Anyone with a passion for offbeat Maya archaeological sites should not miss Ek Balam on Mexico's Yucatán peninsula. Located just 30 kilometeres (19 miles) north of the colonial city of Valladolid. Ek Balam, which apparently means "Black Jaguar," was not surveyed until 1994 and is still being excavated. An ancient Maya road or sacbé (sack-bay) leads through tropical forest to Ek Balam's stone temples, ceremonial platforms, and compact plazas. Unlike nearby Chichén Itzá, which gets mobbed by tour groups, Ek Balam sees relatively few visitors. Tangled vegetation still covers many of Ek Balam's partially restored structures, giving an idea of what abandoned Maya cities must have looked like when early explorers first stumbled upon them.
A low stone wall surrounds Ek Balam, and an unusual kiosk with four arched doorways guards the city's main entrance. About two-thirds of the way up a 32-metre-high (105 feet) structure known as the Acropolis, archaeologists recently uncovered the tomb of Ukit Kan Lek Tok, one of Ek Balam's rulers. Menacing fangs of a huge earth monster ring the tomb's door, which is flanked by a wall covered in intricate carvings and Maya glyphs. A headless figure seated above the door is thought to be Ukit Kan Lek Tok himself. But truly remarkable are large statues of what appear to be winged warriors. Reminiscent of Christian angels, these unique sculptures predate the arrival of Spanish missionaries by hundreds of years, but you can't help wondering if the ancient Maya didn't have inkling of what was to come.
The Ek Balam archaeological zone is open daily from 8 am to 5 pm. Admission is about US$2 (22 pesos).