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Off the Beaten Track on the Yucatan:
By Chris Millikan
For Travel Writers' Tales

Mysteriously abandoned and forgotten in the jungle for centuries, restored stone cities now reveal the magnificent architecture, artwork and technology of a civilization over 2000 years old. Settled in Cancun's resort zone, we soon re-acquaint ourselves with the Maya, but this time at two lesser-known sites.

A budding archeology student himself, our concierge suggests Ruinas del Rey. "Not so dramatic as others," he grins, "but the biggest on Isla Cancun! A sculptured human face decorated in the regalia of Mayan rulers, as well as embellished skeletons found there suggest it was once a royal burial ground." Curiosity sparked and up for new adventure, we pedal resort bicycles 9 kilometers to this local archeological area, in spite of the blistering morning sun.

Though set amid sparkling modern developments, this small gem from 600 AD proves surprisingly tranquil. From greenery edging the grounds, soothing birdie choruses greet us sweetly. Fat iguana families occupy the scattered remnants of 47 timeworn structures. As we watch, these docile residents bask along limestone steps, skitter under weathered walls and even pose with haughty royal attitudes!

Unlike prominent locations, these ruins are not roped off. Easily climbing the low-rise pyramid, we walk within stone foundations and stroll unhurriedly throughout the ancient grounds. Storyboards interpret the platforms, helping us visualize customs long past. Most striking, a small palace stands alongside one of two plazas forming the ceremonial center. Topped with a vault thought to be an astronomy lookout, faded wall paintings inside depict ordinary daily life. Recovered fishing implements reflect the basic economy; basalt grinding stones, flint knives, arrowheads, obsidian blades and jade jewelry imply an extensive coastal trade. Leaving an hour later, we notice others feeding bread to gathering iguanas. I muse, "No wonder they're so plump and unafraid!" The ticket guy mutters, "Tortillas would be better!"

Joining fellow history buffs another day, we head off the tourist trail to Ek'Balam, an influential city for 1000 years. Along the way, guide Daniel shows us early black and white photos, explaining, "In the beginning, explorers noticed unusual clusters of hills overgrown by dense rainforest and tangled vegetation. Excavating those mounds, archeologists later unearthed majestic Ek'Balam."

Once there, a well-worn sacbe leads us to an arched gateway. Daniel pauses, "Imagine! More than 1,300 years ago, miles of such white limestone roadways ran throughout the jungles, vital links to distant communities."

Through a narrow passage inside low walls we sight immense structures restored from rubble. Countless doorways lead into numerous chambers where we suspect elite residents found cool relief from the burning sun. Slab stellae under thatched shelters outline dynastic history, telling us that the buildings here were constructed around 800 AD during Ukil-Kan-Lek-Tok's reign. "Though only a few main buildings are restored," says Daniel, "they well represent Mayan capabilities."

Over at the ball court, Daniel points out that every Mayan city had at least one and tells us how players competed ferociously, maneuvering a heavy ball through brass rings on the stone walls. However, scholars still disagree on whether its winners or losers who got beheaded!

Rising ahead of us, a colossal pyramid nicknamed the 'Acropolis' entombs the powerful Ukil-Kan-Lek-Tok. Thatched canopies protect elaborate hieroglyphs and friezes on lower tiers. Using our hands, we balance on steep steps and climb up halfway to investigate an exquisite stucco wall forming his tomb's doorway. Unlike at major pyramids where decorative figures are carved right into the stone, building adornments here are made with limestone mortar molded into shapes and painted, rare in the Mayan world.

In this spectacular stucco façade we pick out seven chiefs with classic royal profiles, their fashionably flat heads developed by binding them with boards when infants. Hair in braids, sculpted warriors wear decorated loincloths, skulls tied to their belts. Fondly called 'el angel' by locals, a majestic winged noble wears an elaborately feathered headdress. Gigantic fangs surround the main portal; shaped like a jaguar's mouth, it reminds us that Ek'Balam means black jaguar. After more rigorous climbing, we cool off in soft breezes atop the pyramid. Sweeping views across the immense site and the luxuriant jungle landscapes beyond reward our efforts. Daniel sighs, "Undiscovered by many, Ek'Balam boasts some of the wonders of our other world-renowned attractions…but without crowds!"

It's true that most visitors flock to the glories of the principal archeological sites lying within three hours of Cancun. We've explored them too. Yet, encounters at Ruinas del Rey and Ek Balam are equally astounding and add magic to our Mexican getaway!


" Cancun Visitors Bureau, travel suggestions for every interest. " Air Transat for affordable flights. " Thomas Moore Travel for adventures of all kinds.

PHOTOS By Chris & Rick Millikan

1. Largest on Isla Cancun, El Rey archaeological site lies only 9 km from the resort zone.
2. El Rey archeological site provides a small but worthwhile visit to low-rise pyramids and remnants of 47 ancient structures.
3. At Ruinas del Rey, a vault tops the small palace structure; inside, faded wall paintings depict ordinary daily life.
4. Ek Balam's entrance features an arched gateway and low surrounding walls.
5.In Ek Balam's ball court players fiercely maneuvered a heavy ball through a ring fastened on the stone wall.
6. Ek Balam's colossal palace entombs the powerful Ukil-Kan-Lek-Tok.
7a & 7b At El Balam the stucco façade is molded with mortar and painted, unusual in the Mayan world. Gigantic fangs are a reminder that Ek'Balam means black jaguar.


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