Exploring the Mayan Ruins of the Yucatán (Part 1 – Ek’ Balam)

Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico – December 2016

I had just finished a tour in Cuba and had planned a few days of solo travel in Yucatán, Mexico. After spending two weeks with the same group of people, I was looking forward to some alone time (as a typical introvert). My flight home out of Havana was booked through Cancún anyway, so I figured I might as well see some of Mexico while I was there. I was particularly keen to visit Chichén Itzá, the famed Mayan archaeological site, but it wasn’t until I started doing a bit of research that I realised there were many other Mayan ruins in this part of the country.

The Yucatán peninsula separates the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico, and it’s a popular destination for North Americans who enjoy the beach and party culture of well-known spots like Cancún and Playa Del Carmen. In recent times, places like Tulum have become known for their eco-retreats and yoga centres. The fun but apocryphal story behind the name Yucatán is as follows: the infamous conquistador, Hernán Cortés, claimed in a letter to the Spanish Crown that when the first explorers (his countrymen) asked the natives what the land was called, they replied “I don’t understand what you’re saying” in Yucatec Maya, which the Spanish recorded as “Yucatan”. Of course, there are other, more scholarly derivations of the name, but this one is by far the best.

While Spanish is the main language spoken in Mexico, there are over 68 indigenous languages in the country, of which the Náhuatl (the Aztec tongue that gave us the words avocado, coyote, chilli, and surprisingly – to me anyway – tomato!) and the Maya languages are the most spoken. Yucatán is home to one of the largest groups of modern Maya in Central America and thus has the largest number of Maya speakers in Mexico. As a result, Yucatan natives (Yucatecos) often blend Mayan words and phrases into their Spanish. Some Maya use Maya as their first language and Spanish as their second.

I arrived in Mexico less than a month after the 2016 US presidential election. In Cancún my Airbnb host invited me out for a drink. We got talking about Trump’s policies; specifically, the president-elect’s attitudes towards Mexicans (who he called rapists, although conceded “some, I assume, are good people”) and his notorious wall. It was fascinating to get a Mexican perspective, although I must note it’s possible Cancún may differ to the rest of Mexico, being regularly filled with Americans on spring break or bachelor/bachelorette trips. In any case, there seemed to be a general air of apprehension permeating local discourse over how the change in administration would affect Mexican society, and the relationship with their prominent northern neighbour. Over a few beers, I merrily received a quick education in trade, immigration, economics, and a number of other topics. (It would be quite interesting to go back and revisit this conversation now.)

After one night in Cancún, I took a bus to Valladolid, a small town in the middle of the Yucatán Peninsula between Cancún and Merida. I’m not sure what I was expecting but Mexican long-distance buses are actually very comfortable. My only complaint was that halfway through the trip the driver put on some American movie dubbed in Spanish at full volume (it was something forgettable like Paul Blart Mall Cop), and I really wanted to have a nap.

Valladolid was a pretty but quiet colonial-era town. I stayed a couple of nights there as it’s a good base from which to visit both Ek’ Balam and Chichén Itzá. Chichén Itzá is definitely the more famous of the two as a tourist attraction. It has been called one of the “new” seven wonders of the world (the only ancient wonder still standing is the Pyramids of Giza). Ek’ Balam, located not far north of Valladolid, contains much lesser-known Mayan ruins surrounded by jungle.

I had read on travel blogs that the easiest way (perhaps even the only way, short of renting a car) to get from Valladolid to Ek’ Balam was to take a colectivo taxi. Colectivos are usually share-riding vans (yes, Uber didn’t invent share-riding), but colectivo taxis are shared taxis (shared with strangers) which leave when they are full (four passengers). To get one I had to find where they were parked, and after asking around in broken Spanish – ¿donde estan los colectivos, umm, Ek’ Balam? – I found the spot in a little alley with an archway cover. There was already someone there waiting, so we just needed two more. After about twenty minutes we were joined by another guy, who started chatting. I found out he was from the Netherlands, and had quit his corporate job to backpack through Central America. This explained why he was so tanned for a Dutchman. Weirdly, there was a lone Pacman arcade machine sitting in the corner, straight out of the 80s, and for a few pesos we passed the time with a fun couple of games.

Eventually, the first guy (who hadn’t spoken at all since I arrived) got sick of waiting and told the driver he would pay a double fare (for the phantom fourth passenger). The driver indicated via a sequence of tongue clicks and gestures that we should get in his car. I sat in the back with my new friend while our driver sped down the highway and I tried not to think about how fast he was going or what my travel insurance might cover (or not cover).

Our colectivo dropped us off at the car park (unharmed) and without really any discussion my Dutch buddy and I decided to stick together as we walked towards the first of the ruins. The trek from the ticket office took longer than I thought it would and wasn’t particularly well marked out, but once we emerged from the jungle, greeted with the first of the stone ruins, I must admit that I did feel a little thrill at getting to play archaeologist. (Let’s call it a persistent childhood fantasy.) Ahead of us lay a tumbled-down stone wall and we passed through its remains to enter the lost city of Ek’ Balam (well ok, formerly lost, I guess).

Ek’ Balam, meaning Black Jaguar (or Bright Star Jaguar, depending on who you believe) in Yucatec Maya, was a walled city older than Chichén Itzá, dating back to around 600 BC. Once the seat of the Mayan kingdom, its first ruler Ukit Kan Le’t Tok’ built the pyramid known as the Acropolis (Sak Xok Nahh in Maya, but also called El Torre – the Tower) which would in time become his tomb. It was abandoned before the Spanish arrived, and archaeologists first came across it in the 19th century but didn’t map it until the 1980s. As restoration of the ruins only commenced in 1997, it is still relatively new as an archaeological tourist site. Only one twelfth of the city has been excavated, which should keep them busy for a while.

As not many people visit this place compared to Chichén Itzá, you are allowed to clamber all over the ruins of Ek’ Balam, which is actually very cool. We were free to explore anywhere, including all the nooks and crannies of the ancient structures.

As we sat on the steps near the top of El Torre (a very steep ascent and not for the acrophobic), taking in the views of the ruins rising out of the surrounding jungle, my travel companion for the day told me a little more about himself. He told me about his job, and how sick he was of his life, and how he had suddenly decided one day to quit and travel, booking a one-way ticket to Mexico. He had arrived in Cancún from Europe a week ago with a fully stuffed backpack, a portable fold-up tent and a dream (alright, maybe not the last one).

Four days into his Mexican adventure, he returned from a dip in the warm Caribbean Sea to a beach near Playa Del Carmen where he had set up camp, only to find his tent and belongings gone. And so, he explained to me now, all he had left was what he was currently wearing and carrying – one set of clothes, a towel and his backpack.

It was quite an awful tale and perhaps a hard way to learn a lesson (don’t leave all your stuff unattended to swim in the ocean?) but he seemed to be coping with his misfortunes, so I left it at that. I mean what could you say, really.

Eventually we had to come back down, and the descent was terrifying compared to the climb up – it’s a wide steep staircase that goes straight down for eight stories. The steps are narrow and tall, and there are no handrails to hold on to. Some people were sort of sit/squat-stepping the whole way down, which looked pretty tiring. I did the zig-zag thing which felt safer (at least psychologically), but I did wonder how many people fall. Surely it happens. Perhaps it was a design feature meant to induce inadvertent human sacrifices.

After we were done exploring and climbing the ruins, we made our way to the nearby Cenote X’Canche. Cenotes are natural sinkholes filled with freshwater, often very deep and teeming with catfish. They are found throughout the Yucatán peninsula and were considered sacred to the ancient Mayans. Cenote X’Canche was about 1.5km along a gravel path through the jungle, with the option to rent bikes to get there. At the cenote’s edge, there were stairs leading down to a boardwalk around the water, as well as a rope swing. After the bike ride, it was perfectly refreshing to jump in to the cold clear water.

I spent most of the time floating on my back, looking up at the jungle which encroached over the sides high above. Besides the two of us, there were only a few other people at the cenote and it was a very serene afternoon. Finally, I said goodbye to my unfortunate Dutch (and technically homeless) friend who chose to linger a while longer, and cycled back to the car park, the cool freshwater drying off me in the light breeze. From there I didn’t have to wait too long for the next colectivo back to Valladolid.

First ruin down (and it was amazing). Next stop – Chichén Itzá.

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