A few weeks back I published an article and photo essay of the ruins in Tulum, Mexico. Overlooking the blue Caribbean Sea and surrounded by palm trees, they were perhaps the most beautifully situated ruins I have ever seen. However if you’ve been enamored by Indiana Jones flicks and you’re in the mood for something a bit more adventurous the ruins at Coba might be more up your alley.
The History Of Coba
The Coba ruins are only about an hour from Tulum but they feel a world away.
Settled between 100 BC and 100 AD, Coba became the largest Mayan civilization in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico. Coba is located in the heart of the jungle and surrounded by two lagoons complete with plenty of alligators. The dense jungle location made Coba extremely hard to find, let alone reach and/or attack it. The population flourished and it grew in social and political standing. It is estimated that at the height of civilization over 50,000 Mayans called Coba home. The burgeoning population and the hidden-in-the-jungle location helped Coba grow to super power Mayan status.
(The thick jungle foliage keeps many of the ruins hidden even today.)
The people of Coba knew many of the surrounding Mayan dialects and this further helped their growth as they were able to trade (and coordinate trades) with other Mayan communities. Coba became not only one of the largest traders in the Yucatan but also even further South into what is now known as Central America. They also controlled farmland and several ports.
Coba flourished as a powerhouse for centuries but started losing ground as nearby Chichén Itzá gained in popularity & political status around 1000 AD. In time, trading routes along the coast gained in popularity and although Coba was still culturally important it was abandoned at some point in the early 1500′s.
Due to the difficult location, Coba remained hidden from most of the world until the 1920′s when it was briefly visited by an explorer, Thomas Gann who was brought by some local Mayans. A few archeological visits were made after his visit but the tucked away location meant the ruins would remain just a little known mystery until the 1970′s when a road was finally built. The road allowed more archeologists to discover and sort through the ruins. It wasn’t until the 1980′s that tourists starting visiting the site.
One of the most exciting aspects of Coba is that it is still vastly undiscovered.
Only a very small portion of the region has been excavated and most areas are still hidden in the dense, deep jungle waiting to be brought to light by the next real life Indiana Jones. Could that be you?
What can you do at Coba?
Hike, Climb & Bike!
The other thing that makes Coba stand out as a tourist destination is the fact that you can not only walk among the ruins but you can also climb one of the large temple pyramids. Climbing to the top will get you a view of the surrounding jungle that stretches on for miles. Because Coba is so vast it can be quite a hike to see all the ruins so they offer another unique feature here which is the ability to rent a bike. As part of the Riviera Maya press trip we were all able to ride bikes throughout the ruins. I definitely recommend renting one because it will speed up your visit and allow you to feel the Mayan wind blowing in your hair and really that’s pretty cool.
Check out the ancient ball court and a live Mayan ballgame.
(The ball court – the ball would need to be put through the small hole on the top to score.)
The other thing I really loved at Coba was the Mesoamerican ballgame court. When I saw it I really felt like I was in an Indiana Jones movie. I’m sure you’ve probably seen photos of a similar court at some point on a TV documentary or in a history book. I had always learned it was a high stakes game where the loser (or possibly the winner) became the next sacrifice. Everyone wanted to know if this was indeed the real deal but the guide told us there is absolutely no proof of any ballgame sacrifices at Coba. But then again – no one really knows! Given that the ballgame was such an important aspect of Mayan life it would be hard to believe there weren’t any sacrifices associated with it. Playing this game was a HUGE deal to the Mayans and the ball players were highly regarded and were bathed before games. The game mirrored the heavens and symbolized the struggle between day and night. Wagers were placed and even political problems were solved (and created) by the game. The game was a large part of Mayan life.
In any case, it was pretty exciting to see one of these ball courts in real life. I imagined the players, the audience, the fear of losing, the fear of winning. The high stakes and a hard 9 pound ball that is meant to be kept in play at all times – but only with your hips – makes this a game that must’ve been quite stressful to play.
(Part of the Mayan tale before the game started.)
It is still played today (sans sacrifice) and we were lucky enough to see a live game later that night. The game was played on a court deep in the jungle and the players were dressed up as the Mayans would’ve been. The players acted out a folk tale between two brothers and the jungle god. In the end the ballgame was used to settle the argument between all of the parties. Then they played the game and even lit the court on fire at one point. I actually thought this whole production was pretty cool and I really enjoyed watching it. The game looked really tough to play and it was hard for the players to get the ball through the hole.
Visit Ancient Roots – a local pottery school.
Another great experience we had in Coba was visiting the Ancient Roots pottery school. Originally from Argentina, ceramist Agustin Villalba founded the school as a way to teach local children how to make the pottery of their ancestors. Mayan pottery is an ancient art form and until Agustin founded the school the techniques were in danger of being lost to modernization and poverty in the region. With his help the school is free for all the children that live in Coba so they can continue the ceramic traditions. We were lucky enough to spend time at this school hanging out with the children and making pottery.
The tour described in this post was the Coba Sunset Tour. This trip to Coba & the Riviera Maya was sponsored by the Riviera Maya tourism board but all of the views and opinions in this article are entirely our own.
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