Early Thursday morning we pulled ourselves from our beds, away from our air conditioning and creature comforts, and packed back into our rented Aveo for a two hour drive back across the crazy highway so we could visit Ek’Balam. We had had our spirits dampened by the dreadful experience the day before at Chichen Itza, and were determined to see something really cool – Ek’Balam did not disappoint. The drive there was quiet, we all munched on snacks and sipped cold drinks and contemplated both the early hour and our time in Mexico, which was running short. We did perk up upon our arrival at Ek’Balam and seeing we were the first car there, aside from the employees.
While there were certainly spaces for vendors to set up, their tables were covered with sheets in the early hour and the number was drastically lower than at Chichen Itza. We meandered down a path through the woods, past one little sign, a “map” of the site.
We were greeted almost immediately not by actors dressed in traditional Mayan clothes and make up, not by guides trying to price-gouge us for a tour, not by people attempting to sell knick-knacks, but by a small pack of stray dogs. Tiny in stature, with giant ears, nearly all were black, one sandy colored one lay on the ruins in the shade. The tiniest pup had a white spot on her chest. Upon greeting her she promptly fell to the ground, exposing her tiny pink belly and protruding ribs, and shook her leg in incredible delight as I gave her belly scratches. She was perfect – with her oversize ears and giant goofy feet and smile, and she became my shadow at Ek’Balam.
After meeting the strays, again so heart-breakingly familiar in Mexico, we came to the first part of the site. What you need to understand about Ek’Balam is that although it may have been documented both in the 1800s by and in the early 1900s by explorers, it was essentially lost to the jungle until excavations truly began in 1998. What has been uncovered is one of the most impressive Mayan sites on the Peninsula – a city that was most active in the late 700s and early 800s CE. (It’s astounding to contemplate such a structure so old.) The first part of the site you come to, after the doggie greeting committee, is an arched building where two “sacbes” meet. Sacbe being an ancient road. The building, with its arches, isn’t massive or imposing, but to think of people walking through those arches (which the Mayans were famous for building) over 1200 years ago is pretty exciting to a history nerd and romantic like myself.
Once we were through the arches and over the sacbe we were entering the city. We strolled through the ball court, ever important in a Mayan city, and yet much smaller than the court at Chichen Itza. We wandered up steps of old buildings, and marveled at the giant rock piles still in the jungle around us, all hiding rubble and buildings as yet to be uncovered. There were still buildings you could enter, small rooms, carvings everywhere. And not another tourist in sight. Ek’Balam is still an active archaeological site, and it’s not fully unearthed yet, and this September archaeologists will return with the (relatively) cooler temperatures.
The most striking part of the site is called The Acropolis; and it defies description, but I will try. It is 500 feet long, and 200 feet deep, which officially makes it much larger than a football field (a paltry 360 feet by 160 feet), and standing at about 100 feet high at the top of the temple it is the same height of the largest pyramid at Chichen Itza. It should have been a warning, but vultures were literally circling the massive building looming ahead of us. What makes this site particularly exciting is that much of the stucco work and most friezes at the site are still intact. There are even paintings left on the walls the site was so well preserved. When you climb the steps of the Acropolis, about halfway up you come to the entry of the tomb, a giant mouth, likely a jaguar, where the king had been entombed. Because the jungle had so thoroughly obliterated the buildings for so many centuries, this site escaped the looting and destruction from men common at other locales.
The Acropolis does have thatched roofs to protect the stucco and carvings and sculptures and paintings, and surrounding the ancient tomb there are ropes – you can’t just waltz in – but you can get incredibly, excitingly close – even close enough to see the paintings on the doorways.
We started the march up the steps, where they have found evidence of blood letting ceremonies, to go see the tomb and the paintings and the view. It was oppressively hot, even in the early morning, with humidity you could taste. There was no escaping the constant wet feeling, the sun beating down, the sound of the vultures overhead, the incredible silence of being in the middle of the jungle, most of the animals sleeping through the searing daytime temperatures. The first 50 feet were, all things considered, a breeze – though we were thoroughly soaked with sweat by the time we reached the shady covered area of the tomb entrance.
It should be noted here, if I haven’t mentioned it before, that I am terrified of heights. I spent my first few years in the pacific northwest hunting off-trail waterfalls, often decked out in Gore-Tex, with rubberized gloves for grip, and lengths of climbing rope. I learned a lot about my limits in those years of hiking, climbing, scrambling, and occasionally dropping into ravines that seemed unapproachable to others. I learned that going up is always easier than going down, I learned to go slowly and plan my route, I learned to always pay attention to both feet and both hands, and any weight on my back (such as camera gear) so as not to lose my balance. I also learned just how far I can push myself before I panic. I once found myself on a precarious outcropping of rock, clinging to an old piece of metal, a river and waterfall raging below me. Three men had to rescue me – I became so paralyzed with fear I couldn’t let go of the metal – they had to come out to get me. I never again pushed myself – even once getting within ten feet of my destination, and forgoing that last ten feet because the assessed risk was not worth it to me or my mental fortitude.
But I was on vacation – from my real life, my sanity, far from home, and apparently I let myself get carried away. The top of the temple didn’t seem that far away, and when else was I going to have the opportunity to climb such a pristine piece of archaeological importance? When was I going to be in Mexico again, would the site still be open to people like me? Would visitors still be allowed to climb the ancient stairs (which are not ADA or OSHA compliant, I’ll tell you), would visitors still be able to get so close to the paintings they could see them? Could we still enter the rooms? I didn’t know – and I am not one to let a potentially once in a lifetime opportunity to pass me by. I shook off a momentary hesitation, and started the climb to the top of the Acropolis.
The climb, for the record, is grueling. The heat is awful, the steps are slick with sand and grit, they are steep, they are narrow – it is much like climbing a ladder to the third story of a building. (It appears I was wearing inappropriate footwear in the photo – but I assure you the were walking sandals, fitted very well, very snug yet comfortable, with rubber hiking soles – I wore them every day in Mexico and can’t say enough about them! I always pack sensible shoes for vacation.) We scrambled up the temple, hand over hand, foot by foot, one step at a time, without pausing to look back the way we came. We reached the penultimate level of the temple – just a few more feet and we’d have a commanding view of jungle as far as the eye could see in every direction. The last few feet were a narrow wooden walkway, with what looked like a questionable railing, and I needed a break from the climb. I was at a relatively safe spot, plenty of room to sit with my gear and catch my breath.
I turned around and sat down on a wide, deep, step, far from the edge of the staircase, and realized what I had done.
I was nearly 100 feet in the air, with nothing but a steep and dangerous stone ladder between me and my death at the bottom if I fell. There were no handrails. There were no ropes. There was no one there to rescue me – this was not an amusement park. This wasn’t even a National Park where a helicopter could come and save my ass and transport me to an emergency room if everything went wrong. This was the real world, and I was on top of it, and I was terrified. I proceeded to sink into the depths of a full blown panic attack. I quickly told my boyfriend what was happening, and to make sure I didn’t tumble down the temple becoming a modern day sacrifice. I leaned back against the stones, held on tightly, planted my feet firmly, and closed my eyes. The dizziness came, the mouth watering came, the stomach started rumbling. Star-bursts were exploding in my brain, I could see them through my clenched eyelids. I was growing lightheaded, I was gasping for breath, my heart was pounding, I was projectile sweating, it was as bad as it could get. I tried, briefly, to put my head between my knees to stave off fainting, and only scared myself more as I leaned forward, closer to tumbling.
I quickly (as I dared) leaned back again, head against a very painful rock, willing myself to melt into the rocks themselves. I kept my eye closed, I tasted the bile, I started belching. I was still sweating. And I was trying my damnedest to remember calm breathing from my years of yoga and Tai Chi. I was forcing myself to practice my inner smile. I was willing myself to breathe in calmly through my nose, and exhale all the fear, all the while reminding myself I was safe, I could take as long as I wished to climb down, I wasn’t dead yet and likely wouldn’t die unless I couldn’t get my act together. Nearly 20 minutes passed at the top of the Acropolis before I gave a weak thumbs-up to my boyfriend and our friends. They made the last ten feet to the roof of the pyramid, took some photos, met a vulture perched on the railing, and then joined me again.
After I'd given the thumbs-up, they knew I would survive, and so did I. I wasn’t going home with a photo of me on top of an archaeological site, covered in my own vomit. I had pushed myself too far, but I had won.
I finally had enough of my wits regathered about me to start making my way down the pyramid. I slowly bumped down the stairs, one step at a time, leaving a trail of sweat behind me on the hot rocks. Left foot, right foot, hands planted firmly behind me, bumped my ass down one step, moved my hands down another step, move the next foot, and repeat. The closer I got to the ground, the better I felt. As I was nearing the halfway mark, another family arrived, and the two kids ran up the stairs like billy goats, leaving me scared for them and slightly envious of their lack of a sense of mortality. They were truly the first people we’d seen in our two-plus hours at the site. When I was maybe 20 feet from the bottom I was finally recovered enough, and close enough to the ground, I stood up and took the stairs like an adult – or like the children who had just run past me.
I said my farewells to my favorite dog in Mexico – and still today contemplate the many ways I may try to get her here to the states and treat her like a real dog, with a dog bed and food and a safe yard and baths and flea meds…I’m seriously contemplating a fundraiser to get her home. I’m such a softy for dogs – and can’t help but feel she doesn’t have much of a chance, there in the jungle, subsisting on whatever scraps she can from tourists, and hopefully kindly archaeologists next month.
We drove back to Puerto Morelos, and returned our rental car. After packing our belongings, in anticipation of leaving the next morning, we strolled into the town for one last dinner. We sat in a restaurant with a patio on the beach. The service was excellent, and a storm was blowing in. They thought we were crazy, but even when warm, fat, raindrops started to fall on us we stayed out on the patio, watching the clouds, enjoying our cocktails and cake and other local treats.
Friday morning we all took one last stroll on our beach, piled into a cab, and made our way back to the airport for our flights home. Interesting note, the food in the airport was the most expensive meal any of us ate the whole week, even for cheap terrfible food. We brought home some unpleasant souvenirs – The Boy got sick with Montezuma’s Revenge (we suspect the ceviche he ate our last night) and spent an afternoon in the Urgent Care receiving fluids and antibiotics. He also managed to develop a nasty rash, itchy and painful, thanks to larval jellyfish. Look up “jellyfish larvae rash” on google if you dare. It’s not pretty. One friend was sick to their stomach, the other also got the rash. I came home unscathed – and we’re still not sure how as I tend to attract disasters wherever I go.
We’ve already talked about a return trip to Mexico, with definite stops in Puerto Morelos, a follow up visit to Ek’Balam, and more time in Valladolid. It’s hard to believe such magical places exist so close to home (seriously – Mexico! It’s RIGHT THERE!). We’ve been telling people all about our great time, the wonderful food, the friendly people in the towns, swimming in the cave with bats overhead, seeing amazing ruins, laughing about Titi pooping on my boyfriend. Again, I am reminded how lucky I am to live this crazy life of mine. I didn’t really need to spend a birthday in Mexico with friends and loved ones to put it in perspective, but it sure doesn’t hurt. And maybe sometime soon I’ll figure out just how to adopt a dog from an ancient Mayan city…