For travelers who want to explore two off-the-beaten-path sites in the Yucatan Peninsula, far from the development in high-rise Cancun, I highly recommend a tour to visit Ek Balam, a small Maya archaeological site that opened to the public in 2002, and Ria Lagartos, a biosphere reserve that is home to the largest natural habitat of pink flamingos in North America — and perhaps a crocodile or two.
During a press trip to Club Med Yucatan Cancun earlier this month, I had the privilege of spending time at both of these sites on a day-long (7 a.m. to 8 p.m.!) tour offered by Club Med’s on-site excursion company, Ancila Tours. This company’s trips are exclusive to Club Med Yucatan guests, so unless you’re staying at this all-inclusive resort, you can’t take the particular multi-site excursion I describe below. However, other local tour operators do offer the combination — a quick Google search turned up a couple. And you can also inquire about trips to these eco-cultural sites resort hotel’s activity desk once you’re in Cancun. If you have a rental car you can naturally seek these spots out on your own, as well.
Ek Balam Archaeological Site
From Club Med Cancun, it’s a two-hour drive to Ek Balam, which is 30 miles north of the city of Valladolid in the state of Yucatan. Ek Balam, which means “black jaguar” in the Maya language, is northeast of Chichen-Itza and northwest of Coba (see this map of Yucatan Peninsula Maya sites for reference). Archaeologists believe a Maya community here thrived between 700 and 900 A.D.
The most important structures are in a walled enclosure about a kilometer square. Renovation of the buildings has taken place since 1997, and experts have literally uncovered the temples, archways, platforms and sculptures after low-lying jungle had engulfed them for hundreds of years. Some of the structures are still buried; with foliage covering them, you might walk by a giant “hill” and not even know what’s underneath. Archaeologists have also identified two now-grassy plazas and roads leading to the site.
What’s incredibly cool about Ek Balam is that you can climb some of the ancient structures (unlike Chichen-Itza and Tulum where it’s “look with your eyes” only). A highlight is the imposing Acropolis, nearly 100 feet tall, with steep steps leading to the top (not for the vertigo-challenged). Most striking to me was the incredibly detailed carvings found in the Acropolis that are now uncovered and protected from the elements with a thatched roof. One sculpture is of a giant open mouth of a scary, monster-like creature. There are also angels, animals and various designs that are in excellent condition. Walking to the top of the Acropolis, where a small temple once stood, affords stellar views of the surrounding, undeveloped countryside and the other buildings on the entire site.
Our tour guide, Anja, was super knowledgeable about the history and culture of the Maya people who lived here and elsewhere in the Yucatan Peninsula. While there are a few informative signs about the temples and the carved tablets on the grounds, I highly recommend you visit Ek Balam with a tour guide, who can bring the site to life with descriptions of what life was like for the Mayas 1400 years ago. Entrance to Ek Balam is 31 pesos (at time of writing about $2.50 USD).
Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve
After Ek Balam we motored for 30 minutes to the bustling town of Tizimin. We relaxed in a second-floor restaurant, with a wrap-around balcony affording views of the town square, and we refueled with pastries, bread, coffee and fruit. Then it was another 45 minutes or so by van to Ria Largartos Biosphere Reserve on the Gulf of Mexico, where we boarded a 6-seater boats (with minimal shade cover) to explore the vine-covered mangroves and murky channels teeming with wildlife.
Within a couple minutes our boat guide pulled in close to some vegetation so we could get a close-up view of a perched pelican. After that, we spotted different types of heron along the way to where the flamingos typically hang out. Of course, when we boated too close to the pink birds, they took off in flight. Still, it was pretty neat to see the flamingos in their natural habitat.
Next up, nature’s “Maya spa.” We anchored near a lagoon dense with salt. Here, we buoyantly bobbed in the water as if it were the Dead Sea. After just a couple of minutes of allowing all the good minerals into our skin, we hopped out of the salty lagoon to the fresh(er) water we were boating in. Our boat guide dug his hand deep into the grey, squishy clay — and promptly started rubbing it on the journalist closest too him. Indeed, the Mayas used the clay as sunscreen and as a skin protectant.
The good sports we are, we kept the clay smeared on our bodies (and faces — some more covered than others) for the boat ride to the town of Rio Lagartos. Along the way is where our boat guide spotted a crocodile; to the chagrin of some of my boatmates, he motored as close as possible to it. Nearing town, we rinsed off in clean water, and then further got the clay out of nooks and crannies (sort of) via an outdoor shower. Indeed, my skin felt soft and smooth to the touch — and did even more so after taking a proper shower back at our resort!
Our tour ended with a set-menu lunch at Isla Contoy, right on the boat docks. Appetizers included sting ray flautas and stewed shark — yep, the marine life I’d just swum with in Belize! My entree of fish grilled in plenty of garlic, plus rice and beans and a cold glass of white wine, filled my belly up so well after our day’s adventures — but I couldn’t resist a small dish of coconut ice cream! I’d recommend this eatery to anyone passing through the area on their own; it’s owned by the same family that runs boat tours in the reserve, so it’s a great place to get the inside scoop.
This tour from Club Med costs $130 per person, with a continental brunch, filling lunch (with alcohol) and plenty of cold water included; all ages are welcome, but I’d recommend it for children over six. I very much appreciated the opportunity to see some parts of the Yucatan that are untouched by Cancun commercialism. Most tourists take the combo tour of the Xel-Ha “ecological-styled” man-made attraction and Tulum, with it ancient Maya fortifications perched right on an oceanside cliff. I think these sites are absolutely worth a visit — if you’re a first timer to the Yucatan and you don’t mind crowds. But if you’re looking for an experience that’s slightly more authentic and where you won’t find many tourists, make the trips to Ek Balam and Ria Lagartos.