Ek Balam

6 Months in Central America



My Final Mayan Ruin: Palenque

After Mirador I had one ruin left that I felt I had to see: Palenque.

For weeks I’d heard travelers talk about the allure of Palenque, a ruin whose jungle location and restored structures earned it top ratings. At this point I had already seen Teotihuacan, Tulum, Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, Uxmal, Tikal, and El Mirador – I was pretty much “ruined out,” as people say, but told myself to push through for this final one.

So back to Mexico I went, and in the mosquito-ridden jungle heat I stayed, to see what all the fuss was about.

As so often happens, Palenque deserved the hype. Most of the ancient city is still covered by jungle, so wandering through the site feels like being part of an expedition. While there is a main uncovered square around which large temples and the palace stand, impressive in scale and design, it was the less crowded side temples and houses that I more enjoyed discovering. Buildings were scattered around, hidden by trees or up a stone staircase. A side group of temples had a fantastic view out over the main square and to the jungle beyond. I sat up there for a while, contemplating my final Mayan site and all the other ones I’d been to.

Palenque was that same appealing mixture of wild jungle and restored buildings that Tikal was, but the sheer mass of tourists, even within the first hour it was open, and stalls selling kitchy trinkets were distracting like at Chichen Itza. It’s the only ruin in Mexico in the jungle, setting it apart for most tourists, but I had just come from five days in the jungle at Mirador plus Tikal before that, so this typical fascination was lost on me. It was, however, the only one I saw with a river running through it that led to a beautiful waterfall, which made the walk to exit uniquely gorgeous. I appreciated being able to climb up and wander through most of its buildings, especially the expansive palace, reminiscent of Tikal and Uxmal but better due to how much was open to explore. In the end, I ranked Palenque second in my Pre-Columbian ruins tour.

What is the final ranking, you ask?

  1. Tikal
  2. Palenque
  3. Uxmal
  4. Ek Balam
  5. Tulum
  6. Chichen Itza

I purposefully left out El Mirador and Teotihuacan: El Mirador because it’s so unlike the others, it’s more of a jungle exploration than a visit to a ruin, and Teotihuacan because it’s not Mayan. I realize I put the New Wonder of the World last, but I suppose I just wasn’t as impressed as whoever comes up with those rankings.

I was in Palenque for just one night. I opted to spend my night in the town of Palenque instead of the more popular backpacker choice of El Panchan. I had had enough of the jungle by the time I got there and wanted to be near the bus station. The town itself is nothing special, although it does have some very delicious gringas (tacos with cheese), and was sadly uneventful for Day of the Dead. On a return journey to Palenque a week later (I’ll explain how that happened soon) I actually saw El Panchan so I can now recommend staying there instead of town, as long as you’re in the mood for some jungle time.

Since I was there on a Monday the museum was unfortunately closed, so my time at the Zona Arqueologica was done by noon. Anxious to get to San Cristobal, I got on a 2 pm bus out of town. A short but necessary visit, beautiful Palenque was a good way to close out my Mayan exploration.

Valladolid, Chichen Itza, and Ek Balam

When I left Tulum I felt ready to launch into a couple of weeks of moving around to see the sites of Mexico. This would start in Valladolid.

The point of going to Valladolid was its proximity to Mayan ruins, primarily Chichen Itza, one of the New Wonders of the World. What I discovered when I got there was a charming colorful town with a laid back attitude. I was surprised by my instant fondness of this place and joy at simply wandering the streets on my first day. I also knew once I checked into the Hostel La Candelaria that I would extend my stay to two nights. With varied hangout spaces both indoors and out and a great included breakfast that changed every day it was the kind of place I was happy to come home to.

But I was there to see Chichen Itza, so I woke up at 7 am to catch the beginning of breakfast and the earliest collectivo I could get myself to. I joined together with two American girls and a German guy from the hostel, and by 9 am we were at Chichen Itza. Going early is the best advice I can give you – it was not crowded at all, the sun wasn’t strong enough to make it oppressively hot like it would be by noon, and the vendors hadn’t totally set up yet so we weren’t bothered to buy things the whole time. Once the tour buses showed up at 11 the entire experience changed and it became a market place. Everywhere we went stalls were selling the same kitschy things for “cheaper than Walmart, almost free!”

We took our time exploring the site, which had more buildings than I anticipated. It’s most known for El Castillo, the giant perfectly constructed pyramid. It has 90 stairs on each side, totaling 365 to coordinate with the Mayan sun calendar. On the spring and autumn equinoxes, the position of the sun creates a mystical effect, casting a shadow on the stairs that looks like a serpent. It was impressive – although we were disappointed that we couldn’t climb it – but it’s one of those sites that looks just like the pictures. Exploring the whole place was interesting but I couldn’t shake a feeling of neutrality towards it. I knew it wouldn’t be my favorite ruin.

The next morning I went to the other main ruin in the area, Ek Balam, and actually liked it more than Chichen Itza. It’s quieter, still surrounded by jungle, and you can climb up everything. I was earlier than tour groups again except for one, which at first was a disappointment but ended up being a great coincidence. For whatever reason, this tour guide was friendly to me and actually invited me to come along with them. Free tour! Why not? He was a great guide – I learned a lot about Ek Balam and the Mayan culture then and now.

For example, Ek Balam got its name from a local jungle inhabitant: Black Jaguar. Ek means black, balam means jaguar. The romance languages would put the descriptor, black, after the noun, jaguar, so it would be jaguar black, or balam ek. But Mayan language is structured liked the English language, with the adjective preceding the noun, so it is black jaguar. Because of this, children who grow up with the Mayan language learn English easier.

Having seen Ek Balam and Chichen Itza, as well as the lovely town of Valladolid, I felt satisfied with my time there and ready to go. I jumped on an afternoon bus bound for Merida.

One last thing about Valladolid – it ended up having a major effect on my trip trajectory. The people I met at my hostel there turned into my travel buddies for at least the next two locations, and they probably will continue to be for the rest of my time in Mexico. I’ll let you know once we get there.