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Coba Mayan Ruins: A Yucatan Day Trip

On a recent trip to the Mayan Rivera in Mexico, a highlight was a day trip to see the ancient Mayan ruins of Cobá (pronounced koh-BAH). We were enjoying a glam week at a posh resort in Playa del Carmen but knew we would want to explore off-resort and see some local sights. I was especially keen to visit a Mayan site. Tours leaving from our resort were offered to Tulum, Chichen Itza, El Balam and Cobá. We chose the Coba Cultural Sunset tour because it was lesser-known (meaning less touristy) than Tulum, and closer than Chichen Itza and offered a couple of extra stops along the way that looked interesting. We were looking forward to seeing the ruins, swimming in cenotes, visiting a traditional Mayan community, and seeing a cultural show while enjoying a sunset dinner.

Our first stop on the tour was at an artisan community where we were greeted and blessed by the local shaman before being ushered into their gift shop. The shaman conducted the ritual in Mayan and our guide translated for us

There were many splendid offerings, many made of the beautiful volcanic rock, obsidian. These were all beautifully crafted and the prices reflected that. There were some less expensive trinkets available. Those who made purchases received an extra personalized blessing.

While we chose a group tour, it is possible to visit the ruins independently and at a much more budget-friendly price. The site is open from 8am to 5pm daily (last entrance at 4:30 pm). The drive takes about 1.5 hours from Playa del Carmen. Taxis and collectivos are available that will take you straight to the site. A controversial tourist train is currently being built that will take tourists to all sites that is scheduled to be operational in 2023. The entrance fee is 80 MXN (about $4 CAD) and there is an additional fee for parking. Only pesos are accepted. Our tour stopped to pick up guests from other resorts and hotels so it took almost twice as long.

Visitors can choose to walk the site, rent a bicycle, or take the "Mayan limo" -- a chauffeured tricycle peddled by a local. The bicycles are old, rickety, and of dubious quality but they worked and it was a nice ride through the jungle on a very hot and humid day.

It is believed that Cobá (meaning "waters stirred by the wind") was one of the most important sites on the Yucatan Peninsula. The design and purpose appears very different than other Mayan cities. In Cobá, several settlements were connected to the main pyramid, Nohoch Mul, by long white roads called sacbe. At its peak, the population has been estimated to be about 50,000. Several of the stelae here are women, suggesting that some of the rulers and important citizens were women. The 80 square hectare (30 square mile) site was rediscovered in the mid-1800s but the jungle, the Caste War, and inevitable funding issues kept the site largely unexcavated until the 1970s. Much of the site is still covered by jungle.

Visitors move along some of the original sacbes. About 50 sacbes have been discovered with one reaching over 100 km long almost to Chichen Itza. These roads would have required more effort to build than the temples and were mainly used to move goods. It was busiest during the cooler hours overnight when the moonlight was reflected off the white limestone. Mayans did not use wheeled vehicles so all goods were carried.

Throughout the site are a large number of stelae (large stone slabs). These are carved with glyphs and drawings that document the people, events, and other information. There is still much that isn't known about Mayan culture and this particular site but archeologists are using these to discover the history and movement of the residents. Most of these glyphs are greatly eroded so having a guide to explain what we were seeing and pointing out various features is extremely helpful. I found moving to get different angles and light helped me to see more of the design. This one shows a king standing on the heads of two people. There are three main areas or groupings to explore, the Conjunto Pinturas (Spiritual Area), the Macanxoc, and the Nohoc Mul.

The first structures we saw were close to the entrance and included the Iglesia (church) and one of the two ball courts on the site. The traditional ball game, ōllamaliztli, was not played for pleasure or sport, instead it was a show of strength, direction from the gods, and a ritual. Rules seemed to change in different places and time periods but the general idea was that players had to bounce a heavy rubber ball through stone rings using their hips. Sometimes the captain of the winning team was sacrificed.

The main structure and focus of the Spiritual Area is the Pyramid of the Painted Lintel. It is possible to see some of the paintings at the top of the structure from ground level but you'll have to walk around a bit to find a good angle.

From the Spiritual Area we cycled on to the Macanxoc Group. This area has many altars and stelaes, indicating that this was also an area of great spiritual importance. This is where one of the best preserved stelae can be found. It was discovered by a young boy who was kicking over stones. Our guide told us that almost all the important discoveries at Cobá were discovered accidentally rather than by the archeologists.

In the very center of Cobá is the Nohoch Mul Pyramid. This is the main structure and would have been an important gathering place. This is the largest pyramid on the Yucatan Peninsula and all sacbes begin here and follow the cardinal directions.

Until very recently, visitors could climb the 120 steps to the top for a wide view of the entire site. The visitors and the rope used to guide visitors have caused significant damage and the government no longer allows climbing.

After seeing all we could see and to try and get back into our coach before the threatening storm hit, we cycled back to the entrance where we would travel to our next stop at one of the nearby cenotes.

There are thousands of cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula and three of those are located just west of Cobá village. Unlike previous cenotes we had visited, Cobá's cenotes are in underground indicating they are the youngest since the roof and walls have not yet eroded.

We visited the Tamkach Ha (deep water) cenote. The entry is a wooden stairway that leads deep down into a cave with clear cool beautiful water, stalactites, fish and bats. There is a tall diving platform for the adventurous or for those of us who are more cautious, visitors can enter from the water's edge.

We stopped briefly at a Mayan community where we watched local women prepare tortillas and were able to sample various toppings including pumpkin seed spread, honey, and an egg mix.

The final experience on the tour was back at Cobá Village where we had a traditional meal and watched a demonstration of the Mayan ball game and some of the rituals associated with the game.

The body paint, costumes, drumming, and dancing was spectacular. The game was easy to follow and we were soon cheering with delight. Dinner was hearty and tasty.

While we had enjoyed ourselves and all the experiences, we were disappointed to be loaded back on the coach before sunset. When we had booked, the sunset viewing had been a major selling point. The brochure we had studied had promised a stop at a pottery workshop but we were later told that we had an "old" brochure. The guide was good and explained our activities well. The activities were varied and I enjoyed learning more about the Mayan culture of the region.


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