The historic range of the Maya was a vast expanse that encompassed fully a third of the land area of Mesoamerica: the entire Yucatan peninsula, much of the Mexican states of Chiapas and Tabasco, all of modern day Guatemala and Belize, and the western sections of Honduras and El Salvador. There are many hundreds of Mayan sites throughout this region, and while the large ones, like Palenque and Chichen Itza, are fairly well known to the world at large, the vast majority are obscure places that most people have never heard of. This post focuses on two of those more obscure Maya cities: Coba, the relatively large site that dominated the area around Tulum, as well as nearby Muyil, which, like Tulum, was subordinate to Coba. All three of these co-dependent sites are located quite close to one other, in the Mexican State of Quintana Roo, and all of them are easy to visit from Cancun.
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Today’s Yucatan consists of three Mexican Estados: Yucatan, Campeche, and Quintana Roo, where Cancun is located. Those are strictly modern-day political/jurisdictional divisions. The entire area is similar in terms of climate and geography, and the Maya made no distinctions along any of those arbitrary boundary lines: in their day, it was all one big happy homeland with, at its peak, close to two million inhabitants. Unlike the Aztecs and the Incas, the Maya were never unified under a single ruler, so their remarkable civilization was never a true empire. They were, instead, a hodge-podge of independent city-states, connected by a common culture and religion. The languages spoken throughout the region were all close, but not exactly the same. Even today, there are no less than 70 unique dialects of the Maya mother tongue. They are mutually intelligible, to a large extent, but nevertheless distinct.
Back in the old days, alliances were constantly shifting between the dynastic leadership of these city-states. Upper-class society consisted of the nobles and priests, and, at the top of the pyramid, the kuhul ajaw, the holy lords, or kings, who were believed to have a direct connection to the gods of the animistic Mayan religion. Among other things, they had a divine mandate to rule. War between individual cities, and between regional alliances, was ongoing. In fact, war was as much a part of the loosely homogenized culture as their art and their technical and intellectual achievements, and was every bit as important to the Maya as agriculture. The fighting was necessary to enhance and consolidate power, to maintain or to wrest control of territory and resources, especially water sources, and to acquire captives. The captives were utilized as slaves, who were, in their turn, necessary for the monumental construction that was constantly taking place, especially in the larger cities. The construction was a form of one-upsmanship. By creating ever larger and grander palaces and pyramids, the ajaws demonstrated their superiority over their rivals, as well as over their own ancestors, and these massive structures could only be created with a steady supply of slave labor. The captives were also used as offerings to the Mayan gods. In the classic and post-classic periods, Mayan culture was subverted, at least to some extent, by that of the Toltecs, who edged into the area from central Mexico. The Toltec religion was fueled by human sacrifice, and a steady flow of blood: their gods demanded it. Want rain? Gimme some sugar–along with a few still beating human hearts, literally ripped from the victims’ chests in a horrifying public spectacle. Once the Toltec influence solidified, this carnival of death became the modus operandi for the Maya as well, and the bloody cult of Kukulcan, or Quezalcoatl, the feathered serpent, which originated further north, became an all-powerful force in the southern part of Mexico as well.
Coba controlled the area surrounding it by being bigger and badder than everybody else. The ajaw of Coba demanded tribute from the smaller cities and towns, and in return offered them protection, and shared resources, a social pattern that has repeated, with endless variations, in every corner of the world, throughout human history. The religion was a huge part of it as well, with Coba being the principle ceremonial center in the region, with the most important temples, the tallest pyramid, and the holiest high priests. Coba was also a trading hub, positioned at the nexus of a network of raised stone and plaster causeways known as the sacbeob, the white roads, some of which extended for as much as 100 kilometers, connecting far-flung Mayan communities and helping to cement the influence of this powerful city.
Coba is estimated to have had at least 50,000 inhabitants at its peak, and covered an area of around 80 square kilometers. The city center is located around two lagoons, the Lago Coba, and the Lago Macanxoc. The site was first settled somewhere between 50 BC and 100 AD, by which point it was a thriving agricultural community. Most of the monumental construction was done between 500 AD and 900 AD, and most of the hieroglyphic inscriptions on the worn stelae (stone tablets) at the site were carved in or around the 7th century AD. The sprawling city was set up with hundreds of separate residential areas, each consisting of 15 houses surrounding a raised platform. Each of these platforms was connected to all the others by raised stone walkways–the sacbeob, which were paved with light colored stone that reflected moonlight, making it easier for bearers to transport loads in the cool of the night. The rulers of Coba maintained close relationships with the kings of Tikal, Dzibanche, and Calakmul, their most powerful rivals. It’s quite probable that they secured those ties through intermarriage of the noble houses. Based on inscriptions found on many of the stelae at the site, a great many of the rulers of Coba are thought to have been women.
It’s important to note that even though major new construction ceased after 900 AD, Coba was not abandoned at that time. The city remained occupied, and the original structures were still being maintained well into the 14th century, almost up to the time of the Spanish Conquest. When Chichen Itza started its rise to prominence, Coba was already beginning its slow decline, yet it remained a force in competition with the mighty Itza for at least a century. After 1000 AD? Coba’s star was definitely on the wane, but it maintained symbolic and ritual importance for religious and ceremonial purposes.
Thanks to the sprawling nature of the site, a visit to the ruins at Coba can be physically challenging. There are numerous groups of structures, all separated by a fair bit of distance. You can walk between them on wide pathways–the original sacbes, the white roads that were such an important part of the infrastructure at Coba, and one of the city’s most distinctive features. That’s pretty cool, when you think about it–to literally walk in the footsteps of the ancient Maya? But to tour the entire site requires literally miles of walking in those ancient footsteps, and in sweltering tropical heat. That combination can pretty quickly suck the joy out of your visit. Recognizing the need, local entrepreneurs established a small but well organized fleet of pedicabs for hire, and you can pick one up at the concession just inside the entrance for a nominal fee of about $10. These pedicabs will haul two people around to all the major building groups, and they’ll wait for you while you take your photographs. They follow the broad, smooth Mayan sacbeob, taking good advantage of this unique feature of the site. The guys that haul you around with these bikes aren’t tour guides, but they can at least tell you what you’re seeing, and they definitely save you a lot of sweat and effort. In my view, at this particular site? The pedicabs are well worth the cost. They might even be worth the guilt you’ll probably feel, watching that poor pedicab driver sweat and puff while you sit back in comfort. Coba is not more than two hours from Cancun, and while it’s not nearly as popular as Tulum or Chichen Itza, it still receives a significant number of visitors, and it can be quite crowded, especially in the afternoons.
The most impressive features at the site, aside from the sacbeob, include a well-preserved ball court:
With the sloping sides and the relatively large stone rings, it would have been far easier to score a goal here than in the huge ball court at Chichen Itza
Also, a large pyramid known as La Iglesia (the church):
The pyramid of the Painted Lintel:
The paint on the lintel of the temple doorway atop this pyramid is plainly visible, and something of a rarity. You need a telephoto lens to take a picture, because visitors aren’t allowed to get too close.
Also, the Ixmoja pyramid:
The tallest pyramid in the Yucatan, and one of the few structures of its size at any Maya site that visitors are still allowed to climb.
If you ever vacation in Cancun, and you decide to check out some Mayan sites? Go to Tulum and explore the ruins there–the setting is spectacular. If you can swing it, stay the night in the town, and take a look at Coba before you head back to the beach.
Tulum, which was covered in my previous post to this blog, is 42 km southeast of Coba, and Muyil, also know as Chunyaxché, is another 20 km south of Tulum. This Mayan site was first occupied around 350 BC, and was still active until almost 1500 AD, making it both the earliest and the longest occupied site on the east coast of the Yucatan. The architecture at the site is of the Peten style, reminiscent of Tikal, in Guatemala. The ceremonial complex is situated on a lagoon, Sian Ka’an, which means “where the sky was born”. Back in the heyday of this small city, a series of canals provided access to the Caribbean from the lagoon, and the traders who plied the coast were able to paddle their way right into the middle of the town. Trade goods that passed along this route included jade, obsidian, rare feathers, salt, chicle (natural chewing gum), honey, and cacao. The cacao pods were actually used as a form of currency, which had a reasonably stable value. Muyil most certainly had strong ties to Coba, even though the smaller site was founded nearly 300 years earlier than the city that ultimately became its patron.
Muyil is a wonderful place to explore. Tour buses don’t come to this one. It’s still easy enough to get to, being so close to Tulum, but very few people bother to make the trip, so it’s not at all uncommon to have the whole site to yourself. That’s quite an amazing feeling, to wander the paths through the dense surrounding forest, the only sounds your own footsteps, or the song of birds. You come upon a clearing, and there, rising up out of the trees, are these extraordinary stone buildings, still partly overgrown by the encroaching jungle.
There’s not a soul around, just you, and you can let your imagination run wild. What this place must have been like 1,000 years ago, even 2,000 years ago? If only those stones could talk! Muyil will give you a taste of the Yucatan before they built Cancun, when the whole area was still off the beaten path and few people came this way. Sadly, that’s as much of a bygone era as the glory days of the Maya.
The large stepped pyramid at Muyil is crudely constructed when compared to the fancy structures at Chichen Itza and Uxmal–you can actually see that it’s nothing but a big pile of rocks stuck together with cement–but it’s actually quite stunning in its simplicity. The primary feature of this site is its peaceful atmosphere, completely devoid of vendors and hustlers, and all but devoid of visitors.
If you take my advice and overnight in Tulum, it would be a snap to visit both Coba and Muyil in the same day. Do Coba first, to try and beat the crowds. At Muyil, there will be no worries.
Click the thumbnail (above) to view a gallery of photos from Coba and Muyil. Be sure to click the “i” icon on the lower right of most pages, to view the captions.
Next up: Becan and Chicanna