Destinations Mexico North America

Valladolid and the Mayan ruins of Ek’Balam

Valladolid is a small but historically important pueblo located in the middle of the upright thumb that is the peninsula of southeastern Mexico. It is a city of low pastel-coloured villas and wide streets fielding one-way traffic.

Valladolid boasts a proud history as Mexico’s ‘ciudad heroica‘ (Heroic City), representing itself as the spark that ignited both the Caste War (when the indigenous populations rose up against the Spanish) and the war for Mexican independence.

The high but pretty stone cathedral gracing the central plaza was built from remnants of Mayan ruins, as were many of the surrounding houses.

On arrival in town, as I wandered past a colectivo headquarters, a taxi driver called out: ‘Ek’Balam?’.

I had vaguely heard of these lesser-known ruins and their relative anonymity compared to the larger sites of Chichen Itza, Tulum and Uxmal intrigued me. So with little preparation, I hopped in a taxi with two strangers and was driven out into the jungle.

My day-visit to the seaside ruins of Tulum from Cancun was an overpriced and touristy nightmare. The crowds of ignorant fleeting visitors just like myself prevented the imagination from exploring the wonders of this site during its hey-day, its collapse and its rediscovery.


Ek’Balam was something different, something unexpected. Its name, meaning ‘Black Jaguar’, supposedly comes from the Mayan leader who was responsible for the city’s existence. The place flourished between 700 and 1000AD but the jungle, once cleared by excavators, now creeps back into the stonework.

The centrepiece is a palatial structure named the Acropolis, rising 30 metres. At 146m long and with six levels, this is where the city’s elite lived. You could climb scarily steep stairs to the top of the pyramid, enabling a close and personal study of the reliefs and carvings on the buildings around the stairs.

The peak of the pyramid towered above the surrounding low-lying forest, enabling one to see the ironed landscape as far as the horizon in all directions, with the various other temples poking through the canopy.

ek balam

The ruins of Ek’Balam are a short drive from Valladolid

My stay in Valladolid consisted of lazy meandering about the streets, ducking into kitsch souvenir shops selling flashy sombreros, salt and pepper shakers in the shape of a traditional Mexican couple, trinkets of the Mayan calendar and endless rows of tequila, or else into a taqueria to hide from the sun and sup on delicious tacos al pastor or tortas.

My fears of becoming fat off Colombian food would have been waylaid had I known the temptations of Mexican tucker ahead of me. I stayed there three nights, and could have easily stayed longer had not the sirens of the road called me onwards.

For more Mexican inspiration

Mexico is a captivating country with a wealth of things to do and see. Here are just a few ideas:

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