Out Of The Archives:
Ek Balam: The Black Jaguar

Originally published in 2005.

‘Why would I want to see Ek Balam?’, I asked one of the guys who was staying at the hostel in Merida. This ancient Maya archaeological site is barely mentioned in even the latest up to date information on The Yucatan and I had missed it back when I was in Valladolid. Already in Merida, it was my intention to move in a forward circular motion on the peninsula, counting my losses on a trip that was too short and moving much too fast for me.

‘The Maya Angel’, was his reply. ‘The only example of of one found so far is in Ek Balam on The Acropolis.’, he continued.

His words stuck in the back of my brain as I made my way from Merida to Tulum. After seeing the Tulum ruins and Coba, I still had a bit of time on my hands. One morning I woke up and thought, ‘I could lay around on the beach all day today, or I could go on an adventure and make it to Ek Balam.’

I wasn’t exactly sure how to go about getting to Ek Balam from Tulum, but I knew how to get to Valladolid.

The local bus was a two hour ride to Valladolid from Tulum Pueblo, and from Valladolid I had heard that it was possible to take a colectivo or a taxi to and from Ek Balam. A family riding on the same bus as I were making the same journey, so we joined forces on finding a taxi to split the cost. Since I had been to Valladolid before, I knew where we might find a car with a driver, and with my new family in tow, we went looking. It took quite a few tries, asking up and down the street for a colectivo or taxi to Ek Balam. Everyone sent us somewhere else in a different direction going up and down the street, or pricing outrageous fees for a one-way trip. We finally found a man named David, a Maya taxi driver, who would not only take us there, but he would wait for us to walk the site and bring us back to town, for a very reasonable price.

In 2005, Ek Balam is a well-kept secret but its name is becoming increasingly known. Uncovered only in the last eight years, the site is remarkably well put together. Because the archeologists started working on the site in 1997, I was not expecting so many buildings to be rebuilt or to see so many people working as we walked around, discovering things for ourselves. Gardeners taking a break from the heat, sat under the trees with their lunches. Archaeology students dug clay pottery shards out of a carefully made hole as I watched.

Because there was no real printed documentation on the site made available yet, we walked around blindly, guessing at what the buildings had been used for. The beautiful arched entryway was obvious, as was the thick wall that looked like it surrounded the city. They were there for security. The Ball Court was there. The Acropolis was the largest building, one of the very few that I actually climbed while I was hunting down ancient Maya antiquities – because up there was where I would find the Maya Angel.

I looked at the steps of The Acropolis with trepidation. They were designed for small feet which meant they were narrow, and made of limestone, which meant they were slippery. My shoes had a good tread, but that didn’t make me any less cautious. I began my climb, my water bottle thunking at each step that I gained. As the steps narrowed even further, I made the decision to climb up the stairs like a cat, on all fours. It actually felt safer to climb this way and I felt more steady and balanced. As I climbed, I gained a cheering section of one – one of the Maya excavators sat on a ledge and urged me to climb. I’m sure he was calling me the Maya equivalent of ‘sissy’ and encouraging me with Maya taunts, but they got me up there, right where I wanted to be.

When I got to the level of The Acropolis that holds the Maya Angel, I took one look at the wall of sculpture and immediately my heart sank. It was spectacular, but I was sure it was a fake – how could it not be? It was too perfect. It was also like nothing I had seen previously at any of the other sites. The angel didn’t look to be sculpted from stone. It looked as if it had been sculpted out of plaster then sandblasted. I let my disappointment show and the man who had goaded me up the stairs then told me that the wall was in its original state, as it had been found. It was modeled stucco, and it was hundreds of years old. Suddenly what I was viewing went from questionable to spectacular!

Behind this modeled stucco facade sat the tomb of Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’, Ek Balam’s most venerated ancestor. From reading some of what little has been written about this archaeological site, it sounds like the skeleton of Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’ was found in the burial chamber behind this facade, complete with offerings and human sacrifices.

The central motif of the facade is an open jawed monster with large teeth. The facade is covered with life size Maya figures, one of them being The Angel, animals, and geometric designs. One figure is sitting in the lotus position. Another sitting figure is headless, with his head sitting in his lap.

My new found family and I descended The Acropolis and made our way around the rest of the site. I stopped to talk to the student archaeologist digging in front of The Oval Palace. We talked a little bit about the site. She didn’t speak English so we made do with my Spanish, such as it is. I asked her when she thought the large, as-of-yet-unexcavated mound might be worked on and she replied that the only thing that was holding up excavation at Ek Balam was financial support. She showed me a few pottery shards that they had just dug up that morning. A man joined our conversation and he decided that it might be helpful for me if he translated what she said about their digging. Except that he translated from Spanish, into Spanish, basically repeating what she was saying. After a few translations, we all had a good laugh. Especially so because the man didn’t realize what he was doing.

When we left the site, our driver David was waiting for us. He asked us if we found Ek Balam interesting and we all replied ‘Yes!’ We asked him what he thought of the site and he replied with a surprising ‘I’ve never seen it!’. The man drives to Ek Balam countless times a week and he has never seen this site, a site from the history of his own culture. Facepalming ourselves, we then said in unison, ‘We should have taken you with us!’. David chuckled showing his shiny gold teeth. ‘I’d rather have my siesta …’

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