Exploring the Mayan Ruins of Ek Balam and the Cenote Maya

Lindsay Salt and husband rapelling into a cenote near El Balam (Photo: Vancouver Sun)

We’d come to Mexico’s sunny Yucatan Peninsula not only to relax and unwind but also to experience some of the local culture. We decided to take a small group tour to the latest archeological discovery, Ek Balam, followed by a visit to the Cenote Maya, one of the Yucatan’s biggest vaulted sinkholes (cenotes).

After about an hour’s journey from Playa del Carmen along a highway lined with palm and kapok trees, we reached Ek Balam (“Black Jaguar” in the Mayan language). In this predominantly flat terrain, the crumbling ruins of cities, temples and pyramids once proudly ruled by god-like emperors still rise above the jungle canopy. Our guide Irvine tells us that the native bedrock was porous limestone and that below the surface lay a fascinating subterranean world of underground rivers, caves and sacred water-filled cenotes. These deep natural wells were first formed when a giant asteroid crashed into the earth many millennia ago.

Lindsay Salt poses in front of Ek Balam. DAVID GRIMBLE

To reach the heart of Ek Balam we walked along an unpaved forested trail to what remains of the defensive walls. From around 700‑900 A.D. Ek Balam was a thriving capital city which over time became lost to the jungle.

Much restoration, reconstruction and renovation was carried out 20 years ago. Today the central portion (1.5 sq. km.) is open to the public.

We followed Irvine up the steep ramp to the entrance gate with its triangular‑shaped archway. Soon we arrived at the Oval Palace whose large limestone blocks were cemented together using a local form of stucco. In Mayan times the temple was covered with red and blue coloured plaster. The red dye was produced from the seeds of the achiote plant. The blue dye came from aňil, the wild indigo plant.

In its heyday 200 to 500 elite citizens lived within the city’s walls while about 5,000 commoners resided beyond their protection. Today, tourists wander the grounds intent on learning the history of this ancient civilization.

The Acropolis DAVID GRIMBLE

Central to the rectangular arena is a long narrow playing field. On either side rise sloping walls atop which are viewing platforms.  At the midpoint on each side, a large donut-shaped stone circle was positioned several metres above the ground.

Irvine explained the ceremonial game played here comprised 2-5 warriors who aimed to score a goal by hitting a heavy hard rubber soccer-sized ball through the stone hoop using neither hands nor feet.  Only the upper arms, thighs or hips kept the ball in motion.  This game was a highlight of Mayan life and had its origins in native mythology. The first team to score was declared champion and their glorious reward was the honorary sacrifice of that team’s captain.

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