Ek' Balam: Ruins You Can Climb

We had a really big ruin day when we visited both Chichen Itza and Ek' Balam. Two major sites near Valladolid in a single day, I think we ended up north of 17,000 steps each on this one.

Ekbalam map2 numbered.jpg
Map of Ek' Balam ruins
By Eagle scout4 - Own work, Public Domain, Link

Doing a bit of Wikipedia research, I learned that there are some mysteries still surrounding Ek' Balam and that it's still early in the excavation progress there. I believe at one point, Ek' Balam was dominate in the region, which means that Chichen Itza would have been a less powerful city under its influence for a time. It's odd to think that because the ruins at Chichen Itza are currently so much more powerful, but those may have come much earlier or later than Ek' Balam.

There is a king buried in the main building here, which is probably the reason for the scale of the structure. The site itself is much more well preserved than similar sites in the region, and was apparently abandoned very quickly near its fall, possibly as the result of an invasion that the city couldn't resist.

The Entrance Arch, a unique feature at ruins like this

Near the entrance with a view of the arch and some buildings within the city walls

Ek' Balam is pretty close to Chichen Itza, less known globally but it will come up a lot when you're traveling the Yucatan. The big selling points for Ek' Balam are that it's close to Chichen Itza and that you can still climb the ruins here (forbidden at Chichen Itza after 2006 when someone died falling off the ruins).

I'll be the first to say that people probably shouldn't be allowed to climb these, and that I'm glad we could. People shouldn't be allowed because there's no way that it doesn't degrade the ruins at least a tiny bit each time someone does, and when you get many thousands of visitors a year, some far less preservation minded than others, it adds up. It's also totally dangerous to the unwary: this isn't a Disney ride with lots of safety mechanisms built in. This is a $7 Mayan ruin deep in Mexico, and the only thing keeping you from slipping and falling on very steep and sometimes slippery limestone stairs is your surefootedness.

This was cool, I suspect that it's some form of wild maize.
Was hard and small, far from modern sweet corn.

Probably the second largest building in Ek Balam, either the Oval Palace or the Chapel

View from "The Chapel", you can see the Acropolis steps in the distance

Another view form "the Chapel" with the Twins to the left and Acropolis in the distance

Even though they probably shouldn't let visitors climb these, they do and it's awesome if you can smartly handle it. We're certainly not indestructible but we respect gravity in our advancing ages and have just enough adventurousness to take stuff like this on.

Melissa contemplates the Acropolis

The main staircase at the Acropolis

The highlight of Ek' Balam is definitely the rather high structure called 'The Acropolis'. When you approach it, it's a massive pile of stairs, flanked by elevated structures and what appeared to be living and working areas, well above ground level. It reminded me of a medieval castle a bit, because nearly everything remaining at Chichen Itza appeared to built for ceremonial purposes. You don't see anything that indicates that maybe some people lived in these limestone buildings and ground corn or made clothing. I got much more of a sense of that at the Acropolis, but I could be completely wrong.

The building is rectangular in shape with the giant staircase in the middle and the sub-levels occupying space to the left and right of that. We were only allowed to climb up the main staircase and venture a bit to the left.

The stairs are such a good attraction for us because we went to Angkor Wat last year, which is mostly giant, ridiculous stairs. I think Melissa would easily say that she knew she could handle these stairs because she did much more difficult climbs at Angkor Wat a year ago. In comparison, most of the memorable ones in Cambodia were steeper, narrower and smoother. The Acropolis stairs were kind of steep, kind of narrow and composed of weathered limestone and mortar. That composition gives it some texture in most places, you still need to be careful but it's a different thing entirely from a huge smooth stone slab.

Not Ek' Balam! Stairs at Angkor Wat for comparison.
What's with all the stone stairways in sweltering climates?

A smaller ball court than Chichen Itza, the hoops are missing though

Left side of the Acropolis, these structures are why I think the building supported mundane functions as well as ceremonial.

The Angkor Wat stairs that we climbed probably peaked at a solid 2-2.5 feet in height (vertical step up) and not much wider than a normal human foot. That means that unless you're half mountain goat, there's simply no way to walk straight up them, you have to face sideways and walk up perpendicularly, one leg at a time. These required a lot of caution but I was able to take a lot of steps straight on, walking stair over stair rather than putting both feet on each step.

It looked like a workout of a climb and it was. There are a couple of resting places on the way up but nothing that really removes the need to be vigilant and on balance. The top is a very small flat area with some stone in an arrangement that can work as a seat.

From the summit of the Acropolis

A set of stairs descending from the Acropolis that was not open to climb.
In much worse condition, and sadly cut off access to some interesting structures on the left side.

Looking down on the smaller buildings at Ek' Balam and out over the Yucatan jungles.

Other than being able to look down on the rest of the Acropolis and most of Ek' Balam, the elevation at the top allows you to see signs of other Mayan ruins far off in the distance. According to some people we encountered atop a smaller ruin, the features of the horizon that weren't flat were usually other ruins in the distance such as Chichen Itza. I can't say for sure as we weren't on a tour, but we did see some major geographical bumps and a couple of controlled (hopefully) fires in the vast jungle vista.

There are several smaller buildings at Ek' Balam, but we didn't learn much about them since this site isn't nearly as well curated as Chichen Itza and we weren't on a tour. There are a pair of twinned buildings, connected with a much smaller ascent to the top level. Halfway up the Acropolis, on the left, is a massive altar that appeared to be under reconstruction. I really enjoyed this because the altar area looks like a giant seat of jaws, open around a small altar.

According to Wikipedia, there is a king buried in this part and the jaw altar area is "in the shape of a monster mouth, possibly depicting a jaguar." The effect is really cool even if it's just a shadow of what it must have been at Ek' Balam's height.

The altar area, teeth on bottom

We only spent an hour or two here including all of the exercise climbing up and down the Acropolis. It wasn't hard to reach or explore, but there is a bit of nonsense in the local business activity there. When we arrived, one of the locals came up and told us that he was responsible for watching the cars in the parking lot and worked for tips. It wasn't a government run parking lot like Chichen Itza, and I'm sure that he does "work for tips" there but the whole thing was very unsavory because what choice do we really have once we arrive other than to leave? If we tell him that's nonsense and we won't be paying a tip, do we come back to a car with broken windows and valuables gone? Seemed like thinly veiled extortion although it may not be so sinister.

Oddly, when we bought tickets to the site from the government desk, we were given fancy printed tickets... from April. The woman at the desk clearly took them out of her pocket or drawer and didn't print them out. After the parking lot shakedown I was worried that we'd just paid a decent fee for useless tickets, but when we got to the entrance they were "unused" and got us admittance. No harm, no foul, but it's awkward to stand at the ticket counter and wonder if you should try to complain about pre-dated tickets for April to someone that doesn't speak English when they may be perfectly fine.

We're happy we went to Ek' Balam and accomplished a ton of ruins visits in a single day. From what I've heard this site is still under excavation and it may be a totally visit in 10 years depending on what they find. It's a more raw experience than Chichen Itza in many ways and contrasts that experience well.


  1. Like all the comparisons and the view from the top

  2. I know a young man who would love climbing these...