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Visiting Mayan Ruins - Cobá
Visiting Coba Through the Years
There are moments in life that stay with you forever. You remember every little detail, every sight, color, smell, feeling you had at the time. One of those moments for me was my first night in Cobá, over twenty years ago.
After a full day visiting the ruins, we went back to the hotel, changed, showered, and went out for dinner. The little restaurant we found was on the road to the ruins, just a few steps from the gates. I don't even know if we could call it a restaurant, it was a home of a Mayan family, with two tables and sets of chairs on a front porch. We were their only guests. They did have a menu, hand typed, with a few choices. The man of the house, the owner, came out, got us our drinks and took our order. Their little boy, about three years old, was coming in and out just checking us out, playing with his dog next to us. The smells from the kitchen were heavenly, and we could hear the sounds of cooking. Everything else was quiet. The ruins were closed for the night, it was dark and quiet around us. As we watched the moon rise over the "Iglesia", the pyramid at the entrance, I knew that this moment would stay with me forever.
Since then we've visited Yucatan often, almost every year for a while. Cobá was always my favorite stop, and even when we missed some of the other sites, I have always insisted of stopping and staying at least one night there .
It isn't just about the ruins. Yes, they are spectacular. But so are the ones in Uxmal, Chichen Itza, or Kalakmul. There is something about that little town, on the shore of the lakes, at the gate of the ancient ruins, that attracts me still, even though it has changed a lot over the years. I remember the first time I was there, most homes didn't even have electricity. I didn't hear Spanish spoken, everyone spoke Mayan. It was there, in the hotel at Cobá where I tried learning Mayan, the modern day, spoken language, since I felt that it would get me closer to the people who live there. It was the most peaceful, beautiful, tranquil village I've visited. I used to fantasize about living there. (I still do).
Twenty years after our first visit, we were in Cobá again.
At first sight it seemed that the village had lost a lot of its charm during the years that passed. It has changed a lot even in the past seven years, since I've last visited it.
While in the past we could not even consider it a day trip from the coast, with the tiny road that led to it, now Cobá ruins are more publicized, as part of the Maya Riviera, connected to all of the other major sites, built up for tourists. This has changed the dynamics of the village as well. Where we had only encountered villagers, and we had one restaurant in town to choose from, in the yard of a local family, now there is a road filled with tourist shops, a few restaurants, and pretty much everyone speaks at least some English. During the day, the place is a hustle and bustle tourist trap. But by five o'clock in the afternoon the buses and most other tourists leave and everything returns to a tranquil, quiet place once again.
The hotel we used to stay at, The Club Med has closed down in the past few years. We weren't sure where we could stay this time. But we needn't have worried. There is a relatively new hotel in town, the Hotel Sac Be, owned by a local family, who became our friends during the two days and nights we stayed there. They, including their teenage children, speak Mayan among themselves. We taught them a little English, they taught us a little Mayan. We were their only guests for the first night, and we felt like we were treated like family.
We visited the ruins as soon as we got there, but as they close very early now (at 4:30), we had plenty of time to just stroll through the village before dinner. The children have just gotten out of school and everywhere in the streets we could see them in their cute uniforms. They were in no rush, some were strolling in groups, talking quietly among themselves, others stopped at the side of the lagoon to "play" with a baby crocodile. One of the kids was nice enough to show us how he could get the crocodile to poke its head out of the water by throwing something to it. We tried taking a photo of it, but you can't recognize its head among the water plants.
Since we have been roaming the ruins in the heat all day, we needed a cold drink. Ice cold coconut water is the very best drink we could have imagined at that time. They keep fresh coconuts refrigerated, then when someone stops and orders one, they cut a hole in it, and give you a straw to drink it with. It restored our energy within moments.
After an early dinner, we walked around the town again, just like in the old days. At that time we had the same feeling we've had twenty years ago. After dark the place was alive, but somehow still quiet. Children playing in the street, strangers passing by always greeted us with a warm smile. Being there, after all these years, truly felt like home.
A Little Bit of History
Cobá is one of the largest and oldest Mayan sites on the Yucatan peninsula. Since it was covered mostly by jungle, it laid undiscovered for a long time after its abandonment. Archaeologists working at Chichen Itza were the first ones to find it and try to clear it. They were amazed of the similarities to the sites in the Petén, where the major Classic Maya sites, like Tikal, are located. Nowhere else on the Yucatan peninsula did they see so many stelae. As they started excavating, they found evidence that Cobá was occupied during the Classic period of the Maya civilization, from about A.D. 100 through most of the Late Post-Classic Period, its peak being during the Late Classic. This makes it one of the oldest sites on the peninsula, where most other sites date from the Late Classic to Post-Classic period.
There seem to have been close ties between Cobá and some of the major Maya centers to the South of the Petén, in Guatemala, during the Classic period. The stelae cult in Cobá is like the one in the Petén tradition, especially the depicting of captives. Later, there seemed to have been ties to the Puuc region (Chichen Itza and vicinity). Cobá seemd to have declined toward the end of the Terminal Classic Period and during the Early Postclassic. Neighboring sites at the end of some of Cobá's sacbeob were abandoned, and the remaining population clustered around the lakes, where their descendants still live today.
About the Archeological Site of Cobá
The site is one of the largest on the Yucatan peninsula, and in its time, it was one of the most important centers there. It is estimated that it had an area of dense population of about 27 square miles. It is actually a number of separated sites, collectively known as Cobá.
Group A is Macanxoc, with a lot of stelae, on a raised platform, my favorite.
Group B is Cobá proper, the entrance to the ruins, and it is located between lakes Cobá and Macanxoc.
Group C consists of Nohuch Mul, the tallest pyramid on the peninsula, and the one that we can still climb.
Group D consists of a ball court with carved monuments, and the smaller pyramid called Conjunto Las Pinturas because of the paintings still visible in its temple.
The site and the town sit among a few lakes, the biggest two being Cobá and Macanxoc, other smaller ones are Xkanha and Zalcalpu.
The main trail from the entrance leaves from the gate to the ruins and goes all the way to Nohuch Mul, about 1.2 miles away. Along the way, side trails lead to the other groups.
It is possible to visit the ruins of Cobá in a few hours. I believe tour buses generally give their tourists two hours, which is enough if you are in a rush. However, to really enjoy it, I would recommend spending a whole day there, from opening to closing time. Just bring in plenty of water, and some snacks or a sack lunch to enjoy in the shade of some of the structures or in the jungle by Lake Macanxoc.
La Iglesia, or Cobá Pyramid
The largest, and most easily accessible group is Group B, with the Iglesia, the first pyramid visible from the entrance, as well as from the road. This is a nine-layer pyramid, with slightly rounded corners, and a wide stairway. The pyramid is badly eroded, and because of this, it is closed to climbing at this time. However, years ago it was open, and possible to climb, though they did have sign saying that you are climbing it at your own risk. If you made it to the top (as we did years ago), you'd see the remains of a temple and a truly impressive view of Lake Cobá as well as Laguna Macanxoc and the village.
There are rooms still visible under the lower part of the stairway, although it is not permitted to enter them at this time. When the doorway was still open to the public, we used to enter and find bats living in the rooms.
Although you can no longer climb the Iglesia or enter the rooms at the base of it, it is still an imposing structure to walk around and enjoy. On a large platform at the bottom of the stairway, a badly eroded stela is still standing, protected by a palapa enclosure.
Farther along the main trail, another side trail leads to the Conjunto Las Pinturas. On this side trail, before reaching the group, another trail leads to Macanxoc Group.
Macanxoc is known for its stelae, history carved in stone. Most of them are standing in one piece and the carved images and writing on them is still visible and recognizable. They are all protected by palapa shelters.
In the recent years another structure has been excavated and reconstructed at this site. You can't get very close to it, since it is still behind a gate, but it looks spectacular, and gives you an idea of how extensive this city really was. Looking behind the gate also gives us a glimpse of the way archaeologists work when they excavate and restore some of the buildings at the site.
What are Stelae
Stelae (plural for stela) are basically history written in stone.
The Maya, just like any other advanced civilization, had a written history. Their codices were destroyed, burned by the Spanish priests, as they were considered "work of the Devil". Three of them survived, thanks to people, Mayans, and probably even Spaniards, who might have risked their lives to protect the written word.
Lucky for us, the Maya didn't only write in books. They also carved their history in stone, and that is something that has been preserved for centuries. They created stelae.
Of course, they were humans, just like all of us. That means that the stelae were erected to celebrate different events, important for specific rulers. The more stelae a ruler could erect, the more powerful he felt, I assume. Stelae are huge slabs of stone, carved with figures, as well as glyphs, usually depicting a moment in history.
Since they are basically history written in stone, each stelae starts with a date. They counted dates in three different way, and that is reflected in their stelae. The birth of a ruler was very important, so his birth date would be carved on his stelae first, then subsequently the date of when he became the ruler, then sometimes other important historical dates, like the date he conquered another city state, if he did. Lastly, the date of his death, or his descent into the Underworld, would also be on his stela.
There are numerous stelae in Kobá, some badly eroded, others still in decent condition. One of the most important stelae in all of Yucatan is found here, called Stelae 1, which contain the longest known hieroglyphic text found here. It contains 313 glyps on the front, back and sides, and records dates from A.D. 653 to 672. Both the front and back depicts the same figure, standing, holding a ceremonial bar, and bound captives below this figure. Most of the other stelae in Cobá are carved only on one side.
Templo de las Pinturas
The main structure at the Conjunto Las Pinturas is the temple, Templo de las Pinturas, a small, one-room temple sitting on top of a pyramid. This site is in slightly better condition than some of the other structures, since it dates from Postclassic times. There are some remains of paintings inside the temple, as well as remains of stucco above the doorway, hence the name. It is not possible to climb this temple at this time. We were lucky enough to do it years ago, and even enter the chamber on top. However, if you know it is there, you can still catch a glimpse of the paint on the top of this structure.
Back at the main trail, the next stop is another side trail that leads to a ballcourt and its carved monuments.
The ballcourt at Cobá is not as spectacular as the one in Chichen Itza, for example. At least it's not as big. However, the carved monuments surrounding it are impressive.
Continuing farther on the main trail, you eventually reach the Nohoch Mul Group, with the talles tpyramid so far excavated on the peninsula. The pyramid base of Nohoch Mul is dated from the Late Postclassic era, and the temple on top is Late Classic.
It is the only pyramid at the site and in the state of Quintana Roo that it is still permitted to climb. The stairway is eroded in places, so be careful, but it is not really dangerous at all. A thick rope is hanging on the stairs in the middle for those who might need assistance, but I found that the stairway is more eroded around the rope and it is easier to climb closer to the sides. It is well worth the climb, not only to see the temple on top, but also for the view of the surrounding area. It is absolutely breathtaking.
We usually try to go to this pyramid first thing in the morning, or very late, at closing time. It is the only time when we can beat the crowds climbing to the top, and avoid sunburn, since the sun is not beating down on us quite as hot as it does in the middle of the day.
Sacbeob (plural for Sacbe) are ancient Mayan roads, and there are many of them in Cobá. Translated, sacbe means "white road". Since they are made of limestone, they used to be indeed white, when clean. Most of them are eroded now, covered with dirt and vegetation, but the white limestone is still visible underneath.
There are at least 45 sacbeob in Kobá, more than in any other Mayan site on the peninsula. Sacbeob connect different parts of the site, as well as buildings within a group. Some seem to go through a portion of one of the lakes. Others go well beyond Cobá, to more distant sites. The most impressive one goes West about 62 miles, and connects Cobá to the site of Yaxuna. The trails you follow at the site are partly on old sacbeob.
Sacbeob are constructed of stone, elevated from the surface of the surrounding area. The walls of a sacbe are rough stone, the bed is made of boulders topped with smaller stones and laid in something like cement. These special roads used to have a layer of stucco on top to make them smooth. Archeaologists today think that these roads were used mostly for ceremonial purposes.
Wild Life in and around Cobá
Since the site is on the shores of a few lakes, in the jungle, wildlife is abundant. Mostly the place is a heaven for birdwatchers. This is one of the reasons I recommend spending a whole day at the site.
Other Attractions Around Cobá - Cenotes
The Yucatan peninsula is filled with cenotes, natural sinkholes resulting from the collapse of limestone. The water in these cenotes is crystal clear. In Yucatec Mayan cenotes are called "tzonot" ot "ts'onot", meaning "well". They supplied drinking water, and for the ancient Maya they also had religious significance.
There are three underground cenotes around Cobá, all easily accessible and worth the short drive. Tamcach-Ha is the one most people visit, since it is deep enough and you can dive into it. Choo-Ha is also beautiful, in a different way, since it is in a cave, with a center, like the ceiba tree trunk, where I could imagine sacrificial offerings piled in the ancient times. Multun-Ha is my favorite though, It is also in a cave, deep underground, with a high enough ceiling that it makes the water even clearer. It is also home to lots of bats, and fish. Since we were lucky enough to have it to ourselves for a while, we really enjoyed it.
How to get there:
- From Cancun airport drive towards Tulum on Hwy 307, then follow the signs to Cobá. While it can be a day trip from Tulum (about 45 min drive), I recommend staying at least one night in town.
Where to stay:
- The hotel Sac Be is right on the main road, hard to miss. They have clean, air conditioned rooms, and wifi. There is no pool at this time, but they are planning on having a pool shared with another hotel in about a year or so.
Where to Eat:
- There are quite a few restaurants in town, some very close to the ruins, others in town. The Hotel Sac Be has a good restaurant on the second floor. Next door there is a bigger restaurant as well for larger groups.
- At the entrance to the ruins, as well as on the road leading to them there are several other restaurants, most have international dishes as well as local fare.
Meals to try:
- Poc Chuc - Mayan/Yucatecan pork dish
- Cochinita Pibil - Mayan pork dish cooked traditionally in an underground oven.
- Pollo Pibil - same, but chicken.
The pibil dishes are marinated in a unique way, and they are truly tasty.
If anything is served with the Tikchnik sauce, it is a great Yucatecan dish as well.
My favorite breakfast was a fresh fruit meal, included mangoes, papaya, melon, citrus, pineapple.... enough for a whole day.
What to bring:
- good walking shoes
- light clothing, since it is warm year around, shorts and t-shirts are sufficient
- to visit the cenotes: bathing suit and maybe snorkel gear
- adventurous attitude :)
At the Ruins:
- entrance fee is 64 pesos/person as of March 2015
- The archaeological site is open from 9 am to 4:30 pm.
- There are bicycles available to rent which makes going to the different buildings faster.
- "Taxis" are also available which consists of seats in the front of a bicycle and driven by locals.
- Guides are offering their services at the entrance, in a few different languages. While I've never hired one, since I've studied the Maya pretty extensively prior to my first visit there, they are very knowledgeable and well worth their price.
- There is even a small shop offering cold drinks close to Nohuch Mul now, in case the heat gets to you by the time you get off the pyramid.
- You can always count on being hot and humid in Cobá. Temperatures are around mid to high 80s almost year round, with hitting the 90s in the summer months, and it's always humid. Best time to visit is the winter months, but early spring can still be pleasant. Most of the time there is a breeze, especially in the late afternoon, thanks to the lakes.