Exploring Mexico’s Ancient Mayan City of Cobá

Visiting the Mayan ruins of Coba. Nohoch Mul in Coba. It means 'large mound' in Mayan. Photo by Carrie Dow
Nohoch Mul means ‘large mound’ in Mayan. Photo by Carrie Dow

“To the Mayan all that exists of the material world is all two sides of the same unit. Everything is double, but part of the same, like two sides of a coin. Maya means illusion because the human being lives in the manifestation of its own beliefs. What we believe is what we became and what we believe is expressed in our reality. Welcome to Maya!”

With those words our guide, Alejandro Gamboa, introduces us to the ancient Mayan city of Cobá, once a thriving metropolis of 50,000 people near the Yucatan peninsula. While Cobá is well known among archaeologists, the place is not as well known to travelers. Located just over two hours southwest from Cancun, Mexico, Cobá is hidden in Quintana Roo’s inland jungle, but beach travelers to the Riviera Maya will find it an intriguing place to explore.

What is a stele?
Guide Alejandro Gamboa explains what a stele was used for in Mayan culture. Photo by Carrie Dow

Coba Ruins

Highway 109 from Tulum is the only paved road to Cobá and ends in a parking lot next to Lake Cobá with a few small shops, cafes, and a zipline. The area’s only public restrooms are here as well. Gamboa motions us to follow him through an archway to a sign with a map of Cobá all in Spanish below the shade of a giant tree. He explains that Coba means “murky water” so named because Lake Coba is filled with sediment. He then leads us to the first group of buildings, Grupo Cobá.

Gamboa tells us that the first white explorer here was German Teobert Maler in 1876, who photographed the site. Excavation did not happen until after the 1923 revolt against the Spanish when Pennsylvania University sent British archeologist Sir Eric Thompson and Mexican archeologist Dr. Pedro Rosa.

Thompson would return many times throughout his years of Mayan study because unlike other Mesoamerican sites, Cobá was still inhabited by a small local population. Through those locals, Thompson made discoveries about the Mayan civilization that are still being examined today. Those findings include the Mayan Long Calendar and their extraordinary knowledge of astronomy.

“Mayan art was born as a way of transmitting memory and wisdom. For Mayan people the declining of the aristocracy was polarized the society and this will generate war. Since war may interrupt the traditional way of transmitting memory and wisdom, they filled this place with knowledge – Arithmetic, Astronomy, Geometry, Mathematics, Cosmology, History. They said at the end of time the splendor of these ancient cities will return and all this knowledge will be given back to mankind. They never said that the world was coming to an end December 23, 2012. It is merely when the calendar wheels set back to zero.”

La Iglesia, the Church in Grupo, Copa. Photo by Carrie Dow
This tall stone pyramid is called La Iglesia, the Church in Grupo, Copa. Photo by Carrie Dow

My gaze follows Gamboa’s arm as he points to the tall, dark stone pyramid in front of us.  He says when Sir Thompson explored here, he observed locals practicing rituals at the base of the structure so he named it La Iglesia, The Church.

“The priests pray midnight, sunrise, noon time, and sunset, four times a day. So as there is four directions of the world, four seasons, and four elements, they believe that each moment of the day, of a year, of an age, is ruled by each of this. For the year, winter solstice is midnight, spring equinox is sunrise, noon time is summer solstice, and sunset the equinox of the fall.” 

Gamboa tells us the next group of structures is about a half kilometer away and we can rent bikes to cover the distance or hire a tricycle taxi to peddle us there. One person in our group opts for the taxi while the rest of us rent bicycles that appear old but are brightly painted.

The colorful bikes for rent at Coba, Mexico. Photo by Carrie Dow.
The colorful bikes for rent at Coba, Mexico. Photo by Carrie Dow.

My vibrant pink bike has the number 83 on the head tube. Gamboa says the numbers are so we can find our bikes among the dozens people park along the passageways as they traverse the site. He adds it’s quite common for someone to mistake your bike for theirs, especially if they are the same color, so the numbers help. With Gamboa leading the way we peddle a wide, flat pebbled path to Grupo D.

“They figured out that creation is septenary because the light has seven colors, sound has seven notes and there were seven planets that make up the layers of the sky. We have the triangle and the square in reference of this seven. This square represents four worlds. Since there’s four worlds, then we have twenty. See?”

No, I don’t, I think to myself.

“Five on north, five on east, five on south and five on west. Twenty, thirteen, and seven. Twenty steps to the place where the rulers sit. Why is that? Twenty is the way they actually kept track of time and they track eighteen months a year. The sun breathes eighteen times in a year. Human being breathes eighteen times a minute. The heart of earth beats four times, every time the sun breathes, just as our heart beats four times every time we breathe. Seventy-two years, 25,920 days. Seventy-two years the sun move one degree in its procession. To complete a great day the sun takes 25,920 years. There are 1440 minutes in one day so we breathe 25,920 times. Small, big, it’s all the same.”

Signposts along the bike trails at Coba make it easy to find your way. Photo by Carrie Dow
Signposts along the bike trails at Coba make it easy to find your way. Photo by Carrie Dow

Gamboa motions us near a cluster of half walls. Centered beneath a cover of palm fronds stands a monolith. Called a stele, (stelae – pl), they are scattered throughout Cobá. Carved into them are Mayan hieroglyphics that name rulers and historical events that happened during the period they were created. Gamboa says stelae were erected every twenty years to remind anyone who came after, what happened before and 47 stelae have been uncovered so far.

In 1993 epigrapher Linda Schele deciphered the glyphics of Stele 1 showing they contain the entirety of Mayan creation myth, which was a huge find for archeologists and helped to define the complexity of the Mayan Long Calendar. Returning to our bikes, we head a half kilometer north to Grupo Nohoch Mul and Cobá’s tallest structure.

“The longest night of the year is the winter solstice, but at the end is the end as well as the beginning.  I cannot say what is actually going to be happening, but there is going to still happen a lot of things. So December 23, 2012, as I said, is not the end. There are 120 steps and a sign that says climbing is at your own risk.”

With that we are free to climb the imposing Nohoch Mul pyramid, which is taller than El Castillo at Chichen Itza. The pyramid and surrounding structures were built around the 7th Century, the height of Cobá’s influence in the region. It isn’t until you take the first step that you realize how difficult climbing is. The steps are narrow in width and tall in height, the opposite of the steps we have today. Many people scoot up and down the steep structure on their rear ends and two people in our group opt not to climb for fear of heights.

My advice for climbing? Take your time. Something else to make it easier is to face either side, not straight on, and side step your way up and down. Running the length of the pyramid is an attached rope for people to hold.

The climbing is strenuous at Coba Mayan ruins. Photo by Carrie Dow
The climbing is strenuous at Coba. Photo by Carrie Dow

In the hot midday sun climbing is strenuous, but worth it because at the summit are endless views of the surrounding jungle, nothing but green tree tops for miles. I see no signs of civilization, not even the other structures or Lake Cobá. I ponder if this is how it looked during the date inscribed on nearby Stele 30, a date that corresponds to our calendar as November 30, 780 AD.

“This is the spiritual life force that Mayas measure 13×20 because 260 days is the average time of human gestation, the rainy season, and the regular cycle of corn. A period of divine manifestation that gets repeated once every 52 years. Fifty-two years is the time that the planets take to be in the same place in the sky. The governors of destiny. They figured out that the movements of [planets] in the sky match perfectly with climatic changes, seasonal germination, and the growing powers of nature. They have a link, a mathematical equation. It’s how Maya were able to figure out the cosmos.


Climbing the Mayan ruins at Coba in Mexico. Photo by Carrie Dow
Climbing the Mayan ruins at Coba in Mexico. Photo by Carrie Dow

If You Visit the Cobá Ruins 

Rumors abound that Cobá will end climbing Nohoch Mul because of the dangers and footsteps degrading the structure. I am torn to this development. To see the jungle from the summit is an amazing experience, but with hundreds of people climbing every day, accidents and damage will happen. If you wish to climb, get there soon.

Wear comfortable walking and bike riding shoes and bring water because it gets hot in the afternoon. Sunscreen and a hat are also useful.

Fees (Approx. US dollars and subject to change)

Entrance $6 per person

Parking $1.50 per car

Bikes $2.50

Tricycle taxis $3.50 plus tip

Local guides can be found at the entrance for $25 per person plus tip. Be sure the guide has an official Cobá lanyard and badge to get the best rates and knowledge. Tours can also be arranged through area resort concierges.

Janna Graber
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