Cobá

Quintana Roo, Mexico


The Name   |   The Age   |   The People   |   The Focus   |   The Mystery   |   Don't Miss   |   Site Map


On top of the pyramid (and the 'world') with my sister, 2015.
 

What makes this site special? The primeval feel.

You will feel like an explorer. This is an adventure site, not a 'museum'. One of the oldest sites in Yucatán is still mostly buried in the jungle and you can see many as yet unexplored ruins surrounded by palm trees and tropical hardwoods while you wander the site.

 
With a group of friends from Playa del Carmen, 2016.

With a group of friends from Playa del Carmen, 2016.

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It is one of my favourite Mayan sites. I stopped counting how many times I came here. It is a large site and you can walk, hire a bici taxi (pedalled by a Maya), or rent a bicycle. Keep your bearings; you can get lost in the maze of dirt jungle tracks. That is what makes this site special: be Indiana Jones for the day! Great for the kids, they love biking here and climbing the pyramid.

The site is rich in carved monuments that were erected to celebrate the rulers and their important events (stelae), ball courts, and murals (these can't be seen), and the richness of Cobá is reflected also in the few residential compounds that showcase the social life of the ancient inhabitants.

 
At Xaibé (the Crossroad) with friends Chris and John, 2017.

At Xaibé (the Crossroad) with friends Chris and John, 2017.

Temple of the Frescos, Painting Group

Temple of the Frescos, Painting Group

 

The Name

Cobá is located between five lakes. The original name would have been Cob Ha (ha means 'water'). Translations today give us 'waters stirred by wind' or 'ruffled waters' or 'choppy waters'. I personally don't think there are strong winds here, in the middle of the jungle. So my speculation, just to muddy the waters a bit, is that it could be 'waters stirred by the crocodiles'. They live in the Cobá lake even today. Look out for them in the lake before you enter the site. Joking aside, what is important to note is that this site had an abundance of water, not just from the lakes, but also drinking water from a few cenotes (today the three cenotes open to tourists are outside the ruin zone).

 
The jungle is everywhere
The jungle is everywhere.   
 

The Age

Cobá is much older than Chichén Itzá or Tulum. The site was occupied from 100 BC, as the pottery evidence suggests, although the houses of the farmers and hunters would have been most likely made of wood and they did not survive.

Already by 300-600 AD Cobá centralised economic and political power, controlling several villages nearby. The internal communication routes (more than 50 limestone roads), were constructed between 600-800 AD. . Just imagine the size (over 70 square kilometres) and the complex administration system! The bulk of the city was built in the middle and late Classic period, about 500 to 900 AD, with most of the dated hieroglyphic inscriptions from the 7th century. By about 800 AD Cobá had around 50,000 inhabitants. It was at that time that it conquered Yaxuná city (located just south of Chichén Itzá) and built a 100km sacbé, or raised road (literally it means 'white road' because it was built from the white limestone), to connect the two cities. Make sure that you see this road on your walk (or ride), on the way to Nohoch Mul Group. The carriers used it a lot at night, when the moon lit the road even whiter (and it was cooler for carrying heavy loads). This was the longest sacbé the Maya ever built.

With a group of Czech visitors, 2016. 

With a group of Czech visitors, 2016. 

Between 800–1100 Chichén Itzá began a war with Cobá, which controlled farmland, water sources and sea trade through allies such as Tulum, Xcaret and other ports on the Caribbean. It was a war for dominance of territory and trade. Yaxuná, Cobá's vassal, constructed a city wall, but Chichén Itzá conquered the city by around 950. Sacked and ritually destroyed, the city never recovered. 

Cobá lost its dominance in this war but plodded along. Its strength began to weaken further between 1000-1500 when it received new influences from Toltec groups. New temples were built and old ones kept in repair until at least the 14th century, possibly as late as the arrival of the Spanish. In modern history, a few explorers visited the site in the 1930s but the site remained little visited due to its remoteness until the first modern road was opened up to Cobá in the early 1970s (due to the growth of Cancún resort). It is one of the sites where I expect with eagerness more research coming…

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The People

Cobá must have maintained close contacts with the large city-states of Guatemala and the south of Campeche, like Tikal and Calakmul (this is reflected in the style of pyramids, so different from Chichén Itzá). To maintain its influence, Cobá established military alliances and arranged marriages among their elites. It is also quite noteworthy that Cobá shows traces of Teotihuacán ties, visible in the architecture, like a platform in the Paintings group.

Local rulers used the noble title Kalo'mte' (Divine Ruler). For example, at the main Ball Court a stone plaque was placed in the centre of the slope, telling us that the ruler with the title of Kalo'mte' celebrated the end of the 10-year cycle on June 5, 465 AD. 108 days later, another dignitary with the same title dedicated a stone monument in the Ball Court. You can see those slabs with beautiful hieroglyphs and the Long Count dates by the side of the Ball Court, as well as some stelae depicting the rulers (or ball players).

 
Rulers on stone slabs by the main Ball Court.

Rulers on stone slabs by the main Ball Court.

The hieroglyphs tell the story of the ruler with the title Kalo 'mte'. 465 AD.

The hieroglyphs tell the story of the ruler with the title Kalo 'mte'. 465 AD.

 

One of the rulers known by name is Chac Balam (Red Jaguar), who disappeared mysteriously, probably captured by war enemies and sacrificed. We believe so because no stela recorded his death. That is what stelae were for: to record birth, accession to the throne, marriage, war victory or death. There is a well-preserved Stela 20 by the pyramid in the Nohoch Mul, in the main plaza. Ruler D (with no proper name so far) is standing with his sceptre and on the backs of two captives with ropes around their wrists. Kneeling at his feet are two additional slaves with their hands behind their backs. It dates back to 684 AD.

Cobá used to be the place of female power. There were an unusual number of female rulers in this city and one has to go to the Macanxoc Group where there is a cluster of stelae depicting them. I tried to find out what that name means and was told by Jaime, the Mayan who peddled my bike, that Macan means 'to do' and Xoc a study. So this is the study place, where the scientists are trying to decipher the meaning of the stelae. So far we have no names of the female rulers.

In Joyce Marcus's view the rulers here hold ceremonial bars, indicative of elite descent, which serves in turn to link their descendants to the ruling families of the Petén region (in modern Guatemala). Would they come here via a marriage route or as queens in their own right? Women often stand on captive figures in the lower panel of the monument, which indicates secular control and power. Women are often paired with men on different stelae but this is not the case on stelae which are erected in shrines in Cobá. For example, Stela 4 stands in a small chamber with a corbelled roof while other neighbouring stelae in the Macanxoc Group stand in low-walled enclosures open at the front. Such a female seems to hold office within the site, and is more important than the local men on the surrounding stelae.

 
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The Focus: pyramid in the Nohoch Mul Group

When you arrive at the site, you will immediately see a cluster of structures on your right. They are referred to as the Cobá Group (as they are close to Cobá lake). There is a small Ball Court and a large pyramid called the Church (previously known as the Castle). It is worth noting that there are a few rooms with vaulted arches around this pyramid, an excellent example of the old Mayan false corbel arch. You can admire this complex but you can't climb the pyramid any more. Actually, I always skip this entire group and visit it at the end. I usually go first to Nohoch Mul Group. It is about a half-hour walk from the site entrance. It is not too hot to climb the pyramid first thing in the morning, and, above all, I beat the crowds that way and have the pyramid to myself. I have been here many times and this approach never failed.

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The pyramid Ixmoja in the Nohoch Mul ('large mound') Group is 42m high and it towers above the flat jungle landscape. It is the tallest structure of its kind in northern Yucatán, with 120 steps (rising higher than the Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal or Kukulkán pyramid in Chichén Itzá with 91 steps). It can be climbed; hold onto the rope in the middle when you are going down, which is more difficult (the steps are narrow, tall and slippery).

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On top of the pyramid there is a temple and above its lintel you will see the stucco of the Descending God (see the photo on the right) that was worshipped here. The same god was worshipped in Tulum and up till today it is shrouded in mystery as we don't know who it represented. There are a few speculative theories and I cover those in my post Descending God.

 

The jungle view from the top of the pyramid is very rewarding. On a clear day you can see the round structure of Xaibé (called Crossroads because this is where roads 1, 5, 6, and 8 converge). When standing on the Great Platform outside the pyramid, I always try to imagine how people lived here. Nohoch Mul is actually the name for the raised platform, which was a ceremonial gathering place. The ruler and the priest would address their people from here. The plebs lived on the outskirts of the ceremonial plazas, in neighbourhoods of 15 palapa houses at a time (no different from the houses that the current Yucatec Maya now live in, in the jungle villages). They would gather here for ceremonies, walking to the plaza along the network of sacbé roads. The pyramid would have been painted red and looked glorious. The plebs were not allowed to climb up (mostly they were not even allowed to see the ruler's face). The fires would be lit, musicians playing, dance rituals on display, but also bloodletting rituals would take place (the nobles cutting parts of their bodies, ears, penis or thighs). The noblemen would wear fancy feather headdresses. What a colourful and powerful image! And the voice of the priest would carry around strongly. 

Clap firmly in front of the pyramid steps; it gives an echo, the same sound as at Chichén Itzá's pyramid:  it is the sound of the sacred bird quetzal. How clever!!!

 
On top of the pyramid, 2014. On the right: with my sister, 2015.

On top of the pyramid, 2014. On the right: with my sister, 2015.

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The Mystery: Stela 1 - Gender and power

A cluster of stelae are located in the Macanxoc Group. If you walk along sacbé 9, you reach this group of structures. Most tourists don't bother to go there as it is a little bit of a walk (about 15 minutes). This group gathers 8 stelae and 18 altars and they relate to us the history of the rulers of Cobá. They link the site of Cobá to Petén (Guatemala) as Tikal had a strong culture of stelae erection. It is likely that the women came to Cobá from there either through a marriage link or a war pact.

So what can a stela tell us? The stelae contain the dates of the Long Count, which means simply this: how many days passed since the beginning of the first recorded date, from the beginning of the Great Cycle. The Long Count calendar was calculated by the Maya to last 5,125.36 years and the first recorded date was on August 11 of 3114 BC. This is the mythical creation date. So the stela records how many days passed since that date when it records an event. This way the scientists can work out the corresponding date in the Gregorian calendar.

 
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Stela 1 is interesting because it contains 313 glyphs and four dates of the Long Count. Three of them refer to episodes that took place on 29 January 653 AD, 29 June 672 AD, and 28 August 682 AD. The fourth alludes to a winter solstice then far in the future: 21 December 2012 (marking the end of the Long Cycle, which people wrongly considered as marking the end of the world). David Stuart analysed the dates on Stela 1 in relation to the rulers who are depicted next to the dates and he came to the conclusion that it is the record of two different kings: one on its front and another one on its back, with two different dates. So perhaps one is a successor and had his ancestor or predecessor portrayed on his own stela?

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Rosemary Joyce's research indicates that in monumental media women seldom appear as sole subjects; instead they are usually paired with images of men. Double-sided stelae were commonly set on the periphery of the plaza with the female facing away from the open space, toward a nearby building, and the male facing toward the open space. When paired figures were on the same side of a single monument, right-left orientation was employed. Visually, the female figures are little differentiated from the males.

So how can we tell if it is a male or female? We can read a lot from the clothing. They wear indistinguishable ornaments on their heads, hands and feet, the only body parts visible. The symbols can usually be found in the robes that conceal their bodies. Multiple layers are usually indicated by the protruding hems, to emphasise the woman's unseen body. The men usually have the minimal textile surfaces of the loincloth and hipcloth. On the monuments in exterior spaces, like in Cobá, sometimes women have diagonal latticework of diamond-shaped spaces (typical of 'huipiles' that women wore, and still do). We can certainly see that lattice work on the front side of Stela 1 (left side). To me, this is the only clearly visible indicator that it is a female portrait.

Sak K'uk presents the headdress of rulership to Janaab Pakal. Note her netted skirt, expressing her status as the Regent Queen.

Sak K'uk presents the headdress of rulership to Janaab Pakal. Note her netted skirt, expressing her status as the Regent Queen.

Further clues are usually found in the belts. Joyce Marcus believes that female belts had water symbolisms (fish, shells), while males wore belts with a jade maskette (a small or partial mask) with 3 pendant celts (or axe-blades), covering the loins. The male costumes had a world-tree image at waist level, while women had the tree in their headdress. The net skirt could have been worn by both males and females (males wore it over their loincloth). At times, it can get confusing. For example, Rosemary Joyce points out that at Copán a figure on Stela H wears a long net skirt, combined with a belt with shark and shells but over a jaguar kilt which was worn by males. The gender and sexual identity of this figure has been widely debated. It could be a male ruler in a mixed costume to evoke his ability to transcend a gender difference and to recreate a primordial condition of dual gender. Women wearing net skirts were often described in texts as mothers of rulers who had married into the ruling house from another site (a more powerful one). So in this case the net skirt was expressing social power and status. Mostly it would be the mother of the heir to the rule of the site, acting as Regent. Sometimes the accompanying text would name them as the 'founder of dynasty' (this was the case of the mother of the Great Pakal king in Palenque).

Could this be the case of the female ruler on the front side of Stela 1? If we look at the dates, the front side with the female ruler is dated 28 August 682 AD, while the back date with the male ruler is 29 June 672. This rules out the 'mother' theory. But perhaps this female ruler depicted on her stela her father, who was the king in his own right before her, to emphasise her bloodline and the right to the throne. This would be feasible only if there was no male ruler available at the time, as women otherwise did not get the automatic right to rule (despite the bloodline). This is my own speculation but perhaps time might answer that. At this point, I am unable to find more answers or clues.

 
The Church. The stela in front of the pyramid continues to be venerated by the locals, hence the name. It is best to stop here at the end of your visit.

The Church. The stela in front of the pyramid continues to be venerated by the locals, hence the name. It is best to stop here at the end of your visit.

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Don't Miss: The Ball Court

There are two of them, actually. The Mesoamerican ballgame was a ritual drama, rather than sport, and it has been played for a long time (since 1400 BC). Even the Olmecs played it. Courts were usually part of a city’s sacred precinct. The religious meaning of the game was connected with the ball-playing twins of Popol Vuh who defeated the rulers of the underworld. The ball courts were laid out in the shape of a cave (sloped sides), which represented the entrance to the underworld. Kings playing the game would symbolically enter the underworld to match themselves against its leaders.

The ball court marker in Cobá. It marked a portal into another world where the ruler/player entered the underworld. 

The ball court marker in Cobá. It marked a portal into another world where the ruler/player entered the underworld. 

The courts had markers (usually three) where they symbolically entered the underworld, to defeat it. In essence, the game was expressing the cycle of living and dying.

As for the rules of the game, the players struck the ball with their hips, arms or elbows although some versions allowed the use of rackets, bats, or handstones. The ball was made of solid rubber and weighed as much as 4kg. Games were played between two teams. The number of players per team could vary, depending on the size of the court (2-7 on each side). Even without human sacrifice, the game was brutal and there were often serious injuries inflicted by the heavy ball.

 
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The back of the Ball court at the Cobá Group.  On the right: the main ball court, on the way to the pyramid.

The back of the Ball court at the Cobá Group.  On the right: the main ball court, on the way to the pyramid.

 

The game was also played by the war captives. They were sometimes even bound to the ball and thrown down the slopes of the ball court for torture and death. The players were tested in this game in terms of spiritual strength, not just physical. Some believe that the aim was to get rid of the seven deadly sins, to become a better person, and that the cities with the Ball Courts were the places of initiation. See more in my post Chichén Itzá. The winner was the player who got the ball through the ring on the wall (often very high). This did not always happen, so there was also a scoring system. The ball movement could have represented the movement of celestial bodies (the ring often has Venus or solar symbols). Scholars continue debating whether it was the loser who was decapitated at the end of the game, or the winner. After all, people who died through sacrifice did not have to go to the murky and dangerous underworld; they went straight to heaven. And in mythology, even gods were beheaded and this was considered a victory because they went to the underworld to defeats its lords, i.e. death, to be reborn again! In scholarly writing several themes are tied to this game: astronomy, war, fertility, cosmologic duality.

 
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Skull by the Ball Court in the Cobá Group speaks of human sacrifice after the game.

Skull by the Ball Court in the Cobá Group speaks of human sacrifice after the game.

 

The Site Map

  • Open daily 8:00 am – 5:00 pm. 
  • It is best to arrive at 8am, to avoid the heat of the day (and the crowds) if you want to climb the pyramid.
 
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Bike rental is inside the site, next to the Cobá Group by the entrance. The rent costs 60 pesos, or you can opt for a 'bici' taxi, 120 pesos for two people (2017 prices). After the visit, you will be heading back to the village along Lake Cobá. You can spot a house with some batik display on your left, just before reaching the lake. I recommend stopping at Victor's local shop. He does unusual art for this area - batik. In Yucatán fabric is usually woven in a traditional way. All Victor's fabrics have motifs from Mayan mythology, for example the coronation of King Pakal I (in Palenque) or an image of a ball player. It is certainly worth a visit because you will not find it anywhere else. 

 
'Bici' taxi.

'Bici' taxi.

In Victor's batik shop.

In Victor's batik shop.

 
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For lunch you can choose from two restaurants on Lake Cobá , both equally good: La Pirámide and Nicté-Ha. Both serve the same buffet for 150 pesos. 

La Pirámide (photo on the left) has a lovely terrace on the top floor, with some breeze and the lake view.

There are a few other small restaurants in the village.

 

MIX and MATCH:

There are three fantastic cave cenotes near the ruin site, on the 'back' side of the Cobá ruins and the lake: Multún Ha, Choo-Ha , Tancach-Ha . Whichever you choose, you will not regret it. You may still have time to go to the ruins of Tulum in the afternoon.

How to get there:

The ruins of Cobá are about 44km (28 miles) from Tulum, or 109km (68 miles) from Playa del Carmen. For the budget-minded, you can get to the site via ADO Bus from Cancún, Playa del Carmen, or Tulum. Colectivos (public minibuses) are also an option; however, you’ll have to change buses in Tulum.

Sources:

Joyce Marcus (1976): Emblem and State in the Classic Maya Lowlands: An Epigraphic Approach to Territorial Organization, Harvard University Press

Rosemary A. Joyce (2000): Gender and Power in Prehispanic Mesoamerica, University of Texas Press

María José Con Uribe (2007): Coba: History, Art and Monuments, INAH

Stela 1 photo, Maxancox Group

David Stuart: Notes on Accession Dates in the Inscriptions of Cobá