Our first morning in Mexico had already brought its lot of exciting wonders. If you’ve read our article on Chichen Itza and Ik Kil, then you know we got to experience some worthy tourist blockbusters. At 1pm on that day, we drove back the 45 min to Valladolid and had a quick lunch of leftover foods at our AirBnB. Then, around 2:30pm, we drove the opposite direction, 45 min straight north of Valladolid. What beckoned us to this giant jungle-covered area? Well, if you’ve watched any good adventure movie, you know the depth of the jungle always hides some mystical long lost civilization under its roots. Luckily for us, some motivated archeological teams had already unearthed their massive ruins a few decades before. But just like a 1920’s explorer hearing from a local about a rumored El Dorado in the rainforest, I heard of Ek Balam only a week before our trip departure. I don’t even remember where. There were no marketing campaign from the Mexico tourism board. No Instagram selfies from cool girls from Australia, Sweden and London. As a result, very few tourists even know of its existence or make their way there. Archaeologists started excavating the site in the late 1980’s and are still working there (this is how it looked 20 years ago), making exciting discoveries all the time, and even hoping to work their way down a subterranean stairway.
However, unlike El Dorado, there was no gold there. Quite the contrary. Though occupied for over a millenium, the site withered and was abandoned in part because of the hubris of the leaders who built it. If they had gold, they would have been able to maintain a prosperous town. I talk of hubris because the biggest pyramid (the “Acropolis”) of Ek Balam was built by a Mayan general, literally in the middle of nowhere. A bit like Chinese billionaires building Bordeaux wine castles in the middle of the Central Asian desert and planting grapes there…
Some of his lieutenants, nephews and grandsons promptly followed suit, building their own temples. It wasn’t so much a game of one-upmanship as one of spending your very last dime until you had a big triangular building in 3D. After a few centuries, resources ran out and the site was abandoned. Obviously, none of them played Age of Empires PC strategy games like me. Rookies, the lot of them. If we ever have to leave our big cities in a post-apocalyptic resource-starved world reclaimed by nature, like so many science fiction writers imagined, no one could say we hadn’t been warned by History.
With that philosophical reflexion out of the way, I can honestly say these ruins were magnificent. Exactly what you would imagine in an Indiana Jones movie. And the best part, we could even climb atop the pyramids! As some of our readers confirmed, you used to be able to climb the Chichen Itza pyramid, but that was forbidden after a few too many accidents happened. Luckily, the stone stairs to climb the smaller pyramids are in good condition. We took this opportunity to take multiple KICK-ASS photos.
We then climbed the humongous temple pyramid overlooking all the others. With a size of over 500 feet (152m) long and 200 feet (61m) wide, it is easily one of the largest structures ever excavated in Yucatan. This one had hundreds of steps and was as steep as it gets. Even with a sturdy rope to help you, I can totally see how some people who don’t do enough Bulgarian Split Squats would fall to their demise. So be warned: if you want to climb on top of the Ek Balam pyramids, make your way there quick before such an accident happen and they forbid it.
After the first flight of stairs, there were some houses there. Houses…on the middle of a pyramid!!! Some Mayan sculptures as old as 100 BC were displayed there, including the jaguar “monster mouth”. To the Mayans, this huge saber-toothed stucco facade represents a portal to the underworld.
And further down on a esplanade that we couldn’t access, there were big holes in the ground.
Now, take a pause here. If you know ANYTHING about Aztec or Mayan civilizations, you probably know what these are for. But if you don’t, let me paint a picture for you: you see, Mayans use to believe in Jaguar, Serpent or Eagle gods who controlled the rain, the crops or their fertility. Priests and nobles would practice blood letting rituals here in Ek Balam. But they would also have to sacrifice young maidens or captive enemies to quench the blood thirst of these gods. So in elaborate ceremonies, with everyone spruced up and gathered around the pyramid, they would push an unlucky person down the hole to their death. It’s amazing to find that sacrifices occurred across almost every religion. Sometimes, they were not even theologically-motivated; in the case of the Romans and gladiatorial games, it was purely leisure. So now you know where the Hunger Games gets some of its inspiration from.
After such a sobering reminder of our flawed humanity, we made our way to the very top, getting a good leg workout in the process. We watched the sun set over the interminable jungle.
We were then escorted out of the park as it was closing. When you arrive on the parking lot, don’t be surprised if you are asked by an attendant to pay a propina (tip) of $2-$3 to a bunch of guys playing volleyball to “protect your car”. It’s more a bribe so they don’t wreck it. Out on the parking, the same attendant asked us if we wanted to see a cenote for 5 bucks, before it closed in half an hour. Why the hell not? We followed him in our car to a gate, which he opened. We paid at a booth, then he told us to drive 5 min down a road in the jungle, as the evening was arriving. If it sounds like a script from a new Netflix Narcos show, I can see why. We arrived at the X’Canche cenote and this place was amazing! It was really a shame that we couldn’t be there earlier in the day as this cenote had more activities than the others we did: you could rappel down the wall, you could swing from a rope to throw yourself in the water. I mean, who never had a fantasy of being like Tarzan! As it was very dark, I had to do quite the post-production editing on my photos, but I hope these give you a sense of the magic of this place:
Just as night was starting, we drove out the gate and back to Valladolid. On the road back, we saw multiple of the torchistas that I mentioned in my Valladolid article, running through the night lit by their torches. We ate at the same restaurant, fully satisfied with our day of exploration.