Want to explore Mayan ruins near Tulum, but without the crowds? Here’s a everything you’d need to know about visiting the Ek Balam ruins.
Ek Balam is one of the least known Mayan archaeological sites in the Yucatan Peninsula. Despite being just an hour’s drive from Chíchén Itzá, Ek Balam receives far fewer tourists than Mexico’s poster child. Much of the ancient city still lies buried under layers of jungle growth; only one-tenth of the whole area has been excavated to reveal its well-preserved remnants.
Ek Balam offers such a different experience from other more well-known Mayan ruins such as Chíchén Itzá and Tulum ruins. You can still climb its pyramids to get a bird’s eye view of the surrounding jungle and many excavated structures have been kept in the original state that they were found. If you’re visiting Tulum, Cancun or the Riviera Maya, be sure to add Ek Balam to your Yucatan itinerary.
Here’s our detailed guide to visiting the Ek Balam ruins.
Table of Contents
- A Guide to the Ek Balam Ruins
- How Much Time to Visit Ek Balam?
- Do You Need a Tour?
- Where to Eat at Ek Balam Ruins
- Where to Stay near Ek Balam Ruins
- Enjoy exploring Ek Balam Ruins!
A Guide to the Ek Balam Ruins
Why Visit the Ek Balam Ruins?
The city’s name, Ek Balam, translates to “Black Jaguar” in the Yucatec Mayan language, suggesting a connection to this powerful and revered creature in Mayan mythology. During its peak, Ek Balam was a Mayan center of commerce, politics, and religion, serving as the capital of a regional kingdom.
Ek Balam was first discovered by the archaeologist Désiré Charnay during the late 1800s. However, it wasn’t until a century later that extensive excavation efforts started. The comprehensive mapping of the site unfolded primarily in the 1980s, followed by extensive research in the 1990s.
What sets the Ek Balam ruins apart from other Mayan ancient sites are its rare and original stucco sculptures. They have been immaculately preserved because the Maya deliberately buried the Acropolis, a strategic act that ensured the protection of both the stucco sculptures and the hieroglyphic inscriptions. These invaluable sculptures are now protected beneath modern thatched roofs on the Acropolis.
Can You Climb the Ek Balam Pyramids?
Yes. Ek Balam is one of the few Mayan ruins that still allows you to climb its pyramids. Ek Balam ruins are some of the tallest in the area, standing at 29m (95 feet) tall. From the highest point of the ruins, you’ll get a stunning view of the Yucatan Peninsula from above the treetops.
That said, it may not sound very high but it can be strenuous to climb the steep steps up to the top of the pyramids. You don’t need to be fit to do it, but those with vertigo might struggle a bit. There are no safety railings so make sure you hold on your kids. My 8-year-old had no problems climbing up and down the Ek Balam pyramids.
Ek Balam Facts
Ek Balam’s name is believed to come from the founder of the city. The ancient city gained huge importance as it became the capital of the Tah Empire and the commercial center of the region. It was inhabited from the year 300 AD until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the XVI century, but its most prosperous time was between the years 700 and 1000 AD.
It’s believed that during its years of splendor, Ek Balam was the most influential center of the zone and other towns paid their respects with tributes of all kinds. It reached a population of 20,000 inhabitants and a territory of 12km² (7.4 square miles). However, the archaeological site that’s open to the public represents what used to be the sacred space of the city.
Ek Balam Ruins Map
Here’s a map where you can see where the Ek Balam ruins are located and how they’re laid out.
How to Get to Ek Balam
The first thing you need to do is get to Valladolid, a pueblo mágico (magic town) in the Yucatan state. The town is within easy reach from popular beach towns like Cancun, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen.
It’s easy to rent a car and do a road trip in Yucatan, as many cenotes and archaeological sites can only be reached by car. I always book my car rental online on Discover Cars, as they have consistently given me the best prices and service.
- From Cancun — 2 hours (96 miles or 155km)
- From Playa del Carmen — 1h 35mins (87 miles or 140km)
- From Tulum — 1.5 hours (62 miles or 100km)
- From Merida — 1h 45 mins (99 miles or 160km)
If you can’t drive, the ADO Bus is a good alternative as it’s reliable and punctual. It connects all of the above towns with Valladolid. There are regular departures especially from Cancun and Tulum to Valladolid. But it’s best to book online in advance to ensure availability. Search for tickets here.
By Day Tour
Booking a day tour to Ek Balam from Mérida or Cancun can be a great idea if you want this experience to be as relaxed as possible. Most day tours also bring you to a few cenotes nearby (I’ll talk more about them below). These day tours include transportation, admission, and a guide in Ek Balam.
- From Valladolid: Half-day tour of Ek Balam + Cenote
- From Cancun: Full-day tour of Ek Balam + Cenote
- From Mérida: Full-day tour of Ek Balam + Valladolid
How to Get from Valladolid to Ek Balam
Once you get to Valladolid, Ek Balam ruins are just 20 minutes away. If you don’t have a car, it’s easy to take the colectivo (shared van) from the terminal between Calle 44 and 37 (which intersection is near the ADO bus terminal). You’ll find a parking lot where the drivers wait for passengers wanting to go to Ek Balam. It costs around 70 MXN (US$4) each person.
Be aware that the colectivos always wait to get full before leaving; they’ll also make plenty of stops along the way, so it can take longer than 20 minutes to get there. To go back, just wait for a colectivo from the same spot where you were dropped.
Ek Balam Entrance Fee
The following is the Ek Balam entrance fees for different people:
- Nationals: 211 MXN (US$12)
- International visitors: 531 MXN (US$29)
- Children under 12: 90 MXN (US$5)
- Additional charge for guided tour
On Sundays, it’s free for Mexican citizens and foreign residents of Mexico (as with all archaeological sites in Mexico). Avoid visiting on Sundays as it tends to be more crowded.
Ek Balam Hours
Ek Balam is open from 8 am to 5 pm, 365 days a year. The last access is at 4:00 pm.
Ek Balam ruins are not as crowded as other sites, but if you want to avoid any kind of crowds, arrive early so you can explore the ruins in tranquility before the groups of tourists coming from Cancun, Tulum or Merida arrive there. Honestly Ek Balam never gets crowded; on the three times I’ve been, I went in the afternoons and only saw a handful of tourists each time.
Best Time to Visit Ek Balam
The best season to visit Ek Balam is between January and March or between October and December. It’s always hot in Ek Balam, but during these months, it is less likely to rain. The coldest temperature during winter is 28°C (82°F) and the hottest temperature of the summer can be 35°C (95°F).
How Much Time to Visit Ek Balam?
A visit to Ek Balam can take around 3 hours, if you take your time to observe the structures and to enjoy the sights from up top of the temples. If you hire a tour guide, it will probably take around the same time. It’s not a massive archaeological site like Palenque or Teotihuacan, but take into account the time to climb up the pyramids and back down.
Do You Need a Tour?
At the entrance of Ek Balam ruins, you have the option of hiring a guide for an in-depth tour. A good guide can make a big difference. The Maya guide associations offer private, two-hour tours in English for 1300 MXN (US$65) starting at the main upper entrance. For a Spanish-speaking guide, the price is around 800 MXN (US$40) depending on group size.
If you are visiting Ek Balam without a guide, I highly recommend that you read up on the history behind the ruins before going as there is limited information inside the park.
Best Ek Balam Tours
Here’s a list of some great tours to the Ek Balam ruins. These tours all include transportation from your hotel and a certified guide; they also offer free cancellation.
- From Valladolid: Half-day tour of Ek Balam + Cenote
- From Valladolid: Full-day tour of Ek Balam + Rio Lagartos + Las Coloradas
- From Cancun: Full-day tour of Ek Balam + Cenote
- From Cancun: Full day tour of Ek Balam + Chichen Itza + Cenote
- From Mérida: Full-day tour of Ek Balam + Valladolid
Things to Do at Ek Balam
The Ek Balam ruins that are open to the public now represent what was the heart of the city back in the day. It was surrounded by a rock wall. There are 45 structures in the site, but there are some that stand out and are really worth seeing.
Climb the Acropolis
One of the most distinguishing features of Ek Balam is the Acropolis, the tallest pyramid in the ancient city. It served both ceremonial and administrative purposes. The Acropolis is known for its intricate stucco façade, featuring ornate sculptures and decorations. Among these decorations, the portrayal of the Mayan cosmos, gods, and rulers is particularly noteworthy.
Visit the Oval Palace
This is the second tallest structure of the zone and you can also climb it. Its shape makes it very different from other Mayan buildings. This used to be the temple and residence of the elite members of the community back then.
See the Twin Pyramids
In the center of the site, there are two identical pyramids. They’re not too tall, but they’re beautiful and very well preserved so you should definitely pop in for a visit.
Explore the Ball Court
Almost every Mayan archeological site has a ball court where they played the Mesoamerican ball game. This was an ancient sport where two teams tried to make a rubber ball cross a ring to win, kind of a combination of soccer and volleyball. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding this game, some say the captain of the losing team was sacrificed to the gods, but others say it was the captain of the winning team the one to be sacrificed, as it was an honor.
See the Sak Xoc Nah Chamber
The site’s most famous feature is the chamber known as Sak Xoc Nah, which translates to “White House of Reading”. It was the tomb of Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’, a powerful ruler who governed Ek Balam during the 8th century AD. The tomb, discovered within the Acropolis, contained a rich array of offerings and jewelry, providing valuable insights into Maya burial practices and social hierarchies.
Ek Balam Cenotes
Ek Balam is an important Mayan archeological site, not just for its history, but also for the surrounding nature. Located in the Northern Mayan lowlands, Ek Balam is enveloped by thick, virgin jungle and cenotes (natural sinkholes), some so close you can even walk to them from the archeological zone.
1. Cenote Xcanché
Located within Ek Balam, Cenote Xcanché is easily accessible from the carpark. We absolutely loved this cenote and spent three hours from splashing around here. It has a huge open natural pool with different shades of green and blue, surrounded by 15m(49ft)-high rock walls covered with plants. You can even fly across the top of the cenote on the zipline. Entry is not included in your ticket.
2. Cenote Suytun
You’ve most likely seen the photo of Cenote Suytun on social media: a ray of sunlight pours through a hole in the cave, lighting up the stalactites that hang from the ceiling and the turqoise water that floods up the cave. Of all the cenotes I’ve been, Cenote Suytun is certainly the most photogenic. It’s just a 35-minute drive from Ek Balam.
Read my guide to Cenote Suytun.
3. Cenote Hubiku
This is one of the most impressive and renowned cenotes in the area. It stands out for having an open ceiling which allows natural light to showcase its bight turquoise waters. The view of the sky, the roots slithering down the walls and the color of the water is a view that will mesmerize you.
3. Cenote Xcanahaltun
This beautiful cenote with crystal-clear waters will make you feel like you’re at the Mayan underworld. The water can be a little cold, but you can also use a kayak to explore the cave.
4. Cenote X´Kekén
The way the sunlight enters Cenote X’keken through the roof and reflects on the water gives it a majestic look that contrasts the meaning of its name (which means “pig” in Yucatec Mayan). The water is not too deep and you can even see some fishes; it’s ideal for swimming.
Where to Eat at Ek Balam Ruins
The closest restaurant to the Ek Balam archeological site would be the one at Cenote Xcanché, which offers traditional Mexican food at a great price. You can eat a set of three quesadillas for 80 MXN (US$4) and beer for USD$2.
Another option is going back to Valladolid after visiting the ek Balam ruins and eating in one of their many delicious restaurants. Here are our recommendations for restaurants to try in Valladolid:
- Meson del Marques is our favorite place to eat in Valladolid. This landmark restaurant is a go-to for both locals and visitors. It’s a great spot to try Yucatan regional dishes like panuchos de cochinita (fried tortilla with pulled pork).
- Casa Conato Cultural 1910 is another place we really enjoyed. The yard offers alfresco dining amidst a lush garden and an eclectic mix of ornaments and artwork. On weekend nights, you’ll find Mexican live music playing here.
- Restaurante El Atrio del Mayab has a nice lush backyard with great cocktails. The food is fine, but overpriced in my opinion. Just come for drinks to enjoy the gorgeous atmosphere.
- Ix Cat Ik Mayan Cuisine is a unique place to learn about Mayan staples and try some typical Mayan dishes. It’s not a fancy restaurant in any way, just a simple place that hones in using traditional Mayan ingredients and cooking methods.
Where to Stay near Ek Balam Ruins
The closest place to stay near the Ek Balam ruins is Valladolid. The archeological site doesn’t offer accommodation, but Valladolid offers many options you can pick according to your needs. Here’s a list of some ideas.
UNIQUE: Hotel Zentik Project and Saline Cave
This hotel has Mayan-style cabins, murals featuring the art of local and international artists, a restaurant and bar, a pool with hammocks, and most importantly, an indoor sea-water pool in a cave. Check rates here.
Luxury: IMIX Hotel
This gorgeous colonial house in the center of Valladolid has been converted into a hotel and it features a beautiful decoration in its wide and clean rooms with breakfast included. Check rates here.
Luxury: Le Muuch Hotel
This boutique hotel offers an excellent service with an indoor pool and an outdoor pool with hammocks. The rooms have an air conditioner and a view of the gardens. It has a restaurant and a bar. Check rates here.
Mid Range: Real Haciendas
A small and charming hotel with a beautiful pool and quiet vibes, and clean rooms with king-size beds. Check rates here.
Budget: Hostal Candelaria
The best economic option in Valladolid. A picturesque hostel in the center of the town, with a garden, a bicycle rental service, and breakfast included. Check rates here.
Visiting Ek Balam Ruins with Kids
The Ek Balam ruins give kids a chance to see Mayan history up close and learn how ancient Mayan rulers used to govern their people. It’s plenty of fun for outdoorsy kids, climbing the pyramids is particularly fun for them, but watch them carefully as there are no safety railings.
If you’re visiting Ek Balam with younger kids, I suggest carrying them in a sling or hiking carrier. It would be a pain to transport tiny toddlers in a stroller on the rocky, earthy trails. Pack lots of water, hat, and maybe an umbrella for kids who don’t do well in the sun.
The cenotes near Ek Balam are also great fun for kids to splash around and play in.
What to Pack for Ek Balam
Ek Balam is in the middle of the jungle and the weather can get very hot and humid. Don’t forget to bring a water bottle, insect repellant, a hat and sunscreen for your day of exploring the Ek Balam ruins. For a whole day of exploring and walking, comfortable walking shoes are recommended.
The walking isn’t too difficult as it’s mostly flat. You won’t need hiking boots. I wore my Teva sandals for the whole day and they were fine. Climbing the pyramids can be tedious, but absolutely doable for people of all ages — my daughter loves climbing pyramids!
Here’s the list of what I packed/wore:
- Teva sandals
- Hiking t-shirt
- Hiking shorts
- Lightweight daypack
- Power bank
- Sunscreen – SFP50+ if possible
- Wide-rimmed hat
- Water bottle (2 liters)
Rules at Ek Balam Ruins
The Ek Balam Ruins are a protected UNESCO world heritage site, in order to maintain the archaeological park, here’s a list of rules:
- Smoking is not allowed anywhere within the park.
- Stay within the designated areas and entering the restricted areas is not allowed.
- You can climb and enter some of the pyramids, however, depending on the current regulations.
- Picking or cutting down any of the vegetation are not allowed within park premises.
- Do not litter in the park.
- Do not feed the wild animals.
- Do not graffiti, touch, lean or sit on any archaeological monument.
- Drones and unauthorized filming for commercial purposes are not allowed.
Final Tips for Visiting Ek Balam Ruins
- Take plenty of water and snacks with you. There is only one small shop selling cold drinks in outside the main entrance of the archaeological site, just make sure the bottled drinks are sealed before opening them.
- Wear sunscreen, a hat, and comfortable shoes – it gets hot!
- Be careful when you’re climbing the pyramids, some steps are rocky and uneven.
- You will need cash for the entrance fees, so make sure to bring some Mexican Pesos with you.
- Make sure to plan enough time to visit the cenotes nearby.
Enjoy exploring Ek Balam Ruins!
Thank you for reading this far. If you have any questions on the Ek Balam ruins, please leave them in the comments below and I will be happy to reply to any questions you have.
While you’re in Ek Balam, make sure you take the opportunity to explore the nearby Cobá archaeological site, another one of the best Mayan ruins in Mexico. You can easily combine the two with Chíchen Itzá and spend a few nights in Valladolid as part of your Yucatan road trip. This part of the Yucatan Peninsula is very different from the coast and offers an amazing experience for those who love adventure and authenticity.
Read my articles on Mexico below:
- 15 Best Mayan Ruins in Mexico
- Palenque Ruins: My Guide to the Chiapas Pyramids
- Monte Alban: My Guide to the Oaxaca Pyramids
- Visiting Teotihuacan: Mexico City Pyramids
- How to Get to Chichen Itza
- Tulum Travel Guide
- 30 Things to Do in Playa del Carmen
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