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.
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 (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.
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.
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 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!