Where in the world can you journey back in time and witness one of nature’s greatest spectacles, all in one day? In the Yucatán you can combine a dash of history with wildlife watching and here’s one trip that will take you to the ancient Mayan city of Ek Balam and the Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, home of the flamingo.
First stop is the archaeological site of Ek Balam, 20 minutes north of the colonial city of Valladolid. Inhabited from around 600 B.C. and reaching its peak between A.D. 600 and 900, this ancient city is still something of a puzzle for archaeologists. Intricate stucco carvings and the name “Ek Balam” or “black star jaguar” in Maya (star/black = ek, jaguar = balam) only add to the mystery. Is this lyrical name a reference to a long-lost ruler or the ancient jaguar deity?
Ek Balam was first excavated at the end of the 1980s by American archaeologists William Ringle and George Bey and more recently by Leticia Vargas de la Peña, a Mexican archaeologist working for the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). She and her team have studied many of the structures at the site, particularly the tallest building (31 meters high) called the Acropolis, now known to have been a palace, and have made important discoveries, including over 50 hieroglyphic inscriptions and a royal tomb with offerings of jade, pottery and copal incense.
The city covers an area of 12 square kilometers and has five sacbes or ceremonial causeways, three defensive walls, a ball court, steam baths, chultunes or Mayan wells, several stelae and over 60 structures ranging from temples and palaces to tiny shrines. The largest buildings are clustered around two plazas at the center of the city. This was the ceremonial heart of the city where the rulers and priests lived.
Ek Balam is known to have had links with powerful city-states in the Maya World and its temples and palaces reflect a mix of artistic and architectural influences from the Puuc Hills in southern Yucatán to the Mexican Caribbean coast and the Petén in northern Guatemala. Another clue to the city’s importance is its emblem glyph (a symbol identifying individual cities or their ruling families), the only one recorded to date so far north in the Yucatán.
Angels in the Yucatán? Ek Balam’s crowning glory is the façade of the Acropolis which features hieroglyphic inscriptions, stucco serpents, masks carved in the likeness of the gaping jaws of the earth monster and the statues of richly attired nobles, including a seated figure now thought to be one of the rulers. The huge building was built in several phases and is a warren of rooms and terraces.
Local guides refer to the statues at the top of the Acropolis as “los angeles,” the angels, because they appear to have wings. The “wings” are actually splendid feather headdresses but even as one mystery is solved, another one takes its place. Who were these men? Archaeologists have deciphered hieroglyphic inscriptions at the site and others in the area to discover that Ek Balam was ruled by a powerful dynasty and have identified the city’s founding father. Ukit Kan Le’k Tok came to power in 770 A.D. and ushered in an extraordinary building and artistic boom.
Rio Lagartos From Ek Balam you’ll drive north through a chain of villages and small towns such as Tizimin to the Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, 60,348 hectares of mangroves, salt marshes, dunes and tropical forest.
The reserve’s biological diversity is incredible. Scientists have identified 365 bird species, 58 mammals, including the rare jaguar and spider monkey, 95 reptiles and amphibians, including four species of sea turtles and the crocodiles or lagartos that gave the reserve its name.
Despite such riches, Ría Lagartos is famous for one bird …the flamingo. The reserve harbors a nesting colony of Caribbean flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber ruber), a population of around 30,000 birds. So many of them gather in the shallow lagoons that they literally dye the horizon pink! To see them searching for food, preening their bright plumage or in flight formation is to witness one of the natural wonders of the Yucatán.
Fishermen from the waterfront village of Río Lagartos offer boat trips along the ria or estuary and through the mangroves to the flamingo feeding grounds. A Mérida-based conservation group has trained some of them as eco-guides and they carry checklists to help you identify the birds you see. Keep a lookout for osprey, ibis, roseate spoonbills, white pelicans, kingfishers and herons and make sure you have plenty of film or memory sticks for your camera!
Trips to Ek Balam and Rio Lagartos are available through Thomas More Travel, www.thomasmoretravel.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org for reservations. If you plan to go on your own, take the toll road or Highway 180 to Valladolid and then head north towards the Gulf coast, along Highway 295; the turnoff to Ek Balam is clearly marked. Visit the nearby X’canche cenote; there is a small admission fee and for an additional charge you can rent mountain bikes or even try your hand at rappel.