Exploring the Yucatan

Where East meets West, or Does It?

BY: MARI PINTKOWSKI

Macario Gomez, a small Mayan village on the Coba Road just 15 minutes from the sparkling sands of Tulum Beach, might seem like an unlikely place to begin a tour into the heart of the Yucatan, but consider this: You wake up refreshed and replenished from a night at an elegant jungle retreat, La Selva Mariposa, and want to see MORE.
casita at La Selva Mariposa
More ruins, more cenotes, more pueblos, more history, more culture! Over a platter of tropical fruit and cinnamon-flavored French toast and a mound of crisp bacon, your hosts at the B&B describe a ruin site less than an hour away where East meets West. You are intrigued to see for yourself the sculptures that are strangely similar to ones that were found at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. With the elusive butterfly (mariposa) as your guide, begin your day by heading West on the Coba Road in the direction of Valladolid and beyond, to the stunning ruins of Ek Balam.

At the round-about leading to Coba in one direction (20 min. from Macario), take the straight road to Valladolid and follow the signs to Highway 295 leading to the Cancun Cuota. You will be following signs that lead in the direction of Tizimin by way of Temazon. Temazon is an interesting village that specializes in smoked sausages, and it also has an array of carpenter shops fabricating windows, doors and furniture. The town square and market are always bustling with activity where the residents can be seen with their plaid bolsas (shopping bags) stuffed with cilantro, avocados and tortillas, or sitting on their tri-cycles, that serve as local taxicabs.. The buildings of Temazon are getting a face-lift and the park is being remodeled. The ancient Catholic Church across from the park is still the center of life for many of the families.

Your destination is the ruins of Ek Balam, only a few miles from Temazon, so keep a look out for the signs leading to the archaeological site. Parking is free and the modest entrance fee will leave plenty in your wallet to hire a tour guide (about $20). Ask the gentleman at the desk if Juan is available. He was directly involved in the latest reconstruction efforts in 2004, when he was the assistant-archeologist for the project. His insight into the life of the civilization that continuously inhabited the site from 600 AD until 1545 is something you will never forget.

There is evidence in the architecture of Ek Balam that other civilizations, like the Toltecs around the year 900 AD, inhabited the city and blended their culture and traditions with those of the Mayan. The site was abandoned for a year, and in 1546 the Mayans returned to pick up where they left off. Little is known of this period except that the Spaniards arrived in 1579 and found an abandoned city covered by jungle vines with crumbling buildings buried beneath them.

ruins in Ek Balam
In the little pueblo of Ek Balam, where descendants of the Mayans still live, archeologists discovered that the Spaniards built the tiny church (still evident today) on top of a house foundation using original stones from the ruin site nearby. They also found evidence that the Spaniards kept cows in the main plaza of the sacred city; penned in by walls built with the precious stones taken from the temples. There was no rational way for the archeologists to tell just where each of these stones belonged, so they are currently piled up near the outer boundary of the site; hence another mystery lies unsolved.

Unfortunately, little is known of the life of the Mayans civilization that inhabited Ek Balam, as there are no books remaining that describe the life and times of these amazing people. What we do know comes from the frescos, carvings, and sculptures that were found buried under mounds of rock beneath tightly woven jungle vines.

We have learned that the ancient Mayans built splendid temples and palaces, maintained a harmonious relationship with nature, consulted the stars and venerated their thirteen gods. There are a few remaining copies in museums of the code, finally broken until 1972, that unlocks the secrets in the hieroglyphics that accompany the art work. Some of the Mayan glyphs represent phonetic syllables and others represent whole ideas.

One of the architectural ingredients that made Ek Balam unique was the fact that the city was built behind three walls. Juan has informed us that the walls were used for protection, even though they were only three or four feet tall. The thick, low walls were a base for a wooden fence built on top to give additional protection. Since the walls were so thick, it is believed that guards patrolled the exterior of the city while walking on top of them. Stone from a third wall remain today connecting each of the buildings in the main quadrangle.

ruins in Ek Balam
Who were the enemies and what were the inhabitants of Ek Balam protecting? In the 3,600 square kilometer area inhabited by Mayans, all was not tranquil. Ek Balam had discovered a source of salt, which was as valuable as gold, and this precious commodity needed guarding. In the post-classic period near the turn of the century, the Aztec and Toltec warriors began taking over near-by Chichen-itza and Tulum. The people of Ek Balam used several strategies to protect the sacred sites from intruders. One of the statues even has carved figures perched in front of the eye lids of the monster. Historians believe the purpose of these figures were to hold the monsterís eyelids open to constantly watch for danger.

You will enter the central area of this 12 square-kilometer city forced to bend your body in reverence as you walk forward up a steep ramp and proceed through the spectacular corbel arch that is uniquely open on all four sides.

ruins in Ek Balam
You will see two indented stones on the floor, just big enough to fit a foot. Perhaps this was a purifying ritual that was required before entering the sacred city? Because of the steepness of the ramp leading down from the arch into the city, it is believed that it was customary to precede down backwards with your body, once again, bent in reverence to the gods.

ruins in Ek Balam
Many of the buildings surrounding the site were actually used as living quarters. Shards of pottery used for daily living were found inside the ruins, along with built-in stone beds. Some of the remains of the paintings on the walls inside these structures showed people sitting in the lotus position on pillows. Did you know that the early Mayans did not sleep in hammocks? These were introduced to the Yucatan peninsula with the arrival of the Spaniards who brought with them natives they picked up along the way in the Caribbean Islands who were accustomed to sleeping in these woven beds.

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