The Yucatan Peninsula is full of incredible archeological ruin sites. Sure, Chichén Itzá is a wonder of the world. But what if you want to go to one that’s not utterly saturated with tourists? What if you actually want to climb a very tall pyramid and look out over the canopy of trees?
Then forget about Chichén Itzá and go to Ek Balam. It’s in the same general area – near Valladolid – but Ek Balam is nearly devoid of tourists. And it has an incredible temple converted with carvings which you can still climb!
Ditch the crowds and follow us Off Path to Ek Balam ruins near Valladolid, Mexico.
How to Get to Ek Balam Ruins
Our day started off in the small city of Valladolid. We had spent a few days working and seeing the sights around town (including a couple of incredible cenotes), but it was time to venture out and explore another archeological ruin site.
By colectivo: We found the colectivo spot – on Calle 44 between Calles 35 and 37, 2 blocks east of the ADO station – and hopped in. Normal taxis functions as colectivos to Ek Balam; 4 to a car. There were already 2 people waiting, so we were able to leave right away.
The cost for these is a bit high ($50 pesos per person) since they’re specifically for Ek Balam. The “normal” (and cheaper) colectivos stop at a town 6km away from Ek Balam, while these Ek Balam ones go right to the ticket booth. Plenty of parking if you have your own car. A taxi should be no more than $200 pesos.
After a 30 minute drive north, we arrived at a large parking lot. This site is relatively new for tourists, so the lot was empty.
Yucatan Fees Sticker Shock
Most Mexican archeological ruin sites are very affordable. INAH is a federal organization that charges between $40 and $75 pesos per site to visit ($2-$3.50 USD).
In the state of Yucatan, the story is much different. Especially in 2019. At Ek Balam, Chichén Itzá, and Edzna, you have to pay the INAH fee PLUS a Yucatan state fee, which is around $350 pesos. So the total price per person is around $400 pesos ($20 USD). The Yucatan state fee doubled in 2019 and is now nearly triple the INAH federal fee. A bit wild.
Coming from Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Campeche, this sticker price put us into a bit of shock. Which $20 USD is still a relatively cheap price based on international standards, it is very expensive for Mexico. (Even high-quality “VIP” movie tickets are only about $6 USD here and we’ve never seen a museum entrance for more than about $7 USD.)
Starting Down the Road at Ek Balam
As you enter the archeological site of Ek Balam ruins, you walk down a nice pathway with small trees on either side. The first structure you see a large archway. This is one of many archways that you can find at Maya archeological sites. They signify the roads – known as Sakbe – that were used to connect the civilizations, a type of highway system. They also hold spiritual significance.
The archway is beautiful and very well preserved. A few short walls sit just outside of it. They’re part of a system that wrapped around Ek Balam. The archeologists aren’t entirely certain what the purpose of the wall was since they didn’t seem high enough for defensive purposes and it is unusual for sites like this to have a perimeter fence.
After entering through the archway, you wrap around a small temple. This has another unique design at Ek Balam: rounded terraces on the backside.
When you get to the front side, you are in the middle of the main plaza at Ek Balam ruins. The temple with the rounded terraces is the largest and has a nice set of stairs you can climb.
Adjacent to it, there is a set of two small temples, set on top of a singular terrace stretching under them both. These are the twin temples. You can climb these as well.
Opposite the twins is a large tree with two stelae underneath. The carvings are eroded, but you can make out the figure of a man on one. And behind this area is a wide platform with about a dozen stairs leading to a small room on top.
Keep walking north for the real treasure of this site: the Acropolis.
The Magnificent Acropolis at Ek Balam
As you walk under the large trees, the base of a very large structure comes into view. It stretches in both directions, wider than a football or soccer field at 540 ft (165 m), and is 210 ft (64 m) deep.
Eventually, the trees give way and the magnificent staircase comes into view. The 106 stairs stretch about 100 ft (30 m) high into the sky. And they’re pretty steep, making for a bit of an intense and sketchy climb. But one that’s well worth the view from the top.
On either side of the staircase, you can see multiple palapas covering and protecting the intricate areas under each. The two at the bottom have an altar and stelae inside.
Start climbing the stairs and you can stop halfway up at the next set of palapas. The one on the left has a beautiful facade. It is the entrance to the Tomb of Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’.
There are multiple statues of warriors and past elites, as well as a large entryway surrounded by teeth of an oversized jaguar. The name Ek Balam means “dark jaguar” so it makes sense to see the massive tribute to this incredible animal here.
Keep walking away from the stairs and you’ll look down into the entrance of a large chultun (ancient water reservoir) on the western side.
While it is beautiful, one aspect takes a bit of the charm away: these have been HEAVILY reconstructed. The stucco on them appeared to be brand new when we went in early 2019. And they did not use individual stones to recreate the vision, so the appearance doesn’t match the rest of the structure.
The View from the Top of Ek Balam
Hop back on the stairs, don’t look down, and keep climbing until the top. Then turn around for one of the best views on the whole peninsula.
Looking out far over the canopy, you can see an incredible 360-degree view. Almost nothing but green treetops in every direction. There are a couple of large steps to hang out on and take some pictures. (And if you’re at all like me, give your heart a few minutes to calm down before thinking about going down.)
The staircase is well constructed with steps that are about 8-10” deep, so you can fit your whole foot on them. But it is high, and the climb is long. I wouldn’t recommend it for children, people with back/knee problems, or if you are truly terrified of heights. If you just have a rational fear of heights, I say suck it up and give it a shot! You can stop halfway at the platforms, and the view at the top is totally worth it!
Wandering Around the Exterior Trails
We made our way back down to ground level and gave a sigh of relief. A very memorable experience.
Then we walked around the base of the platform and found ourselves in a very nice jungle walkway. It’s always great to get an idea of what these places looked like before they were unearthed and reconstructed. Trees, shrubs, and mounds of dirt cover the crumbling stone walls. Iguanas scurry around the floor and birds are swimming through the air above.
Walking around the pathway was very nice and wrapped up our exploration of the site. There are a few other small buildings, but the majority of the site is comprised of the archway, a place with 3 buildings, and the acropolis. Not the most extensive site around, but still brilliant since you can climb the staircase and avoid crowds.
Make your way back to the entrance and you’ll find a cenote! It is about 2km down the pathway and costs $50 pesos to enter. You can tack on a bike rental or tuk-tuk ride for a small fee.
This is one cenote with a very steep staircase leading down into it. The pool has a bit of a greenish color to it and is open to the sky. Not a bad place to stop quickly for a dip to cool off. If you can, however, we recommend heading south of Valladolid to see Cenotes X’kekén y Samula instead (two amazing ones at one site). They’re spectacular.
Summary: Ek Balam Ruins
Ek Balam is a great site. The stairs stretch high up into the sky for an incredible view. The archway opens up the memory of a post highway system. And the small plaza still seems alive with activity. Best of all, the few tourists make this a nice quiet getaway.
So whenever you’re on the Yucatan Peninsula, especially near Valladolid, make your way to Ek Balam for a memorable archeological ruin experience!
Would you rather go to the well-known site of Chichen Itza where you can’t climb the pyramid, or does Ek Balam sound a bit better? Leave us a comment to share your thoughts!