We loved Cobá, a sprawling, jungle-hidden site with some wonderful buildings.
Tulum is perched on a cliff above the beautiful Caribbean - a gorgeous location.
We had the option to stay and look around Chichen Itza before leaving but decided we'd seen enough and had an early start. On the way we asked our guide if it would be possible to visit Coba instead, before continuing to Tulum. He checked with the agency and, for an extra fee, said that was fine so we fitted one more Mayan site in than we'd anticipated. We really like the jungley ones that fewer people visit and Coba sounded wonderful.
It was only a 3 km detour from our route so we were there quite early and hired a tricycle rickshaw as the site is vast. This turned out to be a very good idea - apart from being great fun - as the sites of Coba are widely spread out.
Coba was at its peak in the eighth and ninth centuries when it covered around 70 sq km with a population probably well in excess of 50,000. It is located near four lakes1 with numerous sacbés (Mayan roads) criss-crossing the site. It was in conflict with Chichen Itza for dominance of the region and was eventually defeated in 860A.D.2 Coba revived to a certain degree, perhaps even enduring until the Spanish conquest, but it never regained its former dominance in the region.
Near the parking is what was the heart of the city in Classic times, now called the Coba Group which includes the pyramid and temple known as La Iglesia and a nice example of a ball court.1 A side staircase to La Iglesia is flanked by skulls, the risers of the staircase also show evidence of hieroglyphs. Both the rings of this ball court are intact and steps lead to the top where, it is supposed, spectators could watch the ritual game.
We made our way through the jungle to the Nohoch Mul group of structures at the north east of the site and the 42m high pyramid called Ixmoja (also called El Castillo).
Ixmoja is the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan peninsula - almost 10m higher than El Castillo at Chichen Itza.
We climbed to the top from where the views over the jungle canopy were fantastic.
On the top of the pyramid is a small temple. Its facade has two curious stucco figures below the roof line, the so-called "diving gods".1
There is a broken stela at the bottom of the steps but a better-preserved one nearby, stela 20, broken but repaired and there's a very helpful drawing beside it!
From here we whizzed down to the Group of the Paintings and the Xaibe or Crossroads Temple, a beautiful stepped, oval pyramid with a staircase leading to the top. Our guide told us it was an observatory. At the foot of the staircase is a modern-day shrine where hunters burn a candle and pray to the Virgin Mary for good hunting.
The group also includes another great example of a ball court, this one with very shallow platforms on the edge of the playing alley.
Set into the sloping walls are panels, one is of a kneeling prisoner, and a central panel on one of the walls is composed of a grid of hieroglyphs.
Set into the floor of the playing alley is a skull and a round panel which appears to show a seated headless figure!
Onward to the Macanox Group where there are a lot of stelae. It took about ten minutes to get there on the tricycle rickshaw so quite a distance. The tracks through the forest are along the original sacbeob.
Many of the stelae show an ornately dressed figure, probably the ruler of the time, holding a bar, possibly a double-headed serpent bar, and standing on slaves or captives with others kneeling to the side. The size of the ruler is huge compared to the size of the slaves to reflect his importance. Hieroglyphs generally refer to important dates such as the accession of the particular ruler.3
Stela 1 is of particular importance. The front, back and sides are covered with carvings including 313 hieroglyphs. An extremely long period of time is represented in the hieroglyphs. The Mayans used various names for different periods of time such as tuns and baktuns, in a similar way that we use days, months, years, decades, etc. (see Quirigua for a brief explanation). On stela 1 the huge time period, called a Long Count date, translates as 184.108.40.206.220.127.116.11.13.13.13. 18.104.22.168.22.214.171.124.126.96.36.199.04 - in our time scale this would represent unimaginable billions of years!
There is speculation that this was some kind of teaching area, though probably not a school as such but for passing on knowledge of astronomy.
Directly in front of one stela is an unusual cross-shaped structure raised on a platform and almost aligned with the cardinal points. We puzzled over what it could be, surely something to do with astronomy.
We thoroughly enjoyed our two hour impromptu visit to Coba. It's a very peaceful place, with only the sounds of birds in the trees, and lit by dappled sunlight it has bucket loads more atmosphere than Chichen Itza.
We continued on to Tulum. Our hotel, the Be Tulum, was right at the southern end of the Tulum beaches. We were a bit early for our room but a welcome cocktail of white rum, wine and fruit juice in the shade on the beach helped to pass the time! There was a Cuban trio playing appropriate music and we had excellent burgers for lunch.
The room had an indoor jacuzzi pool and outdoor area with hammocks and a plunge pool in a jungley setting, but was not as comfortable as it might have been, very dark, gaps where lizards could get in, other niggling problems, but at least we managed to get one of the few covered beach beds when we wanted one - the sun was searing!
The following morning we took an early taxi to the ruins at Tulum, arriving before 9 a.m. so before the vast majority of tourists. The ruins are in an almost park-like setting right on the edge of a cliff overlooking the beautiful blue waters of the Caribbean. All of the structures are cordoned off so it's impossible to get a close look.
These are Maya-Toltec ruins of a walled city dating from the twelfth century. Though the ruins lack any real atmosphere they are in a beautiful location.
Tulum was an important trading port for the region.
The city is roughly rectangular in shape, parallel to the coast, about 600m north-south x 350m east-west. At the north-west and south-west corners were so-called watchtowers, though the information board says it is unlikely they had a defensive role. Each had three doors and an altar against the back wall. There are numerous structures named for their position or a particular feature and identified as "house", "palace" or "temple".
The Great Palace, towards the northern end of the site, is thought to have been the residence of a noble family. The building was divided into large rooms, the roof being supported by columns and wooden beams. Stone benches line the walls - these were probably also used as beds - and there is a sanctuary at the rear of the building for private religious ceremonies. A depiction of the falling or diving god on the facade represents the evening star or the setting sun.
It was once called Zama, the City of the Dawn - it must experience fantastic sunrises over the caribbean sea. Nevertheless, it is a city dedicated to the cult of the setting sun, represented by the falling or diving god. Its Mayan name, Tulum, refers to it being walled.
South of the Great Palace is the House of the Columns and then the Temple of the Frescoes.
The Temple of the Frescoes also has carved figures of the falling or diving god. It is actually two temples, one on top of the other.
Many of the carvings are badly weathered as are the giant masks which once adorned the corners of the building.
Some of the frescoes from which the temple derives its name can just be seen through the doorway.
There are huge numbers of iguanas at Tulum.
Opposite the Temple of the Frescoes is the House of the Chultun, the House of Water, so-called because of an underground cavity used to collect rainwater - a chultun. As the building is large and made of stone it was probably the house of a high-ranking nobleman.
There is another water-related building in the north of the site, the House of the Cenote - it was built over an underground water pool.
East of here, perched virtually on the cliff edge, is El Castillo, the largest and most imposing of the buildings remaining, and the lovely Temple of the Diving God.
El Castillo has three niches above the two columned entrance which held carved figures of which only two remain. There were also masks on the corners of the cornice. The entrance faces away from the sea - this is a place dedicated to the setting rather than the rising sun.
We walked south along the cliff where there are great views of El Castillo perched above a strip of sandy beach and on to the southern end of the site and a small building whose entrance faces the sea - perhaps a token temple to the rising sun, or a lookout.
North of the Temple of the Diving God, and also on the cliff edge, is the Temple of the Wind. It is a small building, like the one we had seen on the southernmost extremity of the site, but set on a circular base. Nearby are altars for offerings.
Tulum is a small site and doesn't take long to see. We were back at the hotel well before lunch to spend the rest of the day relaxing on the beach - lunch, drinks and reading the order of the day.