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 …’
The bus from Tulum dropped me off at a cafe in the middle of Cobá, a town with more of a beginning and an end, and not much of a middle. Asking the young man sitting at the bus ticket table in which direction I should walk to get to the ruins, he pointed straight ahead to the far end of town. So, I followed his finger and that’s the way I went.
To find my way to the ruins, I first found Lake Cobá, the waters stirred by the wind that gives the city its name, then followed the signs that led me into the jungle. Once inside the archaeological site the first thing I saw was a large area of bicycles for rent. After I finished my day of hiking through Cobá, along its long, wide, and flat paths, I thought that seeing Cobá the next time with a bicycle might just be a good idea.
But this time I wanted to walk, and I by the end of it all, I was glad I did. Cobá is a beautiful, rustic, site that has barely begun its restoration. Many of its buildings remain as a heap of rocks covered in vegetation and trees. The groups of buildings that have been restored are sometimes more than a kilometer apart, connected by sacbes, or white roads. Built out of raised limestone, these roads and pathways were usually one to three meters above ground and anywhere from three to twenty meters wide. The Maya did not take advantage of the wheel the way other cultures of the world did, so their roads were made mainly for walking and for ceremonial uses. So far, about forty of these roads have been discovered, connecting different sections of Cobá and also connecting Cobá with other Maya cities. Walking them gave me a sense of walking in a purposefully planned urban area.
I had no plan. Walking randomly through the site, people on bicycles and bicycle taxis slowly passed me by. Most were following the signs to Nohoch Mul, The Great Pyramid. On that path I met a beautiful Maya man who drove a bicycle taxi. He was leaning against a wall under the shade of a tree, the taxi parked beside him. In a ploy to get me to hire him as my taxi driver, he flashed a wide brilliant white smile at me and said that I would never find Nohoch Mul if I walked alone through the forest. When I insisted on walking, he then insisted that I couldn’t leave until I could pronounce the words Nohoch Mul correctly. My first lesson in the Mayan language commenced.
Nohoch means big, large, old, which is derived from the Maya word noh which means large and -Vch (och) which works as an intensifier, like very large or largest. Mul means mound or hill, specifically a man-made one.
When he was satisfied that my language and inflection skills had significantly improved, I was ‘permitted’ to continue on my way, to walk the paths of Coba.
Through the jungle and down the wide paths I walked. Iguanas and little lizards sunned themselves as I took photographs of the stones. Birds could be heard through the forest. The trees provided some shade from the heat, even though it was a kind of lightly overcast day. Walking down the paths, buildings made themselves known as they appeared through the trees. Complete clearings were not to be found.
I found Conjunto Las Pinturas, The Paintings Group, called so because of the remnants of murals found inside the temple. The collection of stelae in The Macanxoc Group, which were surrounded by the mounds of unexcavated buildings covered in trees and jungle vegetation, were beautiful with their worn, but still barely visible, sculpted pictorial scenes and descriptions. Exploring The Cobá Group came last, which included the very high La Iglesia and The Ball Court.
Later, towards the end of my walk through the ruins, I saw my first true Maya nose on an actual live person. I couldn’t help myself, I had to stop and watch the man’s profile for awhile as he was having a conversation with someone else. How rude I must have seemed. Hopefully they didn’t even notice me. Up until this point in my travels in the Yucatan, I had always thought that the facial feature of the Maya nose, the ones depicted in the carvings on the walls and in drawings, were an exaggeration, going along with the exaggerated musculature of the Maya body depicted in paintings. But no, there one stood, in perfect profile, directly in front of me. The man’s profile was quite beautiful and extraordinary.
Unfortunately though, the bike-taxi driver was right. I never did find Nohoch Mul that day, with my meandering going off course down every little path, and my fascination with everything else I found along the way. But missing it gives me the opportunity to go back another day, to walk the paths and listen to the forest, to climb The Great Pyramid, and maybe get another lesson in Maya.