On the rush to visit the popular Mayan ruin names like Chichen Itza or Uxmal, many visitors to the Yucatán miss out on the smaller Mayan ruins scattered throughout the Peninsula.
These smaller ruins offer a more intimate experience, and are usually free from tour groups. If you only have one chance during your visit to get off the beaten track, I suggest you take a trip to the Mayan ruins of Ek' Balam.
The importance of Ek' Balam, which means "Black Jaguar" in Yucatec Mayan, is only beginning to come to light. It was just recently that archeologists began to look seriously at these ruins. The discovery of "El Trono," the best known example of a Mayan stucco frieze, instantly heightened the significance of this location. The site consists of 45 structures, though you will only see about 10 during your visit. As the restoration efforts continue, these sites will no doubt grow in number.
Ek' Balam's importance peaked around 800 A.D., even though it was founded centuries earlier. The most significant structure at the site is the Acropolis. It holds the tomb of Ukit Lel Kan Tok, who was the ruler of Ek' Balam at the height of its power. Located north of the entrance, the Acropolis is instantly recognizable by its thatched roofs. Towering high above the trees, it's said that on a clear day you can see the Mayan ruins of Coba and Chichen Itza from the top — and feel free to march right on up. Just make sure to stop and check out "El Trono" on your way, which will be under the second thatched roof to your left. All structures at Ek' Balam are open for people to climb and enjoy. Across from the Acropolis, you'll find other larger ruins, such as the Ballcourt, Oval Palace and "Twin Pyramids."
Despite being a bit out of the way, Ek' Balam is definitely worth a visit, and it can easily be combined with a trip to Rio Lagartos. Because Ek' Balam has very few visitors, if you do choose to hire a guide, it may turn into your own private tour of the ruins. Just don't forget the water and bug repellent!
Ek' Balam is easily reached from the town of Valladolid, located 30 km south of the ruins. If you don't have your own car, just hire a taxi to take you. Taxis usually wait for fares around the main square. It should cost around 300 pesos for a taxi to take you there, wait and return you to Valladolid. Exploring the ruins will only take between one to two hours.