Some days, it seems as if every tourist on Mexico's popular Riviera Maya is at the ancient Mayan ruins of Tulum. This really isn’t surprising given Tulum's spectacular location atop steep cliffs overlooking white-sand beaches and the blue Caribbean Sea. For my money, though, the most intriguing archaeological site in this region is Cobá, which lies about 42 kilometers (26 miles) northwest of Tulum.
Apart from its relative lack of crowds, Coba’s main appeal for me is its jungle setting. Coba’s temples and pyramids are shrouded by tall trees, which not only provide welcome shade but also lend the crumbling city a “lost world” atmosphere (think Indiana Jones). I also like the network of white limestone roads known as sacbés or sacbeob that crisscrosses the sprawling archaeological site, making it ideal for exploring by bicycle.
Cobá -- whose name apparently means “abundant water," "ruffled waters" or "turbid waters" (no one seems sure which) -- was built around five picturesque small lakes. This is rare on the Yucatan Peninsula, where most sources of fresh water are underground rivers. The largest of these lakes, Lago Cobá, is home to a colony of crocodiles, members of which can often be spotted lurking in the reeds that rim the lake shore. Locals seem to keep the crocodrilos well fed, possibly so that they won't develop a taste for tourists.
The city of Cobá reached its peak during the Late Classic Period (AD 600-900). It became the most powerful Mayan center in the northwestern Yucatan with an estimated population of 40,000 to 60,000 people. Coba’s extensive system of causeways, perhaps the longest in the Mayan world, connected it with numerous satellite towns that had fallen under its sway. One sacbé led to Yaxuná, some 100 kilometers (over 60 miles) to the west.
Most visitors to Cobá immediately set out on rented bicycles or in pedicabs to the massive Nohoch Mul pyramid, the second tallest Mayan structure on the Yucatan Peninsula. It’s a long, dizzying scramble to the top of this mound-like pyramid, but the inspiring view of the ruins and surrounding greenery from the summit make the huffing and puffing worthwhile.
As dramatic as Nohoch Mul pyramid is, I prefer some of the less-visited groups of buildings that lie scattered about the site. The Grupo de las Pinturas (Paintings Group) gets its name from the remains of blue and red murals found on top of its main temple. Unfortunately, the temple is now closed to the public, but this tranquil grove dotted with lopsided columns and platforms is ideal for contemplating the encroaching jungle and pondering the inevitable collapse of civilizations.
Farther along the same road lies the Macanxoc group, which harbors eight weathered stelae, stone monoliths covered in faded glyphs and ghostly outlines of human and animal forms. Stela 1 is one of the most famous carvings in the Mayan region because it reportedly bears a glyph marking 3114 BC, the beginning of the current Maya era that will expire on December 21, 2012. According to self-proclaimed profits and doomsayers, the arrival of this portentous date will either awaken a new enlightened consciousness in mankind or trigger cataclysmic events signaling the possible end of the world.
NOTE: Although Cobá is less crowded than Tulum, it does get a lot of visitors, especially when the tour buses start arriving. Consequently, it is best to visit the ruins in the early morning or late afternoon. Renting a bicycle (US$3.00) is recommended as the archaeological site is very large. Pedicabs are also available for about US$10.00 if you prefer to let someone else do the peddling.
Below is a slideshow of some of my photos shot on a recent visit to Cobá. Move the cursor over the screen to view captions. Click on individual images to see larger versions and for information on ordering prints or downloading photos.
Coba, Quitana Roo, Mexico - Images by John Mitchell