Ek Balam and Valladolid
Ek Balam was a true treasure to find. It lies off the beaten path and is thus not visited as much as the other Mayan sites in the area, yet it offers some of the most spectacular and best-preserved temples and carvings of them all. Ek Balam has only recently been discovered and is still being excavated. Most of the city was still buried when we visited the site. Here you can find some of the finest carvings of ancient Mayan Culture in an amazing state of preservation.
Valladolid is a charming colonial city located at the main intersection of roads in Yucatan. You will pass through Valladolid on your way to Chichen Itza or Ek Balam. While many tourists just “pass through” I would like to encourage you to take some time and explore the city. It will be worth the time.
Ek Balam – Miracle of the Jungle
When you enter the city, you will almost immediately be struck by the sight of the acropolis pyramid. It is one of the largest structures ever being excavated in the Yucatan. The whole site was buried in the jungle until recently. You would not have been able to recognize the pyramid as such even when standing a mere 10 feet away from it. It would have looked like a natural hill in the jungle. Look around you when you are here and ask yourself how many of the small hills may still hide undiscovered treasures within them.
Ek Balam (Black Jaguar in Mayan) was settled during the late classic period around 800 A.D. towards the end of the Mayan Empire.
Ek Balam is similar to the other Mayan sites I've visited but somehow also different from all of them. The similarities include the presence of a ball court and the massive architecture with carvings.
It is hard to believe that a site like this is not as overrun by tourists as Chichen Itza. This means that sanitary facilities are not up to the same standards and you will not be able to buy food or drinks. I gladly prefer this to the crowds at Chichen Itza.
Getting to Ek Balam
Ek Balam is located near the city of Tzimin. From Valladolid (see below) head north for about 15 minutes or so. One more right turn and a few minutes later you will arrive at Ek Balam. When you return to your car, keep a couple of dollars ready to give to the children who will have watched or washed your car. It may be the only income their families have.
There was no official tour to Ek Balam, but from what I can gather it has become more popular recently. Make sure you check with your hotels front lobby to find out if there are any public tours already.
While most tourist busses only pass through Valladolid on their way to Chichen Itza, you should plan to stop here if you are driving by yourself. If you travel around a lot, you will pass through Valladolid more than once on your way to Chichen Itza or Ek Balam. Every time we were in the area we stopped for some authentic Mexican food in one of the many restaurants, strolled around the always busy market place or visited a cenote (underground water filled caverns).
Valladolid is located about halfway between Cancun and Merida. It is pleasantly unnoticed by tourists but due to its location (close to Chichen Itza and Ek Balam) it will see some development in the near future. This means it may loose a lot of its charm.
At the heart of the city is the large plaza that is flanked by hotels, restaurants, and the Franciscan cathedral. At the center of the plaza is a beautiful garden with fountains. Sometimes there is a street market.
The restaurants along this plaza offer local Mexican cuisine at unbelievably low prices (a sign that the prices are not artificially inflated by tourism). Sit down have a couple of drinks and something to eat. You probably should not eat any salads, fruits (unless you peel them) or have ice in your drink to avoid upsetting your stomach. Get a seat close to the plaza to watch the busy life here. The policemen they have in place instead of traffic lights are fun to watch with their whistles and whirling arms regulating traffic and confusing most tourists.
Cenote Zaci is located just a couple of blocks east of the plaza at the intersection of calle 39 and calle 36. The cenote is located in a park with a small zoo and some traditional houses on display. The prices here are inflated and the food is overly expensive considering the good deals elsewhere in the city. You can swim in the cenote although it did not look very inviting to me.
Cenote Dzitnup lies about 7km west of the plaza on your way to Chichen Itza. This cenote is better suited for swimming and its stalactites are worth seeing.
Cenote Samula is located close to Cenote Dzitnup. It’s main attraction are the roots of a tree hanging down from the top of the cave all the way to the bottom.
Getting to Valladolid
Your best bet is to drive here. I am sure there are tours to Chichen Itza that will stop in Valladolid too, just pay attention booking your trip.
If you are coming from Merida, take the Freeway 180. The freeway is subject to a fine though. If you are coming from Cancun, you can also take the freeway, at a rather steep fine of about $60 or you can take a parallel road. This road is in really bad condition and has a lot of traffic. It is much faster to take 307 towards Tulum. Then take the Coba exit and keep driving on this road all the way to Valladolid. Even though this route looks much longer on the map, you will still save time because the road is in much better condition and because there are fewer villages along the way (villages have speed limits and nasty speed bumps to slow you down).
If you are traveling by car, pay attention at the gas pumps. There is no self-service and the service man often “forget” to reset the pump. You should give a small tip though, but make sure to get out of the car and look at the pump and make sure they see it. Also pay attention that you will get the correct change!