to a local boy who promises to watch over your car while you’re gone. This time we learned from our mistakes from the day before, and used the toilet first. We also hired an English speaking guide at the front entrance. The entrance to the site was $456 MXP/$22 USD ($381 MXP state fee, and $75 MXP federal fee). The guide was $600 MXP/$29USD (+tip). The site is open from 8am-4pm.

Ruins at Ek Balam

“Ek Balam” is a Mayan City meaning “Black Jaguar.” It is said that construction began on the structures here, around 200 BC, however, the city reached its peak between 700-1000 AD, in the Late Classic Period. The total area of Ek Balam is about 12 square kilometers, though only one square mile has been excavated and can be seen.

Excavations began in the 1980’s. All of these Mayan structures were covered with earth, plants, and jungle when the excavations started. Completely hidden away.

Like Chichen Itza, the site at Ek Balam has a main center plaza with a ballgame court, some smaller temples, and one very large temple, El Torre (The Tower). This tower is devoted to Ukit Kan Lek Tokʼ, a Mayan king who is buried inside this temple. This temple is one of the tallest Mayan structures in the Yucatan, and is one of the remaining few that can actually still be climbed to the top. The view from the top is quite impressive. The peak of a smaller temple on the other side of the plaza can be seen poking its head up through the tree tops. It’s hard to imagine the 12 more square kilometers out there existing, underneath this thick jungle ceiling.

Nicki climbing El Torre in Ek Balam

While climbing El Torre, we made a couple friends- Jonah and Rafael. Jonah is an American who has been living in Mexico City for several months, and Rafael is a Mexico City native. The two best friends were visiting the temple with their families. We dubbed Rafael “Adventure Boy,” as he darted up and down the steep temple stairs, jumping from here to there, without any noticeable change in energy. Once we were all back at the bottom of the temple, Adventure Boy disappeared and came back a few minutes later, to inform us of a trail that goes behind the temple.

Welcome to the Jungle

Even though we were hot and tired from Ek Balam, we were inspired by Adventure Boy, and headed back behind El Torre. The jungle was thick and lush, highways of ants covered the small dirt path that lead us around in a loop from one side of the temple to the other. The jungle was so thick you could barely see beyond a couple feet into the forest. We wondered out loud, again and again, how the trees were cleared to build these temples, and how, hundreds of years later, the temples were found, covered under all this flora.

Soon, our hunger started pulling at us, and took over our sense of adventure. Luckily, there was a cenote not too far away, with a restaurant right next to it. Back near the parking lot was the ticket booth for the cenote. We bought our tickets ($170 MXP/$8.25 USD), grabbed our car, and started down the long dirt road. The road from the parking lot to the cenote is about 1.5km, so walking would take quite a long time in the heat. There are also bicycles available to rent.

Once we arrived to the X-Canche cenote entrance, our first thought was of food, and we headed straight to the only restaurant around. After some traditional Mayan food next to a table of beer-drinking Frenchmen, we walked down the several wooden steps to the cenote, where we reunited with our new friends- Jonah and Adventure Boy!

Lindsay, Nicki, Adventure Boy, and Jonah in front of the cenote

The cenote’s roof was wide open, and less cave-like than the cenote near Chichen Itza (Tsukan Santuario). There was a wooden pathway that went all around the cenote, so you could take a stroll and pass under the small waterfall, to see it at all the angles. On one of the staircases, there was a platform for jumping, and another with a rope you could swing from. Naturally I did both.

A view from above the cenote

There is nothing better than relaxing at a cenote in the Yucatan after a day of exploring Mayan ruins. As far as activities go, this day was probably our favorite. We loved being able to climb the Torre at the Ek Balam archeological zone, and having the cenote just 1.5km down the road.

Heading Back to Valladolid

We headed back to Valladolid once more and resumed our evening ritual of having a snack in front of our giant Airbnb doors, this time fresh rambutans from a man and his rambutan cart.

Lindsay on the top of pink stairs.
Nick standing below a cross on a pink wall.

Before the sun went down, we hopped over to the monastery across the street, el convento de San Bernardino de Siena ($20MXP/$1 USD). The monastery has a lot of colonial history, mainly that Franciscan monks built it on top of a Mayan Cenote. What we found most impressive about the monastery was that all the interior walls were covered with a coat of pink paint. It was virtually empty when we went, save for those who worked there. We arrived only 45 minutes before closing, so we quickly rushed around and saw as much as we could in a short amount of time, including taking as many pink backgrounded photos as we could.

Lindsay in the courtyard of the convent