Visiting the Ek Balam Ruins & the X’canche Cenote

Last Updated on: 7th May 2023, 12:02 am

Located 25 km north of Valladolid, Ek Balam only gets a fraction of the crowds of nearby Chichén Itzá. But it’s easily one of the region’s most remarkable sites. Not only can those visiting Ek Balam climb every structure, but the massive Acropolis contains what’s arguably the best-preserved stucco frieze of the Mayan world.

Ek Balam’s name translates to ‘Black Jaguar’ or possibly ‘Star Jaguar,’ and it was named after the city’s first ruler who maintained control for over 40 years. At the time, the city was the capital of the Mayan kingdom of Talal.

While originally founded around 300 BC, Ek Balam would peak from 700-1100 AD. What we see today was largely built during the Late Classic period (600-900 AD), and the city’s architectural style seems to have been influenced by the Petén region of Guatemala.

While the site was known by the Spanish colonists, excavations only began as recently as 1997. And the Ek Balam ruins have just been open to the public for the last 15 years or so. With excavations far from being finished, expect the number of accessible structures to grow with time.

In the following guide, we’ll be going over what you can expect from a visit to the Ek Balam ruins. Also be sure to bring a swimsuit, as the nearby X’canche Cenote can easily be visited in tandem with the archaeological site.

For info on reaching the ruins and where to stay in Valladolid, be sure to check the end of the article.

A sculpture from Ek Balam on display at the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya in Mérida

Visiting Ek Balam

Ek Balam opens at 8:00 in the morning, and you’ll want to take an early shared taxi from Valladolid (learn more below) to beat the crowds. While Ek Balam doesn’t get nearly as many visitors as Chichén Itzá, I still encountered several other ruins enthusiasts lining up with me before opening.

Unfortunately, the state of Yucatán is out of control in regards to their pricing of archaeological sites. Ek Balam is yet another site to cost around $500 MXN – several times higher than the prices of comparable sites in Quintana Roo, Campeche or Chiapas!

But despite the steep price by Mexican (or even global) standards, few visiting Ek Balam will regret it. Understand, however, that the nearby cenote is not included in this price, and costs yet another $150 MXN to access (more below).

Visiting Ek Balam Ruins

After walking down a forested path, visitors will reach the city’s outer walls. Ek Balam was one of the few Mayan cities to have been surrounded by outer walls, and the 3 m-wide walls here were once decorated in stucco and paint. 

They likely weren’t built for defensive purposes, as the low walls would’ve been easy to penetrate. More probable is that they helped demarcate the sacred inner precinct from the outer realm of the profane. 

Visiting Ek Balam Ruins
Visiting Ek Balam Ruins

The first structure you’ll encounter is the Arco de Entrada, a unique gate with arches on all four sides. It’s been recently restored by archaeologists.

And from the gate, you can see one side of the largest structures of Ek Balam’s South Plaza area, the Oval Palace. It consists of 10 rooms at the bottom level and a few more at the top. And as its name suggests, it consists of multiple ovoid tiers.

Visiting Ek Balam Ruins
Visiting Ek Balam Ruins

The South Plaza

If you’re one of the first people to reach the South Plaza in the morning, you’ll have the choice of climbing up the Oval Palace for clear views of the plaza, or walking straight ahead to be the first atop the Acropolis.

If you’re looking for photos of Ek Balam with nobody in them, there are bound to be a few people standing atop the Oval Palace by the time you ascend the Acropolis.

Visiting Ek Balam Ruins

In my case, having rushed over to be the first one at the plaza, I ascended the Oval Palace to enjoy clear views of an empty Ek Balam. There’s nothing quite like having an entire Mayan city all to yourself, even if it’s only for a couple of minutes.

Visiting Ek Balam Ruins

Just beside the Oval Palace is a set of identical buildings appropriately known as ‘the Twins.’ One of the best-preserved structures at the site, ‘the Twins’ was originally decorated in elaborate stucco masks.

While no longer present here, there are still plenty of well-preserved stucco decorations to see along the Acropolis (more below).

Visiting Ek Balam Ruins
Visiting Ek Balam Ruins

Elsewhere in the plaza are some stelae, including Stele 1. It was erected in 840 AD by a king whose name we cannot fully read, but it was probably the same ruler who commissioned the nearby ball court.

Visiting Ek Balam Ruins
Visiting Ek Balam Ruins

Just about every ancient city in Mexico possessed a ball court, where the highly ritualistic and symbolic Mesoamerican ball game would take place between two teams. We know that this one was dedicated in 841, just a year after Stele 1 was inscribed.

It’s noticeably much smaller than the massive court you’ll encounter at Chichén Itzá, though it’s pretty much average size for the Mayan world.

Located to the east of the South Plaza is Structure 10. It appears as a large platform, and ascending the staircase reveals a tiny temple at the top. 

Notably, it’s similar to the small chapels one might see at sites like Tulum or Cobá. And it was also built around the same time during the Postclassic period (c. 1000-1200 AD). The large base, on the other hand, dates to the Late Classic era (700-1000).

Visiting Ek Balam Ruins
Visiting Ek Balam Ruins
Visiting Ek Balam Ruins

To the west of Structure 12 is Structure 10, a long and narrow building that almost appears as a wall. While we don’t know for sure, this Late Classic structure likely played some kind of ceremonial role.

It would probably be a good idea to save these minor structures for the end of your visit, as you’ll want to quickly make it to the Acropolis before too many visitors arrive.

Visiting Ek Balam Ruins
Visiting Ek Balam Ruins

The Acropolis

By far the largest structure at Ek Balam is the Acropolis, which stretches out to 160 m long by 70 m wide. It’s also 31 m high, and visitors are still able to climb all the way to the top – a rarity in this part of Mexico, especially since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Visiting Ek Balam Ruins

Made up of six different levels, the Acropolis contains no less than 72 rooms. And what’s most remarkable about them are the well-preserved stucco friezes that have remained intact for centuries.

Visiting Ek Balam Ruins
Visiting Ek Balam Ruins
Visiting Ek Balam Ruins
Ek Balam Acropolis

One of these rooms housed the tomb of King Ukit Kan Le’k Tok (r. 770-801 AD), who was responsible for the Acropolis’s construction. Located on the pyramid’s fourth level, it’s marked by one of, if not the most impressive stucco facades ever found in the Mayan world.

Visiting Ek Balam Ruins

Though it looks like it might be a modern reconstruction, this really is the original piece that’s been left in place for hundreds of years! It was able to survive in the jungle undetected thanks to protective exterior stones that once concealed it.

Incredibly, the tomb entrance appears as a giant mouth belonging to a ferocious monster, complete with humongous fangs.

Visiting Ek Balam Ruins
Visiting Ek Balam Ruins
Visiting Ek Balam Ruins

But especially noteworthy are the figures above them which appear as humans with wings. They look strikingly similar to depictions of angels in the West, leading some to theorize about some kind of pre-Columbian contact. 

It’s probably just a coincidence, albeit a mysterious one. In any case, this amazing facade easily stands out as the highlight of visiting Ek Balam.

Visiting Ek Balam Ruins
Visiting Ek Balam Ruins
Visiting Ek Balam Ruins
Visiting Ek Balam Ruins

While inaccessible to visitors, dozens of funerary texts were discovered inside the tomb, both painted and carved. Among them is the Mural of the 96 Glyphs, an elaborate text which details Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’s ascent to the throne.

Visiting Ek Balam Ruins

Notably, despite being relatively close to Chichén Itzá, Ek Balam shows no traces of Toltec influence or that of any other Central Mexican culture.

Finished with admiring all the stucco artwork, it’s time to finish climbing the steep staircase to the top.

Visiting Ek Balam Ruins

After catching your breath, you can relax for a while to enjoy a clear view of the South Plaza off in the distance. Otherwise, it’s nothing but treetops in all directions, revealing how flat this part of the Yucatán Peninsula really is.

Visiting Ek Balam Ruins
Visiting Ek Balam Ruins
Visiting Ek Balam Ruins

Coming back down, you might want to walk around the entire structure. While there’s not much to see, it helps give an idea of how massive the Acropolis is and what a tremendous effort it would’ve taken to build.

Some of the smaller rooms at the base can also be accessed, though don’t expect to find much inside.

Visiting Ek Balam Ruins
Visiting Ek Balam Ruins

The X'canche Cenote

By now, you’ll likely find yourself covered in sweat, while more and more tourists will start arriving by late morning. Compared to sites like Chichén Itzá, visiting Ek Balam doesn’t take all that long, giving you plenty of time to enjoy a dip in the nearby X’canche Cenote.

While most Mayan ruins have a swimmable cenote within short driving distance, few feature them right on site. And that’s part of what makes visiting Ek Balam special. But as mentioned above, the cenote costs an extra $150 MXN or so on top of the standard entry ticket.

While technically walkable, your entry ticket includes the free use of a bicycle, and it’s a 5-10 minute ride along a dirt trail to reach the sinkhole.

Once you arrive, you can’t hop in the water just yet. You’ll be required to use the shower in the changing rooms first. Wearing sunscreen in the water is prohibited, as the chemicals could potentially harm the local fish and other organisms.

The lockers here don’t have locks, so you might want to bring your own. Otherwise, there’s ample space along the edge of the cenote to place your belongings and keep your eye on them while you swim.

Visiting Ek Balam Ruins
Visiting Ek Balam Ruins

Given the Yucatán Peninsula’s lack of rivers and lakes, these natural sinkholes were basically the only freshwater sources many Mayan cities had.

But they were also viewed as a link to Xibalbla, or the underworld, with many cenotes being used for ritualistic purposes. Within the Cenote Sagrado at Chichén Itzá, for example, numerous bodily remains were uncovered by archaeologists. Thankfully, that doesn’t seem to be the case with the X’canche Cenote!

Visiting Ek Balam Ruins

If you’ve arrived early enough at the ruins, you’ll be able to reach the cenote before it gets too crowded. Take your time here enjoying the beautiful blue waters and the natural waterfall before finding the return taxi for Valladolid.

Additional Info

The Ek Balam ruins can easily be visited from Valladolid, as the site is just about 25 km north of the city.

Finding transportation is easy, as regular shared taxis depart from Calle 44, just north of Calle 37 (about one block north and one block east of the main bus terminal).

As opposed to the colectivos for Chichén Itzá, these vehicles look like regular taxis instead of minivans.

Conveniently, the driver only waits for three passengers to get in before departure, so you shouldn’t have to wait very long. At the time of my visit, a one-way journey cost 60-70 pesos.

Getting a ride back to Valladolid should also be easy, as you’ll likely find a car waiting at the same spot where you got dropped off.

While I recommend most people base themselves in Valladolid and visit Chichén Itzá and Ek Balam on separate days, not everyone has the time. That’s where tours come in handy.

For those staying in Playa del Carmen, this highly-rated tour takes you to both archaeological sites along with a nearby cenote.

Those based in Cancún, meanwhile, may want to consider this tour to Ek Balam and a cenote (Chichén Itzá not included).

And if you’re already based in Valladolid and prefer the convenience of a tour, this one combines Ek Balam with nearby nature reserves where you can see flamingos and unique pink lakes.

Given its convenient location between the Rivera Maya and Chichén Itzá, Valladolid attracts a lot of visitors. And as such, the Pueblos Mágico contains plenty of accommodation options to choose from.

Popular mid-range options near the center of town include Hotel Casa Bamboo and Hotel Fundadores.

As a budget traveler who prefers a private room and bathroom, I found a great deal at Hostal 230 for an average of $314 MXN a night (including VAT). What’s more, is that breakfast is included as well. Looking back, this is the best value I found in all of eastern Mexico.

Even if you want to leave early to explore the ruins, they will give you lunch later when you come back. The place actually doubles as a local Chinese restaurant.

Valladolid is small, so pretty much everywhere is walkable. But I was happy to discover that Hostal 230 is only about a two-minute walk from the colectivo stop for Chichén Itzá, and only several minutes on foot to the shared taxis for Ek Balam.



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The best way to get to Valladolid is by bus. You’ll find direct routes connecting it with cities all over the Yucatán Peninsula, including Cancún, Mérida, Tulum and Playa del Carmen.

The main first-class bus terminal is the ADO Bus Station in the center of town. And just a block away is the lesser-known terminal of the Centro bus company, which also runs routes to Izamal.

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