Rarely Visited Ek Balam A Must See When In Cancun

We wanted to do something different on our latest trip to the Cancun area. We rarely stay in Cancun, but prefer the area between Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Here, within a comfortable driving time you can see the massive pyramid at Coba and the seaside temple complex of Tulum, and not far is Chichen Itza and a relatively untouristed ruin, Ek Balam.

One of our family members hadn’t seen Chichen Itza, so that was on the itinerary. While searching out tours to the complex, we came upon side trips to Ek Balam. We hadn’t heard of it before, so we were intrigued to find out more. It’s located about an hour’s drive southeast of Chichen Itza (which is almost straight north of Tulum), making it a great opportunity to see both in one day.

With six people, taking a private tour made it cost effective, plus the driver was flexible, giving us much more time in the ruins that a regular tour bus would provide. We used CARM, which stands for Cancun and Riviera Maya. Excellent service, lunch and cenote swim included, so would highly recommend you give them a look.

Main pyramid at Ek Balam showing the thatched roofing

Main pyramid at Ek Balam showing the thatched roofing

Ek Balam means Black Jaguar. It was occupied for some 1,000 years, slowly becoming abandoned about 1,100 AD, so certainly within the timeframes of most other Mayan complexes. The main pyramid is 95 feet tall (for reference, Chichen Itza’s El Castillo is 98 feet tall, Coba is 137 feet high). The stairs getting to the top are steep, as with most other ruins.

The mouth of the Jaguar at Ek Balam. Notice the curved teeth at the bottom

The mouth of the Jaguar at Ek Balam. Notice the curved teeth at the bottom

There are several very interesting elements if you go. First, at Chichen Itza, climbing is no longer allowed on any ruin after a woman fell to her death in 2006, but at Ek Balam you are free to climb. About half way up the Ek Balam pyramid there are amazing – and we were told, original – stucco carvings protected my modern thatched grass roofs, unlike any other site on the Yucatan. It is believed that as Chichen Itza rose in influence, and Ek Balam declined, the Maya buried the main pyramid at Ek Balam to preserve the stucco sculptures and many of the painted artworks and inscriptions. The artwork is believed to honour a king who was buried in the main structure. There are 45 structures on the site, within a one sq. km area, but the city is believed to cover 12 sq. kms, with more structures that haven’t been excavated.

Following our visit there, we drove to Chichen Itza. This is the most famous site in the Yucatan, and is visited by some 1.4 million people each year. No wonder they have closed it to climbers. Years ago we were able to climb every structure, but understandably, that many people would cause too much destruction, so climbing has been banned.

One of the most interesting discoveries there is a musical note that is produced by clapping when you face the El Castillo, or main pyramid. When you go there, it has become a feature of every tour to have visitors clap their hands to make the note. Only two of the sides have been restored. The north side is where the light and shadow can be seen on the equinoxes, making it appear that the two serpents on that side are moving down the side of the pyramid. Also, on the west side of the pyramid is an iron gate, leading to several interior chambers, including what is called the Throne Room. You can no longer get inside, but at one time, we were able to walk into the tunnel to view the interior of the pyramid. To read more about Chichen Itza and Ek Balam, take a look at this book available on Amazon.

One downside to visiting Chichen Itza is the throngs of trinket vendors who have been allowed into the site. Down the pathways leading to the various temples, visitors run a gauntlet of vendors at every turn. Not pleasant.

Where to stay and how to get around

When we want a break from everything, we tend to seek out all-inclusives. There’s a psychological advantage in not thinking about how much a meal or a drink costs. Plus, when you book a 4.5 or 5-star, the service and food is of very high quality.

This time we chose to stay at the Now Sapphire resort just north of Puerto Morelos. We had stayed there once before and were very impressed. The price was right this time around as part of a package tour from Westjet Vacations, so we rebooked. We weren’t disappointed. Be aware of the dates you book at any all-inclusive. When the children are off school, the parents bring them, so at times there were a large number of babies and very young children who can disturb a peaceful holiday. Our next trip will be at an adults only resort.

There is no Uber along the Riviera Maya, but there is clearly a need for it. Taxis have a monopoly and charge the sun and the moon for trips. We went into nearby Puerto Morelos to meet up with friends. You can walk there from the resort, and a taxi ride is about 5 minutes. The charge was $80 US return. That’s just plain extortion, so we’re all for Uber and will welcome it when it finally arrives.

A Word About Our Partners

To help you on your way, we’ve partnered with several top travel and resource companies. You’ll find them along the right side of the page.

We’re also big fans of Uber, so if you’re new to Uber, check out the discount code on the right side of the page under the Uber logo. You’ll get a discount on your trip for signing up. To enter the code, tap the “Payment” menu item within the Uber app, and then “Add Promo/Gift Code.” After submitting, the free credit will appear on your account, and we’ll also get a discount for helping you out.

Have a look at our Cheap Flights page for some search suggestions, and check out our partners listed along the right side of the page who can help with flights, accommodation and travel resources.

Add Mexico City To Your Bucket List

We travel a lot, but Mexico City was never high on our priority list. The media reports of gang and drug violence didn’t help. But our recent trip to MEX completely changed our perceptions. Mexico City – its people, museums and history – won us over. We’re now big fans and encourage you to move this one higher on your travel list.

More than two million people visit Mexico City each year, and that number is expected to climb. That’s a sizeable number of visitors considering the population of the city and immediate surroundings is about 21 million, making it the largest city in the western hemisphere.

A Morning at Teotihuacan

The Pyramid of the Moon as seen from the top of the Pyramid of the Sun

The Pyramid of the Moon as seen from the top of the Pyramid of the Sun

The history of Mexico has always interested us and we frequently visit Mayan ruins. This time, we wanted to see Teotihuacan, the ancient temple complex 40 kms northeast of the city. Who the original builders were is a mystery. It was built more than 1,000 years before the Aztecs arrived. At one time it was the largest city in the Americas, housing – by some estimates – as many as 200,000 people during its height between 100 BC and 650 AD.

The site covers 83 sq. kms and is the most visited archaeological site in Mexico. While the Aztecs gave it its current name, the city was in ruins when they arrived, having been abandoned twice in the past. The last occurred around 650 AD when, according to theory, an internal uprising burned parts of the city. It sat unoccupied until excavations began to uncover the structures in the 1800s. You can read more about Teotihuacan in this book from Amazon.

The Pyramid of the Sun was restored to mark the 100th anniversary of Mexican independence in 1910. Restoration of the other structures have carried on to the present. If you plan to climb it – and who doesn’t! – wear firm footwear and hold onto the rubber line running up the steps. Even though the steps are in excellent condition compared to some we’ve climbed, it doesn’t take much to misstep.

Temple of the Feathered Serpent

Temple of the Feathered Serpent

In 2003, a heavy rain forced a sinkhole to develop at the foot of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. Exploration uncovered a 300 metre tunnel that went to the middle of the temple. Pottery, bones and other artifacts were found along with some oddities such as liquid mercury and small pyrite balls. How and why they were made and used is unknown.

The entire site is best viewed from atop the Pyramid of the Moon where you can look down the entire four kilometre length of the Avenue of the Dead, as it is called, to see the Pyramid of the Sun and numerous smaller temples and platforms.

 

Templo Mayor

Spanish for major temple, this ruin lies next to the Zocalo, or main square in downtown Mexico, and right next to the Metropolitan Cathedral. The temple was built around 1325. Excavations started in 1978 and required tearing down some 13 buildings to find most of the temple structures. It’s a fascinating ruin to walk through, after which a visit to the attached museum is a must. A large number of artifacts are housed there.

 

 

The Aztec Calendar

Almost everyone has heard about or seen photos of this large stone disk, that now sits on display at the Anthropology Museum. It is commonly called the Aztec Calendar, but it is also known as the Sun Stone. It was carved in 1479 and weighs 14 tons. It was originally located under what is now the National Palace on one side of the Zocalo. The location in the building is marked by a tree and plaque where the disk once rested. After it was found in 1790, it was put on display at the nearby Metropolitan Cathedral and then relocated to the museum. It is considered a national treasure.

 

Food, Hotels and Transportation

A plate of Red Snapper at the Balcon del Zocalo rooftop restaurant

A plate of Red Snapper at the Balcon del Zocalo rooftop restaurant

The food in Mexico City is diverse and delicious. We kept to Mexican dishes since we were in Mexico. 🙂 We stayed with medium to high-end restaurants as opposed to street vendors since the street food wasn’t as appealing for us. Tacos and other traditional Mexican foods are offered in restaurants, as well as some offbeat traditional food such as ant eggs, larva and grasshoppers. We stuck with foods we recognized! Meals were not expensive. Even the most expensive were about half what we would spend at home.

We went through Expedia to find our hotel, the NH Centro Historico. As the name suggests, it is right downtown a block or so from the historical district, which was perfect for us. The hotel staff were terrific and helpful, the room was very nice and quiet. We would recommend checking it out for your visit.

For transport, we took a cab from the airport. Cost was 250 pesos ($16 Cdn) for our particular trip. However, after that we went with Uber. Uber in Mexico City is safe, the drivers are friendly and the rates are very low. The cost to travel from downtown to the Anthropology Museum, for example, was about 100 pesos, or six dollars. If you’re new to Uber, check out the discount code on the right side of the page under the Uber logo. You’ll get a discount on your trip for signing up. To enter the code, tap the “Payment” menu item within the Uber app, and then “Add Promo/Gift Code.” After submitting, the free credit will appear on your account, and we’ll also get a discount for helping you out.

You can also consider the subway. It goes everywhere, is safe but generally packed during rush hours. Cost is about five pesos, which is about thirty-five cents.

Mexico City is Famous for its Artwork

Giant mural depicting the history of Mexico in the National Palace

Giant mural depicting the history of Mexico in the National Palace

When someone suggested we visit the National Palace to see the murals of Diego Rivera, we immediately made plans to see them since we were staying only a short distance away. The murals tell the history of Mexico, from the early days, to the coming of the Spaniards, to the break from Spanish rule. Rivera is one of Mexico’s national treasures. Another is Frida Kahlo, who was married to Rivera for a time. Her home has been turned into one of the most popular museums in the city.

 

 

 

 

A Word About Safety

Exterior detail of the Metropolitan Cathedral

Exterior detail of the Metropolitan Cathedral

While Mexico City is safe in the tourist areas where you will likely spend much of your time, there are exceptions. As in any large city there are street people, beggars and pickpockets, so just remain aware of your surroundings. Don’t take gypsy cabs, and don’t wander into areas where few tourists would go. Put your wallet in your front pocket and you should be just fine. We never felt uncomfortable anywhere we went.

In our view, Mexico City is a terrific place full of culture and history that is well worth the visit!

 

 

Where to Stay 

There are plenty of place to stay in Mexico City. We would suggest staying near the historical centre of the city. From there, it’s easy to walk around. Check our partners along the right side of the page, and stroll your way through the many accommodation options.

Getting Around

As noted above, we’re big fans of Uber, so if you’re new to Uber, check out the discount code on the right side of the page under the Uber logo. You’ll get a discount for signing up. To enter the code, tap the “Payment” menu item in the Uber app, and then “Add Promo/Gift Code.” After submitting, the free credit will appear on your account, and we’ll also get a discount for helping you out.

Step Back in Time in Bruges, Belgium

If you find yourself in Western Europe, consider a trip to Bruges in northwest Belgium. Dubbed the “Venice of the North”, this city is a very popular tourist destination, marked by its canals, cobblestone streets and medieval buildings that were left virtually untouched during the First and Second World Wars.

Downtown is a good place to start

The city’s centre is where most people are attracted. Burg Square is where you’ll find the 14th century city hall building. The nearby Markt Square dates back hundreds of years, and is visually marked by the 13th-century tower with its 47-bell carillon and 83 metre tower offering amazing views of the downtown.

Bruges is a UNESCO World Heritage City. You’re going to want photos at every turn. If you’re looking for a postcard perfect photo, head over to the Rozenhoedkaai (a street along the canal). This part of Bruges is the most photographed spot in the city, giving you that postcard-like memory of your visit.

Not far from city hall in Burg Square is a Gothic chapel – the Basilica of the Holy Blood, where – as the name suggests – a vial of Jesus’ blood is said to be preserved. You can take photos, but keep your camera shutter quiet or you might be asked to leave. In late May, the vial is removed and included in a procession through the town. Some 100,000 people converge on Bruges each year to watch the parade, so time your visit accordingly.

Avoid the crowds and try these ideas

Bruges is a busy place in the summer, so, if you’re so inclined, here are a few ideas to steer clear of the crowds.

Take a walking tour. Visitors often recommend Legends Tours. You’ll be setting eyes on the Market square, Gruuthusemuseum, Lake of Love, Half Moon brewery, Bonifacius Bridge and more favourite city spots.

If you like Surrealistic art, give the Salvador Dali exhibition a try. It’s not your usual museum visit. In fact, you could say it’s a little surreal. While in the area, be sure not to miss the Picasso exhibit at the nearby Oud Sint-Jan (Old St. John) site. Dali and Picasso had a mutual rivalry, yet admiration, for each other. Dali’s portrait of Picasso hangs in his exhibit, while a Picasso rendition of Dali hangs in his.

Madonna and Child is a marble sculpture by Michelangelo. Created in 1504, this is the only sculpture to leave Italy during his lifetime. It was placed at the Church of Our Lady in Bruges and only moved twice – once during the French Revolution and once during World War 2. The fictionalized story of this removal can be seen in the hollywood movie Monuments Men. Make sure you stop in and take a look. She is truly a magnificent piece of artwork.

 

 

 

After leaving the church (or maybe before you go into the church) make sure to see the Old St. John’s Hospital (Sint-Janshospitaal). This was one of the first hospital buildings in Europe. Built in 1104 it operated until 1977. From 1108 – 1236 it operated separately from the church but a Bishop changed that and later expanded the hospital to include a convent to help care for the sick. Lepers and the insane were brought for treatment here. The museum holds many tools for medical treatment of the time. From the looks of those on display, we’re sure happy to be around during the day of modern medicine.

Windmills aren’t just in Holland. Follow the Bruges Art Route on bike or by foot, along canals and past some of the city’s windmills to the Groeningmuseum where some of Belgium’s finest are collections are on display.

Beer and chocolate – and waffles

If you want to stop for a pint along the way, we suggest the oldest pub in Bruges, Cafe Vlissinghe, built in 1515 at 2 Blekersstraat. This is a quaint little pub with a lively atmosphere. You can see the worn steps as you enter the pub. Obviously a well visited place! There is a little courtyard in the back if you want a little extra room.

‘t Brugs Beertje is a specialty cafe opened in 1983 in a 400-year-old building. It serves more than 300 brands. The cafe is on Kemelstraat near the centre of the city.

Did you know that under the medieval streets lies a three-kilometre long beer pipeline? Built in 2016, it connects de Halve Maan Brewery in the city centre to a bottling plant out of town and pumps 1,000 gallons of beer and hour, enough beer to fill 12,000 bottles per hour. The brewery offers daily tours of the brewery and museum.

Or if chocolate is more your thing – you’re in Belgium after all – drop by the Choco-Story Museum for handmade chocolates. Inside you’ll find sculptures, demonstrations, a chocolate shop and chocolate samples. Or give the more touristy Chocolate Line a try.

Don’t forget your Belgian waffles. This is the country that made them famous. Trust us, there really is no other better place to try them.

Where to Stay 

There are plenty of place to stay in Bruges. We would suggest staying near the old town square. It is very centralized and an easy place to walk around. Check our partners along the right side of the page, and stroll your way through the many accommodation options.

Getting Around

We’re also big fans of Uber, so if you’re new to Uber, check out the discount code on the right side of the page under the Uber logo. You’ll get a discount for signing up. To enter the code, tap the “Payment” menu item in the Uber app, and then “Add Promo/Gift Code.” After submitting, the free credit will appear on your account, and we’ll also get a discount for helping you out.

 

 

Put Alberta on Your Bucket List

We’re fortunate to have Alberta’s foothills and Rocky Mountains out our back door. And if you like snow-capped mountains, deep river valleys and the outdoor life, look no further than the incredible scenery in southern Alberta.

Fly into Calgary, rent a car and head an hour west along the Transcanada Highway. The mountains slowly rise in the distance until you crest a hill just outside of Canmore, and the mountains are suddenly there.

 

If you like golf, there are a number of world-class courses on your way. Kananaskis is one of the best. It was closed in 2013 after floods overtook the course. It reopened in 2018 and is a golfer’s dream. Just watch out for the deer, elk, bears and other wildlife who think they own the course!

Mount Norquay, near Banff

Mount Norquay, near Banff

Whitewater rafting with our friends at Canmore Raft Tours, fishing or simply hiking in Banff or Jasper National Park are all on the to-do list for those who like the great outdoors. If you come in winter, check out of the skiing. Calgary played host to the 1988 Winter Olympics, and the ski venues that dot the mountains pay homage to some of the best powder skiing in the world.

The area around Calgary is a year-round playground, so plan to make this part of the world one of your holiday destinations. For a few ideas for quick day trips from Calgary, check out this book on Amazon, or head over to Indigo books (link on right side of page). And since you’re heading into the great outdoors, check out the great selection of clothing from our friends at Columbia Sportswear (on the right side of the page).

 

How to get there

A stunning sunset, courtesy of Alberta's skies

A stunning sunset, courtesy of Alberta’s skies

As mentioned fly into Calgary. We suggest booking with Expedia or one of the other booking engines on the right side of the screen. Book a car and hotel or BnB before you leave. We recommend one of our partners. They’ve provide terrific service when we travel.

Pick up the car at the airport and head west towards Canmore and Banff. Check the Travel Alberta website for things to do. There are too many to list here. For something a little different, there’s even a flooded virtually intact town under the waters of Lake Minnewanka that is still available to divers!

We’re also big fans of Uber, so if you’re new to Uber, check out the discount code on the right side of the page under the Uber logo. You’ll get a discount on your trip for signing up. To enter the code, tap the “Payment” menu item within the Uber app, and then “Add Promo/Gift Code.” After submitting, the free credit will appear on your account, and we’ll also get a discount for helping you out.

 

 

 

 

 

Postcards from Egypt

A trip to Egypt is incomplete without a visit to the Giza plateau. We’ve been there twice, the first time with a tour group, but we weren’t able to get into the Great Pyramid, which was disappointing. The second time, there was no problem gaining entry. I simply purchased a ticket at the ticket office (200 Egyptian Pounds, or about $14 Canadian dollars).

I was “enjoying” a stomach bug at the time and was severely dehydrated but I was going to go into the pyramid and see what thousands of others had seen before me.

No cameras allowed, but the caretaker at the entrance was more than happy to snap a souvenir shot.

The pyramids are synonymous with Egypt but their history is up for debate. Tombs, say some. Houses of sacred initiation say others. And if you’re an Ancient Aliens buff, well you get the picture.

Regardless of what you think you know of them, experiencing them first hand is an awe-inspiring experience.

While on the plateau, an interesting way to experience the site is on camel back. Be sure to negotiate a price beforehand and stick with it. On our trip, the camel owners walking with us stopped half way through the trip and demanded more money. We refused and threatened a call to the tourist police who patrol the site. That was the end of that shakedown attempt.

The Khan el-Khalili Bazaar

The world-famous Khan el-Khalili in downtown Cairo offers something for everyone. This marketplace offers a glimpse into the traditional buying and selling practices that have been in place for some 700 years. The alleyways are crammed with stalls where merchants sell their goods to Egyptians and tourists.

Spices, perfumes, jewelry, pottery of varying quality and of course, the souvenirs. Bargaining is part of the experience in the bazaar. A good rule is to offer a quarter of the asking price and go from there. And if you just want to sit and enjoy the parade of people, find one of the numerous coffee shops in the market. One of the oldest is the Al-Fishawi coffee shop, which is said to date back hundreds of years.

A Cruise on the Nile

A terrific way to see many of the spectacular ruins and temples along the Nile is on a river cruise. Four to ten-day cruises are offered by a large number of tour companies. They all visit the same temples, while some offer extended activities such as hot-air balloon rides.

The temple at Edfu

The temple at Edfu

We started our cruise at Aswan and ended at Luxor, with a flight back to Cairo. Along the way we saw the Valley of the Kings and King Tut’s tomb, the Hatshepsut temple in the Valley of the Queens. We stopped at the Kom Ombo temple, Edfu temple, the Philae temple and the Collossi of Memnon. To be honest, all of the temples began to blend together by the end of the trip and a number of people on our ship were “templed out” and chose to spend time either on the boat or in the towns along the shore.

A Word About Our Partners

To help you on your way, we’ve partnered with several top travel and resource companies. Check them out on the right side of the page.

We’re also big fans of Uber, so if you’re new to Uber, check out the discount code on the right side of the page under the Uber logo. You’ll get a discount on your trip for signing up. To enter the code, tap the “Payment” menu item within the Uber app, and then “Add Promo/Gift Code.” After submitting, the free credit will appear on your account, and we’ll also get a discount for helping you out.

Have a look at our Cheap Flights page for some search suggestions, and check out our partners listed along the right side of the page who can help with flights, accommodation, language lessons and travel resources.

If you’d like to learn more before you go, check out books about Egypt on Amazon.