Third Installment in a Series on the Riviera Maya and the Yucatan
Enough fun already, and no time for a sun tan. We had to hit the dining room by 8:15 and have our luggage packed and in the lobby by 9:00. Our driver and general guide was Fernando Campos from Mayazone, a tour operator based in Playa del Carmen that specializes in this kind of bespoke travel in this area. He joined us towards the end of breakfast and briefed us a bit on our upcoming trip. Although we could make it to Merida in about 4 ½ hours if we stayed on the major roads, Fernando suggested we take back roads most of the way because, just like everywhere else in North America it seems, you don’t see all that much on the superhighways. Nowhere does this seem to be truer than in the Yucatan, where the main east-west artery appears to be cleared from solid low-lying jungle. In his Land Rover, we were going to be comfortable, regardless.
The back roads turned out to be the much better way to go. The roads were all paved and marked and are two lanes for the most part, interspersed by topes, or speed bumps, as we approached various towns and villages. Topes seem to be a way of life down there, accepted as a normal means of traffic and speed control. They’re to be found on virtually any road, and if not respected I’m sure some of them could tear the bottom right out of your car.
There are also topes, as it turns out, in front of military and police checkpoints, and there were a number of these as well. Some checkpoints were as simple as a squad car and an officer; others, such as the border of Quintana Roo and Yucatan states, were larger and more intimidating, with trucks and men milling around. Automatic weapons of various types are exposed at all times. It looked a bit scary, but it is impressive to see the country’s commitment to curtailing contraband trade. Our driver was well-acquainted with these inspections and we eased on through.
We stopped about halfway to Ek’ Balam at a local market in a tiny village for some drinks and a stretch. It’s fascinating to see the very basic and simple micro-economy that functions within these tiny communities along the route. Homes in this region are of simple construction, including many native ‘palapas’. Many people forage in the local jungles for firewood for cooking and heating.
An hour later, we arrived at Ek’ Balam. The name means ‘Black Jaguar’, a sacred animal to the Mayans. The architecture reflects the namesake of the city. The opening to the temple is in the shape of an open mouth of a jaguar. The façade of the temple entrance has been painstakingly restored to reflect the original character and design of the temple. Maintaining bare limestone carvings such as these and keeping them in prime condition, out of the elements, is time-consuming and expensive, and likely diverts manpower and resources away from further excavation of the site, much of which is still buried under acres of jungle vegetation.
Because Ek’ Balam is relatively isolated, it doesn’t appear to get too many visitors. It could be considered ideal for meditation or spiritual enlightenment, since you can climb to the top of the pyramid and take in a 360˚ panorama. One could imagine the priests of the day almost feeling as though they were descending from the heavens –truly ‘high’ priests in every sense of the word. It was here at Ek’ Balam that I had my first startling revelation – getting up the pyramid is relatively easy. It’s getting down that’s the problem. Even if you don’t think you have an issue with descending steep inclines, climbing down from this baby, without the benefit of a railing or even a rope to hang on to, may help to convince you otherwise.