Vacationers venturing beyond posh resorts in Cancun or Playa del Carmen on the Maya Riviera often head to the famous Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, but Cobá, another archaeological site in the region, is a less treaded yet still captivating destination. When planning my short visit to Quintana Roo, local friends unanimously insisted I visit Cobá and perhaps forgo a visit to Chichen Itza (given how far it is from the Caribbean coast and how crowded it can get). I did just this, and biking to the ruins and climbing the large pyramid at Cobá was a perfect half-day activity for me and my traveling companions as we headed south to Tulum.
While less renowned and picturesque than the pyramids at Chichen Itza, Cobá is still an impressive site, comprised of four groups of buildings arranged around two lakes. The name Cobá is thought to mean “choppy water,” underscoring the importance for the Maya of the site’s proximity to the two lagoons since most of the peninsula is characterized by less accessible water sources (the region is characterized by intricate underwater river systems with many cenotes, or sinkholes).
The four areas of the site are linked by sacbe (meaning “white road” in Yucatec Maya), raised pathways of limestone. They were constructed by the Mayans to facilitate movement through the site (often connecting civic-ceremonial centers and residential areas). It is believed that the white limestone of the Mayan sacbe was used because the material is visible in moonlight, and the Mayan likely transported heavy objects and made longer journeys at night, when the suffocating heat of the region subsides slightly. While sacbe are found in many Mayan sites, Cobá contains the largest network of sacbe that extended outwards to various Mayan settlements, allowing an estimated 50,000 people to access the structures in Cobá for rituals and other more quotidian activities. Essentially, sacbe facilitated both internal communication and exchange of goods and ideas among other Mayan settlements in nearby and more distant regions.
Cobá is also set apart from other Mayan ruins because of how much archaeological work on the site is still ongoing and how many unanswered questions about the structures remain, but the sacbe have greatly aided excavation efforts. John Lloyd Stephens, the traveler and amateur archaeologist who’s text Incidents of Travel in Yucatan first described the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, had heard of Cobá and mentions the site in his book. But he was not able to visit on his 1842 trip to the Yucatan, and the The War of Castes which began in 1847 made traveling to the region extremely difficult for the next several decades. But by the end of the 19th century and early 20th century the ruins had been explored more but significant projects continue in the archaeological zone. As the ruins have been excavated in various stages throughout the 20th and now 21st centuries, following the sacbe features led archaeologists to discover more buildings in this site of the Maya and postulate possible functions for these structures. Current visitors exploring the ruins use both these sacbe as well as several additional pathways that were added around the opening of the site in 1973 to aid visitors in navigating quickly to the most salient structures of the archaeological zone.
The most breathtaking structures at Cobá are the pyramid in the Nohoch Mul group of buildings, the building referred to as a Xaibe, and a structure called La Iglesia in Grupo Cobá. Unlike at other Mayan sites (such as Chichen Itza), at Cobá, visitors are still permitted to climb the 120 steps up this Nohoch Mul pyramid and are rewarded with an expansive view of the Mayan jungle and the two lakes in the site. Nearby the Nohoch Mul group of buildings sits the Xaibe (Yucatec Maya for “crossroads”), a stepped pyramid-like structure with rounded edges and from which four sacbe run towards other buildings in the site and other Mayan towns (one links Cobá to Yuxane, a Mayan town near Chichen Itza and this road was thought to be the longest sacbe until recently). Visitors are not permitted to climb the Xaibe, and its use is is still not precisely understood: some archaeologists have posited that the structure served as an astronomical observatory, others believed it to be a temple or structure with spiritual purposes, and yet others contended it was a lookout tower.
Cobá is also distinguished among Mayan archaeological sites for its murals (located in a temple in the Conjunto de Pinturas buildings) and the large number of stelae found in the site. Some of the 34 stelae contain dense engravings with pictographs and glyphs and others, lacking carving, are believed to have been painted. Many stelae are located in the Grupo Macanxoc, but there are also several in the Grupo Cobá (located nearest to the entrance of the site). Many of the stelae display images of rulers in extravagant clothing and with others surrounding them depicted in a smaller scale and in subservient poses (a photograph of a stelae below pictures a ruler who is standing on the backs of two slaves). Scenes depicted include conquests, marriages, births, deaths, and ascension to power of dynastic rulers. It is thought that these stelae were venerated as cult objects, and some Mayas in the area continue to worship the stone slabs (oral histories informed archaeologists that some Mayas believe that stelae are guardians of the jungle who are stone in daytime but come to life in nighttime). The stelae have been protected during conservation efforts via the construction of palapas, or simple straw roofed structures, and some have been placed on pedestals to prevent rainwater from puddling and wearing away the base of the stelae.
Finally, like many sites of civilization throughout Mesoamerica, Cobá contains ball courts. One is found in the Grupo Cobá near the entrance to the site, and the other is just past the Conjunto de Pinturas buildings in Grupo D. At the top of the sloping sides of the ball courts are rings, the objective of the game being to get the ball through the ring while only using knees, elbows, and hips to strike the ball. It is thought that the Mayan ball games played at Cobá involved the elite participating in gameplay, not just slaves as was previously believed from examining ball courts at other Mayan sites. Slaves are thought to have been forced to participate in bloodletting after gameplay, though, as is depicted in plates that were originally found on the sloping sides of the ball courts in Cobá.
It was in these ball courts that I noticed tour guides leading groups near me becoming especially animated. And while I overheard several tour guides sensationally describing the ball games as “death games” and pointing to sites of sacrifice, there are very few plaques with descriptions at Cobá, and hiring a tour guide near the entrance is probably wise to better understand all that you are seeing. Just expect that there will be some embellishing and dramatic flourishes sprinkled in for entertainment value. Or if you prefer to explore solo, I would suggest picking up a book about Cobá in one of the stores at the entrance to the site (I used this Monclem Ediciones booklet, Cobá: History, Art and Monuments). And my last words of wisdom about visiting Cobá: bring insect repellant. If you are walking to the various building groups, you will really suffer, and if you opt to bike to the different parts of the site (highly recommended), you will dread stopping to approach the buildings because the mosquitos will attack.