Captivating Cobá

Unidentified staircase and structure at Cobá

Unidentified staircase and structure at Cobá

September 17th, 2020

Though not far from one another on the Yucatán Peninsula, Ek Balam and Cobá leave very different impressions. The angular perfection of Ek Balam stands in contrast to the aged and overgrown nature of Cobá. Ek Balam is more recent (700-1100 AD) while Cobá spans the entire Pre-Classic to Post-Classic range of Maya civilization, potentially inhabited for more than 1,800 years by up to 50,000 people at its peak.

For every stela and structure that’s been identified at Cobá, there are countless others visible but unidentified, at least to those of us just visiting for the day. Every hill and every nuance in the landscape seems to hold a mystery underneath.

Sacbe at Cobá

Sacbe at Cobá

One of the joys of Cobá comes from seeing it by bicycle, the most efficient way to explore the site’s 10 square miles using the many sacbeob (elevated roadways) still remaining from centuries ago. For a small fee, you can pick a bike from the fleet and embark on your own adventure around Cobá.

La Iglesia and Stela 11

La Iglesia and Stela 11

La Iglesia (church) is one of the focal points of the site with its small altar and wide, crumbling staircase behind. In this massive pile of stone surrounded by jungle, some visual similarities with Cambodia’s Angkor Wat become apparent. Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century as Cobá was beginning its decline.

Stela 1, Cobá

Stela 1, Cobá

Stela 1 detail

Stela 1 detail

Both sites hold intricate stone carvings that tell the story of civilization at the time — Angkor Wat in sandstone and Cobá in limestone. Angkor’s harder sandstone was crafted into sculptural depictions of faces, women and deities. Cobá’s softer limestone holds flatter glyphs, figures and faces in profile on stelae throughout the site. These stelae are incredible records of Mayan rulers and time, and Stela 1 even references 3,114 BC in its backside inscription — the beginning of creation in the Mayan world and the point of origin for the Mayan long-form calendar.

Macanxoc Group stela

Macanxoc Group stela

Stela 1

Stela 1

Discoveries are still being made from the numerous other stelae around the site. Cobá is one of four sites in the region with record of warrior queens, including one who reigned here from 640-682 AD. Archaeologist Kathryn Reese-Taylor uncovered the powerful roles women played in Mayan society, as both rulers and politicians. Many are depicted on stelae in dominant positions, towering over others or accompanied by symbols of war. In a story about her discoveries she notes that we need to revise our decades-earlier conclusions about Mayan women because, “A woman’s role was not in the background. It was up front and center.”

Xaibe Pyramid

Xaibe Pyramid

Xaibe Pyramid appears as an anomaly of Cobá with its domed structure, steep single staircase and stela at the base. Perhaps the mystery of Xaibe’s purpose lies deep inside to be found with today’s technology, which is facilitating efforts to learn more about sites like Cobá. This story by the BBC is a fascinating read — published a few days ago — about how Lidar (remote sensing technology) is being employed throughout Guatemala as a far superior method of mapping Mayan sites in a fraction of the time it normally takes and with far greater accuracy.

Xaibe Pyramid does hold the tremendous distinction of being the starting point of the longest sacbe ever built by the Maya. The Cobá-Yaxuna sacbe extends west from Cobá for 62 miles in a relatively straight line through the lowlands to a small site called Yaxuna. No one knows for sure (yet) what relationship between the two sites motivated the completion of such a labor-intensive project.

Once again, the Mayans built no city without a ball court and Cobá has two of them. They’re medium in size with walls sloped at a greater angle than those found at Ek Balam. My guess is that slope was somehow related to the skill of the players — a theory we’ll think about more when we see the ball court at Chichen Itza.

In the meantime, think about this:

Skull stone at the ball court

Skull stone at the ball court

A skull stone sits in the middle of the playing field, now protected by metal bars (with my foot included for scale). Ulama may have been a brutal game that losing players paid for with their lives.

Ixmoja Pyramid, Cobá

Ixmoja Pyramid, Cobá

And finally, our bicycles lead us to Ixmoja Pyramid which we got a glimpse of yesterday. This hulking, beautiful pile of stone has decayed over centuries, now sitting with rounded shoulders and softer curves but no less imposing — especially from the bottom.

Ixmoja Pyramid, Cobá

Ixmoja Pyramid, Cobá

More than one hundred stairs lead to the top with a rope as an added measure of psychological security. Hang on if you want or sit down if you need a break. Just remember that down is actually much harder and scarier than up.

View from Ixmoja Pyramid

View from Ixmoja Pyramid

View from Ixmoja Pyramid

View from Ixmoja Pyramid

But the up is well worth it! The Ixmoja Pyramid tops out at about 148 feet/45 meters, rivaling Calakmul — the only other Mayan pyramid of similar height, located about 215 miles to the southwest. Enjoy the view, go slow on the way down and we’ll end our tour of Cobá on this high note.

Cobá, Mexico

Cobá, Mexico

Looking back now at my photos of Cobá, it inspires me to return and explore it again. I find the ironic thing about travel blogging is that I end up learning much more about my subject matter after I’ve gone there. (Fellow bloggers, does this happen to you?) The additional research I do into what I’ve photographed begins to create a deeper story which in turn creates more questions.

There’s so much learn about the history of the Maya and their civilization. In writing these posts, I’ve come across a fantastic website with loads of helpful information compiled by a person named Steve Mellard. I’m grateful for the facts, figures and photographs he has provided and urge you to check out the site if you want to learn more — especially his write-up about construction of the 62-mila Cobá-Yaxuna sacbe. It’s mind-boggling.

Tomorrow, we’ll stop for a quick dip at a lagoon cenote before we move on to explore Chichen Itza.

Until then,
Kelly

Post of the Day: Adding a bit of light to the darkness as we get through the pandemic together. This series features travel photos from my archives, shared with you while staying close to home.

P.S. Bonus points to anyone who can identify these crazy patterned bugs hanging out at Cobá!

Mystery Bugs

Mystery Bugs

23 comments

  • Lidar has completely changed the face of archaeology, hasn’t it? I read the BBC article with interest. They must have come on considerably since then, but I think you need to be a bit intrepid to be a front line archaeologist. 🙂 🙂

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  • OMG those bugs! Wow. Unfortunately I cannot identify them.
    I too *always* learn more about the places we visit after the fact when researching for the blog. As I write a post, I frequently wish I knew more when I was actually there, but after 10 years of blogging I imagine I’m not likely to change now lol.
    Alison

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  • Those bugs remind me of the textile designs in some of the cultures of Mexico, Central and South America.

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  • Kelly, i have yet to visit either, but I certainly like the look of Cobá . That time-worn facade is hard to resist. And those bugs. Yikes! They look a lot like adult Giant Mesquite Bugs – but not quite. Maybe they’re related. How big were they? ~Terri

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    • Hi there! You would love Cobá, Terri! So much to explore. The bugs were about an inch and a half/two inches long. Pretty big! I wish I had included something to show the scale. Still haven’t identified them. Maybe I discovered a new species! 🙂

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  • This was Coba of the imaginary friends fame? The Mayan ruins are just awesome, spread out into the jungles, so large and mysterious. And the prospect of cycling between them is fascinating. I had once seen the Hampi ruins on cycle, reminded me of that. Hampi is kind of like this, lots of rocks, and spread across a large area.
    That ball game was sounding nice, till that grim note of the skull, why were the games of old days so brutal?
    And those bugs, are they some kind of Harlequin beetles?

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    • Yep, Cobá of my imaginary friends. 🙂 Cycling here was really fun — the bikes weren’t in the best shape but still a great way to get around and you don’t have to worry about anyone stealing them, LOL! I’ll check out the Hampi ruins. Sounds cool. The ball game is interesting. It’s hard to find solid information. I’m not sure anyone knows *exactly* what was involved with the game but I remember reading somewhere that the bouncing rubber ball was of great interest to at least one explorer in the area who hadn’t seen that before and wrote about in his journal. Also, there’s more evidence at Chichen Itza that it was a brutal game. Will share that in the days to come. Harlequin beetle! Best guess so far I think. No one has been able to identify but your guess looks the closest. Happy weekend!

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  • Thanks for the research on the Mayan sites, it makes the photos even more interesting. I’m exactly like you, I always find a lot of interesting things in the research after my return. The research done before the trip is also useful but as long as I can’t figure out the places, it’s difficult to get into them. The ideal is to be able to return for a second visit, this time in full knowledge.

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    • Thank you, Lookoom! I appreciate you appreciating the research. Sometimes I go a little off track (i.e. comparing to Angkor Wat) when I try to add a little extra idea or thought that people won’t read somewhere else. 🙂 I agree, going back a second time is the ideal. Because you’ll probably only go back to the places that leave an impression anyway, so enjoying them with full knowledge is double happiness, as they say. Hope you have a great weekend!

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  • I wonder what the view from the top of the pyramids would have been like back in the day? It’s a certainty it wouldn’t have been as overgrown with jungle as it is now, but how denuded would it really be? Could a large level of deforestation have contributed to the decline of the culture?

    And yes, writing blogs about where we’ve traveled is definitely educational. Some of it even sticks, over time; more so than the spiels that we get from guides on-site that trigger my goldfish memory.

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    • Very interesting questions. There were likely a lot of areas cleared for farming and roads back then so yes, definitely not as overgrown. I was just reading somewhere that they were masters at keeping the land fertile and productive, so if that’s true then something else would have led to Cobá’s decline. There’s speculation that rival cities like Chichen Itza may have played a part. Maybe it was just the new cool place to be? I’m going to keep researching. Will post if I find anything! And yes, I think the act of blogging about things helps with retention. Like you, I don’t remember much from blah blah tour guides unless they’re great at what they do! 🙂 Hope you have a great weekend!

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  • I read the BBC article and was blown away by how much Lidar has revealed to us. I imagine if it’s used to map out Java, we will discover even more ancient temples, walls, canals and settlements. What an interesting time for archaeology! The way you describe cycling around Cobá made me think of my experience in Angkor. Exploring expansive sites like these on two wheels is definitely a lot more enjoyable than on foot. Speaking of those bugs, I think those are the nymphs of Thasus acutangulus.

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    • Leave it to you, Bama, to identify the bugs!! Well done! I think one other person mentioned Mesquite bugs but the nymph stage is key. Thanks so much! 🙂 I would love to go back to Angkor and explore it by bike. Great to know that’s possible. And I hope Lidar gets some use in Indonesia! So many sites around the world where this technology would be super helpful! Especially sites in the jungle.

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  • Although the bugs at the end gave me the creeps, I’m enamored with this fab post. Soooo many steps and rocks. It’s a good thing I wasn’t a slave, servant, or employee charged with building. I wouldn’t make it a day probably! So interesting to see, though.

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