Inhabited from around 600 B.C. and reaching its peak between A.D. 600 and 900, the ancient city of Ek Balam 20 minutes to the north of Valladolid is an enigma for archaeologists. Its buildings show several architectural and artistic styles and the name “Ek Balam” or “black star jaguar” in Maya (star/black = ek, jaguar = balam) only add to the mystery. Is this lyrical name a reference to a long-lost ruler or the ancient jaguar deity?
Ek Balam was first excavated at the end of the 1980s by American archaeologists William Ringle and George Bey and more recently by Leticia Vargas de la Peña, a Mexican archaeologist working for the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). She and her team have studied many of the structures at the site, particularly the tallest building (31 meters high) called the Acropolis, now known to have been a palace, and have made important discoveries, including over 50 hieroglyphic inscriptions and a royal tomb with offerings of jade, pottery and copal incense.
The city covers an area of 12 square kilometers and has five sacbes or ceremonial causeways, three defensive walls, a ball court, steam baths, chultunes or Mayan wells, several stelae and over 60 structures ranging from temples and palaces to tiny shrines. The largest buildings are clustered around two plazas at the center of the city. This was the ceremonial heart of the city where the rulers and priests lived.
Ek Balam is known to have had links with powerful city-states in the Maya World and its temples and palaces reflect a mix of styles from the Puuc Hills in southern Yucatán to the Mexican Caribbean coast and the Petén in northern Guatemala. Another clue to the city’s importance is its emblem glyph (a symbol identifying individual cities or their ruling families), the only one recorded to date so far north in the Yucatán.
The façade of the Acropolis features hieroglyphic inscriptions, stucco serpents, masks carved in the likeness of the gaping jaws of the earth monster and the statues of richly attired nobles, including a seated figure thought to be one of the rulers. The huge building was built in several phases and is a warren of rooms and terraces.
Local people often refer to the statues at the top of the Acropolis as “los angeles,” the angels, because they appear to have wings. The “wings” are actually feather headdresses but even as one mystery is solved, another one takes its place. Who were these men? Archaeologists have deciphered hieroglyphic inscriptions at the site and others in the area to discover that Ek Balam was ruled by a powerful dynasty and have identified the city’s founding father. Ukit Kan Le’k Tok came to power in 770 A.D. and ushered in an extraordinary building and artistic boom.
Getting to Ek Balam
Trips to Ek Balam are available through Thomas More Travel; if you are interested in wildlife we recommend the Rio Lagartos-Ek Balam trip. For information contact firstname.lastname@example.org. If you plan to explore on your own, take the toll road or Highway 180 to Valladolid and then head north towards the Gulf coast, along Highway 295; the turnoff to Ek Balam is clearly marked. You may also want to visit the X’canche cenote near Ek Balam. There is a small admission fee and for an additional charge you can rent mountain bikes or even try your hand at rappel.