Ek Balam Ruins in Mexico is an astonishing collection of crumbling Mayan palaces, pyramids and ball courts. Visitors are permitted to climb the remarkably intact steps of the ancient Mayan city, marvelling at views across the Yucatan as far as the eye can see. Indeed, Ek Balam might see a fraction of the visitors of its nearby neighbour, Chichen Itza. But, the bijoux and quieter site might just leave these Mayan ruins a firm favourite of your trip to Mexico. In this travel guide, we’ll detail everything you need to know for your visit.
So, what are the Ek Balam Ruins?
For more Mayan ruins in Mexico, check out our post here!
Table of Contents
What Is Ek Balam?
Ek Balam (also written as Ek’ Balam) is the site of an ancient Mayan city located north of Valladolid in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. The entire city complex is small and can easily be walked around in a couple of hours. Additionally, Ek Balam is one of the few remaining Mayan ruins that you can still walk up. And lemme tell you, that makes the visit to Ek Balam very special indeed.
Within the ancient defensive walls surrounding the city of Ek Balam, you’ll wander through a grand stone archway, scale palace steps and stroll past ancient ball courts. Certainly, the piece de resistance is taking the unnervingly shallow (and steep) steps to climb to the top of the Ek Balam Acropolis. From the top of this incredible pyramid are views over the rest of the complex, visibly swallowed up by the dense jungle, and looking ridiculously impressive.
Ek Balam also boasts an incredible collection of stucco carvings in the rock faces. They are preserved (or restored) under thatched roofs that protect them from the elements. Indeed, one of the most impressive examples is found at the Acropolis outside the tomb of King Ukit Kan Lek Tok.
History of Ek Balam
Incredibly, the history of Ek Balam begins around the year 300BC. At that time, it was the capital of the Tah people. The central site, as we see the complex today, was home to only the most powerful in the city. At its largest, the city of Ek Balam was home to 18,000 people, spanning 600–900 AD (the Late to Terminal Classic period).
Ukit Kan Le´t Tok is the first known king of Ek Balam and is responsible for the construction of the Acropolis. His tomb is found within the pyramid. It’s marked by a jaguar’s mouth over the door.
Sadly, from 840AD onwards, the population of Ek Balam began to decline. It’s unknown why Ek Balam declined at such a quick rate. Experts can only assume the population were under some kind of threat at the time, though what threat is still up for debate. Ek Balam was eventually abandoned.
What Does Ek Balam Mean?
Ek Balam comes from the Yucatecan Mayan words ‘ek’ which means black, and ‘Balam’, which means jaguar.
Where Are the Ek Balam Mayan Ruins?
The Mayan ruins of Ek Balam are located in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, north of Valladolid. Feel free to click on the interactive map below to see exactly where the ancient Mayan ruins are found.
Highlights of Ek Balam Ruins
Below, we’ll touch on some of the highlights of Ek Balam Ruins in Mexico. Check out the map below to see where everything is located at the Ek Balam Archaeological Site.
Ek Balam Entrance Arch
As you wander the long path to Ek Balam, your first entry into the ancient city is via the main Entrance Arch. It’s not terribly big, but it does create a grand gateway into a remarkable place. What will likely hit you first is just how intact this archway is. And then, you’ll simply enjoy being able to walk through, just as the Mayans would have.
The entrance arch to Ek Balam possibly joined to a Sacbe, or white road. Some of the best examples of Sacbe are found at Coba Ruins.
Twin Pyramids of Ek Balam
As you enter the main plaza, you’ll see impressive ruins surrounding you. The Twin Pyramids of Ek Balam are easily recognisable as you see two small identical pyramid structures sitting side by side, connected at their base.
Next to the Twin Pyramids, you’ll find a ball court. Here, the ancient game of ōllamaliztli was played. You’ll notice ball courts crop up in a number of Mayan ruins throughout Mexico. Interestingly, the victor of the game was often sacrificed.
Ek Balam’s Oval Palace
The large building adjacent to the Twin Pyramids is the Oval Palace. Certainly, the rounded shape of this Mayan palace is best observed from the back of the ruins. The front, facing the inner plaza, features a grand set of stone steps to its summit. The views extend right across the complex and towards the towering Acropolis at the far side of the city ruins.
Because of the position of the Oval Palace, it’s believed to have held cosmological significance. This shows the beliefs of the Maya civilisation and the importance of the night sky to them. Burial relics have also been found within the Oval Palace. It’s also similar in shape to the observatories of Chichen Itza and Tulum, helping to confirm its probable use.
Ek Balam Acropolis (the Pyramid)
Certainly, the main event here is visiting, and scaling the steps of the Acropolis. Also known as the Ek Balam Pyramid (although there are many pyramids here), it’s an exhilarating climb up shallow but tall steps to the top of the city. Getting up is one thing, getting back down is another. Be sure to take care as you go and don’t rush.
The Acropolis at Ek Balam, Mexico, is thought to contain the remains of Ukit Kan Leʼk Tok. He was one of the significant rulers and kings of Ek Balam. The temple where he is buried, midway up the steps of the pyramid, is called El Trono ‘The Throne‘. Outside of the tomb is a door shaped like a jaguar’s mouth.
One of the most extraordinary attractions at Ek Balam is the excellent stucco wall carvings on show. Wherever you see a thatched canopy, they’ll likely be a piece of wall treasure underneath. The canopy protects it from the elements. Indeed, the stucco carvings make Ek Balam quite unique in that not all Mayan ruins you’ll visit in Mexico will have them. Many carvings at Mayan sites are directly into the stone.
Ek Balam Cenote (Cenote Xcanche)
As cenotes served as water sources as well as ceremonial and sacrificial sites to the Maya, it’s quite common to find a cenote close to a ruined site. This Mayan city is no different. Near the city complex is Cenote Xcanche, AKA the Ek Balam Cenote.
The cenote is located away from the main ruins complex and requires a separate ticket to enter. Tickets cost $170MXN ($10USD) and so they’re not the cheapest of cenote visits. But, what awaits is a total oasis of rope swings and zip lines over a large open-air cenote. You can even take bicycles from the main entrance to get there instead of the long walk.
How to Get to Ek Balam
There are a few different options for getting to Ek Balam Ruins, depending on where in Mexico you are travelling from. The most common city to travel from is Valladolid, but it’s certainly possible to get to the ruins from further afield. Below, we’ll look at transport options from Tulum, Playa del Carmen and Cancun as well as Valladolid.
Valladolid to Ek Balam
Ek Balam Ruins are very close to Valladolid. Taking a taxi is a reasonable and efficient way to make the journey. Dan and I took a taxi to return to Valladolid, with the cost being $270MXN ($16USD) and the journey taking just 30 minutes. We actually arrived at Ek Balam Mayan Ruins straight after visiting Cenote Suytun in the morning, which we highly recommend. You can read more about that here.
Certainly, the most cost-efficient way to travel to and from Ek Balam from Valladolid is to take a Colectivo. Colectivos leave from this location in central Valladolid. You can expect the cost to be around $50MXN ($3USD) per person. The van will wait until it is full before it leaves.
Cancun to Ek Balam
From Cancun, you can take the ADO bus to Valladolid and then either take a taxi or Colectivo as described above. ADO is a very reliable bus company in Mexico, and we used them plenty of times during our month-long trip. The ADO bus station in Cancun is located here. You can book Ek Balam to Cancun tickets online which is very straightforward or purchase them from the bus station.
Tulum to Ek Balam
From Tulum, you can again take the ADO bus to Valladolid and then follow the same instructions as above. The ADO bus station in central Tulum is located here. Again, you can book tickets online which is very straightforward or purchase them from the bus station.
Playa del Carmen to Ek Balam
From Playa del Carmen, you can take the ADO bus to Valladolid and again take a taxi or Colectivo. The ADO bus station in Playa del Carmen is located here. You can book tickets online or purchase them from the bus station.
By Rental Car
Of course, renting a car and driving yourself to Ek Balam Ruins in Mexico is one of the easiest ways to visit. Below, we’ve listed some of the most popular routes and their respective distance and drive times to the Mayan ruins.
- Valladolid: Distance: 28km // Drive time: 30 minutes
- Cancun: Distance: 174km // Drive time: 2.5 hours
- Tulum: Distance: 127km // Drive time: 2 hours
- Playa del Carmen: Distance: 156km // Drive time: 2 hours
If you want to hire something, we recommend hiring a car using Rentalcars.com. You’ll certainly find a variety of cars on Rental Cars, which are very easy to book online. Personally, Dan and I have used Rental Cars plenty of times and never had any problems.
If you’re driving, once you arrive at Ek Balam Mayan Ruins in Mexico, you’ll find a large car park located here on Google Maps.
Ek Balam Tours
Another option for getting to Ek Balam Ruins in Mexico is to take a tour. This is a particularly useful option if you are coming from further afield in the Yucatan Peninsula. GetYourGuide offers some wonderful tour options including day trips from Cancun, Merida and Playa del Carmen.
It’s also possible to hire a guide on arrival at Ek Balam Ruins if you’ve made you’re own way there. You can enquire once you arrive. Prices vary on group size and for how long you would like a guide. Hiring a guide at Ek Balam Ruins is also a great way to support the local communities. Many of them will speak the Mayan language too, so it’s a great way to hear snippets of the ancient language as part of the experience.
Useful Things to Know Before You Go
So, now you know how to get to the Mayan ruins of Ek Balam in Mexico, let’s take a look at some useful things to know about the visit.
The Ek Balam Ruins in Mexico entrance fee is $456MXN ($27USD) per person. It’s a little on the steep side of Mayan sites, but if you’ve been to Chichen Itza, it feels like a bargain. Truth be told, we heard the price put a lot of people off visiting. After all, the ruins are a smallish size. But, we loved the visit and would recommend going. It’s a shame that the cenote is not included in the price.
Ek Balam Ruins are open from 8am to 5pm, seven days a week. The cenote is also open 8am to 5pm seven days a week.
Best Time to Visit Ek Balam
The best time to visit Ek Balam Ruins and the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico as a whole is from November to May. June is typically the hottest but also the wettest month. November through to May offers the most pleasant temperatures without being too hot, whilst not being too busy. Indeed, December and January can be some of the busiest tourist months of the year and are known as the peak season.
Below, we’ll answer some of the most frequently asked questions in regard to visiting the Mayan ruins of Ek Balam in Mexico.
Can You Still Climb Ek Balam?
Yes, it’s possible to climb the ruins. But, who knows for how long. Increasingly, more Mayan sites are restricting access, which makes sense in terms of preserving such incredible sites. So, you’d better head there soon just in case. Just remember, the steps up the main pyramid (Acropolis) are extremely steep, so take care.
Why Is Ek Balam Important?
It’s important because of its rare stucco-carved stone throughout the complex, notably on the main pyramid. You should look out for the Winged Warriors and the Black Jaguar mouth.
Who Built Ek Balam?
Most of the buildings you see today were built under the rule of Ukit Kan Le’t Tok. He’s the most well-known ruler or king of Ek Balam.
How High Is Ek Balam?
The tallest building at Ek Balam Ruins, in Mexico, is the Acropolis, which stands at 30 metres high.
Why Was Ek Balam Abandoned?
Experts don’t appear to have concrete evidence, only that the population was under some sort of threat, causing them to disperse at an alarming rate, thus leaving the city abandoned.
How Much Does Ek Balam Cost?
A visit to Ek Balam Ruins in Mexico costs $456MXN ($27USD) per person.
Is Ek Balam Worth Visiting?
Yes, absolutely. There’s plenty to enjoy like the stucco carvings and climbing the Acropolis, that you can’t experience at any other Mayan ruins in Mexico. Even the cenote is an added bonus to the trip.
Where to Stay Near Ek Balam
As the closest city to Ek Balam Ruins in Mexico, we recommend staying in Valladolid for your visit. Below, we’ll take a look at some of the best budget, mid-range and luxury options.
- Budget – Hostel Candelaria: those on a strict backpacker’s budget might consider Hostel Candelaria. The popular hostel features dorms, a great kitchen, and communal space and is within easy reach of the Valladolid bus station.
- Mid-range – Hotel Zazil-Naj: Dan and I stayed at Hotel Zazil-Naj. The rooms are spacious and feature a pleasant en suite bathroom. The location is good, being in a great place for exploring Valladolid.
- Luxury – Hotel Meson del Marques: for authentic colonial-style decor and amazing rooftop views across Valladolid, then stay at Hotel Meson del Marques. This five-star hotel features cute gardens, a fantastic restaurant and is well located in the heart of town.
Other Mayan Archaeological Sites Nearby
The Yucatan Peninsula isn’t short of incredible Mayan ruins to explore. Below, are a brief selection of other popular sites to visit in the area. Be sure to check out our Best Mayan Ruins in Mexico post for a longer list of ruins.
- Tulum Ruins: explore one of the most incredible examples of a walled Mayan city at Tulum. It’s also one of the few examples of a Mayan city on the coast.
- Chichen Itza: the creme de la creme of Mexican Mayan Ruins. Certainly, no trip to the Yucatan is complete without a visit to this incredible site.
- Coba Ruins: the most important of the Maya cities before Chichen Itza took over, located just outside of Tulum.
These are our travel essentials for a visit to Ek Balam Ruins in Mexico.
- Swimming gear: in case you choose to visit the cenote.
- Merrell Moab Mid Gore-Tex Hiking Boots: you’ll benefit from a sturdy pair of hiking boots whilst walking around the Mayan complex.
- Biodegradable sunscreen: be sun safe and environmentally friendly all at the same time.
- Osprey Skarab 30L Day Backpack: a great backpack for day tripping, which has plenty of space to store your gear.
- Camera: you’ll definitely want to document your visit to Ek Balam Ruins, Mexico. Although, you can’t take tripods, nor is video recording allowed.
Travel insurance is a real necessity, especially when travelling through Central America and getting a little off the beaten track.
SafetyWing is an excellent budget-friendly travel insurance provider. Personally, Dan and I have used SafetyWing’s Nomad Insurance many times to insure our trips. The Nomad Insurance is fantastic value for money with a smaller additional cost to add a partner. Unlike most other insurance companies, there’s an option to pay on a monthly basis, similar to having a prepaid phone plan. Better yet, there’s no lock-in contract. In addition, you can cancel at any time, which will take effect the month after.
For shorter trips, it’s also possible to use Nomad Insurance for trips lasting just days or just 2–3 weeks. Indeed, SafetyWing is cheaper than almost all other travel insurance policies and covers just as much and sometimes more.
SafetyWing is a modern travel insurance company that is certainly leading the way in terms of how travel insurance should work in the future.
- Avoiding the crowds: arrive early in the morning or late in the afternoon to beat the crowds (including big tour groups) and enjoy Ek Balam Ruins to yourself.
- Explore the Yucatan: certainly, some of our favourite places after visiting Ek Balam in Mexico include Rio Lagartos, the Riviera Maya and Bacalar.
- Make the most of Valladolid: if travelling from Valladolid, as we did, you’ll find plenty of other awesome things to do from the city. GetYourGuide offers some pretty cool tours to Valladolid which might be worth checking out.
Read our Belize guides to find out more information about Mayan ruins in Central America (guides coming soon).