Cobá: Modern Village and Ancient Mayan Site
It Was Easy to Fall in Love With Cobá
There are moments in life that stay with you forever. You remember every little detail, every sight, color, smell, and feeling you had at the time. One of those moments for me was over twenty years ago on my first night in Cobá.
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, a few steps from the gates. I don't even know if we could call it a restaurant. We sat on a front porch of a Mayan family, with only two tables and sets of chairs. They had no other guest, so we had their undivided attention. The hand-typed menu we tried to decipher had only a few choices, but it didn't matter. Judging from the smells that came from the kitchen, anything would be great.
We felt like guests in a Mayan home. In later years I learned that the true Maya always make you feel like family. 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, checking us out with a shy smile. He was 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.
We were right, the food was delicious. Sitting there, watching the moon rise over the pyramid, I knew that this moment would stay with me forever. I was in love with this sleepy little town in the shade of the old site.
Visiting the Village Through the Years
Since then we've visited Yucatan often, almost every year for a while. Cobá was always my favorite stop. Even when we had little time and had to skip some sites, I always insisted of stopping here. In the old days, we had to spend at least one night, since it took too long to get there from the coast.
Of course I enjoy the ruins. Yes, they are spectacular. But so are the ones in Uxmal, Chichen Itza, or Kalakmul. But there is something special about that little town, on the shore of the lakes, at the gate of the ancient ruins.
It attracts me still, even though it has changed a lot over the years. The first time I was there, most homes didn't even have electricity. I didn't hear Spanish spoken, everyone spoke only Mayan. It was there, in the hotel at Cobá where I tried learning Mayan. If I wanted to communicate with the locals, I thought I needed to understand their language. The hotel staff at the Club Med, the only place to stay at the time, spoke Spanish and even English. But out in the town, everyday people didn't. Women still wore their traditional dresses, the huipils.
Twenty years after our first visit, we were in Cobá again. Seven years passed since I my last time there. I noticed the biggest change at the time.
At first sight it seemed that the village lost a lot of its charm during the years that passed.
The ruins of Cobá ruins are more publicized, as part of the Maya Riviera. They built a new road to the town, which makes it easy for tour buses to come in several times a day. This changed the dynamics of the village as well.
The road that we had our first meal in the yard of the local family is filled with tourist shops and newer restaurants. During the day, instead of seeing only locals, we encounter more tourists than anyone else. The locals all speak English to some degree, no need for me to learn modern Maya any more. During the day, the place is a huge tourist trap. But by five o'clock in the afternoon the buses leave. Soon after, all the other cars disappear from the huge parking lot that takes up half the road. As soon as the tourists leave, everything returns to a tranquil, quiet state. Not quite as quiet as before. Not quite as dark, either. Televisions, radios, bright lights are part of life here now.
But as we walk through the dark streets of the town we came to love, we have a smile on our faces. The younger kids are still outside, playing soccer in the street, greeting us politely as we pass. The mothers sit in front of their homes and chat with their neighbors, while watching their kids. They all smile at us as we pass. We are the only gringos in town walking through their neighborhoods.
A Little Bit of History
Cobá is one of the largest and oldest Mayan sites on the Yucatan peninsula. Covered by jungle, it laid undiscovered for a long time after the ancients left.
Archaeologists working at Chichen Itza heard about another great site from the locals. They were the first ones to find it and try to clear it. When they did, they found similarities to the sites in the Petén, where the major Classic Maya sites are. Nowhere else on the Yucatan peninsula did they see so many stelae. This was an indication that Cobá was, indeed a Classic site. Ancients lived here during the Classic period of the Maya civilization, from about 100 AD. This makes it one of the oldest sites on the peninsula.
They found evidence that Cobá had close ties to some of the major Classic Maya centers to the South. 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 Itzá and vicinity).
The end of the city's heighday came toward the end of the Terminal Classic Period. People abandoned the neighboring sites first. As they left, they came and clustered around Cobá and its lakes. In the end, even here, they left their elaborate buildings and the city. But they continued to live in the vicinity, near the surrounding lakes.
At the Archeological Site
The site is one of the largest on the Yucatan peninsula, and in its time, it was one of the most important centers there. That might have to do something with the lakes around the city. In a place where water is scarce, a cluster of four lakes make a huge difference. Two of the bigger ones are Cobá and Macanxoc.
When you enter the ruins, the first structure you see is the Iglesia.This is the pyramid visible from the entrance and from the village. Its stairway is badly eroded, we are not able to climb it. It is closed off, but even when they allowed visitors to climb it, I never made it to the top. I could go up halfway, but after that I needed to crawl through jungle vegetation and rubble. Not my idea of fun, especially since I always had kids with me. But we, including the kids, used to enjoy going inside the rooms at the base of this pyramid. It was the first place our kids encountered bats, and enjoyed the experience. Since we couldn't even get close to the room, we left the Iglesias after a quick glimpse and took off on the main trail.
We stopped at the reconstructed ball court, and admired it now, that we could see it all. But we didn't linger, we decided to stop again on the way back. We rushed through the jungle to get to Nohuch Mul before the crowds descended upon it.
The tallest pyramid excavated so far on the peninsula, Nohuch Mul is also the only one that we are allowed to climb. Though a long climb on narrow stairs, we rushed to the top, to enjoy the breeze and some quiet time alone. As usual, the climb was well worth it, not only to see the temple on top, but also for the view of the surrounding area.
We stopped at the Conjunto Las Pinturas for a few minutes. I remember when we sat on top of it, and entered the small temple with the brightly colored paintings on its walls. Now we could only look at the small pyramid from outside. Since we knew where to look, and the sun was angled right, we did catch a glimpse of the paintings.
We continued to the Group Macanxoc, known for the stelae scattered through it. Most of them are standing, and the carved images and writing is visible on them. We couldn't touch them, but got close enough to have a clear view of the images.
Talking About Stelae, What Are They?
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 Mayans, who risked their lives to protect them.
The Maya might have known that codices could be destroyed, because they also carved their history in stone. They created stelae. Fortunately for them, but not for us, the peninsula is made of limestone, easy to carve, but also easy to erode.
Of course, they were humans, and their leaders had pretty big egos. Stelae were erected to celebrate events, important for specific rulers. The more stelae a ruler could erect, the more powerful he felt, I assume. They had scribes, and artists carve images of them and their entourage during significant moments in their history. The pictures were not enough, the historical moments were also written out with glyphs.
Each stelae starts with a date. 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 many stelae in Kobá, some badly eroded, others in decent condition. One of the most important stelae in all of Yucatan is here, called Stelae 1. The longest known hieroglyphic text is carved on it. 313 glyps on the front, back and sides, and it records dates from A.D. 653 to 672. Most of the other stelae in Cobá are carved only on one side.
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.
Wildlife Around CobáClick thumbnail to view full-size
Other Attractions in the Area: 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.