My alarm went off at 7:15, in time for a quick breakfast before driving a few kilometers down the road to Chichen-Itza and being the 3rd person through the gate at 8am. I had the ruins largely to myself for the first hour. If you’re going to visit this Wonder of the World, early is the only way.
As is always the case in such places, I was approached by a knowledgeable guide, 30 years studying Mayan history. While I would have loved an in-depth tour, the $60 price tag was too rich for my blood, so I wandered happily on my own. The most famous of the Mayan ruins, it largely did not disappoint. Unfortunately, due to stupid people falling and killing themselves and “Johnny loves Jane” vandalism, all access to the ruins is blocked by ropes. That said, the sense of history was palpable. At one point I touched a column, and had that same feeling I remembered from being able to touch the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum before it was cordoned off a few years later.
Iguanas flitted across the grounds as workers swept and souvenir sellers set up their shops in growing numbers. By the time I left 3 hours later, the central plaza was filling up with tourists, and as I drove away, minivans and buses passed continuously in the other direction.
After a swim at the hotel and a cold beer, I started heading back towards the coast instead of to Merida as originally planned. A friend’s suggestion made my decision for me to spend the night in Valladolid, and I quickly found the best hostel in town, Candelaria, where $10 gets you a dorm bed and breakfast to share with other travelers in a lovely outdoor garden kitchen. I checked in, and drove back to Ek Balam where I had only seen the parking lot yesterday.
The same guide I’d given a ride to offered his services for the same $60 so once again I opted for my own exploration. It was an entirely different experience. Not only did I have the site to myself for a good hour before a small handful of other visitors showed up, but access to the ruins was largely unfettered. I clambered up and around the structures, peeking into corners and crevices. Even though the site is established, I couldn’t help but feel a bit like a true explorer coming across something undiscovered in the middle of the jungle.
The highlight was the main and tallest building on the complex, saved for last. I climbed the hundred or more narrow stone steps to the top, where I was in awe of the commanding view over the Yucatan countryside, slash-and-burn farming throwing columns of smoke in the distance. The entrance building seemed far below me, dizzyingly down the steps I’d just climbed. After enjoying the view, I carefully side-stepped halfway down to a platform covered by a thatched roof. I saw what seemed like a reconstruction, perfect in every detail. The same guide was there with a couple, and as they made their ascension to the top, he remained and we chatted for a few minutes. Not a reconstruction at all, it was a tomb that had been discovered only 11 years ago, encased behind a wall, some 1300 years ago, perfectly preserved. This was what he comes to work every day for, to show and to study this section of the complex. With a serious tone, Casimiro said that tourist dollars alone paid for the upkeep of this discovery, including the thatched roof which requires regular maintenance. If there becomes a point that they can’t take proper care of it, they will seal it up again to protect it. Hopefully, this will be unnecessary and it will remain open to future generations, but I couldn’t help but feel a sense of seeing something that may one day be hidden behind stone again.