Mexico: Ek Balam & Cenote X’Canche

Before going to Mexico, we were trying to get a game plan for what we’d do while there.  For archaeological sites, we had decided on Chichen Itza (of course), Tulum (we were staying there anyway), Coba (for the bikes), and Muyil (to see the Sian Ka’an).  Four ruins, eight days, that seemed to make sense to us.

We decided had room for one more though, and added Ek Balam to the list after reading about the astounding stucco frieze at the site.

From Valladolid, drive north on 295 out of the city, and continue for maybe 20 minutes.  You’ll see signs for Ek Balam, turn right, and simply follow those signs.  If you’re expecting the crowds and parking lots of Tulum and Chichen Itza, you might feel like you took a wrong turn.  Don’t worry, you’re on the right track.  Ek Balam is just a little more low key than the others.

Trust me, they’re missing out.

Ek Balam

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Ek Balam from the top of the Oval Palace.  You can see the “Twins” (two sets of stairways and towers) on the left, and the ball court in the center, towards the back of the photo.  The main temple, referred to as ‘El Trono” is in the far back of the picture.

After following the little dirt road off of 295, you’ll come to the parking lot for Ek Balam.  We visited on a rather cloudy, dreary day.  There were a few small groups touring the site, but otherwise, we had the site mostly to ourselves.

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Ek Balam is smaller than some of the other sites we explored on this trip, but you are allowed to climb on the ruins here, unlike Tulum and Chichen Itza.  I loved Coba and Ek Balam for the hands on exploration.  Climbing on the ruins definitely offers a different experience from just walking alongside them.  Hiking all over the ruins, ironically, gives you a better respect and understanding of the Mayan structures.  As long as folks are respectful and use common sense, I hope this approach continues for a long time.

The highlight of Ek Balam is without a doubt the stucco frieze I mentioned earlier.  As you can see below, it was undergoing some maintenance while we were there, so the picture doesn’t quite convey the sight.  But let me tell you, it’s amazing.  To think, this plaster was carved over 1,000 years ago.  The whole wall is actually an ornate carving and doorway into the tomb of an ancient Mayan king.  Of course, you can’t go in, but the doorway is carved in the shape of a mouth, probably a jaguar.  You can see the tips of the bottom teeth on the bottom right of the picture below.

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The platform with the stucco frieze is about half way up the EL Trono stairway.  Continuing upward, you’re greeted with a beautiful view of the surrounding jungle and the other structures.  If you’re afraid of heights, you might get a bit nervous on the climb down.  It really isn’t too bad though, so try and tough it out for the view.  If you can’t get all the way to the top, at least go to the halfway point, so you’re able to examine the stucco frieze with your own eyes.

Nothing out of the ordinary is needed for Ek Balam.  Bring some good hiking boots or sneakers, just like at all the archaeological sites in the Yucatan, and you’ll be good to go!  We weren’t bothered by bugs too much, but on a sunny day you may need some sunscreen and insect repellant.

Cenote X’Canche

The Mayan archaeological zones and the cenotes throughout the Yucatan go hand in hand, every site seems to have its own cenote nearby.  To be fair, this makes a lot of sense.  Cenotes were a fresh of source water for the Mayans, and were thought to be the gates to the spirit world (TL;DR – cenotes were important to the Mayans).  Naturally, we had to stop by Cenote X’Canche before heading back out on the road to Cancun.  Ek Balam didn’t take more than two hours, so we wound up walking the path to the cenote around 10AM, having arrived at the site just as it opened at 8AM.  The dirt road is only about a mile to the cenote.  There are pedi-cabs for hire if you’re tired, but the walk is very peaceful.  If you have the time and stamina, save a couple pesos and enjoy the foliage.  We were the only ones walking down at that time of day, shaded by the flora on either side.  The giant grasshoppers buzzed overhead and butterflies crossed our path with every step we took.  Upon arriving, we paid the entrance fee (60 pesos for the three of us, or under $4 USD), and the kiddo and I hopped into the changing rooms to get our swim trunks on.

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The path to Cenote X’Canche was completely empty.

A small path, and some very narrow stairs lead down to the cenote.  When we got to the water, I was pleasantly surprised to find that we were the only folks there.  Get there early on a weekday, and I’m sure you’ll find the same.  Wait a minute before jumping in.  Take in the surreal green water, the black catfish ambling around the edges of the water, the birds darting in and out of their cave nests overhead.

Taking advantage of the nearby rope swing, I had the honors of breaking the surface of the water for the first time that day.  My travel companions followed me in, and we found peace swimming after the little catfish throughout the cenote and simply listening to the sounds of the surrounding jungle.

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Cenote X’Canche.  From right to left:  life jackets and inner tubes, stairway entrance, rope swing, plank bridge across a narrow portion of the cenote,  second entrance, and the cave – home to a hundred or more small birds.

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Cenote X’Canche also has inner tubes and life jackets for rent, 20 pesos each.  Smaller than Cenote Ik Kil, it feels deceptively large, with the lack of tour buses dropping off visitors here.  The cenote looks murky from above, but then you jump in and realize that the water is actually beautifully clear.  You still can’t see the bottom though, and suddenly you’re aware of the depth of the water.  The little catfish don’t seem to mind though.  We took our cues from them, and enjoyed our time there.

Next stop was Cancun!

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