A visit to Cobá requires some
effort but is worthwhile. Its name means "ruffled waters",
derived from the five lakes in the vicinity, and it is one of
the oldest Mayan settlements on the peninsula. It also has the
highest pyramid in the area and the greatest concentration of
sacbeob (Mayan roads constructed from stone), both of which
suggest a major city - yet the ruins were not discovered until
the late 19th century. Only a small fraction of the many
structures in this vast site have been excavated and this,
together with the remoteness and jungle setting, contribute to
the feeling of exploring new ground.
Cobá was a thriving city from
around A.D.600, although it had been settled for around a
thousand years before this date. It is more similar to Tikal in
Guatemala than to its Mayan neighbors, and depictions of female
Tikal royalty on several stelae found here have led to
speculation that there was at least one marriage between the
royalty of the two cities.
Map from Planetware
Another interesting feature of
Cobá is the convergence of around forty sacbe (ancient roadway),
built by the Maya, one of which has been traced a distance of 60
miles. Each sacbe was constructed with stones to a height of one
to two meters and then covered with white mortar. Their purpose
is puzzling as this civilization had no wheeled transport and
had yet to see the horse, but may have been built for religious
processions and pilgrimages.
Coba is about an hour drive into the interior from Tulum.
You pass interesting little native villages and houses along the
way, which are just barely carved out of the dense jungle.
Interactive map from
The first group of structures (Grupo
Cobá) is within view of the entrance. Our strategy was to walk
to the furthest point first (Nohoch Mul pyramid) and work our
way out - so this was actually the last group of structures we
saw. We made a quick stop at the ballcourt, and then
hiked to the Nohoch Mul pyramid.
If you can
follow the signs without getting lost, you can hike to Nohoch
Mul, the largest pyramid, over a mile (nearly 2 km) away. The
walk is interesting as there are several stelae, protected by
palapa roofs, shown where they were discovered and there are
many more unexcavated mounds along the way. This is also a good
chance to observe the jungle life; butterflies, birds and
insects abound but the path is wide and foliage well cleared.
Nohoch Mul towers above the
jungle. The steps are disintegrating in places (look for
shell-like carvings in others), but climbing the pyramid is not
too difficult. Descending is a bit unnerving, but the scenery at
the top is beautiful - miles of jungle, lakes and a good view of
the site as a whole. The temple, which crowns the pyramid, was
added later and is similar in style to those at Tulúm; there is
a carving of the descending god at the entrance.
In the Grupo Cobá is La Iglesia,
a pyramid over 65 ft (20 m) high and the second largest at Cobá. The
steps are steep and crumbling, and climbing has been prohibited. This is
because it is so crumbly that people have (allegedly) fallen from it to
their deaths. I guess I'll pass up that opportunity ...