Travel: Lost city of the Jaguar

EK BALAM, Mexico -- The view from near the summit of The Tower is pure Yucatan. Even with humidity as heavy as a grandmother's afghan, it is breathtaking: low and level scrubland as far as the eye can see, though studded here and there by small, tree-covered mounds.

The Tower has an unsurpassed view because it is one of the taller ancient Mayan ruins -- a six-level palace and religious compound 100 feet tall -- the equivalent of a 10-story building. It is larger than the famed Temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza, 40 miles southwest.

Look down from The Tower. You won't see the warren of souvenir booths that surround Chichen Itza. You won't see hundreds of tourists, either.

Now turn to face The Tower. Ek Balam -- Mayan for "Black Jaguar" or "Star Jaguar" -- was abandoned and covered with dirt and vegetation long before the Spanish conquistadors looted the Mayan heartland. It was only in the last two decades that archaeologists carefully peeled back the earth to expose an untouched limestone metropolis decorated with stucco grotesqueries -- 1,000-year-old bone-colored statuettes that could scare gargoyles from the spires of Notre Dame.

In 1986, a 34-year-old grad student named Bill Ringle began to awaken Ek Balam. He was wrapping up his work in anthropology at Tulane University in New Orleans, and visited Valladolid, a market town in the middle of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, in connection with his dissertation.

Ringle today is a professor of anthropology at Davidson College, in suburban Charlotte, N.C. Here's what happened on that visit:

"An explorer named Charnay had been there in the 1880s and even took some photographs, so it's not like we 'discovered' Ek Balam. Still, it had pretty much been ignored. But I was interested in seeing it because of what light it might shed on how much control Chichen Itza had on the rest of the Yucatan. My wife and I went out to take a look.

"Ek Balam was difficult to get to, and was completely covered with trees 60 to 80 feet tall. You could tell a huge mound was there only when you walked up this big hill. We ate lunch right on top of it -- unaware we were literally on top of a beautifully preserved building."

"I could see bits and pieces of things on the ground -- stone covered with plaster. You could see walls in the vicinity, and a shaft that went down into the heart of something large.

"Again, keep in mind everything was overgrown: It was an adventure just to get from one building to another."

And it was a financial stretch to get much done: Ringle's war chest was somewhere between $700 and $1,000 -- enough to map the site for a couple of weeks.

Much of what he sought was truly underfoot. There's not a lot of soil in the Yucatan flatlands, but the centuries covered the site with 6 inches to a foot of dirt.

Still, Ringle had seen enough.

In 1986, a year after his dissertation, he and George Bey, a colleague from Tulane, received a grant from the National Geographic Society to explore Ek Balam. "We kind of built on that," Ringle says, "and we worked there most years until 1999."

Ringle and Bey -- now with Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. -- were the principal investigators. They recruited some of their students to come and help. They also hired farmers from around Ek Balam as the excavation crew, anywhere from 10 to 90 of them.

"They were subsistence farmers, and this was a chance for them to make a little extra money in summertime," Ringle recalls. "It was pretty much the same crew summer to summer. Some began as young teenagers; they were adults by the time we finished. They learned the ropes and learned what we were trying to do."

What emerged from the jungle was an impressively intact Mayan city-state: 4 to 8 square miles -- perhaps 10 times the size of Monaco -- holding several hundred buildings, walls and causeways.

It is a revelation in progress; only 17 buildings have been restored.

Ek Balam is government owned. It feels like you're entering a state park in the remoteness of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. A gravel road, not a fancy sign, leads to its parking lot. Last fall, the lot held a half-dozen cars and a couple of small vans.

Admission at the rustic ticket booth is a steal -- roughly $2.25. Because Ek Balam isn't crowded, ask for a guide -- there are up to 11 present -- and you'll get one right away. We paid about $37 U.S. to engage Francisco Cupol, a 33-year-old Mayan from the vicinity who studied tourism at the tech school in Valladolid. He knew his stuff, but spoke only Mayan and Spanish.

Tom Jones, who lives part of the year in Asheville, N.C., and part in Valladolid, translated Cupol's running commentary.

A cleared area dotted with limestone boulders leads to the main complex. The Mayans were big on raised roads -- parallel rows of limestone "curb"; the width between them was filled with dirt and topped with crushed limestone. Small wonder they were called "white roads."

Soon you reach the three rings surrounding Ek Balam. They're made of different-size rocks mortared into walls just under 5 feet tall and 7 feet thick. While not daunting to us, Cupol said that the people of Ek Balam were about 5 feet tall (even modern-day Mayans are short in stature). Further, the walls may not have been created to defend their city. There were five entrances to Ek Balam, roads linked it to other cities, and the jungle immediately outside the walls is dotted with limestone platforms that once held houses built of palm leaves.

From the walls, you can see the pre-Columbian ghost town. The public entrance is where a sacabe, an ancient raised road of crushed limestone, ("white road" in Mayan) goes through a gate -- a chapel-size affair with a Mayan arch. It has no keystone; the stones are merely strategically piled with great craftsmanship. Beyond and to the left are seven or so substantial buildings, all made of mortared limestone often darkened by moss or tinged red dirt minerals.

Walk among the ruins of Ek Balam -- and into some -- for the lost-world sensation.

The purpose of some buildings isn't immediately clear. The so-called Oval Palace clearly had a live-in role, with 15 exterior doorways leading into individual, windowless rooms with remarkably smooth and flat floors. Each room is the size of a small car.

Ruins of matching, side-by-side temples are called The Twins.

Most identifiable is the Ball Court, which resembles those at Chichen Itza and other Mesoamerican sites -- a rectangular ground-level sports venue whose long sides are marked by steeply sloping smooth walls.

Mac and Lida Bonner, tourists from Philadelphia, were relaxing on its grassy playing field with their kids -- Mollie, 6; Abigail, 4; and Jack, 2. They'd already been to Chichen Itza and felt Ek Balam compared well. "On its own, Ek Balam is pretty impressive," Mac said. "And for us, there's another plus -- the entire site is compact when you compare it with Chichen Itza. Physically, this isn't as overwhelming for people with kids."

The family hadn't yet made it to the vista-commanding Tower -- toward the back of the public area. The Tower's steps are steep, and scaling them can be daunting if you're out of shape or are very young.

And at the top, the kids will face all those scary monsters.

It's clear that 2-acre Tower was the nerve center of the monarchy. Some guidebooks refer to it as the Acropolis, but The Tower, is the direct translation from what Spanish-speaking locals call it: "La Torre." Research indicates The Tower is where kings ruled, where at least one king was buried, and where community worship services involved some degree of human sacrifice.

A total of 72 rooms at The Tower have been restored. Most artifacts unearthed there and elsewhere at Ek Balam are now at the Anthropology and History Museum in Merida, the provincial capital. The upper reaches of The Tower are draped with a heavy canopy of cut palm fronds. They protect the elaborate, often delicately executed stucco statues of kings, gods and monsters. Researchers have learned that their bone-white exteriors were once painted in bright colors.

When in big-time construction mode, Mayans would simply build new monuments and palaces atop existing ones, carefully covering earlier structures with protective dirt and rubble. The Tower is where archaeologists found pay dirt. The top layer, sheathed in dirt, protected from erosion and Spaniards, is visually breathtaking, particularly around the entrance to the royal tomb, halfway up its southern side.

Wall ornamentations that look like angels are actually humans decked in the fancy bird feathers (those of the social flycatcher, no less) favored by Mayans of high rank. There are warriors whose triumphs are noted by the skulls hung from their belts.

In the midst of this is a large doorway dressed with stucco shapes to resemble the open jaws of a gigantic serpent: Its upper incisors dangle above the top. It is thought to represent the entrance to the Underworld. Behind it is a crypt built for a king.

The Mexican government became involved at Ek Balam around 1994.

"Initially, there was some overlap," Ringle says. "They'd work when we weren't there, and when we were there, government officials would come out to inspect what we were doing. The governor became interested in developing tourism at Ek Balam."

The serpent tomb near the summit of The Tower was unearthed five years later, after Ringle moved on.

Several archaeologists were working on The Tower's stairways when I visited last fall. None spoke English, but they indicated they were removing an earlier protective glaze they learned was actually harming the limestone.

Most of the current archaeological work is along those lines: keeping the past from disappearing.

"There's not much active research there because digs are expensive -- and also raise maintenance costs," says Ringle. For the past nine years, he's been working at sites farther west in the Yucatan, at Uxmal and Labna. Those sites are smaller than Ek Balam, but their sculptures and architecture reflect his current research needs.

Ringle: "It's not like you go out looking for lost cities -- that's not how serious archaeology works."

Still, he has a soft spot for the city of the Jaguar.

"Nobody was interested in the site before we mapped it. Somebody would've gotten there eventually, but the fact remains that we mapped it and showed it was an important find.

"And the opportunity to be the first at a site so huge was a magical experience. There aren't many the size of Ek Balam left these days."

Yet there's no telling what's underfoot in the neighborhood. Of Ek Balam's 52 close-in structures, only 17 have been restored. Awaiting research are 600 housing platforms in the jungle immediately circling the site. And there's the roadway system that Ringle estimates could total 5.75 square miles. So far, only one of those "white roads" leading out of Ek Balam has been excavated. Ringle's team mapped them; most lead to pyramids or palace-like structures.

And then there are the small tree-covered mounds you see when gazing at the jungle from up on The Tower. Archaeologists believe that each cloaks pieces of the Mayan past.

Ek Balam -- then and now

It's hard to say when Ek Balam ("ek ba-LOM") was built. Radiocarbon dates go back to 700 BC -- though its heyday seems to be Late Classical: A.D. 700-950. The compound contains a stele -- a gravestone-size marker -- that shows two kings decked out in feathered headdress. On the back of it are markings that have been translated to reveal a date: Jan. 22, 840. Around that time, said Cupol the guide, 15,000 to 20,000 people lived in this area.

It's clear that the 2-acre Tower was the nerve center of the monarchy. Some guidebooks refer to it as the Acropolis, but The Tower is the direct translation from what Spanish-speaking locals call it: "La Torre." A total of 72 rooms at The Tower have been restored. Most artifacts unearthed there and elsewhere at Ek Balam are now at the Anthropology and History Museum in Merida, the provincial capital.