Exploring Ek' Balam & X'canche Cenote, Mexico
Ek' Balam is one of the lightly visited archeological sites in Yucatan and also became one of our favorites. Less crowds, climbing up the ruins, bike ride, cenote etc. made this visit a memorable experience. Located in a quiet jungle setting, it consists of many structures scattered across a vast area of about 12 square kilometers, but only a compact portion of it can be viewed by the public.
El Torre - The Tower
We visited Ek' Balam right after Chichen Itza, about an hour northeast, not hard to find at all. When we arrived at the parking we were greeted by a boy who said he would watch our car for a tip while we toured the ruins. The lobby was just off the parking lot; we quickly purchase tickets and fruit paletas (ice pop) to cool off in the heat and walked right in. The trails were rugged but maintained and it was not too long till the first of the ruins came in sight.
Sign at the entrance / Trail to the ruins
The first structures in Ek Balam
Ek' Balam is Mayan for "Black Jaguar". Its history dates back to 100BC and 300 AD when the actual development started and resumed between 700AD and 1000AD when many new structures were constructed and the old ones restored. Along with impressive structures and stone carvings, the site also boasts intricate decorative facades and distinct forms that artists molded using pliable materials and painted over them. Most of which are now restored but one can easily grasp the sense of grandeur and originality.
The Arch / Oval Palace
The most impressive of the structures is "El Torre", the main tower located in the Central Plaza, is believed to contain the tomb of Ukit Kan Le'k Tok', an important ruler in Ek’ Balam. This tower is about 100ft tall and offers an unobstructed 360 degree view from the top. Tourists are allowed to climb this structure (and others) to get a closer look of the beautiful carvings and also take in the amazing view. So we climbed.
El Torre - The Tower
It was a very steep climb with no handrails to hold on to. We stopped many times gasping for breath and to wipe off the sweat. As there were no handrails we held on to the steep steps as we climbed up one step at a time. The heat was so intense that the rocks felt hot to touch and more heat radiated from them as we went higher.
See how steep it is?
El Trono - "The Throne", has some of the most intricate moldings and teeth like forms depicting a monster jaguars mouth. These carvings are protected by palapa roofs and closed off to tourists in order to preserve the restorations.
El Trono - The Throne
View from the top of El Torre / Another image of the trail
The structures seen below are - The Twin Temples, two nearly identical structures built next to each other.
After exploring all the ruins we headed back out and towards X’canche Cenote. Vendors sold colorful souvenirs and artifacts under thatched huts at mid point.
Selling artifacts and souvenirs
We had to purchase separate tickets to the cenote. A 2 km walk to the pool would have been arduous under the blazing sun, so we were happy with our decision to rent bikes. Riding a bike was more fun anyway, just us through the jungle. And few iguana friends on the path.
Cycling to the cenote
Bicycle carts at our service / Path to cenote and facilities past bike parking area
X'canche cenote is an impressive perfectly round sinkhole with dark emerald freshwaters. The pool sits deep underground with sheer rock walls on which vegetation grew through the cracks. Tree roots and vines hung along the walls, some long enough to touch the waters. Wooden decks and stairs were built around the pool lending access down to the waters for swimming. As this is a less popular site, there were very few people diving and swimming in the cenote when we visited.
We walked around the pool following the trails in the jungle and discovered a small kitchen named "Cocina Maya" under a thatched hut, where coy mestizo women dressed in traditional embroidered "Huipil" prepared delicious Yucatan dishes. Right next to it was another thatched hut with hammocks tied to the wooden poles. We needed nothing but to relax under the cool shade of the hut after a long sweaty hot day.
Cocina Maya Kitchen, X'canche cenote / Relaxing on a hammock
On our way out we bought paletas again, yummy!! Orange paletas are nothing like what we get in the US. They tasted more like "Sweet Lemon/Citrus Limetta" which is very common in India. And the boy who offered to watch our car was nowhere to be found.
Where to stay: We stayed just north of Playa del Carmen as it is a good center for multiple attractions in the surrounding area. We stayed in Senses Riviera Maya by Artisan. Other best rated hotels in that area: Hotels in Playa del Carmen. Getting there: We had rented a car. Driving is relatively straight forward if you are coming from US. This site is 70km/1hr from Chichen Itza or 160km/2hrs from Playa del Carmen. On 180 take exit 295 toward Tizimin and continue for 15km and then right. Toll: We recommend taking toll road (Cuota) instead of the free road (Libre) as it’s faster. Approximately $230 pesos (coming from Playa del Carmen) and $67 pesos (coming from Chichen Itza). Hours and Cost: Open from 8am to 5pm. For ruins - $65 pesos (INAH) + $128 pesos (general) per person ($9 USD). For cenote - $50 pesos ($2.40 USD) per person for entrance. $70 pesos ($3.25 USD) per person for renting a bike or bicycle taxi. For parking - No charge but you may have to tip someone for watching your car. Trails: Rugged but flat for the most part. Time to spend: 3-5 hrs. In you bag: Sunscreen, sunglasses, swimsuit, hat, plenty of water, a camera and lots of energy to climb the ruins.