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Ek Balam is the ancient Mayan ruin site located that is translated as “The Black Jaguar” in the Mayan language. While this archaeological area doesn’t have the crowds of some of the most popular Mayan ruins like Chichen Itza or Tulum and makes for a perfect stop for anybody who wants to climb the impressive El Torre Tower and enjoy the unspoiled views of the jungle.
A special bonus of this place is Cenote X’Canche – a gorgeous open-air sinkhole where you can cool off after touring the ruins.
In this post, I will tell you why you should visit the area and how you can get there from different parts of Yucatan.
Where is Ek Balam?
Ek Balam is just over 30 miles from the world-famous Chichen Itza, and about 28 km from Valladolid, one of the most famous pueblos magicos in Mexico.
How far is Ek Balam from Cancun?
Cancun is about 2 hr 15 min (172.5 km) away from Cancun via Cancun-Kantunil Highway
A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF THE HISTORY
Ek Balam was one of the longest-occupied urban centers during the Mayan civilization. According to the most common theory, it was founded during the Middle Pre-Classic Period and was inhabited until the Post-Classic Period of Mayan civilization in 16 century CE.
The most important period of its history was between 770 AD and 840 CE when art and architecture flourished here. Historians estimate that the area was home to about 20,000 residents during its peak.
But after 840 AD, the population started to decline, and the city collapsed soon after that. While the reasons for this rapid change are unknown, scientists have several theories.
What’s so special about Ek Balam?
Like many other Mayan ruins, this area became covered by jungle when it was abandoned. Archaeologists discovered its ruins only in the late 1980s when extensive excavation occurred at the site. It’s estimated that large portions of it are still covered by the jungle, as only one square mile of the archaeological area has been excavated.
Despite what still might be uncovered, this archaeological area already boasts some of the most impressive Mayan architecture.
Why visit Ek Balam ruins
Ek Balam is an excellent place to visit because it’s off-the-beaten-track, and because it’s one of the few Mayan ruins where you can still climb the main pyramid. One of the biggest constructions excavated in the Yucatan, these ruins feature a lot of well-preserved intricate details as well as statues and frescoes.
PRO TIP: While you should bring your camera to snap some photos during your visit, leave your drone at home. Drones are prohibited.
Things to do in Ek Balam archaeological area
The archaeological area is spread over 1 square mile and contains 45 structures including arches, pyramids, and temples.
If you are visiting the Yucatan Peninsula for the first time and want to better understand the Mayan history and culture, hire a guide for your trip.
When you enter the site, you will pass artisan vendors who sell locally-made crafts and arts. It’s a perfect place to grab an authentic Mayan gift for your friends and family!
Just before you walk into the site, you will find an arch connecting this ancient city with a sacbe (or white route) that served as a transportation route between many Mayan kingdoms. The arch sits at the intersection of several sacbes at the entrance.
FUN FACT: As with many other Mayan cities, sacbes here begin from the center of the city and go in four directions.
The center of the city was surrounded by walls and contained about 45 buildings, the remains of which you see to this day.
The arch of Ek Balam
At the entrance, you will see the square arch that has connected Ek Balam with the Mayan kingdom and is connected to a sac-be, one of the pathways that connected the many cities of the Mayan civilization.
The archaeological area has several temples, a pyramid that is called El Torre, and two big palaces.
The most prominent feature is the large tower called El Torre in the center of the city. One of the tallest pyramids in the region, El Torre reaches 100 feet and boasts some of the most intricate designs in the peninsula.
The tower is also home to the tomb of Ukil-Kan-Lek-Tok, who ruled around 800 A.D.
Can you still climb Ek Balam?
Yes, you can climb most structures at this archeological area including the El Torre, one of the tallest towers in the region.
When you climb to the top, you can enjoy the panoramic view of the entire site and the surrounding jungle. The stairs to the top are pretty steep, so wear good hiking shoes, as you will be scrambling up the steep stairs, and carry a bottle of water.
Wall Paintings at Ek Balam
Several parts of the archaeological area boast impressive wall paintings. When you climb El Torre, stop about halfway to see the ornate carvings on the side of the stricture.
The most important of them is the “Mural of 96 Glyphs” which shows scenes from Mayan mythology.
Great Ball Court
Another prominent spot that can also be found at other ancient Mayan sites such as Chichen Itza is the huge ball court located within the limits of the city and used by Mayans to play a game with a ball.
The black jaguar is one of the most important symbols of the Mayan culture.
One of the biggest predators in Central America at the time, the black jaguar was admired by Mayans and thoroughly studied. The image of the black jaguar can be found in many Mayan sites, as it was believed that the noblest members of the Mayan society were descendants of the black jaguar.
Best time to visit Ek Balam
The best time to visit the area is early morning before it gets hot and most visitors begin to arrive. If you come between 8 and 9 a.m., you will be one of the first few people at the site, and if you come early on a weekday, you could even have the entire place to yourself.
Another option is to visit later in the afternoon when most people leave. Arrive no later than 4 p.m., so you have enough time to tour the ruins.
Not many know this, but there’s also Ek Balam cenote called X’Canche! It’s a true hidden gem and one of the most beautiful cenotes in Yucatan with tree roots hanging down the walls and touching the water of the cenotes.
How to get to Cenote X’Canche from Ek Balam?
To get to Cenote X’Canche, you first need to pay at the entrance and either take a walk, ride a bike, or take a short drive to the entrance.
Cenote X’canche is about 2 kilometers from the entrance. It might seem long, but the bike ride goes by quickly, as you pedal through the beautiful jungle with plenty of shadows. Even if you decide to walk, it makes for good exercise.
If you have a car, you can also take a quick drive from the main parking lot near the entrance.
And if you come early, you might even have the entire cenote all to yourself. You can also walk to the cenote, which will take you about 20-25 minutes.
The swim in this cenote is a perfect refresher after exploring the cenote, so don’t forget to bring your swimsuit, a towel, and comfortable shoes.
You will need to walk down a steep wooden staircase to get to the wooden platform around the cenote.
How much is the entrance to Cenote X’Canche?
The entrance to Cenote X’Canche costs 180 pesos and has to be in cash. If you want to rent a bicycle or take a bicycle taxi, you have to pay an additional fee.
What are the hours of Cenote X’Canche?
Cenote X’Canche is open from 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m.
Things to know about Cenote X’Canche
- You have to take a shower – you are required to take a shower before entering Cenote X’Canche.
- You can put your belongings in a locker – There are many lockers where you can put your belongings before entering a cenote. There are also changing rooms on site.
- Don’t put any sunscreen – Don’t put any sunscreen or other cosmetic products on your skin after taking a shower, as they can hurt the ecosystem of the cenote and animals who live there.
- Grab a quick snack at a restaurant – Cenote X’Canche also has a small on-site restaurant where you can grab a quick lunch if you get hungry after swimming. It costs 70-100 Pesos per person for a meal.
Ek Balam Hours
The area is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. The ticket office closes at 4 p.m.
How much do tickets to Ek Balam cost?
The entrance costs 495 pesos (about 25 USD) and has to be paid in cash. There are no ATMs on-site, so make sure you have enough money before making a trip here.
While this is a steep price compared to many Mayan ruins like Edzna in Campeche or even popular Tulum ruins, the Ek Balam ruins are worth the high price, as it’s an amazing experience, that you won’t find in many other places.
Bring more cash, because you will need to pay for the entrance to Cenote X’Canche and pay additional if you want to buy any food and drinks and do a zip-line just above the cenote.
How much do you need to pay for parking at Ek Balam?
Parking is free at Ek Balam. You can park your car outside the main entrance to the archaeological area.
How to visit Ek Balam and cenote X’Canche?
Although Ek Balam is somewhat off the beaten path, it’s easy to reach from different parts of the Yucatan.
Renting a car
The quickest way to get to the area is by car rental. Renting a car will give you the most freedom and flexibility and you can visit other cenotes and Mayan ruins in the area without hiring a guide.
PRO TIP: It’s a great spot along your Yucatan itinerary, and when you go there, don’t forget to stop at Uayma, a small village with a beautiful church just about 10 kilometers from Valladolid.
My favorite car rental platform is Discover Cars. It has dozens upon dozens of available vehicles and is perfect if you want to have options. They have budget-friendly rates and are super transparent about what’s included and not included in your price.
They also offer Mexican car insurance which is required for driving a car in the country.
All you need to do is select your travel dates, choose the vehicle you like and arrive at the car rental office to pick it up.
Tips for renting a car in Mexico
- Watch out for super low rates that advertise cars as low as $10-15 USD per day – often it’s just a shield for an exorbitant price that hides a travel insurance and various fees.
- Book your car in advance – when you book your car rental in Mexico ahead of time, you have the best chance to score the best deal
- Learn to drive a stick shift – Some rental cars in Mexico have a manual transmission, and since not many people know how to drive them, they are often cheaper than cars with an automatic transmission.
- Check your car for any existing damage – Carefully check your car for any scratches, dings or bumps. There have been cases with Mexico car rental companies trying to charge customers for the damages that were already there. Take photos of everything that you find and let your rental car agent know about it.
- Return your car with the full tank – Car rental companies in Mexico will charge you 2-3 times the regular gas price if you don’t return a car with the required amount of gas.
Joining a guided tour
If you don’t want to deal with all the logistics of planning your trip, a guided tour is an excellent option.
Guided tours include a pick-up and drop-off, an English-speaking guide who will give you an overview of the archeological area, and a stop in a cenote. Some tours also include a lunch stop and other attractions in the area.
Best guided tours
Taking a guided tour is a good option if you don’t have a rental car and want to visit multiple landmarks. But on the other side, you won’t have a lot of flexibility, as tours run on a set schedule.
Taking a taxi
Taking a taxi from Valladolid is another way to visit the area. You can catch a taxi on any street, although Zocalo (or the central square) of Valladolid is where you will find a designated taxi stop.
Bear in mind that you will need to negotiate a price with a driver, and that’s where having some Spanish skills will come in handy.
How much is taxi from Valladolid to Ek Balam?
A taxi from Valladolid costs about 100-150 Pesos one way, so make sure to haggle with your driver before agreeing on the price.
Taking a taxi from other places in Yucatan or Quintana Roo could be very expensive, and it’s not something I recommend. If you are not staying in Valladolid, your best bet is to rent a car or take a tour.
Catching by colectivo
If you are a budget traveler, catching a colectivo (or a small shared van) is a perfect option. It’s much cheaper than a taxi, but the downside is that colectivos don’t have a set schedule, so you need to factor in the wait time to and from the ruins.
Most of the time, colectivos leave when they are full. And you need to pay for the entrance in cash.
How to get from Valladolid to Ek Balam by colectivo?
You can catch colectivos in Valladolid on Calle 44 between Calles 36 and 35. A one-way ticket from Valladolid by colectivo costs about 50 Pesos and has to be paid in cash.
What’s the fastest way to get to Ek Balam?
The fastest way to get to Ek Balam ruins is to rent a car, but you can also take a bus from Valladolid. You can also take a small bus (or Colectivo) that departs from the area near Hotel Zaci in Valladolid. It’s better to leave early morning, as you will avoid the afternoon heat and will have more space on the bus.
Where to stay in the area?
The closest town to Ek Balam is Valladolid. There are plenty of hotels in Valladolid for all types of budgets.
To help you make a decision, I made a list of the best hotels in town.
- Budget: Hotel Colonial Zaci by GuruHotel – Located near the main square of Valladolid, Hotel Colonial offers a perfect stay if you are looking for some rest after exploring area. Free parking, yummy cookies and coffee from 7 a.m.-10 a.m. and a spacious lounge area where you can work and relax
- Mid-budget: Hotel Posada San Juan – A hidden gem, Hotel Posada San Juan is located in the city center, and boasts an outdoor pool, free breakfast and free parking.
- Luxury: Hotel Waye – One of the most beautiful hotels in Valladolid, Hotel Waye is the perfect stay with gorgeous designs, a restaurant, bar, an outdoor swimming pool and free private parking.
What to pack for your trip to Ek Balam?
I recommend wearing light, comfortable clothing, and comfortable shoes. I also recommend bringing a bottle of water and putting on enough sunscreen.
- Bug Spray – The ruins are in the middle of the jungle, and there are a lot of bugs here. I recommend bringing bug spray because you can get a lot of bites by the time you finish your tour.
- Sunscreen – The archaeological area is pretty open, and it’s a good idea to put on some sunscreen to avoid sunburn. Make sure to wash it off before entering a cenote through.
- A hat – a hat is another good idea to avoid the direct sun
- Water – You will walk a lot and climb a few ruins, so have a bottle of water because the heat and humidity at Ek Balam will make you thirsty.
- A day pack – a day pack will come in handy if you want to keep all your things organized and in one place.
Ek Balam ruins FAQ:
Is Ek Balam worth visiting?
Ek Balam is one of the most beautiful Mayan ruins in Yucatan, and it’s worth a visit. It’s less crowded than some of the most popular archaeological areas like Chichen Itza or Tulum and is home to one of the tallest pyramids in the Yucatan Peninsula that you can climb for a scenic view.
Which is better Ek Balam or Cancun?
Ek Balam ruins are better in Cancun as it’s less crowded and offers better opportunities to explore the area. Both are both Mayan ruin sites in the Yucatan Peninsula. While Chichen Itza is one of the most popular places in the region and is visited by a few million people every year, Ek Balam is much smaller and is still relatively undiscovered. You can climb the main pyramid of Ek Balam, but you are not allowed to get on top of any structures in Chichen Itza.
How long do you need in Ek Balam?
Plan no less than 1,5-2 hours for your trip to the ruins. Add another hour, if you also want to visit Cenote X’Canche.
How far is Ek Balam from Chichen Itza?
Ek Balam is about 43 miles (or 69 km) from Chichen Itza.
What does Ek Balam mean?
Ek Balam means “black jaguar” in the Maya language.
Ek Balam ruins: the final word
Ek Balam is one of my favorite Mayan ruins in Mexico. It’s close to everything, yet it’s not as busy as other archeological areas in the region and offers a great lesson in history and superb views of the Mayan jungle from its main pyramid, El Torre. I recommend including these ruins on your Yucatan itinerary, so you can explore this hidden gem before everybody else discovers it.