While visiting Tulum, Mexico, I recommend everyone take the time to visit Coba, a wonderful Mayan city hidden in the jungle just a short drive but centuries away in time. I had been years ago but we had a friend that was visiting with us this time that hadn’t been, so I volunteered to play tour guide. From Tulum, you take the Coba Road located next to the San Francisco Grocery and drive inland about 30 minutes. You pass through several little villages along the way, but you need to get to Coba early and beat the tour buses and heat so plan on stopping and shopping on the way home.
When you get to a big roundabout you will go to the third road to your left from where you came into the roundabout. It’s not far from the roundabout to the little town of Coba, which is located on the edge of a lake. It has become more commercialized in the last few years with new shops, boardwalks along the lake for gator viewing and a zipline tower to go across the lake. You’ll park in the parking lot with the zipline tower and the entrance is just a small office next to the restrooms. It cost $57 pesos (or five dollars or less) for your tickets which they will punch when you get through the gate.
Once inside, head up the hill and there will be some white-shirted locals who you can hire to give you a history lesson. They offer a short and long version at around $30 for 45 minutes to $50 for an hour and a half (more or less depending on the conversion). The short version gets you just a brief tour around the Mayan sites right inside the entrance and about 45 minutes of very knowledgeable and interesting history on the Mayans of Coba. (I would do the long version next time and tape them with my recorder).
We picked the young, friendly looking fellow and he spoke quite good English, and said he also spoke his native Mayan, Spanish, and is learning Italian. His name was Ismael Canche Chem (pronounced “Chang” in Mayan) and he was born and raised in Coba, and educated at their local school in the Coba village.
His narrative and book of diagrams made the Mayan history interesting and made the ancient city come alive. He gave a condensed explanation about Mayan beliefs, everyday life and what some of the buildings were. He said they grew corn, beans and marijuana, which was used in their religious/spiritual life as well as harvesting from the jungle.
They had classes of people, with the royalty at the top, then the astrologers, mathematicians, engineers, architects, etc., merchants, warriors, workers and farmers. This recreation of one of the Coba codexes below shows the representation of the Mayan classes with the royalty being the big chief in the middle, the warriors and merchants to the sides and the workers below (being stood on).
Coba used honey as their currency, Guatemala used chocolate and Chichen Itza’s commodity was jade. I was fascinated to learn that the “BIG” temple at Coba that you can still climb was dedicated to their honey bee god. The Mayan or Spanish word for honey is “miele” and if you look in the little shops along the Coba Road, you might get lucky enough to spot some that is bottled in recycled water bottles by local beekeepers. It is delicious! There is a new commerical type honey shop there now but they are charging $5 per bottle. But I digress…
There are two ball courts, with one being at the front when you come up the hill. Ismael explained that unlike at Chichen Itza, the winner did not die at Coba, but pricked themselves and gave a blood sacrifice instead. For those at Chichen Itza that won, they thought it was an honor to die, much like martyrdom. (From what I remember from his explanation) The players were randomly chosen from the warrior class and had never practiced. There were two players on each team. They could not use their hands!
The next stop is at the bicycle stand to pick out a bike or a driver of a Maya taxi to take you through the ruins. If you like to walk in the heat with mosquitoes, have at it (Oh yeah, be sure and pack bug spray and water bottles)… But for $5 or $10 you can whiz the ancient trails. Our driver was Angel and he would stop at each site and ask if we wanted to “click” – take pictures.
Since I have so many pictures and it is much quicker to post a gallery, I’m going to do that for the rest of our Coba visit. You will see the different sites we stopped at and the photo with all the tour buses in the parking lot tells you why you need to arrive early. I enjoyed photographing the variety of neat tree bark and tree dwellers in the jungle and last time we could hear monkeys in the jungle. The photo that shows just a mound and rubble of rocks is an unaltered Maya site and they are everywhere in the jungle. This is an ongoing site still being explored.
We spent the morning touring the ruins and hot and sweaty, decided to go visit the three cenotes that are around the lake and out a POTHOLED road a few miles (SERIOUS POT HOLES!!! GO SLOW!). Look for the little shack on the left to get your ticket. It is just as reasonable to get the ticket for all three as one and they are all really neat. The one by itself is located under an unassuming little palapa and you take 70 steps down into the earth and it opens into an amazing cavern. This is a nice cenote for families to cool off and play in the cool water. There was a young couple from the Pittsburg and San Antonio that were college friends that were traveling the Yucatan. “We do a ruin and then cool off in a cenote afterwards”! GREAT advice! At each cenote entrance there is a bathhouse where they ask you to rinse off first before going in so you don’t contaminate the water. There was a brindled dog greeter at one.
For the other two cenotes, you have to go down the paved road a bit and then turn right onto a gravel road and bounce along for a while. Sadly we had to drive over an ant parade (pictured) and then crush some more on our way out. At the first cenote you arrive at, the ticket seller told us it was unstable and not to be descended in. I went down halfway and peeked and it was neat but the stairs are definitely rotting. However, the exciting thing was a beautiful exotic bird was flying in and out of the cenote. I was able to get a few photos and identify in our Yucatan Bird Book as a Blue Crowned Mot Mot. It was so amazing!
The third cenote is FABULOUS! It is also underground with a tower of steps going down. This is the cenote for the adventurous and the testosterone-driven males. They have a high jump from the step tower and then a lower one as well. What fun a big group of Europeans were having!
We had cooled off and it was time to head back to Tulum. We stopped off at several of the little shops in the villages on the way back to Tulum. I highly recommend getting a cold coconut to drink. Look for the “Fria Cocos” sign at one of the topas (speed bump) as you go through the villages. These little villages offer Mexican pottery, hammocks, wood carvings, local fruit, jungle plants and more.
To learn more about the Mayan sites in the Yucatan, Loco Gringo has a good overview at: http://www.locogringo.com/research/ruins.html
That’s all for now.. Next up will be lunch in Tulum at Trattoria Del Mar.