We are game to be drawn into the world of Mayan mythology
The most outstanding part of Ek Balam, the Mayan archeological site overshadowed by nearby Chichen Itza, has to be the teeth of a giant monster carved into the dominating pyramid, known as the Acropolis.
They are part of the intricately carved stones surrounding the entrance to the tomb of King Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’, who is believed to have founded the city 1,200 years ago. You can see it all and take photos if you are game to climb the steep stairs to the top of the structure almost 30 metres high.
And we are game to be drawn into the complex world of Mayan mythology. Despite a steady drizzle, the steps are not slippery and my wife Stephanie and I scramble up stopping at a couple of terraces to inspect the carvings of snakes, monkeys and other creatures of Mayan mythology. The giant teeth may well represent those of a jaguar.
Mayan mythology is a complex world and I do not pretend to understand a whole lot about it nor of the nomenclature – post classic this and pre classic that – of the various eras in which the Mayan cities were constructed.
But there is a sense of wonder in imagining what life was like when people lived here under strict rules and credos.
Some of it was brutal with human sacrifice a major feature, but we have heard during a tour of Chichen Itza that the people were well drugged and possibly thinking that death was the transition to a better place.
Nevertheless, the creativity and technology that went into creating the Mayan cities are undeniable.
And those features always astound us.
Astrology played a large role in the lives of the Maya and the base of the Acropolis, 480 feet long, was built on an east-west axis, as determined by the compass on my iPhone, which was not part of the technology at that time.
Ek Balam was discovered overgrown by the jungle long after Chichen Itza, 70 kilometres away, and excavation began in the 1980s. The south side of the Acropolis has been laid bare, but the jungle still rules on the north side and there is much more restoration to be done.
It’s fair to wonder exactly what will be found on the north side – just a hill of rock and trees now – when you look at the intricate façade of the south side covered with thatched roofs to protect it from the elements. The challenge of the restoration is daunting.
There are other piles of rock and jungle on the site, signs of more structures waiting to be uncovered, as work progresses on restoring the city.
More than a dozen have been restored and visitors clambered over them at will on the day we visited.
There are higher pyramids in the archeological sites of the Yucatan, but the summit of the Acropolis – it also goes by other names – with its tiny platform allows visitors to see far in the distance over the canopy of the jungle.
Touring the site with its defensive walls, ball court and sweat lodge was our main goal, but the whole day turned out to be an uplifting experience beginning with climbing on to the Mayab bus at the Avenida Quinta bus station in Playa del Carmen.
It was a local bus so there were no reserved seats. We nabbed seats at the back leaving a dozen or so people to stand in the aisle for the trip of more than three hours to Valladolid. None of the standing passengers seemed to be put out by their circumstances.
We bought the tickets the previous day using our precious few words of Spanish. The direct, non-stop bus leaving for Valladolid at about the same time was sold out.
We decided against a tour bus because we wanted the sense of adventure in taking a local bus and partly because it saved us a few bucks. We took a tour bus the previous year to Chichen Itza. It left Playa del Carmen an hour late, which cut into our time there leaving us to feel we were prisoners of the tour bus company.
The scheduled bus stopped at Tulum, Coba (where there are outstanding archeological sites) and other villages to allow passengers to embark and disembark.
At Valladolid, we circled the main square on foot a couple of times until deciding to have lunch at the Restaurante el Castellano del Hotel el Maria de la Luz.
It was an excellent meal with me opting for the chicken roasted in banana leaf and Stephanie ordering sopa de lima and guacamole wrapped in tortillas, the latter made by two women at the front of the restaurant.
We then went in search of transportation to the site of Ek Balam about 25 kilometres away.
A traffic cop pointed us in the right direction (the Mayan people are friendly, gracious and helpful) and after a couple of streets a man asked us whether we wanted a ride to Ek Balam. We waited until he had corralled a couple of more passengers (both locals) and we all piled into his tiny taxi, which had seen better decades, and puttered off to Ek Balam.
“Are you all right with this,” my wife asked. I responded in the affirmative and there was no problem.
We returned to Valladolid in another taxi, this time with a young couple from Argentina who were spending several weeks in the Yucatan.
For dinner we stopped at one of numerous stalls in what passes for a food court on the main square in Valladolid and had sopa de lima. We were entertained by the ritual of the owners of the stalls waving menus at the passing foot traffic in order to generate business.
We also circled the square a couple of more times to watch noisy blackbirds flocking to the trees to roost for the night.
The return to Playa del Carmen was by direct, non-stop ADO bus with reserved seats.